SFJAZZ Collective at SFJAZZ Center credit Bill Evans

The SFJAZZ Collective at work. From the left, Warren Wolf, vibraphone; Edward Simon, piano; Gretchen Parlato vocals; Matt Brewer, bass; Chris Potter, sax; Etienne Charles, trumpet; David Sánchez, sax;  Kendrick A.D. Scott, drums. (Not pictured vocalist Martin Luther McCoy) Photo by Bill Evans courtesy of SFJAZZ

The SFJAZZ Collective is the composer’s workshop and resident ensemble at SFJAZZ, the San Francisco-based, non-profit organization dedicated to jazz creation, presentation, and education. Founded by SFJAZZ in 2004, the Collective interprets original, newly commissioned pieces by each of its members and arrangements of the music of master artists such as Miles Davis, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Michael Jackson, Ornette Coleman, and Sly and the Family Stone. For its 2020-21 season, the Collective had planned to explore the music of Joni Mitchell.

“But given what was going on at the time,” trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles says, “it was decided that it would be a lot better for us to channel our musical energy and our voices to tell stories about the moment. After all, reflecting on the moment is what jazz does, anyway: We speak to the moment.”

The nine-piece group will perform the resulting program, Reflecting the Moment, Friday, March 25, at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall. Part of the Center’s Jazz Roots concert series, the show will feature arrangements of classic songs and new compositions addressing some of the past year’s events, most notably the fight for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.

As history shows, jazz statements can be as quietly powerful as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue” or as blunt as Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. They can be forcefully spelled out in the words of Nina Simone but also in the abstract aesthetics of the free jazz movement. It’s a thread that links generations of jazz creators to this day. It’s in the work of artists as disparate as Herbie Hancock, Jazzmeia Horn, Wynton Marsalis, Robert Glasper, and Antonio Sanchez.

In addition to Charles, the SFJAZZ Collective comprises vocalists Gretchen Parlato and Martin Luther McCoy; saxophonists Chris Potter and David Sánchez; pianist Edward Simon; vibraphonist Warren Wolf; bassist Matt Brewer; and drummer Kendrick A.D. Scott. The group, which features a changing lineup, boasts in the current edition a variety of jazz accents, backgrounds, and life experiences.

That diversity “was a strength” when creating Reflecting the Moment, notes Potter.

“For me, a big part of the meaning of jazz music is that there are ways in which we can come together even if we are coming from different places,” says Potter, who’s also the Collective’s music director. “You know that together we can make something that’ll be more interesting than the sum of its parts.”

“When we got together I was kind of wondering as much as everyone else how exactly it would work, but to my mind, it worked extremely well,” he says. “The way that everybody really gave their all and wanted the whole thing to work, I felt like there was a strong team spirit to the way the group worked.”

The program includes originals such as Simon’s “8:46,” whose title is a direct reference to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Sanchez’s personal “Ay, Bendito,” and Parlato’s “All There Inside,” written during the pandemic. There are also new arrangements of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away.”

Potter, 51, contributes to the program an original two-part composition inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” A leading saxophonist of his generation, Potter says writing lyrics has been a departure and a steep challenge, especially when addressing critical, highly charged social issues “without being heavy-handed.”

“But at the same time,” he says, “I think it’s important that we all express our opinions, and this was an opportunity to do so not only with musical notes but with words, too.”


Chris Potter pictured in his performance at the 2019 GroundUp Music Festival in Miami Beach.

Potter wrote the first part of the piece, the instrumental “Can You See,” on January 7, 2021, the day after an insurrectionist mob attacked the U.S. Capitol. “I was feeling upset, as many of us were,” Potter explains.

A song titled “Mutuality” follows. “This is a word that Dr. King used in his [Birmingham] letter,” Potter says. “I used [the letter] very, very loosely. I didn’t want to quote it directly. But in it, he talks about how ‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality […] Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,’ and how ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'”

Charles, who contributes an arrangement of Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On?” notes that “everybody’s tunes come from personal experiences. We talked about how to use this opportunity to say something. These tunes are really heartfelt.”

Etienne Charles photo by Rick Swig. Courtesy of the artist.

Charles, 38, is a native of Trinidad and has had a multi-layered career as a performer, composer, producer, and educator. In August, he joined the faculty of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music.

“We all come from different places, but the one common denominator between all these places is the anti-Black culture that repeats throughout history,” Charles says. “David [Sánchez] is from Puerto Rico, and [his song] ‘Ay Bendito’ is a reference to the experiences of his father as a Black baseball player in Puerto Rico and the challenges of being Afro-Latino. Matt Brewer is from Oklahoma. You don’t have to drive long to be in Tulsa, where we had a race riot and a race massacre [in 1921]. Gretchen [Parlato] is from Los Angeles, where [in the 1960s] we had the Watts riots. Everyone has a story. It’s everywhere, and it’s a part of all of us. It hurts me to see it because I know that there’s another way.”

This story first appeared in the Spring issue of the Arsht Magazine.