Launched in 2004 as an experiment with an intriguing, largely untested game plan and an eye-catching lineup of heavyweight improvisers, the SFJazz Collective now casts an imposing shadow that stretches all the way to New York City’s top clubs and far beyond.
Kicking off its 10th season Thursday at the SFJazz Center with a program celebrating Thelonious Monk on what would have been his 96th birthday, the leaderless eight-piece group explores the music of jazz’s greatest composers, while commissioning original compositions from each member.
In an art form largely defined by doggedly independent bandleaders, the collective posed a provocative question: Could an ensemble created by an institution from the ground up thrive as a genuinely vital entity?
The surest sign that the band has taken on a creative life of its own is that it continues to attract some of jazz’s most formidable players, like recent addition Obed Calvaire.
When word got out that he was taking over a drum chair founded by the inestimably talented Brian Blade, defined brilliantly by Eric Harland, and held briefly and most recently by the Brad Mehldau Trio’s insistently creative Jeff Ballard, Calvaire reports that his peers greeted him with “triumphant congratulations” as he entered the storied Greenwich Village jazz spot Smalls.
"It’s considered a real mark of accomplishment, like getting a gig with Miles or Chick Corea," Calvaire says.
Neck-deep in producing a dubstep album by Zimbabwe-raised saxophonist Max Wild when he got the call to join the collective, Calvaire had no time to write a new piece for the band.
Luckily, rather than dividing performances between the collective’s originals and a designated giant, the 10th season focuses on a mix of arrangements from past years, including works by Ornette Coleman, McCoy Tyner and Stevie Wonder. (Next year’s composer is the late, revered San Francisco tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson.)
For vibraphonist Warren Wolf, who makes his debut with the collective this week, joining the band “is like a torch being passed” on an instrument with only a handful of innovators.
It’s not that landing a collective spot is career making, but membership can confer enviable visibility and status. The group’s original elder statesman, vibes legend Bobby Hutcherson, gave the collective immediate gravitas as a founding member.
"Stefon Harris came next, and while he isn’t that much older than me, he was the cat in the late 1990s who gave the vibes new life," says Wolf, who also tours and records with his own band and bassist Christian McBride’s hard-swinging quintet Inside Straight. "When I put out the word on Facebook and Twitter that I was officially joining the collective, the reaction was immediate and intense. Everyone was so excited. This is one killin’ band."
If you go
The SFJazz Collective: 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Oct. 10)-Friday, 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. $15-$65. SFJazz Center, Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin St., S.F. (866) 920-5299. www.sfjazz.org.