Michael Jackson (Jazz) Revisited

The SFJAZZ Collective
The SFJAZZ Collective
Jay Blakesberg

The heavy-hitting SFJAZZ Collective has tackled the songbooks of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk. Arguably, none have been as massive, varied, hit-making and luminary as Michael Jackson’s.

“Most of the people in the band see him as a musical icon,” says Robin Eubanks, the trombonist in the eight-member group that currently includes tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, vibraphonist Warren Wolf and Sean Jones on trumpet.

Every year, the collective, the performance arm of the nonprofit SFJAZZ that also presents the annual San Francisco Jazz Festival, rearranges and performs the works of some sort of famous musician. Aside from Stevie Wonder, the all-star jazz ensemble – whose past members include founding member Joshua Redman, Bobby Hutcherson, Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano – usually dives deep into the output of an illustrious jazz composer. Eubanks says part of the reason for the change of pace was to expand the reach of the band, which is in its 12th year.

Each member was tasked with arranging his choice MJ tune. Eubanks, the older brother of Kevin Eubanks, the house band guitarist and onstage banterer with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, went with “The Love You Save” from The Jackson 5’s ABC.

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“It was one of my favorite songs growing up, and when I researched their discography to find a song to arrange, I was immediately drawn to the strong groove and different sections that were in the song,” says Eubanks, a Grammy winner who has performed with Sun Ra, Barbara Streisand, Art Blakey and The Rolling Stones.

The explosive octet, which found ways to work in improvisation sections within the tight pop formulas, doesn't perform only King of Pop-era chart makers like “Thriller” and “Smooth Criminal.” “This Place Hotel” from the underrated The Jacksons period, as well as original compositions by SFJAZZ members, is also on the set list.

“He was a very dedicated musician,” says Eubanks about Jackson, who died in 2009. “He took what he did very seriously and studied intensely to perfect his craft and his style of music and dance.”

Da Camera presents the SFJAZZ Collective: The Music of Michael Jackson at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 16, at Cullen Theater at Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. Tickets cost $37.50 to $67.50. Call 713-524-5050 or go to dacamera.com

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