Jazz all-stars, behind Hutcherson and Redman, meld timeless Coltrane standards with new stuff.
Thursday, March 17, 2005
After two decades of running SFJAZZ, the nonprofit organization that produces the San Francisco Jazz Festival and its increasingly ambitious counterpart, the Spring Season concert series, Randall Kline has presented just about every living jazz giant, as well as an impressive array of blues, world music and soul stars. But he can barely contain himself when he talks about the SFJAZZ Collective, an all-star octet that has become the cornerstone of the Spring Season. “It’s about the coolest thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Kline says.
Instead of assembling a band of Northern California luminaries, SFJAZZ reached out across North America, bringing a cast of brilliant improvisers to the Bay Area for a month-long residency. Now in its second year, the octet still features its five key members—vibraphone great Bobby Hutcherson, Berkeley-raised tenor saxophone star Joshua Redman, New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton, Puerto Rican altoist Miguel Zenón and Canadian pianist Renee Rosnes. The new faces are trombonist Isaac Smith, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland (replacing Josh Roseman, Robert Hurst and Brian Blade, respectively).
The band made such a powerful impression last year on a five-city tour that this season the Collective is spending more than three weeks on the road, starting Thursday at Sunset Cultural Center in a concert that also kicks off the Monterey Jazz Festival’s spring concert series, Jazz at Sunset. Other high-profile dates include two nights of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Savannah Music Festival, the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville, the Chicago Symphony Center and Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles.
Funded by a three-year, $300,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, the group performs original pieces by each member commissioned by SFJAZZ and arrangements of numbers from the classic jazz repertory.
“When we first started talking about the Collective, I really saw this band as a workshop for the creation of new jazz compositions,” says Redman, the Spring Season’s artistic director. “Then we started talking about featuring an established contemporary composer, so we’re doing both original works and interpretations of important modern jazz composers.”
Last year, the group focused on seminal works by Ornette Coleman, mostly arranged by Gil Goldstein. This year, Goldstein has arranged signature tunes by John Coltrane, including “Moment’s Notice,” “Naima,” “Crescent,” and “Africa.”
In many ways, Trane is a perfect subject for exploration, as more than any other musician he embodies the notion of jazz as a perpetual search, a quest for transcendence through unbridled improvisation.
But if last year is any guide, the new pieces commissioned by SFJAZZ will offer an opportunity to hear state-of-the-art work by a band that has had the time to develop into a powerfully cohesive ensemble.
“Each time we play everybody’s pieces, something new is happening,” Rosnes says. “Because we’ve been seeing each other, and playing and getting to know each other as people as well, which is only going to make everything stronger. Taking chances is just going to be a natural part of the evolution of the music.”
A superlative pianist who has recorded nearly a dozen albums for Blue Note over the past 15 years, Rosnes is best known in Northern California through her work with Bobby Hutcherson, the Collective’s guiding spirit. The importance of his presence, both creatively and interpersonally, can’t be overstated. As the elder of the band, he provides a direct link to the protean era of Coltrane. An LA native, he first made a name for himself when he broke into the New York scene in the early 1960s.
The great alto saxophonist Jackie McLean brought Hutcherson into the Blue Note fold, where he quickly became a leading figure among the young players experimenting with compositional structure and inspired by the rhythmic and harmonic freedom ushered in by Ornette Coleman.
On a series of classic albums such as “Dialogue,” “Components” and “Stick Up,” Hutcherson joined an incandescent group of musicians who recorded with each other for Blue Note, including pianists McCoy Tyner and Andrew Hill, tenor saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, drummer Joe Chambers and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, all of whom were also ambitious composers.
“I remember going to hear John Coltrane a lot and that was just amazing,” Hutcherson said in a conversation several years ago. “Sun Ra was in Central Park and people walking through the park couldn’t move. They didn’t know anything about the music but they just couldn’t move.”
Audiences aren’t likely to be immobilized by the SFJAZZ Collective, but it’s a safe bet that they’ll go home buzzing with the kind of excitement that only a group of daring improvisers cangenerate.
The SFJAZZ Collective plays 8pm Thursday at the Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th, Carmel. $27-57. (925) 275-9255 or montereyjazzfestival.org.