Note: Due to the COVID-19 heath crisis, this concert has been canceled. Tickets may be exchanged for other CSO/SCP concerts or refunded. More options and additional information can be found at cso.org or by calling Symphony Center at (312) 294-3000.
When the SFJAZZ Collective returns to Symphony Center, it will bring along a couple of stellar vocalists: the Grammy Award-winning Dee Dee Bridgewater and former Roots member Martin Luther McCoy. In an SCP Jazz program March 21 that celebrates the 50th anniversaries of funk-soul-rock pioneers Sly & The Family Stone’s wildly successful album “Stand!” and jazz giant Miles Davis’ landmark fusion release “In a Silent Way,” the group will put its own stamp on a pair of genre-defining works.
The first vocalist on SFJC’s official roster since its founding in 2004, McCoy emphasized his admiration for Davis’ work — particularly the more melodic material like “Kind of Blue” and “Miles Ahead,” as well as “In a Silent Way,” which features a veritable Mount Rushmore of jazz in Davis, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette. But McCoy, 49, has a special love for Sly Stone, because the talented and troubled star’s music and messages speak to him personally. That’s been the case for decades, ever since McCoy, a native San Franciscan, was a kid in the 1970s and ’80s. “There’s a certain gritty reality in his music and his lyrical presentation,” McCoy says.
And there’s no need to play a role or assume a certain attitude when he’s interpreting the group’s songs, McCoy believes. Growing up, he was imbued with a strong black identity (down to his namesake, America’s foremost civil rights leader); it gave him an intimate understanding of the mind that brought the funk, soothed the soul and as with the hit 1971 single “Family Affair,” delved into darkness.
“You had to clean up the house, you had to step over drug addicts on your way down and go to school,” he says of the San Francisco of that era. “You might not have been able to wash or have breakfast that morning. And when somebody said something about you, you had to react or respond. And those things came out in dance steps. Those things came out in the way we used language in raps. They came out in the way we wore our hats on our head or the way we laced our shoes. With Sly’s music, you could hear that he was [drawing on] all of these influences that are particularly unique to being black and American.”
McCoy’s natural singing ability, a “gift” he never takes for granted and loves to share, was a product of his environment as well. His father, a cop, sang. His mother sang. His sister sang. His grandmother sang. It was in the genes and undeniable.
“When I was a kid, my father used to tell me, ‘If people ask you to sing, sing. You have that gift for a reason,’ ” McCoy recalls. “‘So don’t shy away from the opportunity to use it, because you never know how it’s going to impact someone else.’”
“And so when I do this, when I get onstage and make it to certain points in my career as a singer,” he adds, “I have all this weight behind me.”
Because of that, interpreting the music of legends like Sly and the Family Stone and Miles Davis is more technically challenging than it is nerve-racking or emotionally daunting. As a longtime solo artist, McCoy admits he’s used to just doing his thing. Dealing with a flurry of time and key signature changes, not to mention someone else’s arrangements (he’ll do his own, too), means relinquishing a measure of artistic control. But he’s fine with that, because it’s all for the greater good. And, he says, it will be good.
“We’re paying homage to some of the greatest music ever recorded, and we’re doing the best job we can with it,” he says. “But it doesn’t come with a ‘hopefully you’ll appreciate this’ or a ‘may I have your permission to do this?’ We don’t approach it like that at all. You’ll see what we’re doing. Come on in and enjoy it. It’s going to be a good time, I guarantee you that.”