Strength in Numbers

SF Jazz Collective: The most talented octet in jazz today
Jay Blakesberg

The SF Jazz Collective has quickly come to occupy a special niche in jazz for many reasons. It is an all-star ensemble where members annually clear their schedules for extensive rehearsal, an octet specifically dedicated both to plumbing past treasures and composing fresh material, and a rare instance where the business side of jazz has been structured with as much innovation as the music itself. It is, in essence, a dream band, sprung from the imagination of saxophonist Joshua Redman and Randall Kline, respectively the artistic director and executive director of SF Jazz, the longstanding Bay Area organization previously best known for producing an annual festival in metropolitan San Francisco.

In 2003, Redman and Kline hit upon a model for a permanent ensemble that would extend beyond the classic repertory form that Wynton Marsalis has deftly fashioned with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Along with honoring a specific composer each year, the Collective would commission an original work from each of its members. And to promote greater flexibility and spontaneity, the group would be composed of just eight musicians--small enough so that the arrangements didn't take precedence over individual voices, yet large enough to create a dazzling array of textures and harmonies. Finally, to facilitate the right blend of creative tension and cooperation, Redman and Kline determined that the band needed to contain a diversity of ages and styles, coupled with a minimum of egos, and set aside a few weeks each year to rehearse.

Landing vibraphonist and Bay Area resident Bobby Hutcherson was a crucial coup. Now 65, Hutcherson is an ideal elder statesman for the Collective, intimately associated with classic Blue Note-label albums from the mid-'60s that featured such intrepid, thorny stylists as multi-reedman Eric Dolphy, pianist Andrew Hill, and saxophonist Sam Rivers, all still regarded as pioneers of "outside" jazz that didn't devolve into mere noise. And Hutcherson's advanced harmonies and silky rhythms on the mallets provide him with a knack for pleasantly challenging listeners.

Hutcherson is one of five original members still in the Collective as the band embarks on its third season together, this time featuring the compositions of Herbie Hancock. Even casual jazz fans have heard of founding members Redman and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. Berkeley native Redman survived being overhyped as a godsend after winning the coveted Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute competition for sax in 1991, and has become a reliable post-bop stalwart fond of passionate, circular gusts in his phrases. Payton, who hails from New Orleans, possesses the brash brass sound easily associated with two other Crescent City polestars on trumpet, Marsalis and Louis Armstrong. After embracing the comparison for most of his career, Payton erupted with a disc straight out of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew period last year, which didn't hurt his standing as the most renowned thirtysomething jazz trumpeter in the nation.

Of the other originals, Canadian pianist Renee Rosnes has a slew of sublime CDs on Blue Note as a leader, and Miguel Zenon, on flute and alto sax, is a young Puerto Rican who came to prominence in David Sanchez's band and has since issued three records under his own name, the last two on the Marsalis Music imprint. Both Rosnes and Zenon are distinctive and prolific composers.

Rounding out the horns is debut member Andre Hayward on trombone, while the relatively new rhythm section of drummer Eric Harland and bassist Matt Penman returns for the second year. Harland is the best known, having been among the last, lucky beneficiaries of singer Betty Carter's mentorship program (invariably disguised as an agile backing trio who quickly learned to respond to Carter's demanding vocal improvisations) before moving on to play with McCoy Tyner, Greg Osby, and many others, while becoming an ordained minister in Houston to boot.

Add it all up and you've got the most talented jazz octet in the world today, one that, thanks to its unique structure, should only improve. Having investigated the profound compositions of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane in their first two years, plus the commissioned work each musician brought to the party, the original members have acquired enormous empathy for each other. And with a consistent infusion of new blood, new compositions, and the oeuvre of Hancock--which ranges from Herbie's classic Blue Note material like "Maiden Voyage" through his long stint in Miles's seminal '60s quintet through his genre-bending jazz-funk with the Headhunters--nobody has to worry about falling into a rut.

"After the first two years, it has gotten to the point where I know the musicians, and that really helps when you are writing," says Zenon, taking a break from rehearsal for a phone interview. Two years ago, a trip to Zaire inspired him to write "Lingala," a highlight of the group's inaugural season, which appeared as the lead track on the group's eponymous CD. This season, Zenon says his contribution is called "Collective Overture," and differs from the dynamic showcase for Hutcherson that was "Lingala."

"There are so many different things you can do with this group, that you don't want to repeat yourself," Zenon says. "You could say ["Collective Overture"] is symphonic, but in keeping with the purpose of the band, which is to retain the intimacy of a quartet or a trio, with all these elements still involved. This has been an incredibly important experience for me," he says. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd ever have the chance to play with Bobby Hutcherson, and with Joshua, and Nicholas Payton, to write for these guys. It has helped me as a musician in every way possible."

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