Q&A: Wally Schnalle on Reimagining Thelonious Monk With the SJZ Collective

Q&A: Wally Schnalle on Reimagining Thelonious Monk With the SJZ Collective

On the eve of the of the 30th anniversary of San Jose Jazz’s annual Summer Fest in 2019, the SJZ Collective, featuring the cream of Silicon Valley jazz musicians, is set to release its debut EP, SJZ Collective Reimagines Monk, on December 14. The EP is a collection of new arrangements of four Thelonious Monk compositions, featuring drummer Wally Schnalle, trumpeter/flugelhorn player John L. Worley, Jr., organist Brian Ho, guitarist Hristo Vitchev, saxophonist Oscar Pangilinan and bassist Saúl Sierra – each an acclaimed bandleader in their own right. The project debuted at the San Jose Jazz Winter Fest 2018, celebrating Monk’s centennial.

Listen to “Green Chimneys” from the SJZ Collective Reimagines Monk EP via the player below:

The SJZ Collective is the brainchild of Schnalle, and each of its members is on the staff of San Jose Jazz Summer Jazz Camp, a two-week learning lab led by some of the region’s best teaching artists. Schnalle has been an integral faculty member of the camp for two decades and its director since 2013. Over the past year, the SJZ Collective has represented the sound of South Bay on a national level, touring the U.S., and most recently returned from their first international tour in Taiwan.

JAZZIZ spoke with Schnalle about the birth and evolution of the SJZ Collective, their recent tour of Taiwan and the music of Thelonious Monk, celebrated on the forthcoming EP. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

JAZZIZ: Tell us about how you first connected with San Jose Jazz?

WALLY SCHNALLE: San Jose Jazz started 30 years ago. When they started the first San Jose Jazz Festival I was just out of college and wanted to get involved with the jazz community. I first got involved with them on a logistics basis and was kind of the stage manager. Since then, I’ve had many roles in San Jose Jazz. I’ve performed at many of the festivals, became a clinician in the schools for them and became a teacher at their San Jose Summer Camp – which I’ve also been the director of for the past six years.

Back then, the camp was not initially connected to the community. The enrollment was diminishing and it was becoming a bit of a challenge. When I got involved, they said, “We need to get connected to the community more.” So, part of that was a little budget to go out and do clinics with schools, which I do every year now with parts of the staff, where we work with bands and sometimes perform for the kids. I also wanted to go out and play with our camp instructors and bandleaders out in the community, so we started doing that in the first year and it became so fun and such a positive thing that we took it a step further and made the SJZ Collective its own entity.

What can you tell me about the current members, who are also featured on the SJZ Collective Reimagines Monk EP?

We have John Worley, an amazing trumpet and flugelhorn player I’ve been playing with well over 30 years. He’s on my first CD, and I also play in his band. He has a beautiful voice on the flugelhorn in ballads; he plays it all but that’s really where he can stretch. Oscar Pangilinan on the sax is, interestingly, one of the younger members of the group. He’s been involved with the jazz camp from a young age and is now part of its teaching staff. He’s led his own bands and brings that younger energy to the bandstand, and we really appreciate that. Brian Ho is one of the first call organ players in the South Bay. He works with a lot of cats and is a busy guy because of it. Saúl Sierra is our bass player; he’s amazing first call in the Afro Cuban jazz community down here. He plays with John Santos and a lot of others and has his own trio. Amazingly nice guy and we were also pleased because he’s from Mexico and he just got his citizenship and American passport just weeks before we left for Taiwan. Hristo Vitchev is an amazing Bulgarian guitarist. He has many CDs of his own out and is currently touring Japan with Tessa Sauter. He also plays in my own recording trio, Idiot Fish 3, which is more of a fusion project. My thinking is that it’s going to remain the same line-up for the next year, but we haven’t crossed that bridge yet.

You mentioned Taiwan. You’ve actually recently come back from your first international tour there with the SJZ Collective, right?

Yes. The aim of the SJZ Collective is multifold. One is the continued awareness that these are our camp instructors and we’re bringing together these musicians to teach this youth, but also that there’s a strong musician base in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, and rather than reaching out to bring artists in to be part of the Collective, although we do reach out to bring artists as guests for the camp, but we want the Collective to represent the talent that we have in the Bay Area and especially the South Bay, to present that to a wider audience – in fact, worldwide, as we just got back from that tour in Taiwan, which went great!

Our first gig abroad was to 10,000 people. I’m sure they weren’t all jazz lovers but it was a big event and it was a thrill for us to be accepted by that many people. It was awesome. And then we went to midweek gigs in Taipei and had packed clubs, and it was really nice.

What’s it like to play in front of 10,000 people?

It’s kind of disconnected, really. There’s a distance between the stage and the audience and it’s a little surreal because you can just see faces as far as you can see, but the first face is twenty yards away from the big stage. In an experience like that, it’s great to have musicians on stage with you because you’re really connecting with them more than the audience who are so distant. The next night we played a jazz club that probably held 70 people or so, but it was full. And the interaction, electricity and energy that happens in that kind of club was kind of where jazz really thrives as opposed to the big stage.

You’ve also got this record coming out, SJZ Collective Reimagines Monk. But first off, do you remember the first time you personally became aware of Thelonious Monk?

As a kid I was amazed to see the drummer play a solo in a jazz band and when I was in college, I played “Well You Needn’t” for hours in my garage. I don’t know if that was the first tune of his I knew, but that was the first tune I really explored musically as a student. I think what speaks to me about Monk’s music is that it swings hard but also has that rhythmic syncopation that is his voice, countered with the fact that he also wrote some of the most beautiful melodies and ballads that jazz composers have ever done. So, he has that dichotomy of beauty and dissonance.

Why did you guys decide to reimagine his works on this debut EP?

When we started to come up with the idea that we’d let the Collective be its own identity, I realized we all have different stylistic tendencies as bandleaders and such, and I thought it would make sense to let all those personalities speak. The way to do that is through material familiar to the listener that each of the arrangers can put their own spin on. Since Monk is a favorite artist of mine, I thought it was a good place to start. Next year we’ll do another artist and so on and so forth.

How did you pick the tunes to include in the EP?

I told everybody to pick one or two. This is an EP we’re releasing so there are only four tunes on it. But the Collective is a sextet so through this process we probably had ten arrangements. Everybody did at least one, some did two. So when we perform, we play more of these arrangements. I also knew that in this process there might be duplication, so I would have to negotiate these territories when I got there. In fact, on the plane coming back from Taiwan, I was talking to a couple of band members, and they were saying, “Maybe there should be more organization in terms of who does what kind of tune.” And I kind of pushed back on that because I thought for me it has to truly be about somebody’s compositional voice and if I tell somebody to do a specific thing, then I’m already putting them in a box.

What are the benefits of having so many varied voices within a collective?

As I said, my trio is kind of a fusion thing and I’m old enough to have gone through cycles where you wouldn’t even speak fusion out loud in the jazz context because it was just like a bad word. But to my way of thinking, the definition of the term fusion is to mix together different elements that you’re influenced by. And if we look back over the history of jazz, that’s really what’s moved it forward in many decades, like Dizzy bringing in Cuban rhythms and Miles bringing in electronic instruments. So, in its purest form, jazz should be influenced by many different voices and to have that as the personnel in a band, I just think makes for a stronger jazz statement.

How would you describe your arranging process or compositional voice?

My personal musical journey has been not to deny any influences. When I sit down to compose or arrange, I don’t think I’m going to do a specific style of song. I let the song take me where I need to go. In Taichung, Taiwan, they had a big festival with a nature theme; they wanted everybody to do a song about a flower or nature. We didn’t have anything like that in our repertoire, but years ago, I played a gig with a gentleman named Dan Riley – probably in the late ’80s. He’s a bass player who, as a young man, got a call in San Francisco to play with Monk at the Black Hawk because their bass player was still in the hotel room for whatever reason. When Dan showed up, he told Monk, “Mr. Monk, I’m sorry, I don’t think I know many of your tunes.” And Monk told him, “Don’t worry, we only play the blues and ‘Honeysuckle Rose.'” So, I arranged “Honeysuckle Rose” for [the SJZ Collective] to play there. I sat down with a beboppy Fats Waller tune and it came out as a slow funk ballad in seven. I didn’t have preconceptions leading me where I thought I needed to go. I just let the composition and arrangement process speak and that’s what came out – and it turned out to be a nice arrangement.

For the EP, you arranged Monk’s “Green Chimneys.”

Yes, I love that tune. To be honest, the first time I heard it played wasn’t via Monk. It was via Roy Haynes, who likes to open his shows with it. I just fell in love with, again, its rhythmic component. And I have ten CDs out now and if you go through those you’ll find that almost every one of them is populated heavily by odd-metered music. It’s one of my compositional tendencies. So, I just heard that melody in seven rather than the four which it was originally written in, and it was an easy step for me to clear the bassline to accommodate that in the opener. We’ve pretty much opened every show we’ve played with that tune, and it’s a gas to play for me.

What do you think makes Monk’s music feel so relevant to this day?

He was one of the great composers of the 20th century, not so much in quantity but definitely in quality. He had the groove, the rhythmic syncopation that kind of defined some of what bop was all about, and the beautiful lyrical sense of all the great ballads that he wrote. And it’s a great lesson that can be learned for those uninitiated. Sometimes when they first listen to Monk, it’s off-putting. Then there is a way to teach that person about to first feel the groove, and then feel the form of the song and what they’re doing within it. And he’s got good handles on his music for people to latch in onto. I think Monk’s compositional voice appears in all those extra layers and sonic possibilities of today’s music. And it’s still strong.

Feature photo credit: Trisha Leeper

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