It’s a ballsy move to put your reputation for interpretation on the line by constructing a season and tour around the music of an icon. SFJazz Collective are no strangers to this format, although somehow Michael Jackson carries an entirely new weight in the name. Cadogan Hall’s audience were expecting something special.

From the opening, SFJazz did a fine job of demonstrating the understanding, arrangement and ensemble that has made them such a touring force. With saxophone front-line, Miguel Zenón and David Sánchez firing off each other from the opening number, the stage was set for a mixture of interpretations and originals that grabbed hold of the chart and threw it around the band for fun. Of the first half charts, the epitome of composition and alternative musicality was ‘Hutchison Hug’, a tribute  to the late Bobby Hutcherson by Sean Jones. The swirly Reich-like vibes of Warren Wolf could not have better encapsulated the enveloping warmth of the hug channeled by Sean.

It’s fair to say that this EFG Excellent Series Concert (the premium strand of the EFG London Jazz Festival) had captured many an audience member’s imagination through the association of the King of Pop. Enthusiasts will have been more satisfied by the second half which opened with a version of ‘Rock with You’ where the trombone and drums took no some massive solos and won, goaded by a flank of horns. If there was a moment that indicated a slight disconnect between audience and band, it was the soft cooing that greated the announcement of ‘Human Nature’. This was a programme that challenged the players as much as the audience, and stripped of the familiar vocals and structure of pop classics, the collective were free to riff and experiment on previously familiar themes. Not so much hum-along classics as a chance to observe artistic creation up close.

Primarily, the triumph of the evening was the Collective (in name and philosophy). Compositions came from all over the band, multiple instruments were taken up (not least percussion) and the more angular, rhythmic sections of the set were executed to perfection. If there were any disconnects in expectation and delivery, we didn’t blame them on anything other than the boogie as we indulged in the most sophisticated MJ covers evening ever witnessed.

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