In the Land of Alternative Approaches, a New Look for Jazz
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: April 5, 2004
SAN FRANCISCO, April 3 - In 22 years a nonprofit group called SF Jazz has
gone from a dinky outfit presenting the occasional jazz show to the
organizer of a regular concert series to a $5 million, year-round operation
with educational programs and a highly regarded jazz festival.
Now it has developed its own in-house band, the SF Jazz Collective, with
members picked by its leader, the saxophonist Joshua Redman, and SF Jazz's
executive director, Randall Kline.
True to the mildly trangressive ethos surrounding issues of taste in
Northern California, from alternative-process winemaking to industrial
design, the collective does not look or sound like an institutional band.
It isn't a flank of 15 utility men in dark suits, with a brass section on
risers at the back and big-band charts loading up the music stands. The
idea is for the personalities of the musicians not to recede before the
weight of the music.
It is smaller than most institutional bands - an octet - and a little
experimental in its makeup but not unreasonably so. The group begins with
its own internal elements, rather than the material it plays: the members
are already known for their individual work, and each represents a
different style, locale and era. They are not all old friends of Mr.
Redman's, and they don't share friendships from way back; several of them
had never met before the group's first rehearsals.
Mr. Redman contends that the band's original reason for being was to
commission original works. The idea of covering the jazz repertory was
secondary, a helpful toehold for audiences and high-profile programming. In
its capacity as a repertory band it will deal with jazz since the 50's -
which is very Bay Area, a sexy, slightly hedonistic proposition compared
with the way Jazz at Lincoln Center insists on teaching audiences about
jazz from its beginnings.
Yet Mr. Redman - who also serves as artistic director for SF Jazz's regular
spring season of concerts - is undogmatic to the core. You won't find it
stated anywhere in the literature about the group that it is playing only
jazz made since the 50's; the band aims to embody a kind of positive,
practical spirit of jazz as it is currently played, not a jazz-history
mandate with a line drawn at a particular year. Its initial name, the SF
Modern Jazz Collective, was scrapped recently when the organization's board
felt that "modern" broke up a recognizable brand name. And Mr. Redman
sounds thoroughly relieved to be free of the word.
"It's a loaded term," he said, decanting green tea in a Presidio Heights
cafe on Friday afternoon before sound check. "I don't really know what it
The band's first task, presented at its first public concerts here Thursday
and Friday at the Palace of Fine Arts, was to rearrange six Ornette Coleman
pieces and to present new commissioned works by each individual member of
To be sure, Mr. Redman and Mr. Kline are stimulated by the example of the
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis's well-tested band operating
within Jazz at Lincoln Center. But in most respects the New York
counterpart is a different kind of organization: more earnestly pedantic,
more concerned for the cause of the public's knowledge of jazz, less
concerned with pushing the identities of its individual players, who have
year-round salaried positions.
The SF Jazz Collective begins with modest goals. At the moment it is
committed to a week of performances in California each year, preceded by
three weeks of rehearsal. (The band road-tested the music in five other
California cities last week, before the Palace of Fine Arts shows.)
The group will perform in New York this fall - at one of the new Jazz at
Lincoln Center theaters - but won't convene again to work on new material
until February 2005, when John Coltrane will be the focus of the repertory
project. If SF Jazz can raise the money to build its own year-round concert
hall - it is Mr. Kline's current preoccupation - perhaps the band will play
more concerts. But the SF Jazz Collective still isn't meant to be anyone's
A month each year isn't much action for a band; if it's going to be a real
one, with its own sound, it needs gigs. But these musicians are among the
most in-demand out there and can't slight their own careers for what's
still a fledgling, local enterprise. Also, as Mr. Redman points out, there
is a distinct positive side to the limited commitment: rather than being
ensconced in one job in San Francisco, the players can all go back into
their separate worlds on the various front lines of jazz and return with
more accumulated knowledge next year to throw into the vat.
Aside from Mr. Redman, the band includes the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson,
a bona fide master in postwar jazz and a resident of Montara, just south of
San Francisco. Also present is Nicholas Payton, a virtuosic New Orleans
trumpeter whose music has lately been a jazz-funk swirl; Renee Rosnes, a
formidable post-bop pianist from New York; Miguel Zenón, a young alto
saxophonist originally from Santurce, P.R.; Josh Roseman, a New York
trombonist who has played a lot of jazz as well as rockish jam-band music;
the bassist Robert Hurst, who first became known in the 80's with Mr.
Marsalis's quartet; and Brian Blade, an extraordinarily sensitive drummer.
Gil Goldstein, a highly admired arranger, worked with the band on shaping
the Coleman pieces.
Thursday's concert, opening with the Coleman pieces, began shakily. Mr.
Coleman's "Lonely Woman," all medium-slow rubato, lacked some basic bounce;
Mr. Blade's coloristic drumming, full of microscopic fills, couldn't be
heard in the acoustically torpid hall. Mr. Redman's solo, in discrete
parts, built slowly, then seemed to vanish without leaving a mark. The show
turned a corner on "Una Muy Bonita," underlined by a bass-and-vibraphone
vamp and lit up by a tender, lucid vibraphone solo.
Except for a few bold strokes, Mr. Goldstein's light-handed arrangements
allowed the group to sound lithe, like a small band. By the end of the
Coleman set, the band had grown comfortable and self-corrected its own mix;
it became radiant in "Happy House," and a dialogue between Mr. Zenón on
saxophone and Mr. Blade on drums suggested a new and special connection, a
Mr. Zenón came alive again in the concert's second half, especially during
his original piece "Lingala." It was a complicated, mature work, moving
between an even, nearly Steve Reichesque pulse (Mr. Hutcherson played
marimba here) and changing time signatures for the swung sections,
including Afro-Latin rhythms. Mr. Blade contributed a decent modal tune,
"Wages," in which Mr. Redman played a satisfying, stretched-out solo,
exposing much more of his gift as a narrative improviser.
Ms. Rosnes's piece, "Of This Day's Journey," merged ballad and
burning-tempo music. Mr. Hutcherson presented a humorous piece, "March
Madness," in which a comically stiff march rhythm kept popping up amid more
flowing rhythmic sections. For an encore Mr. Payton provided "From Darkness
to Light," the most open, free and aggressive of the original pieces. Even
in a free piece, this band has enough inner connections; it's going to
It was all better and more flexible than I had expected: what at first
sounded like a scientific recipe for a pan-stylistic new jazz group turned
out to be a graceful coup of planning. And though its members aren't all
from here, the group's obvious pluralism and its blithe insistence on the
new suggest the feeling of this place in a natural way.