Live reviews

SFJAZZ Collective at Barbican Hall

Chris Potter, Martin Luther McCoy, Gretchen Parlato, Etienne Charles, David Sanchez, Edward Simon, Warren Wolf, Matt Brewer & Kendrick Scott

(Barbican, 25 June 2022. Live review by Charles Rees)

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L-R: Edward Simon, Warren Wolf, Martin Luther McCoy, Chris Potter, Matt Brewer, Etienne Charles, David Sanchez & Kendrick Scott. Photo credit: Roger Thomas

In celebration of their 30th anniversary, EFG London Jazz Festival held a long-weekend of concerts at the Barbican (previewed here). The fourth and final evening involved the SFJAZZ Collective, with Gretchen Parlato and Chris Potter, with tracks from the group’s most recent album, New Works Reflecting the Moment, which they have described as a “response to the tumultuous times in which we find ourselves”.

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf, a gifted multi-instrumentalist who has a long-running association with Christian McBride, kicked off the evening with an exhilarating solo on his composition “Vicissitude”. Chris Potter followed, with tonal clarity, technical precision and sheer power. Some would say it was playing reminiscent of the late, great Michael Brecker, but there is no doubt that all eyes were on Potter in that moment.

Trumpeter Etienne Charles has an equally immaculate tone, and demonstrated his impressive range during his solo on Kendrick Scott‘s arrangement of Abbey Lincoln’s composition “Throw It Away”. Charles would also periodically switch to congas throughout the night. Auxiliary percussion will – perhaps this is stating the obvious – depend on who is doing it…but Charles handled his duties beautifully, exploring the tones of the drums, and also exchanging smiles with Scott as the two linked up rhythmically.

Venezuelan keyboardist Edward Simon‘s song “8’ 46” (lyrics penned by Martin Luther McCoy) brought a very different mood to the set. The were many qualities of Chick Corea in Simon’s playing – Corea was heavily influenced by Latin-American music – and the cryptic title of his song is also reminiscent of Corea’s approach to naming compositions. “8′ 46” is actually intended as a rather somber dedication to the killing of George Floyd, presumably a reference to the time of death.

Martin Luther McCoy. Photo credit: Roger Thomas

Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit “What’s Goin’ On” followed. Many jazz musicians have covered that song, from Quincy Jones to Take 6, but this arrangement, the work of Etienne Charles, was fresh while remaining recognisable. It built upon and embellished many of the corners from the original and added some spectacular horn lines. It was an obvious hit with the audience, and had the venue enabled it, there would certainly have been plenty of dancing.

Saxophonist David Sanchez took this as an opportunity to solo with a particularly soulful approach. Sharing the stage with Chris Potter as a saxophonist is certainly daunting, especially with two tenors, but their contrasting approaches and the latter’s versatility when it comes to winds prevented any potential for the two to step all over each-other. Potter’s doubling on bass clarinet and flute also opened up plenty of avenues for horn arrangements, which seemingly every chart thankfully took advantage of.

As for the two vocalists, Martin Luther McCoy had the knack of turning the room into an intimate setting. This was largely propelled by his extraordinarily relaxed demeanour. Gretchen Parlato takes more of an instrumental approach to singing than McCoy, adding another avenue for the arrangers to explore. Chris Potter made the best use of this during his compositions “Can You See” and “Mutuality”, adding her as a fourth voice in the horn section to great effect. And her own contribution to the set, “All There Inside”, was a hit with the crowd, and a joy to hear.

The final performer to mention is bassist Matt Brewer. It was particularly impressive to observe him switching between electric and upright basses, and seemingly be equally proficient on both, especially apparent when he took solos. He also contributed a composition entitled “The Sower”.

The musicians appeared to be giving frequent signals to the sound desk that they wanted changes in the mix, and indeed there were times when both Gretchen Parlato’s vocals and Edward Simon’s grand piano were very hard to pick out, at least from my seat (Simon’s keyboards, it should be said, weren’t a problem). There were times when the sound had a distant feel in quieter sections, whereas detail in louder moments could get submerged in a certain boominess.

If a major objective of SFJAZZ Collective’s tour of Europe is to draw attention to their new album and encourage listeners to go deeper into discovering it, then, certainly as far as I am concerned, the concert was a success . This concert wrapped up the first ever EFG London Jazz Festival summer series in style.

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