A round-trip drive to the Pacific Ocean — Part 3: The SFJAZZ Collective remembers and creates like America could

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MacArthur fellowship-winning alto saxophonist-composer-arranger Miguel Zenon (foreground) lights the fire. Zenon is the only extant founding member of the 11-year-old SFJazz Collective. Courtesy all about Jazz.com

A Westerly Cultural Travel Journal — Part 3 (With a bit of overlap with Part 2, this concert review concludes this cultural travelogue)

SAN FRANCISCO — Saturday night we hooked up with my old compatriot from The Milwaukee Journal Divina Infusino, and her and longtime husband, ex-Milwaukeean Mark Schneider, for the ostensible raison d’être of our trip, the SFJAZZ Collective at SFJAZZ Center, the exquisite performance center that was built largely inspired by this group’s world-class talent and concept.

Infusino, who’s written for Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post and other publications, has broad musical tastes, as does her husband Mark (formerly of Dirty Jack’s Record Rack, a pioneering Brewtown record store), but both are rock-oriented. Yet both were deeply impressed by the jazz collective.

Our post-concert drinks conversation got around to Divina explaining how San Francisco’s politics “realizes socialistic values as a reality rather than simply an ideal,” something that the SFJAZZ Collective exemplifies on its own multi-cultural terms. In this collective once again jazz embodies an exemplary cultural template for our democratic way of life. A profound acknowledgment of talent meritocracy elevates their wedding to democracy, with high standards of processing and expression.

As current Down Beat cover subject Miguel Zenon explains on this video, “it’s really the different personalities of the band that is the essence of group, how different personalities, come from different places, and different ideas about what music should be come together to make the this music.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SS8pmw6sZHA



The current edition of the SFJAZZ Collective includes (left to right), Edward Simon, piano; Matt Penman, bass, Obed Calvaire, drums; Warren Wolf, vibraphone; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Avishai Cohen, trumpet; David Sanchez, saxophones, and Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone. Courtesy sfjazz.com 

This video rehearsal of Henderson’s bossa nova tune “Recorda-Me” was played in another part of the SFJAZZ Center, The Joe Henderson Rehearsal Lab, named for the great saxophonist and composer who resided for decades in San Francisco. Henderson first became a pivotal figure — bridging modern post-bop and cutting-edge jazz. *

He then became a Grammy-winning jazz ambassador to wider audiences with a saxophone voice as warm and form-shaping as it was liberated. All those qualities permeated this band in the two nights.

My companion Ann was smitten by the “cute drummer” but also felt capitvated by the virtuosic flow of complex, commingling ideas and emotions, which they typically make palatable and inviting, rather than forbidding. That’s partly why there’s no group in music quite like this one — exemplifying undoctrinaire jazz repertory work while being, to a man, an original composer and arranger (by contrast, say, to The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra).

Young drummer Obed Calvaire was new to me, and a revelation, a near-effortless amalgam of Billy Higgins’ dance-ability and Tony Williams’ ripping explosiveness. And he revealed himself, on his own deeply moving composition “Absolving,” very much his own man. The limpid ballad was also as nakedly honest as Calvaire admitted writing it for the mother of his child as a musical request for forgiveness, which he explained in simple, direct words, as if she were standing right there in front of him.

The listener felt like he was eavesdropping and warmly welcome in the same moment. Here, Calvaire forsook the hard drumstick, echoing his plea in the muted, delicate touch of his mallets on the drum’s skin-like surface, and the cymbal’s sonic sheen. David Sanchez’s saxophone solo beckoned for the truth as it exists beyond subjective pain.

The group interpretations of Henderson — who often wrote with authoritative flair in Latin styles — and their original tunes revealed much more than their solo playing, which decidedly eschewed showboating. Some originals, like “Jet Rickshaw” carried a tricky sense of virtuosic momentum —  a high-speed rickshaw speed ride through Chinatown — and we heard just enough supple, bracing collective improvs.

But several other pieces on Saturday night (all superbly arranged by band members) seemed to gradually expand, with a commingling spaciousness, as if a sonic atmosphere had formulated over the stage with billowing textures and floating filigrees of melody. The band recorded all four nights of their Joe Henderson tribute project for an upcoming album. They’ve done similar recording projects for the last 11 years and their recording of Stevie Wonder’s music earned the Outstanding Jazz Recording of 2014 award, at the 45th annual NAACP Images Award Ceremony. Here’s a sample from that album: Wonder’s “Visions,” arranged by Stefon Harris, the group’s former vibist. You can hear his vibraphone rhythm in the arrangement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjDv0XD8ywM&list=PL86997F82404BF4DC&index=9  full cd coverA copy of the SFJAZZ Collective’s NAACP Image Award-winning “Songs of Stevie Wonder.” The Collective’s pianist Edward Simon spoke with me after the concert and kindly signed the CD. Front and back CD cover photos by Joe Goldberg. 

Zenon is a Guggenheim and MacArthur “genius” Fellow, several are bandleaders, and trombonist Robin Eubanks comes from one jazz’s most recognizable musical families. Zenon and Sanchez are from Puerto Rico,  trumpeter Avishai Cohen from Israel, pianist Edward Simon from Venezuela, bassist Matt Penman from New Zealand, and the others from around the United States.

What other group so absorbs its tradition’s greatest qualities and visions and meticulously transforms them into meaningful and nourishing music for today and tomorrow? The SFJAZZ Collective defines the terms and the fertile turf.

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