Great jazz outwits the disciplines, touching on the conventions of more traditional musical genres without allowing its essence to be captured or defined. To succeed in this evasion, the music does follow some rules, but they are the kind of rules one might expect in modern art. In the formulation of the 20th-century American poet Wallace Stevens, there are three main requirements—“It must be abstract,” “It must change,” and “It must give pleasure.” Jazz, when it’s played right, represents a perfect balance of Stevens’s three elements, and no group in contemporary music better exemplifies this than the SFJAZZ Collective, who will be here on Thursday, October 17, at UCSB’s Campbell Hall as part of the Arts & Lectures program.
The group got started a decade ago with a simple concept — each year, eight top players would be given the time and financial support necessary to prepare and execute a thorough set of charts revealing the genius of one of the modern masters of jazz composition. Alongside these commissioned arrangements of work by such artists as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and Chick Corea, each member of the group would also have the opportunity to write a commissioned original in the spirit of that season’s repertoire.
Ten years in and both in quantity and quality, the brilliant material laid down by the SFJAZZ Collective has reached a tipping point. With amazing multiple CD sets devoted to Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, and even Stevie Wonder, the group has decided to use the occasion of their decade anniversary to look back, take stock, and recommit to the task of bringing the heart of the modern jazz repertoire to audiences all over the world. Instead of taking on a new composer for the 10th-anniversary season tour, the collective will use this year to either revisit the classic compositions that they have reinvented through new arrangements or to celebrate the most compelling original compositions written by members of the group. This “best of SFJAZZ” format guarantees that on any given night of the 2013 tour, the band will stomp through some of the most majestically swinging and memorable music ever written for an improvising ensemble.
Part of the fun in following SFJAZZ over the years has been observing the flow of players in and out of the group and listening for the changes that new musicians bring to the sound. Ever since their decision in 2008 to become a truly leaderless democracy, the group’s already vibrant musical personality has become even more rambunctious and unpredictable. One reason for the earthy, almost gutbucket quality that has come in recently is the impact of the top trombone player in jazz today, Robin Eubanks. A veteran arranger, Eubanks also performs with and arranges for the legendary bandleader/bassist Dave Holland as well as his own projects. On the collective’s 2013 recording of the music of Chick Corea, Eubanks contributed two outstanding numbers, a sophisticated original composition called “Shifting Centers” and a brash, combustible arrangement of Corea’s “Space Circus.”
When I spoke with Eubanks recently by phone, he was teaching at a music academy in the Netherlands and enjoying the first part of a sabbatical from Oberlin College, where he is a member of the faculty. While acknowledging that this year is “an anomaly” in that there won’t be any new compositions or arrangements added to the group’s book, Eubanks expressed enthusiasm for the current configuration and excitement about the tour, which kicked off last week with four nights in San Francisco. He said that he enjoyed working on the music of Chick Corea last year, and that the influence of his work with SFJAZZ would soon overflow into two personal projects — a set of charts from his work with the collective and with the Dave Holland big band, and some new arrangements of such classic rock songs as Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” and Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”
SFJAZZ Collective will be at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, October 17, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.