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SFJAZZ Collective: Remembering Miles

R.J. DeLuke By

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Miles was the first jazz music I ever heard… It changed the trajectory of my life. —Sean Jones
The SFJAZZ Collective has been operating since 2004. In the beginning, it may have seemed to some as just another all-star collection of musicians who strut their stuff for a while, then go about their own business. It has shown over time it is much different.

The format—eight outstanding musicians banding together to play the music of jazz icons, works hard at what the band was designed for: a leaderless, democratic group where musicians write arrangements that re-imagine works of the particular artist selected each year as the tribute showcase for the tour. They must also write and arrange a new piece each season. The band has a reputation as one of the fine touring groups. Some of the members, like founding member Joshua Redman and saxophonist Joe Lovano moved on after awhile. But they were replaced by some of the finest individual players on the scene. And through a lot of serious work, they meld together.

The SFJAZZ Collective is currently comprised of alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, trumpeter Sean Jones, trombonist Robin Eubanks, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Obed Calvaire.

Each year, the band records a live CD that documents their outstanding concerts. People selected in the past to be the subject of the annual tribute include John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder and Chick Corea, among others. The new CD, released in March, is SFJAZZ Collective: Music of Miles Davis & Original Compositions, Live: SFJAZZ Center 2016. It was recorded live in 2016 at the SFJAZZ Collective's home base, the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. The two-disc album features new arrangements of the classic works composed by and associated with Miles Davis and new original compositions by collective members.

Each arrangement on the Miles side brings fresh interesting takes on the music. The solos are universally excellent. The band is tight. It bears repeated listening.

Davis' music includes "So What," "Milestones," "Nardis," "Bitches Brew," "Tutu" and more. The original tunes and arrangements don't take a back seat. They are engaging and present different approaches and textures because each springs from a different member of the band.

With the spring tour essentially done, All About Jazz spoke to trumpeter Jones and saxman Zenón to talk about the group.

Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Zenón is seen as one of the bright young talents, as a writer and player. He has nine recordings as a leader, including the Grammy-nominated Identities are Changeable. Earlier this year he released Tipico. As a sideman he has worked with jazz luminaries such as Charlie Haden, Danilo Perez, Fred Hersch and Steve Coleman.

Jones, an impassioned player with monster chops, tours regularly with his own ensembles and has seven recordings as a leader. He's played with a list of great jazzmen and spent some time with the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra. He is also a renowned teacher and has taught at Duquesne University, Oberlin Conservatory and Berklee College of Music. He serves as artistic director of both the Pittsburgh and Cleveland Jazz Orchestras.

All About Jazz: What do you like about the SFJAZZ organization?

Sean Jones: The best thing about being in the band is there is no leader. We all contribute equally to the sound of the band. We're all responsible for two pieces each season. It's special for me, because I enjoy being a sideman, but I don't like being a sideman with the idea in mind that I don't have a say in what's going on. This is kind of the best situation for me. I get to be a leader in the band. But at the same time I can play other folks' music and learn how they conduct themselves as leaders. So it's really fun, man."

Miguel Zenon: I've been with the band since the first year. There's a couple things about the group that make it really unique, especially in today's jazz world—we don't have an official band leader. It's great because we all take turns doing that, depending on the situation. We take everything to a vote. We make all the decisions collectively. Also we get to write a lot of music for the band and get a long time to work on that music, to rehearse it. So it opens the door to experiment and things, in terms of difficulty, that probably wouldn't happen in other circumstances.

It's my 14th season in the band. Speaking for me, I've been able to play with some of my heroes I grew up listening to and emulating their records and solos. I've been able to play side-by-side with them and learn from them and create a fellowship with this large group of people that have gone through the band. So for me, it's been a special experience.

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