IN CONCERT: Jazz with a Mission, Continued - SFJAZZ COLLECTIVE RETURNS TO SANTA BARBARA THURSDAY AT CAMPBELL HALL FOR THE FIRST LOCAL SHOW SINCE 2010
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: UCSB Campbell Hall
Cost: $25-40 general, $18 for UCSB students
Information: 893-3535, artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu
It is fair to say that there are two major, institutionally based jazz groups in these United States, on the East and West Coast, respectively. Jazz at Lincoln Center has admirably created a viable organization and flagship, Wynton Marsalis-steered big band with a solid home base on Columbus Circle. Out West, we have the stellar, inspired “little big band” known as the SJFAZZ Collective, launched out of the San Francisco Jazz Festival a decade ago and, as of just this year, with a formidable, $64 million new building and performance space in the heart of San Francisco’s high culture zone — where it belongs.
Say what you will about the frustratingly fragile state of jazz in America, its birthplace, but these organizations play with might, fight the good artistic fight, and thankfully, have filtered through Santa Barbara on a fairly regular basis. Earlier this year, UCSB Arts & Lectures presented JALC at The Granada, as the one, token jazz show of the last concert season. Next Thursday at Campbell Hall, A&L’s single jazz show of the current season brings a return visit from SFJAZZ, by now a respected and entrenched idea whose time has more than come in jazz.
SFJAZZ is no stranger to these parts, having played Campbell Hall in the early days, when saxist Joshua Redman was the bandleader (it’s now a democratically guided ensemble), and also at the Lobero Theatre, when the line-up briefly included legends Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas. Other longstanding regulars in the ranks include the great alto saxist Miguel Zen?n, a MacArthur Genius Grantee, trombone great Robin Eubanks, pianist Edward Simon, tenor saxist David S?nchez, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, and drummer Obed Calvaire.
In addition to the band’s original charts, they embark on collective projects arranging music of notable jazz composers, so far including Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane — and style-transcendent Stevie Wonder. Most recently, the tribute subject was Chick Corea.
We checked in with longstanding SFJAZZ Collective bassist Matt Penman, a New Zealander in NYC who is now considered among the finer bassists on the jazz scene. The band was on a break from rehearsal — in the new compound — as Mr. Penman filled us in on the expanding universe of SFJAZZ.
News-Press: It is always a pleasure to hear the SFJAZZ Collective, and I’m happy that Santa Barbara has been a stopping place several times over the past decade. (I believe this is the fourth or fifth time down here.) Is this a group that thrives on playing live and bringing the sound to an audience, and also maybe spreading a musical gospel about the vitality of live jazz?
Matt Penman: I think the Collective loves to play, and needs to play live to really work out its sound, year after year, as new compositions and arrangements come in — there is really nothing like putting the music on the stage and seeing if it works in front of an audience. We have to set up a situation where we can feel the people responding directly and sometimes it’s trial and error — and of course with improvisation, it’s going to be a musical response to a different situation every night. We do love bringing our music to different parts of the country and abroad, and have been lucky in recent years to go to heretofore undiscovered (by us) parts.
It’s always exciting to see that there are fans of the music wherever we go, and people seem grateful that we got there. Anytime you play a good concert, you’re helping the music, and we go a lot of places, so I guess you could say we’re spreading the gospel of live, current jazz.
NP: As someone in the ranks since 2005, you are one of the relative “old-timers” in the group. Have you seen the group evolve and go through different phases along the path thus far?
MP: As someone who came in in the second year of the band’s existence, 2005, I’ve seen a lot of evolution and change. There’s been both considerable consistency and change in the band’s personnel over the years, and everyone has a strong musical personality, so obviously that creates flux.
But I think the most important point in the band’s journey thus far has been when we decided to have no artistic director and attempt a true musical democracy. That was in 2008, and we haven’t looked back once. The fact that all of us are equally responsible for the music both on and off the stage helps to bring out the best in everyone, and is one of the things that makes this band unique.
NP: Is there a sense in the organization of it being both an “organization,” with some institutional ties and parameters, but also a collective group in which the members at a given time help to define and steer the group?
MP: We do feel that we represent SFJAZZ, as well as at the same time representing the music of jazz, the composers we interpret and honor, and ourselves. This band would not have happened without their ongoing support, and I definitely view our relationship as a partnership. There are many issues that we discuss among the musicians and the organization to find the best way forward, and many different priorities to juggle and take into account, as you can imagine.
NP: Your latest project, and point of compositional reference, is Chick Corea — a great and exciting album, by the way. How was this project different from other tributes you’ve done thus far? Was there some element of the transformation of “fusion” energy into the language of a large jazz ensemble, for instance?
MP: Doing Chick’s music was a natural fit for the band — he has always been an extraordinarily curious musician, and someone that fused elements of all the musics around him to make his own, and this is similar to the way we all think. He’s just been so present throughout the modern jazz era from the late sixties on — the majority of us grew up listening to him and many of his tunes have become classics of the jazz repertoire.
NP: It seems like this size and format of a band is ideal in the sense of scale and textural variety — the “little big band” approach to an ensemble, while also having a smaller, combo-style. Do you appreciate that aspect of the operation?
MP: The advantage to a configuration like ours is the ability to play big band-like colors and at the same time function as a small group. It gives us many harmonic and orchestration possibilities, but we continue to approach everything with a combo mentality — it still has to have spontaneity and the ability to turn on a dime.
NP: Among your own other projects is the band James Farm, with former SJFAZZ members Joshua Redman and Eric Harland. Overall, would you say your work with SFJAZZ has been rewarding on multiple levels, in terms of a solid gig, musicality, and as a group with a mission?
MP: My time with the Collective has been fantastic. I’ve made, and deepened, many musical and personal connections through the band, and have learned so much in playing and writing for this line-up. It’s hard to say whether James Farm came out of the Collective — it was definitely the first time I played with Josh Redman, and Eric Harland and I for sure established ourselves as a rhythm section through our time there. I would say it undoubtedly contributed to the creation of that band, yes.
NP: SFJAZZ had the huge boon of opening its new headquarters/performance space, the SFJAZZ Center, earlier this year — which I have yet to check out, but need to, pronto. This is a rare thing on the West Coast, and in the U.S. at large, isn’t it?
MP: The SFJAZZ Center is amazing. Here you have a venue that’s been designed specifically for jazz with excellent acoustics that for once did not have classical music as their first priority. Also it’s not too big, with a maximum capacity of around 700. This and the position of the stage near the floor ensure that it feels quite intimate, no matter how little you paid for your seat.
The Collective has its own room for rehearsing (that we’re making use of right now) that is visible from the street, inviting people in, rather than shuttering the music away, and it has a very good restaurant. What more do you need? It’s in a very cool neighborhood and down the road from the symphony and the opera, so SFJAZZ has once and for all established itself as a major player in the cultural scene of San Francisco and the U.S.