Miguel Zenon: Jazz Sherpa
AAJ: As the sole founding member of the SFJAZZ Collective, could you tell us a little bit about what you get from your involvement there that keeps you engaged over such a long period of time?
SFJAZZ Collective, from left: Robin Eubanks, Avishai Cohen, Eric Harland
Mark Turner, Miguel Zenón, Edward Simon, Stefon Harris, Matt Penman
MZ: Yes. Like you said, I'm the sole founding member, sort of by default just because I'm still there. Everybody's got their reason why they come in and out; it's all personal, I think. For me, when I came into the band the first year , I remember talking to [Collective co-founders] Joshua Redman and Randall [Kline] and they invited me. They told me who was going to be there: Bob and Nicholas and Brian all came over there [vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and drummer Brian Blade were all founding members with Zenón]. I mean, it was almost like a joke that they were talking to me!
For the longest time, me being the youngest guy there, I just took it as, "I've got to take advantage of this as long as it lasts because this is a great opportunity." And it was that kind of thing where I just wanted to be around these people for as long as I could. And, I think, as things progressed and as people started coming into the band, and because I was there for a long time, I started getting a little more seniority and all that. The whole dynamic of the band changed a little bit through the years, and I think it's progressed [musically].
It's interesting because with being the Jazz Collective, this band where everybody is represented equally, it's become more like that through the years. The band is more of a collective now than what it was when it started because it's developed a character and people are coming to the band; they understand the way this band works. It's different; it's very different. So in that sense, it's something that I really enjoyjust seeing that development in the band and being part of that, and doing what I can to keep that the way it is. I enjoy being there, and I enjoy the fact that we get a platform to write music, and we have a lot of time rehearse. I really like the guys in the band, and I expect to be there for as long as I can. I know things change, but I enjoy the space where I am now in terms of that band.
AAJ: Is there a notion that no one's a sideman, so everybody will either be expected to write and arrange and influence repertoire? Does everybody come in engaged?
MZ: Yes. I think everybody comes in already knowing that. And alsonot only in the sense that there are certain things that are expected from youat some point, somebody's got to be the leader. At some point, you're going to lead the ensemble, be it [in] a rehearsal or a gig; you've got to make some decisions.
A lot of the people in the band are leaders too, and have been for a long time. It could also be a challenge for them to have to step down from that platform of the leader and have to say, "I'm just part of the band." That could be a challenge, and I know that it has been at some point for some of the people that have come to the band.
The more that we, as the members of the Collective, can learn and understand, and are comfortable with that notion of you have to be a leader at some point, but also it's really about the Collectiveit's not about the individual, it's about what we can do together and the more we understand that, the better the music we play becomes, and the better the chemistry is.
AAJ: Is it easy for you to switch modes like that, to give yourself over to the other composers and their arrangements, or take direction? Can you do that with relative ease and comfort?
MZ: Yes, actually it's pretty easy for me. I have to say it's not something that I feel uncomfortable with at all. In a way, that's kind of the default mode for me, because when I got into music, I didn't do it to have my own band and play my own music and all that. It's more like I just want to play with people. And I enjoy it. I enjoy hearing what people have to say and not having to give directions and lead the whole time. I think it's great. We all want to have the opportunity to do that at some point, but I definitely don't feel like I need to be doing that all the time.
AAJ: Is it more challenging to write and arrange for the Collective versus your own group, given that there's so much less experience with the members of the Collective than with your own band?
MZ: No, I don't think so. I think it's about the same. It was challenging for me at first just because of the instrumentation, and you have to learn how to deal with that. At the time, I wasn't experienced: I'd never written for vibes or four-horn arrangements, and trying to come up with the right thing, and learning the range of all the instruments, and learning the players and what they could do, and all that.
But the good point of the band and the organization is: they've done a really good job out of choosing who they bring into the band. And the way that usually works is they have suggestions, and we have suggestions, and we basically choose as a band who we want to come in. And it's usually people that we know well and we play with, and we know what they can do, as in the case of [saxophonist] Mark Turner and [pianist] Edward Simon and [trumpeter] Avishai Cohen, who came in a couple of years in. We all knew them real well and knew the way they played and how good they played their instruments.
So even though they're coming into a band, it basically becomes a new band. I don't think it really affects the way I write, just because you know that you're not going to have to think about, "Oh, are they going to be able to play this?" You know that the people you're bringing in are going to be at the level that they're going to be able to play anything, and you're not going to have to change.