SFJAZZ Collective Offers Fresh Take on Michael Jackson’s Music

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The SFJAZZ Collective performed the music of Michael Jackson at the Dakota in Minneapolis on April 3.

(Photo: Jay Blakesburg)

With the sound and energy one might expect from an 18-piece orchestra, the eight-piece SFJAZZ Collective played the music of Michael Jackson and original compositions in front of a packed house at the Dakota in Minneapolis on April 3, the first night of a two-night stint.

Several members of this versatile ensemble—alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, trombonist Robin Eubanks, tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Matt Penman, drummer Obed Calvaire and trumpeter Avishai Cohen (sitting in for the collective’s newest member, Sean Jones)—spoke passionately about Jackson’s profound influence and the impact of his music, which is presented on the band’s most recent album, The Music Of Michael Jackson And Original Compositions, released in March.

The SFJAZZ Collective has performed regularly at the Dakota since 2004, when the band started its first season and began touring. The collective, which features highly accomplished and adventurous musicians, has evolved over the years with frequent changes in personnel.

The collective opened the set with “The Love You Save” (a 1969 hit single by the Jackson 5) and closed with the encore “Human Nature” (a track from Jackson’s 1982 blockbuster album, Thriller).

The program also included original compositions that were written by Simon, Wolf and Zenón. All the music was delivered in an uncluttered way and with considerable power.

Recently, many artists from the world of jazz and beyond have performed and recorded Jackson’s music, but none have done so quite like this collective. Throughout the set, members shared their strong feelings about how and why they chose to write their own compositions in addition to the Jackson songs they had arranged. What those comments had in common was a feeling of sincere respect and admiration for Jackson as a true artist.

Whenever musicians interpret another artist’s body of work, they run the risk of sounding more like imitators than originators. The SFJAZZ Collective largely rose above that challenge, adding its own spin on this classic pop material in profoundly entertaining, memorable ways.

In recent years, a new, sophisticated audience for jazz has emerged, one with a ravenous appetite for innovation that is beyond provocative. The SFJAZZ Collective’s Dakota performance catered to such demands, and in doing so demonstrated that the definition of jazz is perpetually expanding.

Performing the music of legendary composers like Stevie Wonder, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane is what this collective does best. If the ultimate purpose of a tribute concert is to enhance iconic music in a striking way, then the SFJAZZ Collective achieved its goal. DB

(Note: To read about a new joint-degree program from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and SFJAZZ, click here.)