SFJazz Collective returns to Stevie Wonder tunes this weekend at Yoshi's-Oakland


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Growing up in Auckland, New Zealand, bassist Matt Penman played with a rock band called The Itch, covering tunes by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Stevie Wonder. The group enjoyed jamming out on Wonder's reggae-ish “Master Blaster (Jammin')," recalls Penman, who was 16 at the time. He also played bass in a jazz group, covering “All Blues" and “Freddie Freeloader," chestnuts by Miles Davis, along with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and “Sir Duke" — by Wonder, again.

“And then I had this classical friend," Penman says, “and I remember she said to me, 'Man, do you know Stevie Wonder? You should check out 'Songs in the Key of Life.' So that's when I realized there were these three separate scenes where Stevie was just getting total respect. He was in the canon."

Flash forward 21 years, and Penman, now 37, is a longtime lynch pin of the SFJazz Collective, the all-star group that performs this weekend at Yoshi's-Oakland. And here's the point of the story: The Collective, in addition to performing its eight members' own originals, is focusing this year (as it did last year) on their arrangements of tunes by a particular “classic" composer: Stevie Wonder.

This might rattle some purist jazz listeners. When the Collective was launched in 2004 — saxophonist Joshua Redman and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson were charter members — it reinterpreted tunes by Ornette Coleman, a jazz icon. In the years following, it focused on tunes by one indisputably classic" jazz composer after the next: John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver.

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