A multi-cultural potpourri of veteran educators, San Jose Jazz’s touring ensemble is not only exporting Silicon Valley’s jazz sensibility. It’s also an organic reflection of the region’s status as a cultural melting pot.
On the flight home from Taiwan this past September, all members of SJZ Collective had their calendars open, eagerly scheming when they’d next be able to join forces. They were still brimming with excitement and wonder from the level of interplay they’d achieved at the tail end of their second Asian tour.
“One magical thing that happens for groups that go on the road is that, usually after the third day of playing together, the telepathy, communication, and depth of the music grows exponentially,” warmly recalls guitarist Hristo Vitchev. “As a musician, the inspiration you get from five minutes on stage when moments like that happen, it’s enough to last you for another few years to practice and try to get to that place again.”
On February 28, that same joy will likely be infectious when Silicon Valley’s own jazz “super group” reunite on the bandstand for the first time since those celebrated concerts in Asia. For their San Jose Jazz Winter Fest 2020 performance, SJZ Collective will be re-imagining material from fusion titans Weather Report, a significant influence on several of the group’s members.
Active from 1970 through 1986, Weather Report is one of the most recognizable names in jazz fusion and a favorite among jazz listeners during their time together, earning Jazz Album of the Year in the DownBeat Magazine Reader’s Poll four years in a row (1974-1977). The group featured legends like saxophonist Wayne Shorter, virtuoso bassist Jaco Pastorius, keyboardist Joe Zawinul, bassist Miroslav Vituous, and drummer Peter Erskine, who was a special guest at San Jose Jazz’s Summer Jazz Camp in 2019.
While SJZ Collective’s repertoire exclusively features music from jazz greats – previous Winter Fest performances highlighted the catalogs of Thelonious Monk (2018) and Charles Mingus (2019) – their sets do not simply replicate iconic material; instead, their re-imagined songs serve as a showcase for the group’s varied songwriting voices, which include Vitchev, drummer Wally Schnalle, saxophonist Oscar Pangilinan, trumpeter John Worley, organist Brian Ho, and bassist Saúl Sierra.
“Not only is everybody a bandleader, composer and arranger, but everybody’s departure point is different,” explains Vitchev of the group’s make up. “All of us grew up in different eras. That by itself influences the cultural aspects of it. We’re also a truly international group. We have a guitar player from Bulgaria, a bass player from Mexico, a sax player who is Filipino-Portuguese, a trumpet player who is half Japanese and half American, and an organ player who is Half Chinese, half American. And, of course, Wally. Everybody brings such a different soul or spirit to the music that things are so fresh and enjoyable to play and perform.”
An understated reflection not only of its time but its place, the SJZ Collective rose organically out of a mutual joy of playing together. Though the group was officially christened roughly two years ago, its origins stretch back nearly seven, when drummer Wally Schnalle took the reins as the director of San Jose Jazz’s Summer Jazz Camp.
To raise community awareness, he assembled an ensemble of musicians to visit area schools to teach workshops and enroll students. At camp, these educators would also perform a faculty concert.
“We’d always have a gas playing,” shares Schnalle of those faculty shows. He brought the idea of forming a group to SJZ’s executive director, Brendan Rawson, who loved the concept. “I thought it was a great way to bring forward the impact and role of San Jose Jazz Summer Camp further out into the community,” adds Rawson.
Thanks to a touch of diplomatic magic, SJZ Collective’s impact has already stretched much further than the South Bay. In only a handful of years, they’ve already had the chance to bring their interpretations of Monk and Mingus tunes to Asia twice. Their initial three-date tour of Taiwan in 2018 even included an appearance in front of 10,000 listeners at the Taichung Jazz Festival.
As Rawson explains, that fest appearance blossomed out of a chance greeting with a trade delegation from Taichung, Taiwan, invited to San Jose Jazz Summer Fest three or four years prior by Mayor Sam Liccardo.
“They’d expressed interest about bringing an American jazz band to their festival. I told them ‘I think I have a great opportunity here with some of the best artists in our community – your sister city of San Jose – that would be an excellent thing to bring to Taichung.’ And they were into it.”
This past September, the collective returned to Asia on a seven-date tour that took them to Japan, Hong Kong, China, and back to Taiwan. Their recent appearance at the Hong Kong Jazz Festival featured a glowing mention in All About Jazz, with critic Rob Garratt writing the group “approaches vintage material as the jumping off point for electrifying arrangements that feel both fresh and familiar.”
Additionally, the collective’s celebrated performances have offered San Jose Jazz an opportunity to push the organization’s mission into a brand-new realm. SJZ no longer just features renowned talent from around the world that reflects jazz’s global impact; now, they’re sharing the South Bay’s unique take on the form globally, through some of the scene’s masters.
“It’s offering up our little piece,” shares Rawson. “We’ve wanted to reflect an expression of the jazz form that is very much of the time and place that we are. That’s the wonderful part about jazz: its international identity today takes on so many different forms and variations. With the Collective, we’re able to share a reflection of our community that came out of a very organic experience for us.”
So what’s on the menu when the collective explores the work of Weather Report? Some of the repertoire will be pulled from the group’s most successful album, Heavy Weather, though the group does note they’re steering clear of its biggest hit, “Birdland.” Vitchev chose to take on the ballad “A Remark You Made,” as the song’s rich harmonic language fits his style well. Schnalle’s penchant for odd time signatures matched the tune “Palladium.”
More importantly, keep an eye on the number of smiles exchanged by these longtime friends as they share their latest crop of tunes with listeners. As the sextet channels the same kinship they felt so strongly only a few months prior, they’re sure to be in abundance.
The SJZ Collective Plays Monk premieres on Friday, February 28, as part of Winter Fest 2020. Learn more