Dispatch from the road

Blogging has difficult lately. Lots of travel, difficult connections, plus the challenge of learning and performing a lot of new music.

Here’s the view from inside the 2007 San Francisco Jazz Collective. This isn’t a review or a snarky kiss-and-tell — it has been hard to figure out how to write this up because I have so much respect and admiration for everyone in the band. It’s a blast playing with them.

I’m writing this post in hopes that you will come out to hear the band if you are anywhere near where we are playing. No New York, Boston, or other East Coast dates this year, but we’re in the Midwest right now and will be in Europe this summer.

The most astounding thing about this band, for me, is the chance to learn everyone’s music. Bobby Hutcherson is SO swinging, such a good groove, such a fantastic humorist. I feel lucky to be playing with him — such a great spirit and a beautiful presence. Every note is magic. Joshua told me before I joined that Bobby is ‘the soul of the band.’ Now I can see why he said that. He brings deep experience to each piece we play and makes the notes ring true.

Most people who know me know that I’m interested in languages. The language of music in particular, and the diversity in the basic grammar as redefined by each person’s writing.

This band is polyglot. The logic of Miguel Zenon’s ‘Life At The End Of The Tunnel,’ deep in polyrhythm and shifting subdivisions, is in a different country from the driving up-tempo swing figures Renee Rosnes’s ‘Lion’s Gate.’ Both are wonderful pieces, and played back to back they make a statement about the many different ways forward in music.

Someone in Hong Kong remarked about Eric Harland’s piece, ‘Unity,’ that some of the textures sounded like they were inspired by Balinese music. Eric uses interlocking rhythmic and melodic patterns to create a soulful vibe that floats along on the constantly evolving pulse of his endlessly inventive drumming.

And then there’s Matt Penman’s ‘Haast Pass’ with a deceptively simple melody in 9/8 that breaks up the time in witty and unpredictable ways. Took me a while to figure out how to play this melody… (Sorry, Matt…) Andre Heyward’s contribution is ‘Peace Offering,’ with swinging contrapuntal lines and a soulful vamp section.

The band is playing the stuffing out of my piece, ‘San Francisco Suite.’ I wanted to write something with Bay Area associations in mind, and something for this specific band, instrumentation and players.

The first part is called ‘Alcatraz,’ kind of a descriptive/programmatic piece thinking about the view from the Bay Bridge, and the feeling of all the movies I’ve seen about the place. I had never been there, but my brother-in-law, Tom Ryan, is a published Alcatraz specialist and national parks guide. He gave Suzannah, Miguel, and I a behind the scenes tour.

The second part is called ‘Amoeba,’ reflecting the feeling of wonder and discovery that I’ve always had at the enormous record stores. I found out a lot about music at both Amoeba stores, in Berkeley and in San Francisco, and spent a lot of time (and money…) there, wandering among the stacks and parting with good cash dollars…

The final section, ‘Assisi,’ is for my favorite saint, and the patron of San Fran, St. Francis.

We’re also playing a lot of Monk.

Brilliant Corners and Oska T arranged by Renee,
San Francisco Holiday (Worry Later) and Epistrophy arranged by Miguel,
Ugly Beauty and Bye-ya arranged by Joshua Redman,
Bright Mississippi and Crepuscule With Nellie arranged by Matt,
I Mean You arranged by Eric,
Criss Cross, Hornin In, and Reflections, arranged by yours truly.

It’s a unique band — coming out of many viewpoints, looking backward to move forward, uniting behind openness and a willingness to work on making each new direction work. The way the band was founded by SFJAZZ is also unique — an institution deciding to form an ensemble dedicated to original music and new visions of music by the masters. The acknowledgement that this is a living, breathing, GROWING art form. That’s all too rare — new music as repertory.

Joshua Redman deserves a lot of the credit for making this work. He’s an astounding saxophonist and standing next to him every night is a real inspiration. He has been the musical director of this Collective from the beginning, and he’s doing a remarkable job balancing everyone’s compositions and arrangements, getting everything rehearsed and played, getting everyone appropriate solo space. With eight soloists that’s no easy task. In a way, this band is his brainchild, and its collective nature has taken a lot of dedication and perseverance.

I can’t think of another band like it, and the performances are extremely powerful as all of the different languages get expressed. Every player in the band is committed to playing each moment fully, everyone commits to voicing the idea of the composer, and each of us works to make each moment as excellent as it can be.

There will be a recording of this music somewhere down the line. But catch the live show if you can.