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When is jazz pop?
When the SFJAZZ Collective gets ahold of Michael Jackson's music.
The 11-year-old group takes an unusual approach to its annual tour playlist. Each year, the collective's eight musicians choose a new artist to feature. This year, it's the King of Pop. When the collective, named for San Francisco where its disparate members gather each season to rehearse, hits the stage Monday night at Capitol Theatre as part of the JazzSLC series, there's as much chance audience members will hear "Billie Jean" as an original piece composed by one of the musicians.
In an interview this week, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, a full-time musician based in Baltimore, says the theme is equal parts tribute to Jackson and scheme to keep the audience engaged.
Why Michael Jackson?
We've done everybody Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Joe Henderson, many traditional jazz people. A couple of years ago, we decided to kind of step away and experiment with people who were in everyday pop music. We tried Stevie Wonder and had great success. So this year, we went with the King of Pop Michael Jackson. There's great jazz influence in Michael Jackson's music.
Do you consider Michael Jackson's music jazz?
We would all definitely consider it pop music. But if you really listen closely to his music, specifically from "Off the Wall" and "Thriller," and even from the Jackson Five days, a lot of that stuff has jazz movement, chords. In later days, not so much. But the earlier records had a lot more movement as far as chords go. It gives us a lot of openings to experiment. It's a lot about how we interpret things.
His songs are part of the zeitgeist now. Does that make it difficult to arrange for an audience that is already so familiar with the music?
It's not hard for us to take on. The only thing that might be hard is for the average listener to get ahold of what we're playing. When you have classic songs, like "Thriller" or "The Girl Is Mine," most people, 90 percent of his fans, will want to hear that song just how it is. But when you're listening to what we're doing, you'll still hear flashes of those songs, sometimes the entire song. People will definitely recognize the songs. But we're doing jazz, we're going to mess around with it. We'll slip the beat around. It won't be the regular song how most people would expect it.
The people who will really enjoy this are MJ fans, fans of SFJAZZ Collective and just fans of jazz. If you have an open mind, you'll enjoy this. We're not supposed to like everything we hear.
How many Michael Jackson songs will people hear?
We try to do maybe four to five songs per set two songs in each will probably be original. We'll have two sets in Salt Lake about 45 to 50 minutes each.
We have 16 songs in our book every season one arrangement and one original from every member. We have to be fair to everybody in the band.
You've featured John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder. How does Jackson compare?
It's melody. Michael has very recognizable melodies. With other jazz composers, there's a lot of notes being played. Michael has these very pretty melodies that have a way of sticking with us.
You arranged "Human Nature" and composed "Gray Skies in Baltimore" for this tour. Is it easier to compose your own piece or arrange someone else's?
Doing my own original work is more challenging. You already know what the song sounds like when you're dealing with an existing song. And I'm someone who believes in letting the listener truly hear the original song. But with your own piece, you have to start somewhere from scratch. I start with the drums, figure out a melody.
I'm a proud Baltimorean. I still live there. My piece is kind of a tribute to Freddie Gray and everything that happened in the city of Baltimore last spring. It's a happy song, nothing sad. I took pieces from White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army." It's a football song. It's played at Baltimore Ravens games. You'll hear part of that song in there. There's a 50-50 chance you'll hear my piece.
After 11 years together, what's changed and what's the same about SFJAZZ?
People tend to come in and out. Every so often, we get new members. This is my third year.
We've changed our approach in some ways. Four or five years ago, guys were playing compositions that were very complex, compositions that were very long. Nowadays, people's attention span goes after a few minutes. We've decided to make things shorter to keep the audience's attention span. We're trying to hold that.
Live it off the wall
The JazzSLC series presents SFJAZZ Collective.
When • Monday, Oct. 19, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $32.50; ArtTix