The San Jose jazz scene is alive and well (and brilliant)
The Santa Clara
January 10, 2019
New Orleans, New York City, Chicago and even Seattle—these are the best cities for jazz music. While this list mentions the foundational sites of the musical genre, it neglects the developing jazz scene in nearby San Jose.
Enter the San Jose Jazz Collective.
With its new album, “SJZ Collective Reimagines Monk,” the San Jose Jazz Collective updates several standards from the incomparable pianist Thelonious Monk, bringing the witty glissandos and playful chords of the jazz legend into the 21st century with a decidedly local panache. On this record, modern electrical instruments fit for Silicon Valley replace the rougher, wilder tools of the masters back East.
The group—a sextet spearheaded by local drummer Wally Schnalle—boasts the crème de la crème of the Bay Area’s jazz musicians. Some members—such as locally-raised saxophonist Oscar Pangilinan—represent the benefits of learning jazz in San Jose, while others like Bulgarian-born guitarist Hristo Vitchev showcase the caliber of innovative musicians drawn to the local jazz scene.
Opening with “Green Chimneys,” the musicians declare their new take on Monk, with the inclusion of both Brian Ho’s organ and Vitchev’s electric guitar replacing the dim, backstage feel of Monk’s classics and transporting listeners to the barbecues and highways of the American West.
The organ’s substitution of the piano, in particular, deprives the song of the twinkly joy where Monk’s virtuosic tunes excel.
Thankfully, Schnalle’s effervescent drums kick in before it’s too late, making the just-overnine-minute song worthy of a ponderous listen.
The drum solo delivers sophistication without showiness, making Schnalle’s work stand out amongst the other solos in the album that—while succeeding on a technical level—largely fail to make memorable waves in the music’s sea of sound.
In the second chart, “Round Midnight,” the group fully hits its stride. Here, the unorthodox instrumentation becomes a feature (surpassing its bugginess in the previous tune), with the fun, wild rhythm mixing with the organ and electric guitar to form a rollicking piece with momentum.
In fact, the performances by these three musicians truly reimagine Monk’s standard, and—backed by a trumpet—they make the song their own. This 15-minute peak to the album demands attention.
After the blissful highs of “Round Midnight,” the group submits two additional, sturdy remakes—“Ask Me Now ” and “Blue Monk”—yet these pieces feel more like the update of “Green Chimneys” and less like the welcome reimagining of “Round Midnight.”
Besides the organ and electricguitar heavy instrumentation, these pieces seem like slick polishings, offering technical skill without saying much new.
That said, these last tunes contain excellent atmospheres with the potential to liven up gatherings and dinner parties if you want to pretend you’re a settled adult with an established paycheck and not a college student struggling to borrow someone’s meal points.
Ultimately, in its reimagining, the SJZ Collective seems keen to replicate the style—not the spirit—of Monk’s charts. While the solid performances do their best to match Monk’s wit with the keys, listeners will miss the suspense of Monk’s plucky, surprising piano pokes and prods.
With the main exception of the wonderful and surprising “Round Midnight,” the locally based SJZ Collective’s takes on Monk’s charts appear like expertly crafted updates of the old charts.
The group’s almost computer like precision sometimes deprives the pieces of Monk’s playful soul, but this exacting approach certainly gels with the high-tech mechanics of the region.
By swapping out traditional jazz instruments for more high tech electric guitars and organs, the noteworthy members of the SJZ Collective succeed in bringing Monk to the Bay Area.
But, with the exception of the inspired “Round Midnight,” the performers seem content simply bringing the music here, instead of making it their—and our—own.
Contact Brandon Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852