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The SFJAZZ Collective: Where Pop Meets Jazz

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Words like “cool” and “smooth” have come to be associated with West Coast Jazz, thanks to the late-40s and early-50s surge in popularity of a particularly Californian version. But the music of the SFJAZZ Collective, who perform at Massey Hall on Saturday, April 23, is of a different sort than that which came to be defined by folks like Stan Getz and Chet Baker.

You might say they’re the West Coast version of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra – who are no strangers to us, having visited Massey Hall four times in the last five years, and who will return to Toronto for the Jazz Festival in late June. The JLCO also showcases the work of major composers – in addition to members’ compositions – in order to entertain, enrich and expand the community. Like the JLCO, the Collective is committed to jazz as a living, ever-relevant art form, but the Collective expands the range of composers whose work they honour beyond jazz, and that’s what sets them apart from other ensembles.

The group’s repertoire honours the history of jazz while championing its trajectory, interested in not only where it’s going, but where it can go – and their journey takes them to what may seem like strange places. Their set list for each season is always a combination of new pieces by Collective members alongside the “compositions by a modern master.” The catch is their definition of “master.” While many of the names on their list of past masters will be familiar to jazz heads and novices alike – Chick Corea, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter and more – there are a couple of names that stick out, namely Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. While arguing with the label of “master” in these two instances would be futile, what’s so interesting about these choices is their distance – or so it would seem – from the jazz realm.

Jazz has never shied away from pop, and there has been, throughout jazz’s history, clear examples of how a great pop song can live on in various guises. Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, who performed at Massey Hall in the fall of 2015, has made it their business to transform current hits via a golden-era-of-jazz vibe, to much acclaim. Indeed, going back to the period where Bradlee finds his inspiration, as Herbie Hancock put it: “What was the pop music in the ‘20s and ‘30s? It was called jazz.”

Jazz being informed by outside influences has a long history: A tune like “Summertime,” one of Billie Holiday’s best-known, was a version of the Gershwin/Heyward song written for Porgy and Bess. The power of the jazz filter is evident in the way the song has become a standard. Jazz artists throughout the decades have looked to popular music – and, in the process, taught us a huge amount about not only the source material, but about their own artistry as well.

Examples abound, and make for a fun trip down a musical rabbit hole (here is a great starting point): Dave Brubeck’s My Favorite Things featured the music of Broadway composer Richard Rodgers; rock and pop tunes are featured on Nina Simone’s Here Comes the Sun; Ella Fitzgerald sang the Cream classic “Sunshine of Your Love” – the list goes on. And swings.

More recently, Herbie Hancock, the Bad Plus, Robert Glasper, The Thing, Brad Mehldau and more have recorded inventive and reinvigorated versions of music as varied as ABBA, Nirvana, Black Sabbath, the White Stripes and more. And Steve Reich, another boundary-bursting artist coming to Massey Hall on April 14, took on Radiohead – a popular source for jazz covers – when he composed Radio Rewrite in 2012. Meanwhile, our own “house band,” the 15-piece “alternative big-band” Massey Hall Band, is devoted to reinventing some of our country’s favourite music, from A Tribe Called Red to Gordon Lightfoot and all points between and beyond (check them out during their 3-month residency at the Rivoli).

The SFJAZZ Collective’s only studio album, Wonder: The Songs of Stevie Wonder, raids the innovative pop musician’s catalogue, with some of his most popular tunes alongside deep cuts. Like this one:

On their current tour, which rolls up to Massey Hall on Saturday April 23, the group is performing songs from across the career of Michael Jackson, with creative takes on the pop cannon via Latin, swing, electronic music and more. Here’s a taste of what you might expect: