Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón was part of the ensemble, launched by SFJazz, the nonprofit behind the annual San Francisco Jazz Festival, starting when he was just 27 years old. He's the youngest in the band. But after fifteen years with the group, Zenón is leaving after its spring tour to focus on independent projects.
The collective spotlights one modern composer per year and puts fresh arrangements on the music of jazz legends like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk and others, while also performing pieces that are commissioned by members of the band.
Saxophonist David Sánchez, who also grew up in Puerto Rico and joined the SFJazz Collective six years ago, played with Zenón in a different band in the early 2000s.
“I’ve known Miguel from the beginning,” Sánchez says. “I’ve never seen anybody working harder than him, you know, back then. And then moving on to much later, playing together again, I was certain that it was going to be just like it was before. We blend really well together. We just blend our sounds really well together, naturally. Not even forced. It just naturally happens. It was just comfortable.”
Not only are Sánchez and Zenón outstanding live, but the whole group works well as a unit, especially on a new album that drops April 5, which includes live recordings of songs by the great Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim as well as songs by each member in the group. The other musicians on the recording include trombonist Marshall Gilkes, trumpeter Etienne Charles, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Obed Calvaire.
Jobim was the first composer the collective paid homage to that wasn’t born in America.
“Clearly, he’s one of the most prolific and influential composers ever,” Sánchez says. “If there’s the fact that music is about sharing and inspiring and reaching out to people, he’s the biggest example, because all the entire world knows.”
Sánchez says the group’s arrangements of Jobim's music are interesting, because each of the twelve songs on the album are true to the compositions, while the musicians add their own voice.
Calvaire’s arrangement of one of Jobim’s most famous songs, “The Girl From Ipanema,” was inspired by a trip he made to Cuba last year, while Sánchez says in the liner notes that one of the reasons he chose “A Felicidade” “is its melancholic yet festive quality in the melodic line. The striking beauty of its lyrics was what dictated the cadence and flow of the arrangement. It recites the story of the poor, oppressed and marginalized, who save and prepare for a whole year to enjoy and liberate themselves at Carnaval season.”
While some SFJazz Collective players grew up in America, Sánchez and Zenón share Puerto Rican roots, while Charles is from Trinidad, Simon is from Venezuela, and Calvaire, a Miami native, is of Haitian decent.
“Basically, all around, we’re really diverse, not only in terms of where they come from, but music-wise, there is a lot of flexibility, of being exposed to different people, to different ways of playing music,” Sánchez says. “When you put an ensemble and put a group of people with kind of the same experience that they have gone through playing different styles of music, that’s what you get. People are able to assimilate easier with some of the music.
“Diversity is a plus and adds a lot. It brings a lot into the ensemble in a big way. There are lots of different textures, because the musicianship level is high," says Sánchez. "It’s at a certain level. So everybody can actually assimilate everyone’s approach to music. It’s a certain level, so that makes it easier, of course, even though people bring their different approaches to music.”
SFJazz Collective, 6:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday, April 6, and Sunday, April 7, Dazzle, 1512 Curtis Street, $20-$60.