It is late winter in San Francisco, and, once again, for the third year in a row, eight jazz musicians have assembled for nearly three weeks of rehearsals, each bringing to the table one of their own compositions, the desire to delve into the repertoire of a specific jazz composer, and a spirit of cooperation.
After what will amount to unprecedented rehearsal time for this kind of venture, the Collective will head out on an extensive tour, where, under the artistic direction of saxophonist Joshua Redman, it will provide fresh interpretations of an important modern jazz composer‹Ornette Coleman in 2004, John Coltrane in 2005, and now Herbie Hancock‹and will offer an expanding and impressive book of new compositions into the jazz canon. Not to mention that they will thrill audiences with exciting, vibrant, and challenging music.
The Collective was launched by SFJAZZ, a 23-year-old Bay Area arts organization that produces the San Francisco Jazz Festival, among numerous other endeavors. "Josh has used the phrase 'traditions in transition,'" says Randall Kline, executive director and founder of SFJAZZ. "We're looking forward. We love to look back at the history of the music, but we acknowledge that this is an evolving art form, that there's always something new happening."
This octet is certainly offering a new vision. "We approach it as a leaderless group," explains pianist Renee Rosnes. "It's a workshop environment. Our personalities mesh, and people are inspired. Ego is not a problem." Ego could have been the pitfall of this all-star combo, never allowing the music to grow through interaction. But under Redman's direction, this was not allowed to happen.
"We deal with our original tunes as if they're being performed by our own bands," alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón says of the democratic process by which each artist presents original compositions to the group. "They go in the direction they want to go, which gives the band a special personality. This process is the most exciting part."
"It was about finding creative, original musicians," Redman explains about assembling the band. "Musicians who are strong composers. Flexible, empathetic musicians, who are great individually but who also have a great sense for cooperation and collaboration, great listeners as well as great players." Plus, it doesn't hurt that everyone gets along, and that they are some of the best musicians on their respective instruments in jazz.
"When I was approached about doing this, I said it is important that everybody first of all enjoys seeing each other every day," vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson recalls. "The music is a reflection of the image of the person. We have to share the music, share the growth, share being proud of what we've accomplished or share if something doesn't work out."
Having Hutcherson in the group as its elder statesman is the band's link to the jazz tradition, and his insight into music and musicians has proven invaluable. "He creates a friendly, positive atmosphere," says Rosnes. "He has such experience. We may be struggling with something that doesn't feel right‹a groove or section in a chart‹and he might offer a small comment that puts it all in perspective."
"I knew Ornette Coleman when he came to Los Angeles from Texas," Hutcherson says, "when he was playing like Bird and said he would not cut his hair until he developed his own sound. I knew John Coltrane well and saw him play countless times. With Herbie Hancock, I was on that bandstand at Birdland in New York when Donald Byrd brought him from Chicago. Then I recorded with him on many albums. I tell the Collective what they were like as human beings. We can share what we've received from those people, from their music."
Having knowledge beyond a recording has provided an intimacy to the Gil Goldstein arrangements of Coleman's groundbreaking songs (including "Peace" and "When Will the Blues Leave"), Coltrane's modal terrain (such as "Crescent" and "Africa"), and Hancock's lyrical work ("The Prisoner," "Speak Like a Child").
But that is just half of the band's personality. Where the SFJAZZ Collective gets its true voice is from its eight annual commissions. The musicians have a large and varied instrumental palette with which to compose, and over the course of three years, they've learned how to maximize the large combo's potential.
Becoming vulnerable to each other has been a key to the composers' growth. "The composition is that inner secret that's in that closet," Hutcherson observes. "Everyone has that closet where they keep special thoughts boxed and tied with a ribbon so nobody will get their fingerprints on it. When you're writing, you present this box. The person who is writing is vulnerable. Others could say, 'I don't plan on changing this.' But what happens a lot in this band, you ask people if they have ideas or feelings about your song. Everyone's free to say something. You wind up hearing ideas you never even thought of."
The three nights at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall offer the group an opportunity to present many of the ideas they've cultivated over its short but dynamic tenure. Each night of the stand will represent a year's work. Sure, the group's music is documented for posterity on CDs, but playing the repertoire in concert keeps it alive, which is truly the group's mission.
"It's a shame to have the Ornette and Coltrane stuff played for only one season," Kline notes. "Over the course of time, the band is creating an incredible book. But with commissioning in general, music doesn't get to be heard a lot. Often, you will commission a piece, it will be heard one, two, or three times, it may end up on a recording, and then it disappears into the ether. I want this music to be played many times for the biggest possible audience."
Jason Koransky is the editor of DownBeat magazine.
Limited-edition CD sets of the SFJAZZ Collective are now available in The Shop at Carnegie Hall, for only $38 (including tax). Included on the CDs are original compositions by members of the Collective as well as music by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. The Shop is located on the First Tier level of Stern Auditorium, adjacent to the Rose Museum.