With New Ensemble Members, SFJAZZ Collective Builds a Bigger Tent

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​The SFJAZZ Collective has added two new members to its ensemble: vocalist Martin Luther McCoy and guitarist Adam Rogers.

(Photo: Jay Blakesberg)

Speaking by phone from his hometown of San Francisco, vocalist Martin Luther McCoy expressed excitement and a touch of nervousness about venturing into new artistic territory as a member of the SFJAZZ Collective.

McCoy and guitarist Adam Rogers are the newest members of the leaderless, shape-shifting ensemble. For 15 years, the band has toured the country as ambassadors of the SFJAZZ organization, a nonprofit whose place in the Bay Area’s artistic firmament began in the early ’80s with a two-day jazz festival. Soon McCoy—the first vocalist in the group’s history—will help shape its new season and an accompanying live album dedicated to a double-pronged 50th anniversary celebration of Miles Davis’ fusion landmark In A Silent Way and Sly & The Family Stone’s funk-rock masterpiece Stand.

“The idea of taking these classic recordings and doing something unique that reflects the personalities of everybody in the group at a given time, which of course has been a wide swath of musicians—it’s super cool to me,” Rogers said. “I’m of a generation that grew up listening to Sly Stone. A lot of the tunes on that record are part of my listening DNA, and playing too.”

McCoy, who has an r&b and soul background—having worked with The Roots, as well as Sanford Biggers’ multimedia ensemble Moon Medicin—is open-minded about the musical assignment that lies ahead: “I look at what they’ve done and I just marvel at it because I was not largely aware of the SFJAZZ Collective until the last year or two. And they’ve been doing this for a while.”

Indeed, since its inception in 2004, the Collective has served as a mobile outreach effort designed to bridge the gap between SFJAZZ and the rest of the country. The group’s lineup has changed numerous times, at various points including among its members vibraphone legend Bobby Hutcherson (1941–2016), saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and drummer Brian Blade, to name a few. Just as the Collective has gone through various evolutions, so too has its sponsoring organization.

In January 2013, the $64 million, 35,000-square-foot SFJAZZ Center opened to great fanfare as the first performing arts development designed exclusively for jazz. Along with two performance spaces—the 700-seat Robert N. Miner Auditorium and the 100-seat Joe Henderson Lab—the center has multiple classrooms, rehearsal spaces and an accompanying restaurant. Located in the city’s rapidly gentrifying Hayes Valley neighborhood, SFJAZZ Center is part of a vibrant performing-arts hub that includes the Herbst Theatre and Davies Symphony Hall. But for all the ambition on display, the center’s launch didn’t immediately constitute a boom across the city’s jazz scene.

“It’s definitely a thriving center, and I understand their shows are maybe 90 percent sold out,” said pianist Edward Simon, who along with McCoy are the only two members of the Collective who reside in the Bay Area. “But at the same time, I think the year that it opened, the only other ... prominent jazz club in San Francisco was the Yoshi’s in San Francisco. And that closed down [in 2014].”

Still, at a time when contraction had become the norm in jazz, the SFJAZZ Center marked an ambitious moment of expansion. And the Collective continues working toward extending the organization’s reach. “The idea of playing arrangements of contemporary jazz masters was to educate the audience, introduce people to these jazz composers and their work, and at the same time to bring new compositions to continue to expand the repertoire,” Simon said. “So, the music keeps moving forward.”

When the SFJAZZ Collective began, arranging duties were handled by Gil Goldstein. But as time went on, the band opened up the arrangements to its members, which allowed for a more forward-looking emphasis in tackling classic material. “We don’t try to look back and do it the same way they did it or try to replicate what was done before,” said Simon, who has been with the group since 2012. “We’re really trying to look forward and bring it to a more current sound.”

With Rogers and returning members David Sánchez (saxophone), Etienne Charles (trumpet), Warren Wolf (vibraphone), Matt Brewer (bass) and Obed Calvaire (drums) scattered around the country, the eight-piece Collective soon will assemble at the SFJAZZ Center to hash out their interpretations of two disparate collections. Both albums were forged in the tumult of the late ’60s, but in Rogers’ mind, the music shares more than an anniversary.

“These two records are both seminally influential records in my life,” he said by phone in New York. “The similarity between the music on In A Silent Way and Stand is less [apparent than the music on Miles Davis’ 1971 album] Jack Johnson and Stand, but you can hear nuanced relationships.”

The Collective’s previous album tributes, released through SFJAZZ’s own imprint, have included some expected targets from the jazz canon, such as Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. But the Collective also has offered hard-swung, intricately drawn reimaginings of the music of Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and, most recently, Antônio Carlos Jobim.

“One of the eligibility requirements to be in the group, at least from my perspective, is you have to be not just a great player but also someone who can write, who can compose, who has a voice as a composer and arranger,” said Calvaire, who joined the group in 2013. “It really helps to bring some definition to the sound of the band when you have people like that in the group.”

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