By Cameron Hughes

SFJazz Collective is playing at Birdland until March 30 and it’s hard to imagine a more dynamic, rhythmic, energetic group of top players. Here’s some information from their web site: Founded in 2004, the SFJazz Collective is an all-star ensemble and composer’s workshop that represents what’s happening now in jazz, celebrating its 20th Anniversary in 2024. Since the beginning, the Collective’s mission has been to perform newly commissioned pieces by each member and fresh arrangements of works by modern masters. Through this pioneering approach, simultaneously honoring music’s greatest figures while championing jazz’s up-to-the-minute directions, the SFJazz Collective embodies SFJazz’s commitment to jazz as a living, ever-relevant art form.

You might think the SFJazz Collective is saxophonist Chris Potter’s group, but you’d be wrong. This is an ensemble of equals who embrace the idea of a true collective. And what a fierce collective this is. Each player is an impressive, gifted soloist; you don’t often see leaders of this caliber playing together. Chris Potter on bass clarinet and saxophones is arguably the biggest name here. Potter has been impressing since 1992 when he started performing with the late trumpeter Red Rodney, and he’s the music director of SFJazz Collective. He brings a lot of experience to the ensemble, but he never overshadows the other players. He gives each musician plenty of room to shine, and if anything, the younger cats outdo the master! There isn’t a weak musician here, though Mike Rodrigues on trumpet took a while to hit his stride. However, in all fairness, this WAS the early 7:00 set. Toward the end Rodrigues’ energy level rose and he began to impress with his tightly controlled, dynamic playing. Though I’m not normally much of a vibraphone fan, Warren Wolf did a lot to change that. His playing is memorable, controlled, fast, melodic, and spirited. I’ll be watching for him in the future. Another standout is David Sanchez on the other tenor sax who at times outplays even Potter! The rhythm section of Edward Simon on piano, Matt Brewer on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums has great rapport with each other and plays flawlessly. If I have a complaint, it might be with Potter who seemed to take a while to hit his stride. His solos at first seemed a bit uninspired. Was this deliberate so as not to overshadow the other players? (Though I don’t think he could!) Did it just take him longer to warm up? I can happily say his last solo of the evening was full of power, energy, and speed, with furious runs up and down the horn. This is exactly what you want from Potter and he ended on a very high note. This is a group worth seeking out.

Wednesday night’s 7:00 set lasted about an hour and ten minutes and was comprised of one multi-part composition, “20th Century Suite.” It’s unclear who the composer is but it appears to have been written by member(s) of the ensemble. It’s a fantastic piece, tightly composed, and manages to be both accessible AND at times challenging (in the best way). In short, it’s both traditional and brilliantly modern.  You hear echoes of Duke Ellington and especially Charles Mingus, and there’s ample space for soloing in this wonderful piece (and what soloing it is!). This is as talented a collective as you’re likely to find anywhere. Highly recommended, see them while you can.

Musicians include: Chris Potter (bass clarinet, saxes), David Sanchez (tenor sax), Mike Rodriguez (trumpet), Warren Wolf (vibraphone), Edward Simon (piano), Matt Brewer (bass), and Kendrick Scott (drums)

SFJazz Collective is playing at Birdland (315 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036, 212-581-3080). Sets are March 28 at 7:00p & 9:00p, and March 29 & 30 at 8:30p & 10:30p. Tickets (here) are $45 at the table and $35 at the bar with a $20 minimum food or drink fee.