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SFJAZZ Collective: Live: SFJAZZ Collective 2015 The Music of Michael Jackson and Original Compositions

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The SFJAZZ Collective’s m.o. is to each year focus on the music of a featured composer. Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Horace Silver, Joe Henderson and Stevie Wonder are among those tackled in years past. The Collective’s new album, recorded live last year, explores tunes associated with (but not always written by) pop icon Michael Jackson.

The Jackson album doesn’t always measure up to those that preceded it. There are spots that call to mind what a good marching band might do with the same material, the melodies remaining familiar but the altered format stripping them of Jackson’s hipness. But such patches pass quickly, obliterated by the all-star band members’ musicianship. Each of the eight players contributes a new piece, which are programmed around eight Jackson covers. Among the most memorable of the new stuff: saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s stately “Fall Prelude,” vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s “Gray Skies in Baltimore” (referencing the Freddie Gray trial and associated unrest), and “Franklin & Fell” by trumpeter Sean Jones, the newest Collective member.

Zenón manages to actually ramp up the energy of “Smooth Criminal,” the strongest cover on the album. Other especially successful arrangements include Zenón and bassist Matt Penman’s “Blame It on the Boogie,” saxophonist David Sánchez’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” (augmented with Haitian petro and Puerto Rican bomba rhythms) and drummer Obed Calvaire’s inevitable “Thriller,” featuring Vincent Price’s sampled voice, trombonist Robin Eubanks and Edward Simon on synthesizer. Wolf arranges “Human Nature,” and wisely makes it an homage to Miles Davis as well, with Jones’ muted trumpet conjuring Miles’ 1985 version and Wolf’s vibraphone standing in for Robert Irving III’s synth.

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