The SFJAZZ Collective are an eight-piece repertory jazz ensemble charged with creating new music through original compositions and rearrangements of the modernist repertoire. Highly organised, rhythmically disciplined and laden with improvising talent, they have built up an impressive body of work by concentrating on a specific composer each year since their formation in 2004 – Ornette Coleman and Stevie Wonder indicate their range.
This year, though, they’re celebrating their 10th anniversary with a rolling programme of tweaked back-catalogue highlights. This season curtain-raiser presented six revisited originals, a sparse arrangement of Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave” – a feature for Avishai Cohen’s spiky, brittle trumpet – and had Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” as a finale. The time signature was tricky, the soul of the original remained intact and there was a terrific roll-and-beats drum solo climax.
But pride of place fell to Thelonious Monk – the gig was on what would have been Monk’s 96th birthday – and here the Collective were at their best. Niggling phrases strode across the beat, finger-breaking lines fell at awkward moments and casual phrases turned into pivotal moments. Bassist Matt Penman’s arrangement of “Crepuscule with Nellie” captured the lean perfection and emotional weight of the original, with vibes taking the melody, brushes shuffling rhythmically underneath and hymnal horns playing the reprise. And alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s jaunty arrangement of “San Francisco Holiday” introduced a jagged double-time bridge while keeping Monk’s mischievous intent.
The body of the concert was made up of the tricky themes and webs of rhythm, shifts in time and showcase breaks of the six originals. Packed with incident, and with drummer Obed Calvaire and vibist Warren Wolf new to the band, there was a slight jangle of nerves between tunes. But themes were tight, soloists roared off the starting blocks, each composition bore the stamp of its composer and their encore was fully deserved.
Monk’s music was also the focus of a charming gig run in parallel in the SFJAZZ Center’s smaller Joe Henderson room, where pianist Si Perkoff led a quintet through a straight reading of the familiar Monk repertoire. Perkoff, who learnt from the source when Monk visited San Francisco in the 1960s, made it special with a lovely reading of “Round About Midnight”, delivering the angular poise of the original while maintaining his own identity.