Respecting & Adding to Tradition: the San Francisco Jazz Collective

Who can bring together the fragments of our perceptions—and of our experiences—but an artist? And to do it without words, but in a language of sound, is difficult.

By Daniel Garrett

SF Jazz Collective
(self titled recording)
Producer: Jeff Cressman
Co-producer: Joshua Redman
Arranger/Arrangement consultant: Gil Goldstein
Nonesuch Records/Warner Music, 2005

SF Jazz Collective 2
Producer: Jeff Cressman
Co-producer: Joshua Redman
Arranger/Arrangement Consultant: Gil Goldstein
Nonesuch/Warner Music, 2006

The San Francisco Jazz Collective consists, on its first recording, of Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphone, marimba), Brian Blade (drums), Renee Rosnes (piano), Josh Roseman (trombone), Joshua Redman (tenor and soprano saxophones), Miguel Zenon (alto saxophone and flute), and Robert Hurst (bass). Together the collective’s members have made music that respects tradition without being confined to it.

On Miguel Zenon’s “Lingala,” marimba is featured, and it’s a lovely sound—and there is also a sharp ramble of horns, then a saxophone solo with percussion—then everyone joins in, then the marimba is heard again. It has been months since my ears—can ears be both naïve and cynical?—have heard serious jazz; and the San Francisco Jazz Collective’s work is formidable. “Peace,” written by Ornette Coleman, begins with a melancholy harmony of horns. It may be too easy to use the metaphor of a conversation, but that is the first image, the first word, that comes to mind, as various themes are introduced, elaborated, dropped, others are introduced, and still others, and there are various returns. This is music in which one can hear instrumental experiment and a distant blues echo.

I heard Renee Rosnes’s “Of This Day’s Journey,” and I thought: speculative—pretty—tentative—marimba—tiny footsteps—an expanding curiosity—interaction of elements—the identification of something important—drumming—horns—consideration and examination—marimba and horns—long melodic lines—an articulation—with further commentary—making the most of an experience—summation—a turning away, a turning back—or a new direction—delicacy, quickness, energy—marimba, percussion, piano—a kind of expansion.

The Ornette Coleman song “When Will the Blues Leave” is a song that is much jauntier than its name: it swings rather than laments. The composer and the collective’s artistic director Joshua Redman’s “Rise and Fall” has a startling saxophone wail at the beginning, and the song has a lot of melody, and the music seems one of impressions and perceptions, time and gesture. Coleman’s “Una Muy Bonita,” with discernible rhythm and harmony, has sharp notes that seem to be in contention—hearing the song is like seeing balls juggled in the air, each requiring attention, with the balls never falling to the ground—and then there is a cacophony that would be worrisome if it were not obviously part of the plan: a controlled chaos; a way of accepting all of experience: a way of expressing all experience.

Who can bring together the fragments of our perceptions—and of our experiences—but an artist? And to do it without words, but in a language of sound, is difficult.

Bobby Hutcherson’s “March Madness” was intended apparently as a light counterpoint to some of the collective’s other explorations but it is full of excitement and exploration too: there seems to be an end to the music and then there is a sudden renewal, a continuation—like breathing, like life.

The San Francisco Jazz Collective’s second anthology is also demanding and rewarding. The collective here is made up of Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphone, marimba), Joshua Redman (saxophones), Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Miguel Zenon (saxophone, flute), Isaac Smith (trombone), Renee Rosnes (piano), Matt Penman (bass), and Eric Harland (drums). The collective performs two John Coltrane songs right at the start: “Moment’s Notice” and “Naima.” The collective’s second set of recordings does not have—to my ears—the easy beauty of the collective’s first album. Nicholas Payton’s “Scrambled Eggs” has a more experimental edge than any prettiness, and it is exuberant. There are waves of sound of varying sizes and force on “Half Full,” a long, sometimes exhilarating piece composed by Redman. I like the bell-like sounds in Zenon’s “2 and 2” and imagine they are made by Bobby Hutcherson. “Crescent” has long lines of saxophone playing accompanied by cascading percussion—and it is lovely, nearly flowery; and it is a Coltrane piece that seems to have more than one high point. There is initially something tentative about Coltrane’s “Africa,” with small repeated vibraphone rhythms and a kind of rumbling percussion before the piece develops and then the piece seems to become very meditative. For me, the energy and sounds of Eric Harland’s “Development” conjured something tribal, something odd and old.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for, Hyphen,, Option, and, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has written also about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared inThe African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.