Sunday, April 30, 2017

"Dial 'M' for Murder": IRT makes good connection to classic suspense drama

I try not to be a hoarder of printed matter, but theater and concert programs will tend to mount up over a full schedule of attended performances. Among the programs I find hardest to recycle are Indiana Repertory Theatre's. Glossy, informative, and well laid-out, they get my attention from cover to cover (OK, I only glance at the list of donors, vital as they are).
After Margot answers the phone, her husband's plot begins to unravel.

Particularly worth saving and occasionally revisiting are the brief statements by IRT production teams, as well as the behind-the-scenes interviews. Oh, and the director's essays, and the dramaturg's, and of course executive artistic director Janet Allen's.

For Frederick Knott's "Dial 'M' for Murder," I was especially fascinated by what scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson had to say. She focuses on one crucial visual element: "the upper surround (which we've dubbed the 'mega-cornice' [that] sits above the apartment, separate but echoing its architecture."

This "echo" receives projected black-and-white film images during the phone calls that are essential to the story. We see partial facial features of the person at the other end of the call. Just to see the scheming Tony Weddice's eyes close briefly when he learns from his panicked wife, Margot, that his hired killer has himself been killed by the intended victim speaks volumes.

James Still directs the production with his usual sure hand. But I'm tempted to go on and on about the space in which the suspense drama takes place. The scene is a posh London flat in 1952, when Britain was beginning to feel its oats once again after the dark night of World War II. That upper surround signals both protection and looming menace — perfect for a play that centers on a frayed marital bond heading toward a final rupture.

Sutton-Johnson describes the projected images as "featur[ing] odd angles, odd scales, and odd croppings, creating in the audience a subtle sense of discomfort or imbalance as our story unfolds."  True enough, but I detected discomforting angles and dimensions in the designed room as well. Everything about the space works to reinforce the dramatic milieu.

The range of scale is impressive: huge curtains to the audience's left covering glass doors opening out onto the terrace; to the right upstage, the set-back entrance to the apartment, allowing for silhouetted figures when the door is opened, as well as for such details as Detective Inspector Hubbard's deliberately picking up unseen the wrong topcoat on his way out. And out the door, our eyes are drawn to the carpeted staircase and the pivotal hiding place of the latchkey. Placement of props also reinforces the drama: the fatal scissors are picked up by Margot about as far as possible from where they are normally kept. Curtains, key, scissors: all crucial items, large and small, are where and what they should be.

The Weddices' apartment bespeaks wealth and glamour, the superficial glow of well-appointed domesticity. The story undercuts this almost immediately, as we learn of Tony's lingering resentment of Margot's unfaithfulness, particularly with an American friend, Max Halliday, on top of the subtle humiliation of his being a retired tennis star living off his wife's wealth.

Matt Mueller conveyed the smoothness with which Tony launches his scheme, and his attention to detail, which helps him manipulate an old college acquaintance, Captain Lesgate, into accepting the rub-out assignment. His performance Saturday evening morphed skillfully into Tony's badly nicked savoir-faire ending in his undoing. As Margot, Sarah Ruggles reflected the wife's guilty conscience, nervousness and mounting puzzlement at the plot she is subjected to. Frankly, I felt she did much more with the role than Grace Kelly in the Hitchcock movie. (Lindsay Jones' music and sound design was at least the equal of the film's, by the way.)

As Captain Lesgate, Steve Wojtas fully lived up to the play's portrait of a man with a checkered past backed into a corner and recruited to carry out a master manipulator's revenge. As the dogged detective, IRT veteran Robert Neal displayed his usual command of the kind of role where determination and an imposing intelligence tramples every obstacle.

Christopher Allen reflected Max Halliday's controlled anxiety and discretion, qualities that burst free in the second act into a seasoned mystery writer's confidence that he has the perfect solution for rescuing Margot from her doom. In the play's height of dramatic irony, he outlines the plot Tony had indeed tried to carry out. It's a shame the actor muffed another touch of irony, a first-act line crucial to the play's meaning: "In stories things turn out as the author plans them to....In real life they don't — always."

The accidents of real life are this play's topic, insofar as the most well-studied plans rarely yield perfect results. Nothing that our intelligence and intentions, whether for good or ill, propose is adequate for what life is likely to produce. This production drives home that lesson with consistent flair.

If a tightly plotted suspense play seems too artificial, it may still be unwise to shrug it off as unrelated to how we who are not murder-minded actually live. I'm reminded of the wonderful title of a collection of literary essays by Marvin Mudrick: "Books Are Not Life But Then What Is?"








Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Mozart and Salieri": An old legend of fatal musical competitiveness gets resuscitated in ISO commissioned work

Composer-pianist Dejan Lazic
One of the puzzling aspects of Dejan Lazic's "Mozart and Salieri" is the scheduling of the work's premiere by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra as a one-off.

Friday night's concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre offered the public the only chance to hear the guest pianist's symphonic poem. The entire program was thematically tight, giving historical context to the  rivalry between Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri in imperial Vienna of the late 18th century.

Contemporary accounts of Mozart's final days in 1791 differ widely. The murkiness was given a taint of mischief by the mortally ill composer's suspicion that he had been poisoned. No one on his deathbed can be held responsible for fearful thoughts. But the aged Salieri, many years later, sank into senility and expressed guilt at having caused Mozart's death.

On this thin thread Alexander Pushkin hung a brief play that inspired Lazic to cover the possible crime in abstract orchestral terms. The result took up about the last half-hour of a long Classical Series concert. The second puzzle for me is the motivation for focusing on a dubious legend — even though both Lazic and ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski made clear in remarks to the audience that the story has no credibility — and thus adding weight to a historical rivalry that might not have been that intense, let alone murderous. Peter Schaffer's play "Amadeus," later made into a popular film by Milos Forman, went far enough in that direction.

The gist of this long-ago artistic vexation was the wonder of genius showing up in a  human vessel unworthy of containing it. In the craggy, scowling face of F. Murray Abraham, who played Salieri, that's the crux of "Amadeus."  Lazic has put together the opposition of genius and well-rewarded mediocrity in his piece, but that eternal seesaw was better represented by the concert's first half. That's when Urbanski followed up a scintillating performance of Mozart's teenage miracle Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183, with Salieri's Sinfonia in D ("Veneziana").

In the latter pastiche that the senior composer put together mainly from operatic melodies can be heard music suited to Imperial Vienna. It's trimly put together, ingratiating, and given appealing but never startling variety in dynamics and texture. The finale, for instance, is full of effects and not much substance, polite and courtly. The second movement foregrounds the composer's Italian origins, with a secondary melody that would sound quite at home (with a text) coming from a tenore di grazia on the order of Tito Schipa or Cesare Valletti.

The Mozart symphony, especially in the kind of insightful performance Urbanski conducted, has the hallmarks of genius throughout. The ISO played the piece in a manner that highlighted its cunning rhetoric: the question-and-answer phrases, the layered echoes and near echoes, the way phrases "talk" to each other. The burgeoning opera composer is reflected in this abstract work. I'll bring up just one detail that only a composer far above Salieri's capability could manage: The first movement, after its syncopated energy, its flashing contrasts and the excitement so well elaborated in the development, comes to a perfect ending. Mozart takes the foot off the accelerator without compromising any of the power he has unleashed; and yet the final couple of measures don't seem abrupt. There's no feeling of "how do I stop this thing anyway?," but rather a compact wrapping up that might well have had the establishment darling Salieri ruefully shaking his head.

To start the second half, the more adroit side of Lazic was presented as soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major. Lazic's performance came up to the very edge of affectation, but I found it a model of individuality and gracefulness. The singing tone was pronounced in the sublimity of the Andante movement. The unity of expression between piano and orchestra attained extraordinary heights in the finale. Lazic played his own cadenzas and "holds"; the cadenzas, especially the one in the first movement, gave a foreshadowing of problems I found with "Mozart and Salieri."

Put positively, Lazic certainly made full use of all the first-movement material, even overlaying one of the themes on another. The cadenza was cluttered but powerful, as was "Mozart and Salieri," but less impressively. His third-movement cadenza was less of a show-off matter, though it was too heavy at first; fortunately, it lightened up most of the way and truly reflected the nature of the finale.

"Mozart and Salieri," according to the composer's written and oral program notes, is designed to reflect the contrast between genius and mediocrity. But any contemporary composer might well have a problem adequately representing Mozart's genius, and Lazic fell somewhat short. It's true there was some evident contrast, especially with the opening Salieri music — baleful and ominous. To suggest mediocrity is no problem, if craftsmanship and a feeling for serious mockery are there. Lazic's music had those qualities, but the presentation was excessively barbed.

The quotes of some famous Mozart motifs and tune excerpts were hard to pick out, especially in passages devoted to Pushkin's Blind Violinist. Concertmaster Zach DePue expended considerable effort in his Scene 1 solos, which reflected the piece's mood of conflict. But I missed evocations of the familiar Mozart arias "Voi che sapete" and "La ci darem." The hidden nature of those quotes was another puzzle, given that in this scene Pushkin's Salieri is supposed to wonder why Mozart isn't offended by a street musician's rendition of his beautiful melodies.

Lazic draws a lot of variety from the orchestra. He's fond of extreme registers: piccolo and contrabassoon make conspicuous appearances. Piano, Mozart's major instrument in his maturity, wove major strands through the ensemble fabric, as played by Lazic. The orchestration is aggressive and impacted. I found the respite of the "Interlude" before Scene 2 most welcome.There was a flair for the dramatic evident in that scene depicting Mozart's death throes and Salieri's sorrow, expressed through a long buildup of overwhelming force, "thus creating the feeling of ultimate chaos," in Lazic's words.

Another big crescendo toward crowded full-orchestra terrain takes place in the Epilogue, which I think is intended to represent "that death is not eternal oblivion and that it is nothing to fear." This triumphant mood was hard to distinguish, except through a noisy maestoso grandeur. But to my ears and on first exposure, this symphonic resuscitation of a discredited story about artistic competitiveness taken to a criminal level was not worth the attempt.






Friday, April 28, 2017

Ancient pillar of strength resists psychological erosion and finds love in "Mad Mad Hercules"

On the national stage (with one local iteration) we had "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." Now we have a world premiere, from NoExit Performance in association with Zach Rosing Productions, called "Mad Mad Hercules." If titles with a repeated modifier applied to a deeply flawed hero become a thing, we may eventually have something like "Grabbing Grabbing Donald Trump."

Hercules has attributes of both those American presidents in Bennett Ayres' play, which I saw Thursday night at IndyFringe
Cerberus, the dog of Hades, is eager to spoil Hercules' final labor.
Theatre.  The strongman of ancient Greek mythology has the additional burdens of a drinking problem and a conflicted sexual identity on top of the traditional baggage of impulsiveness, anger-management issues, and moral indebtedness.

Played with headstrong verve and widely scattered disdain for social norms by Ryan Ruckman, the muscular hero is shown chiefly undertaking his famous Twelve Labors, imposed by the supercilious King Eurystheus as penance for having slaughtered his wife and children in a mad rage. The insane act was due to the sorcery of Hera, the wife of Zeus (Tony Armstrong, aptly thunderous) nursing a permanent grudge against her husband's infidelity, which resulted in Hercules. The Olympian queen, in Dena Toler's performance, coos at him with unctuous solicitude blended from modern self-help literature and Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude.

Hercules listens glumly to the officious instructions of Eurystheus.
Ayres underplays Hercules' guilty conscience in order to lay emphasis on the hero's hatred of his stepmother. He is not favorably disposed toward Eurystheus, either, and their mutual insults are rank and raunchy. Josiah McCruiston, gliding about the stage in crown and robes as though they justify his every word and gesture, filled the royal role capably. Like most people conscious of their god-given good fortune, the king carries out his assigning task with lip-smacking cruelty.

So Hercules properly bears the two "mads" of the title — the insane kind and the angry kind. What saves him is the initially unpromising development of a partnership and romance with Iolaos, a farmhand assigned to accompany Hercules on his labors as a kind of minder. Nathan Thomas gave a full measure of fretfulness to the role, trying to restrain the hero's worst impulses. But Hercules brings off a number of the labors with the sort of luck he feels he can take full credit for, the way spoiled children often do far into adulthood.

The chorus looks on as Iolaos figures out the best way to protect himself and his charge.
A turning point is when Iolaos assists Hercules with the multi-headed Hydra, cauterizing one neck after another once Hercules has lopped off the head, thus preventing a new head's growth. And when Hercules captures the stag with golden horns in one of the show's loveliest scenes, his sensitive side emerges out of all the bluster. Then it only takes the pair's being grossed out by the sexual overtures of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (comically rapacious in Beverly Roche's performance) to help establish a full erotic bond between Hercules and Iolaos.

In fleshing out this relationship, Ayres has borrowed the cliche of many a romantic comedy, most of them heterosexual, in which an incompatible couple scraps from the first, only to find out that being joined in a common cause overcomes all obstacles to love. There's an undercurrent in popular culture of male bonding taking an erotic turn through shared adventure, as hackneyed Batman-Robin jokes make clear.

Athena, studious goddess of wisdom
In my prepubescent innocence, I always thought the Lone Ranger and Tonto made a cute couple, as played in those unforgettable low voices by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. But most such partnerships resist that kind of chemistry; "Brokeback Mountain" could wait.  I never saw a hint of it in, to stick to the Western genre, the relationship between the Cisco Kid and Pancho. On the other hand, the concluding guffawing tags of each episode — "Oh, Pancho!"  "Oh, Ceeesssco!" — can easily be imagined crowed leeringly by the sombreroed buddies after a night of exuberant love-making.

At any rate, the love-interest innovation works in this show. It creates some development in a myth treatment that might otherwise be merely episodic. Hercules' long-desired transfiguration at the end cuts off the love affair, but there would hardly be any other way out.

The imaginative and technically astute use of light and sound, the elaborate use of three-dimensional and  shadow puppets, and the wide, always suitable range of costuming were unfailing, brilliantly realized in this production, directed by Zack Neiditch and produced by Zach Rosing.  Indeed, I'm not sure what the purpose of the Chorus' lines casting doubt on the show's production values was. To disarm criticism? Well, consider me disarmed.

I'm also doubtful whether references to contemporary popular culture — "The Gilmore Girls" and Trisha Yearwood — add anything to the show except a gag line or two. But I liked the satirical thrust at self-absorbed graduate students in chorus member Devan Mathias' cameo appearance as Athena. Maybe when you're tweaking a story thousands of years old, it's advisable to insert some unrelated fun to indicate the timelessness of the story. Brute male strength and assertiveness always need to be leavened by intelligence and love so that whatever the gods have handed you in life doesn't determine everything you are.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]









Wednesday, April 26, 2017

1998 IVCI Laureate Svetlin Roussev returns for a recital capped by music from his native Bulgaria

The patrician manner that Svetlin Roussev displayed in Schubert's Sonatina in D major, D. 384, stood him in good stead for the
Svetlin Roussev and Chih-Yi Chen evinced a well-honed musical partnership.
much different second work on his recital program Tuesday with pianist Chih-Yi Chen at the Indiana History Center.

The late romantic flowering evident in Eugene Ysaye's Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin ("Obsession") requires some reining in to help clarify its debts to both J.S. Bach and the "Dies irae" chant melody beloved of several composers. There's more than a glance backward in the "obsession" the four-movement piece has with those two sources. So for all its outsize virtuosity, scrupulously clean playing helps enormously. This is very rooted music, and that quality alone makes it seem obsessive.

Tidy yet amply expressive playing is what Roussev, a laureate in the 1998 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, demonstrated consistently in a program that went from Schubert and Ysaye through bonbons by Tchaikovsky and a substantial French violin-piano sonata to Pancho Vladigerov's "Song" and "Rhapsody Vardar."

Roussev champions music from his native Bulgaria, and Vladigerov is regarded as his most eminent countryman among composers. "Song" has the pentatonic flavor familiar to music-lovers from the folk-influenced music of the Hungarian Bela Bartok. In this performance, Roussev and Chen made the most of its flamboyant climax (which ventures far outside the folk inspiration), moving from there to settle down in well-coordinated fashion. The composer at his most flagrantly patriotic was represented by "Vardar," a showpiece requiring seemingly unstoppable fast fiddling, with lots of rapid tremolo passages and a general atmosphere of dancing ecstasy.

The "wow" factor of the rhapsody helped account for the return of the duo for an encore, another Bulgarian piece: "Sevdana," by Georgi Zlatov-Cherkin.

As for the excellence of the duo earlier, Gabriel Fauré's Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in A major, op. 13, gave extended evidence of a solid partnership. I would have preferred a hair less swiftness in the "Allegro vivo" movement, which would have brought out its charm more and not so conspicuously challenged the duo's togetherness.

The other three movements were unexceptionable in their display of unity and interpretive elan. The chromatic surges in the opening movement were passionately well-judged.  Dynamics were wonderfully coordinated in the slow movement, especially near the end, with its relaxed diminuendo passages. The tension generated in the finale before the final outburst indicated how well the two musicians were of one mind about the score and its intended effect.

Not overlooking the excellence of Chen's contributions, I want to concentrate particularly on the violinist for the remainder of this post. His articulation was immaculate in the Ysaye sonata. The string crossings were clean; the near-ferocity of those phrases remained under control. It was admirable how Roussev seemed to place the Bach quotes within parentheses, as if setting the table for a lavish feast. Similarly, the frequent tweaking of "Dies irae" throughout projected the melody well without overshadowing its surroundings.

The chordal suggestions in the third movement Sarabande were firm and well-voiced; the near-the-bridge phrases in the finale had just the right wraith-like tone. This was an "Obsession" that found that quality in the music without having to convey the impression that the performer was obsessed to the point of mania. In both the way he carries himself and his mastery of a wealth of violin technique, Roussev bears fair comparison with Jascha Heifetz.

Tchaikovsky's Melodie in E-flat major, Valse Sentimentale, and Valse-Scherzo underscored that patrician manner mentioned earlier, with hand-in-glove accompaniments from Chen. His ardent low-register tone in the "Melodie" was exquisite. In none of the three pieces did Roussev feel the need to give way to anything schmaltzy. His studied but never stiff approach to these lovely pieces still gave him lots of elbow room for putting across their instant appeal. And the audience responded with obvious joy.


Monday, April 24, 2017

Handling the moral balance of payments: Complications of the attempt are probed in Phoenix Theatre's "The Open Hand"

College roommates Freya and Allison, now upwardly mobile urbanites, bond over lunch.
"The Open Hand" starts out like a high-strung comedy, but with a disquieting pact between two women, friends since college, that proscribes birthday celebrations and the exchange of gifts. This meeting over an expensive lunch, with the pact fraying,  soon spirals into a complication mysteriously twisted by coincidence: One of the friends has to leave suddenly to keep an important appointment; then a stranger pays the check when the woman left behind discovers she's without resources and can't reach her husband by phone. A downpour threatens to leave her both sodden and saddened, when the man hands her his umbrella.

Contemporary urban life in Robert Caisley's play is predicated upon self-interest and the expectation that all generosity must be reciprocated. Allison (Leah Brenner), the beneficiary of the stranger's paying it forward, is obsessed by that need. Disguising his good deed from her husband Jack (Jay Hemphill), whose professional culinary ambitions are all-consuming, is a mistake destined to be compounded. In gratitude, the good stranger, the solidly named David Nathan Bright (Charles Goad), must be invited to an intimate two-couple get-together that no one is allowed to call Allison's birthday celebration. This could be the creepiest birthday party since Harold Pinter, the playgoer might be entitled to think.

Happiness must be doled out in Allison's world, and what produces it must be measured and entered into the moral ledger. Her calculations infect her best friend, Freya, as well as Jack, and the pressure to weigh all life's moves accurately brings Freya's Todd, a car salesman, to the breaking point. Balances must be struck and calibrations checked. Caisley has set up an anxious display of the commodification of thoughts and acts, particularly between intimates. It's a process that's wound ever tighter until the market collapses, with shattering effect. In the worldview Allison sustains, with buy-in among all four, acts of generosity, never free and unattached, are assigned an exchange-value. Karl Marx would have understood.

The Phoenix Theatre production opened over the weekend; after attending the Sunday matinee, I felt as if I'd been to church again — but this time had snatched a few bills from the collection plate, then tried to return them without detection, felt gratitude about not being noticed (combined with guilt), then added a few more dollars before wondering how much would amount to overcompensation. Is this any way to live? Do we have any choice? "The Open Hand" may leave you wondering if your gratitude has been conditional all along, if your basic selfishness has been evident to everyone you know, if charitable acts are bound to be misunderstood unless the motive and the back-story are transparent. That's ironic, about which more below.

Dale McFadden directs the cast with his usual, fine-textured attention to detail. Nothing seems to happen or be said that is not in some sense the expression of every character onstage. This is true especially in the early scenes, when the playwright appears to be taking delight in having the audience share in the mystification that besets the characters. Sometimes, just when we think we are most focused, we are most susceptible to distraction.

Only David Nathan Bright is self-possessed. In the steady openhandedness of Goad's portrayal, he carries the aura of a visitor from beyond. McFadden has the other actors picking up adroitly on the brittle nature of intimacy, which always wants to know more, because knowledge seems so much better than faith. But only ignorance enables faith to become stronger, as Montaigne said long ago; what we know for sure is forever dependent on testing it against what we don't.

Awaiting a late arrival, the host couple and Freya get to know a mysterious benefactor.
And Allison knows next to nothing about David, a fact that really irritates Freya, who, as played by Julie Mauro, conducts a hilariously intrusive interview with the distinguished-looking gentleman when he arrives at the apartment.

Freya's faith in her friendship with Allison is already under strain, to which is added her being on tenterhooks about snagging a high-end international wine job. Well, there's also some difficulties in her marriage, all of which Mauro conveys as being under quite tenuous control. The bluffly macho Todd (Jeremy Fisher) sells luxury cars, but his job insecurity under a toxic boss will have an explosive effect in the climactic party scene.

Todd meets David Nathan Bright in the worst way.
That scene cannot further be described, but its aftermath entails Allison's long-suppressed confrontation with her past and the crumbling of the protective edifice she has built at immense psychic cost. Though hints of her vulnerability have been evident all along, what underlies it has to be brought into the open by David. I doubt I've ever seen on an Indianapolis stage a more astonishing transformation than what Brenner achieved here; physically and vocally beside herself, Allison stands before us at the end, probably capable of setting her life on a new footing, moving toward health after the abscess has been lanced.

"The Open Hand" is finally a comedy, though the laughs come early and somewhat under shadows. But it takes a place in the prevailing Judeo-Christian mode of irony, which Western culture has inherited in uneasy partnership with the Greek mode of tragedy. The ironic mode has made our stage comedies richer, and it has given us a more capacious understanding of life's sadness. Despite Shakespeare, the tragic view of life sits uneasily with us, leading to the frequent misinterpretation of "Hamlet" as a portrait of indecisiveness.

Though there's nothing explicitly religious about "The Open Hand," it rests on the foundational irony of Christianity derived from Jewish religion. Our expectations are thwarted; what we do and what happens to us is an endless struggle between our faith and our knowledge. Attempts to resolve that conflict through striking out on new paths sometimes dazzle us beyond anything we may have anticipated, as for Ruth in the Bible, whose famous decision is crucially referenced in this play's final scene. We can't be sure of success, because the accumulation of discouragements compels us to ask, with Job, the ironic question: "Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in?"

"The Open Hand" provides an extraordinarily moving answer to this question. Furthermore, the production is a technical marvel, with several evocative sets (Jeffery Martin) constructed on a turntable, furnished (and its actors outfitted, by Emily McGee) with just enough signs of material striving and accomplishment to reinforce the play's context of interplay between the open hand and its all-too-frequently closed opposite, between the lighted way and the one hidden or hedged in.

[Photos by Joe Konz]

























Sunday, April 23, 2017

With visceral impact and artistic imagination, SF Jazz Collective blows through town on the first of two nights here

Rising out of the San Francisco Jazz Festival more than a decade ago, the SF Jazz Collective has made its mark by gathering
SF Jazz Collective: Eubanks, Calvaire, Wolf, Jones and Sanchez (standing, from left); Penman, Simon, Zenon (seated, from left)
top-drawer musicians into ensemble work periodically, focusing year after year on the work of the music's major figures and touring with it.

This weekend the current tour is playing a couple of nights at the Jazz Kitchen. I heard the first set of the first night Saturday; the program was centered on the legacy of Miles Davis. Typical of the group's creativity, the program also included original compositions, as well as members' arrangements of the trumpeter's works.

To present its calling card, the octet opened with "All Blues," a perennial favorite that has been taken up by many artists. This arrangement, by pianist Edward Simon, wound its way into the theme obliquely. It featured the grandiloquent vibraphone playing of Warren Wolf, and ended in a long coda with lots of nimble ensemble tags periodically inserted.

SF Jazz Collective arrangements typically avoid any "tribute" genuflections toward the honoree's manner of performance. This is particularly evident in how they handle their borrowings from pop heroes such as Stevie Wonder, as a three-disc issue from 2011. And the solos take off  from the new arrangement more than from the original, which puts everything the band is likely to play in its own universe.

This was amply evident in the second Davis number, "Joshua," a Wolf arrangement distinguished by Simon's cogent piano solo and the rip-roaring exuberance of trumpeter Sean Jones. "Milestones" brought front and center the arranging aptitude of bassist Matt Penman, with another indication of the fresh distribution of solos characteristic of the band. This time around, saxophonists Miguel Zenon (alto) and David Sanchez (tenor) were showcased.
Shields Green, an enslaved rebel

Among the attractive originals, trombonist Robin Eubanks introduced "Shields Green," a piece named for a participant in John Brown's 1859 raid on the weapons factory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia, and spelled without the apostrophe). The historical context drew from Eubanks a rootsy sound, anchored by regular finger snaps in which the composer encouraged audience participation. Simon turned from the grand piano to a synthesizer to make the accompaniment moodier. Eubanks took an extraordinarily agile solo, expressing his own voice but bringing to mind the virtuosity of one of his Indianapolis trombone heroes, J.J. Johnson.

Just as exciting and multifaceted a new piece was Jones' "Hutcherson Hug," named for the late Bobby Hutcherson, a vibraphonist who was a charter member of SF Jazz Collective. It presented a rare reflective episode in the first set, its gentle waltz theme elaborated in an expansive solo by Wolf, Hutcherson's successor as Jazz Collective vibist. Though the band gives him lots of company in this respect, Wolf is particularly outstanding in rolling out phrase after phrase with nary a stale idea or cliche to be heard.

The set closed with drummer Obed Abaire's "One Eleven," a complex, high-energy work full of cross-rhythms — naturally featuring a drum solo, but so much more than an excuse for percussion display. Like everything this band plays, the collective idea in its name always seems to be more important than anything close to individual grandstanding. When individuality is called for, there is no shortage in the supply, but the collective remains uppermost.