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Mission: Commitment

The San Francisco Jazz Collective is still paying props.


 The Modlin Center performance by the leaderless San Francisco Jazz Collective is easily the leading event of the fall 2010 jazz season. Since its formation in 2004, the octet yearly brings together a set of current and future first-call players for an egalitarian celebration of the work of a major musician. This year's tour focuses on hard-bop pianist Horace Silver. Past honorees include John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Herbie Hancock.

The approach requires a high level of commitment; every player contributes one original and one arrangement to the year's repertoire. Inevitably, when drawing from prominent players, the lineup has changed over the years. "I am pretty much the one person who has been there every year," says alto saxophonist (and 2009 McArthur genius grant winner) Miguel Zenon. "I think the idea of the band from the beginning was to have a collective … wasn't really a leader. … Everyone could be a leader … everyone building originals and arrangements. [In the] last three to four years, [I] started to understand best way … and audiences started to see we are going for full-on democracy. That's what makes this band very different, and very special." 

The 2010 all-star lineup features vibraphonist Stefon Harris, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Edward Simon, trombonist Luis Bonilla, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Matt Penmen and drummer Eric Harland. All are leaders in their own right who dedicate a few weeks out of their careers to assembling this annual tour.

"It's always like a six-week residency," Harland says. "A week and a half of rehearsals so we can get to the point where we can really play the music, then four weeks of touring."  The drummer, who established a reputation for dynamic and responsive behind headliners such as Joshua Redman, McCoy Tyner and especially Charles Lloyd, believes the purpose of rehearsal is not perfection but being comfortable enough with the music to take chances. "You are not allowing yourself to play if you don't allow yourself to make mistakes," he says.

Zenon concurs. "You have to judge [a performance] in terms of what you are going for musically. … There are certain things that you rehearse, certain things you want to happen within a piece." In the end the technical aspects of the performance are only half the story. "You feel whether the music got through to the audience or not. If we did, even if sometimes the music may not be at its highest level, then that is a success."

With a group of this caliber of virtuosity, errors detectable to a nonprofessional listener are rare. But the camaraderie is obvious. "For me personally," Harland says, "[the appeal] is the ability for everyone to think in one mind. We come out in unison and meet in this zone of communication. It's just like everybody's ego is set aside, and we let the organicness of the music take over. Music has that ability," he promises, "If you let it."

The San Francisco Jazz Collective will perform at the Modlin Center on Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $34. For information, go to


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