A collection of eight individual headliners with no recognized leader, SFJazz Collective makes decisions by consensus.
Somehow, they’ve never had a shutdown.
Considered one of the world’s leading jazz bands, the group celebrates its 10th anniversary this year with a special tour that brings it to the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall on Wednesday.
The collective is the brainchild of SFJazz Executive Director Randall Kline, who has called it “a wild experiment gone right.”
While the group has undergone numerous personnel changes over the years, it has maintained its signature identity and mission of simultaneously honoring the tradition and history of jazz while taking the art form forward.
Each year, the band creates arrangements of classic music from a jazz composer, with each band member choosing a tune to reinterpret. Those composers have included Ornette Coleman (2004), John Coltrane (2005), Herbie Hancock (2006), Thelonious Monk (2007), Wayne Shorter (2008), McCoy Tyner (2009), Horace Silver (2010), Stevie Wonder (2011-12), and Chick Corea (2013). Members also write original compositions for the collective.
At Wednesday’s anniversary show, the band plans to play songs and arrangements from previous years.
In addition to performing live, the collective also conducts significant outreach and interaction with young musicians. An offshoot of the collective is the Mondavi Center High School SFJazz All-Stars, an eight-person ensemble of the Sacramento region’s best high school musicians directed by Mike McMullen. This group will give a free concert at 6:30 p.m. in the Corin Courtyard before the collective’s performance Wednesday.
The collective now boasts an international personality with Puerto Rico’s Miguel Zenón (the group’s last remaining original member) on alto saxophone and David Sánchez on tenor saxophone, Israel’s Avishai Cohen on trumpet, Venezuela’s Edward Simon on piano, New Zealand’s Matt Penman on bass, and Americans Robin Eubanks on trombone, Warren Wolf on vibraphone and Obed Calvaire on drums.
Cohen, the Down Beat Rising Star of 2012, began guesting with the collective in 2007, taking over some dates for Dave Douglas, who had other commitments. Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Cohen officially joined the group in 2010. The band has added a pianist, drummer, tenor sax and vibes players since Cohen joined full time.
“A big factor besides being a great player is (finding) someone who can really read music well, because the arrangements sometimes become very specific and very articulated,” Cohen said of adding new members. “You have to trust (the musician) to be able to perform everything and fit in with the right vibe, personally and musically.”
Cohen said the band tends to become very close, and the personalities of individual members figure in when creating original compositions.
“When I’m writing, I don’t just write for an alto, I write for Miguel,” Cohen said. “I don’t just write for a piano, I write for Edward. It’s very personal, but it’s a big advantage. We don’t just arrange the music randomly.”
Cohen said the current tour’s program of songs and arrangements from previous years made the rehearsal period easier for the band.
“It’s very different rehearsing stuff that’s already been written and recorded as opposed to stuff that is (being) played for the first time,” Cohen said. “You have to make up the music – there’s always a lot of changes going on and once you hear it played, you realize things that you didn’t realize before. You’re searching to make the composition the best, and that takes a lot of time. Every day after rehearsal, you go back with your arrangement or your composition and revisit it and you work on it.”
As the music for this tour had already been worked out, the band was ready to hit the road earlier than usual (though it’s still working through its allotted rehearsal time). This year, the band has 20 tunes in its book to choose from for each concert instead of the usual 16. It won’t play all of them at each show, but it could.
“We try to make the best set we can to make a good concert, and that’s hard to put together because you want everyone to be featured and different music to be heard,” Cohen said.
Cohen said that despite band members’ individual commitment to families and careers, they all continually push the group to grow and develop.
“Every year we try to figure out again and again – what is this band? What should it be?” Cohen said. “Should it be anything specific? Should it be similar to what it was last year, or something else?
“The answer is still unknown, in a way.”