SFJAZZ Collective forges independent spirit

Just keep fooling around,” bassist Matt Penman advised drummer Eric Harland, “and I’ll look at you when it feels right.” Penman paused for a beat. “Then don’t ever deviate from that,” he deadpanned.

Laughter erupted in the Kanbar Hall practice room, where the latest version of the SFJAZZ Collective was rehearsing Penman’s “Triple Threat” for the first time. It’s one of 16 new pieces that the stellar octet - Penman, Harland, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Edward Simon, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and trombonist Robin Eubanks - would shape, tweak and polish over the next 10 days before starting its 2010 tour.

In addition to performing a new composition by every member, the band, which plays San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theatre on Friday as part of the SFJAZZ Spring Season, will also showcase the earthy and elegant music of Horace Silver.

In previous seasons, the collective, founded by SFJAZZ in 2004 to nurture new music and celebrate the work of modern masters, has focused on the music of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. This season, each musician chose a tune by Silver - the masterly composer and bandleader whose bluesy, grooving music defined soul-jazz - and arranged it for these particular musicians.

Horace’s music is a joy to play. His melodies and grooves are so strong,” said Simon, 40, a Venezuelan-born musician who’s one of the most creative and in-demand pianists on the New York scene. He arranged Silver’s classic “Señor Blues,” changing the meter and re-harmonizing some of the piece while “pretty much keeping the melody intact.”

Simon, Turner and Cohen are new to the collective, an organically evolving ensemble whose personnel shifts over the years. Bobby Hutcherson, Joshua Redman, Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano are among the premier players who’ve enriched the group. When an artist leaves, the other musicians have a big say in who replaces them.

The way we choose the personnel is really democratic,” says Zenón, a brilliant composer and improviser who’s been with the collective from the get-go. A Puerto Rican-born musician who studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music - where he began playing with the collective’s new trumpeter, the Israeli-born Cohen - Zenón won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2008.

We choose people we play with and like and who we know are going to work,” said Zenón, 33. “You write for them, even though they’ve never played with this band.” Originally, Redman, who was the artistic director of SFJAZZ’s Spring Season, was the face of the band and its de facto leader. At some point, “everybody kind of became the leader,” Zenón says.

For the first few years, the brilliant arranger Gil Goldstein orchestrated much of the music, including the music of Coleman and Monk. Now, the musicians write their own arrangements. “That was a significant change,” Zenón says. “Now the personality of the band is reflected in all the music. Gil’s an incredible arranger. But now everybody gets to put their imprint on the music of whomever we’re dealing with.”

Earlier, Zenón guided the group through his new piece, “The Mystery of Water,” based on a song he wrote in Spanish. The lovely melody dances over rhythmic structures that he devised by translating the chemical makeup and movement of water molecules into numeric patterns.

I grew up on an island loving the beach and the water. But at the same time, I’ve always been very cautious about what water can do to you,” he says. “It’s a mystery to me what’s under the water.” The piece isn’t programmatic, although the ending “has this wave-like effect.”

A different sense of mystery pervades Simon’s beautiful “Collective Presence,” a floating, introspective ballad with ambiguous harmonies. It begins with a simple vibraphone phrase that rings and fades.

The first time should be more rubato. Let it stretch a little more,” Simon told the musicians, singing the phrases the way he wanted them. Like the other musicians, Simon is delighted to have 10 days to rehearse all this music and get it right. In the jazz world, they’re lucky to get in one rehearsal before a performance or recording session.

It’s rare,” Simon says. “Usually we have little or no time to rehearse. That sets limits on what you can do. Here, because we have the luxury to spend time with the music, it gives us the opportunity to look deeply into the compositions and let yourself go all the way in your writing. I wrote this piece with these musicians in mind,” adds the pianist, who has worked often with Turner, an original voice widely considered the most influential saxophonist in jazz today. “That’s another rarity. It’s a great asset to know who the musicians are who are going to be performing your piece.”

SFJAZZ executive director Randall Kline loves the gradual infusion of new blood into a group with very high standards.

They all have to be composers, they all have to be bandleaders and they all have to mother- on their instruments,” says Kline, who booked the band in Europe this month and an East Coast leg later this year. “What’s interesting about this group is the quiet swagger. Mark is an incredible player but very humble.”

No other jazz organization in the country combines the collective’s commitment to creating new music, and placing it in the context of the modern traditions from which it grows. “For SFJAZZ,” Kline says, “it’s the proudest thing we do.” {sbox}

This article has been corrected since it appeared in print editions.

SFJazz Collective performs at 8 p.m. Friday at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon St., San Francisco. $25-$60. (866) 920-5299, www.sfjazz.org.

Submitted by admin on February 26th, 2010 — 01:00am

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