For the past 15 years, the SFJAZZ Collective has performed music that is as deeply rooted in tradition as it is forward-thinking. Their reworkings of such classics as Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and jazz standards such as Miles Davis’ “All Blues” blur the lines between jazz and other music, though they exhibit levels of technicality, expressiveness and overall musicianship that are often associated with the former. More than a few world-class musicians—including Brian Blade, Bobby Hutcherson and Mark Turner—have been members of and contributed original compositions to the leaderless group.
The collective essentially functions around seasons at the SFJAZZ Center in—you guessed it—San Francisco. Many members of the group’s continuously evolving lineup are based in other parts of the country, but each fall, they convene in San Francisco for a multiweek rehearsal, during which they rearrange the works they’ve decided to pay tribute to for that season and learn one another’s compositions.
This year, the SFJAZZ Collective welcomed its first guitarist, Adam Rogers, as well as its first vocalist, Martin Luther McCoy. A well-seasoned musician and San Francisco native, McCoy is both enthusiastic and slightly tentative about this new endeavor. “I’m not the jazziest of jazz dudes, [one who] knows all the scenes and all the stuff—not at all,” he says. “So once I was aware of them, I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m gonna be rocking with the SFJazz Collective,’ but it did manifest into that. And now it’s like, ‘Well, shit, what the fuck am I going to do with them cats?’ Because them motherfuckers is bad, right? Super-superior, baddest-on-the-planet-type bad. I make mistakes in all of my shows, so it’ll be a collision.”
That’s not to say that McCoy isn’t a good fit for the group. McCoy has already enjoyed a long and fruitful music career, touring extensively with legendary hip-hop/neo-soul group and current The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon house band the Roots. He started his own record label, Rebel Soul Music, and released three solo albums. In 2007, he played “Jo-Jo” in the musical film Across the Universe. So while this season marks the first time the SFJAZZ Collective will feature a vocalist, it also marks McCoy’s first venture into jazz. “I’m assuming they have an idea of what you would do with a singer,” McCoy says. “But if not, I’ll easily be able to insert where I think it’s appropriate. . . . I’m not necessarily looking for a new band, but what I’m looking to do is to add value to what they do, which is so extraterrestrial. Now, I might bring it down to earth a little bit. Or, we might get together and realize that we’re not interested in doing anything that you’ve ever heard before. . . . I’m open to that exploration.”
The SFJAZZ Collective will be paying tribute to Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way and Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand! this season. On the surface, the two 50-year-old works are very different albums. But other than their age, what other similarities might a fluid, ambient, jazz-fusion album and a psychedelic funk staple share? “That’d be a good question to ask Betty Davis, wouldn’t it?” McCoy answers.
He has a point. Many music historians view the funk and soul singer, who was briefly married to Miles Davis, as a sort of missing link between jazz and rock music. In the few years of their relationship, Betty introduced Miles to the music of Jimi Hendrix, the Chambers Brothers and Sly Stone, inspiring him to pursue a new musical direction. This culminated in Davis’ landmark fusion album, Bitches Brew, which enraged jazz purists and influenced generations to come.
In a Silent Way is the contemplative precursor to Bitches Brew. Its emphasis on the electric piano, which was frequently used by Sly and the Family Stone, set it apart from nearly every other jazz record at the time. Both it and Stand! were groundbreaking, each inspiring a plethora of copycats and artists who made careers from expanding on the ideas Davis and Stone presented.
These albums were crafted with the same progressive spirit the SFJAZZ Collective thrives on. Since there are no lyrics on In a Silent Way, it will be particularly interesting to see what McCoy adds to those compositions, whether it be rap, spoken word or something else entirely. “I think that bringing me into the mix brings a potential hip-hop element,” he says.
The SFJAZZ Collective will pay tribute to these milestone albums not only by playing the music, but also by pushing the same kind of boundaries. Much like Miles Davis, the established jazzman who completely switched gears in the middle of his career, and Sly Stone, the visionary songwriter who carried a violin case full of illegal drugs with him, the SFJAZZ Collective is innovative and bold. For McCoy, this is what made both Davis’ and Stone’s music timeless.
“I mean, [Sly and the Family Stone’s] ‘Don’t Call Me N—–, Whitey’—how much more unapologetic can you be?” he says. “How more black and more white at the same time can you be? How more America can you be? Because it doesn’t answer the question. It doesn’t satisfy the angst of the oppressor, who wants to see nothing but darkness for the oppressed. It doesn’t satisfy the desire of the oppressed, who want to get the foot of the oppressor off their neck. It doesn’t settle anything. But the badassness is the sizzle. You can feel it in the groove. It’s just like it’s cookin’. It’s in your face.”
SFJAZZ Collective perform at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; scfta.org. Fri., Oct. 25, 8 p.m. $39-$119. All ages.