As the leader of a well-known jazz quartet, saxophone virtuoso Miguel Zenón is used to basking in the spotlight and calling the shots. But his work with the eight-member SFJAZZ Collective — an ever-evolving, democratically chosen group of top jazz artists — is more akin to what he did while making his bones in the business: blending in and providing support. Being, in essence, a sideman.
And he’s just fine with that. In fact, Zenón believes his involvement with SFJAZZ, based at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, helps him maintain a sort of creative equilibrium.
“I won’t go as far as saying I’m going to go crazy if I only play with my own group,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s definitely great to have that balance. For me, it’s essential in terms of my development and what I do as a musician to not play as the leader all the time and to be able to just step back and step into someone else’s conceptual idea and see how you can find your way through.” (The current lineup consists of tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, trumpeter Sean Jones, trombonist Robin Eubanks, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Obed Calvaire.)
Since the group’s founding in 2004, the SFJAZZ Collective has interpreted the music of such giants as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman and Chick Corea. The octet, which will perform May 5 on a SCP Jazz Series double bill with violinist Regina Carter, has even covered tunes by pop stars Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Still, it’s far from a cover band.
“For the most part, our approach is to really try and capture the original spirit of the compositions, but also inject them with some of our personality,” Zenón said. “Because that’s the whole point.”
Each year, the SFJAZZ Collective creates and performs eight new works and eight new arrangements of compositions by an honored artist. This season, the group is saluting Miles Davis. In highlighting the iconic trumpeter, the group’s main challenge was touching on every phase of his long and stylistically disparate career that spanned numerous cultural eras and encompassed everything from so-called cool jazz and modal music to rock and funk.
“His music evolved very rapidly,” Zenón said. “If you listen to his music from the late ’40s and ’50s, it’s very different from his music from the ’60s and ’70s. The key here was trying to find things that represented all the different periods of his repertoire. But also, you’re trying to be conscious of the original spirit of the composition while at the same time projecting the personality of the arranger and the band itself. So it’s always a challenge to do stuff like this, especially when you’re approaching things that might be familiar to certain listeners. You’re trying to give them a new experience while using this information they already know as a platform.”
Based in New York, Zenón spends most of the year composing, teaching as part of the New England Conservatory’s jazz faculty and performing — typically at venues far more intimate than Symphony Center, such as Chicago’s Jazz Showcase, where he gigged in March — with his own tight-knit ensemble. The group’s 10th album, “Típico” (Miel Music), came out in February and earned rave reviews.
While success and recognition can boost a career, they can also cause stasis. Zenón knows this and is determined to keep growing artistically, despite the flattering accolades that continue to come his way. SFJAZZ is an integral part of that growth.
“For me, the trick is not to be content with what you’re doing, not to get too comfortable, and always be on the lookout for things that you can do better,” he said.
“The last thing I want to do is be satisfied.”
Mike Thomas is a Chicago-based arts writer and novelist.
TOP: The SFJAZZ Collective (from left) consists of pianist Edward Simon, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, trombonist Robin Eubanks, bassist Matt Penman, trumpeter Sean Jones, and tenor saxophonist David Sánchez. | Photo: Jay Blakesberg/SFJAZZ