at Symphony Center

                    By Dan Zeff

Chicago - The Jazz at Symphony Center concert series was in a celebratory mood Friday night, performing music inspired by Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis. Regina Carter and her quintet tipped her violin to Fitzgerald on the centennial of Ella’s birth and the SF JAZZ Collective focused on music associated with Miles. Neither generous one-hour set spent that much time with their chosen subjects but the evening was still exceptionally entertaining and stimulating from first chorus to last.

          Carter has pretty much owned the jazz violin for the past 20 years. She has a beautiful rich sound and loads of technique, playing the violin like an authentic jazz voice and not a novelty instrument. Carter can swing lightly and she can swing hard. Her solos are melodic and expressive, enhanced at Orchestra Hall by support from a first rate four musician supporting cast.

          Carter didn’t play anything from the familiar Fitzgerald songbook, no “A Tisket a Tasket” and no “Mack the Knife.” Most of the numbers were unfamiliar but she closed her set with an extended rendition of the standard “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” that captured Carter in all her moods, from lyrical through bluesy and hard driving. But the highlight of her set was a duet with guitarist Marvin Dolly that was delicate and charming and eloquent and had the large audience sighing with pleasure by the end of the piece.

          Dolly was fine both as a soloist and as a rhythm provider, but the second in command in the quintet was Carter’s long time pianist Xavier Davis. He displayed fierce chops on the upbeat numbers on acoustic piano and even delivered a nifty Jimmy Smith imitation after switching to the electronic keyboard. The rhythm section was completed by Chris Lightcap on bass and Alvester Garnett on drums. Well done all round.

Carter was a gracious hostess and her program was beautifully put together. There isn’t another jazz violinist active today who could hold an audience’s attention with such musicianship and class.

The SAF JAZZ Collective is an eight-piece unit that features some of the best young lions on the hard bop scene today. The original Collective was born in San Francisco in 1983 and has carved out a major presence on the national jazz scene in spite of shifting personnel. Each year the Collective gathers to select a musician to honor and also to put together new work, taking the combination on a national tour. It’s a real ensemble with no single leader, though trumpet player Sean Jones handled most of the master of ceremonies chat. But each musician introduced his own arrangement, whether a Miles Davis number or an original chart.

The Collective’s front line consisted of Jones, trombone player Robin Eubanks (the son of jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks), tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, and vibraphone player Warren Wolf (who also played some rhythm vibes). The rhythm section consisted of Edward Simon (piano), Matt Penman (bass), ands Obed Calvaire (drums).

The group only played three numbers associated with Miles—“Tutu,” “So What?,” and “All Blues,” though their reconstruction by arrangers Eubanks, Jones, and Simon respectively made the main melody lines almost unrecognizable. But the solo and ensemble work were both emotionally involving and accessible, as were the original compositions. The highlight of the entire set was Sanchez’s composition “Canto #1.” I have not been a fan of David Sanchez’s often abrasive John Coltrane-tinged style, but this composition was almost hypnotic in Sanchez’s extended introspective middle register delivery.

What most impresses about the Collective is its togetherness. The musicians are all outstanding soloists but each performer checks his ego at the door. What could have been a string of hard blowing jam sessions instead was one well wrought number after another, and in all modes, from swing and funk to fusion. Zenon is one of the fastest guns in jazz today but his high speed solo on his composition “Tribe” held together with impressive cohesiveness. Warren Wolf is a name unknown to me but his mainstream vibes solos are the real deal. The contemporary jazz scene could use a fresh voice on the instrument and Wolf may be that voice.

Both Carter and the Collective could have sustained their own full program at Symphony Center. It was  bounteous of the series programmers to give us both groups in one evening but each one could have sustained an entire night’s worth of music, especially the Collective, which left a lot of music left unplayed from their Miles Davis catalogue. Maybe next time.

The Symphony Center series continues on May 19 with another intriguing double header. The duo of veteran jazzmen Steve Wilson (alto saxophone) and drummer Louis Nash (drums) opens the evening, followed by trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the Afro-Caribbean Mixtape. For tickets and information call 312 294 3000 o visit


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