San Francisco Bay Area-based saxophonist and composer Michael Zilber is described by NEA Jazz Master David Liebman as “one of the best players and composers around anywhere. Period!” The Canadian-born ex-New Yorker has 13 albums to his name as a leader or co-leader. He has performed, toured and/or recorded with many jazz luminaries over the years, including co-leading and recording ingroups w Liebman, Mike Clark, Steve Smith and John Stowell, to name a few. Says ALL ABOUT JAZZ, “Zilber is one of the true masters of modern jazz saxophone, his prodigious talents evidenced by his recordings and live performances are truth.”
While in New York, Zilber worked with many lauded contemporaries, including Mark Feldman, Wayne Krantz, Rachel Z, James Genus, Rodney Holmes, Drew Gress, Dave Kikoski, Dave Douglas, Bruce Barth and numerous others. He also released his first CD, 1989’s The Heretic, on OWL/EMI featuring Gil Goldstein, Harvie S and Danny Gottlieb, as well as the OWL/EMI 1992 follow-up, Stranger in Brooklyn, with Liebman, Genus and Rachel Z.
After moving out to San Francisco, Zilber co-led a band with drumming great Steve Smith for eight years, releasing the top 20 recording Reimagined: Jazz Standards, Volume 1 in 2003. For the past decade, he has teamed up with guitar virtuoso John Stowell, most recently on 2016’s Basement Blues, which All About Jazz’s Dan McClenaghan calls “as compelling and modernistic and compelling as any group out there,” hailing Zilber as “soulful and flawless”. Their 2015 Origin Records recording Live Beauty, made DownBeat magazine’s “best of the year” list for 2015, as well as garnering rave reviews from JazzTimes and All About Jazz. This was a follow-up to the group’s Shot Through With Beauty, which NPR jazz critic Andrew Gilbert picked as a top 10 record of the year. On Turning Ten: The Billy Collins Project, providing musical settings for the American Poet Laureate’s poems, was hailed by famed jazz journalist Bill Milkowski as a “work of art of the highest order.”
Zilber’s “Originals for the Originals” project, a 2017 Origin album release of the same name featuring high-profile sidemen Dave Kikoski, James Genus and Clarence Penn, received numerous rave reviews, and, as ALL ABOUT JAZZ’s Paul Rauch opines “Originals For the Originals is a top 10 of 2017 candidate without a doubt.” It was also a top 5 CD on KPFA’s year-end list.
His Jazz Orchestra release, East West: Music for Big Bands was a beautifully packaged double CD. release November 2019, it is the saxophonist/composer’s latest on Origin Records. On East West, his 12th CD as a leader, Zilber tackles an ambitious, once-in-a-lifetime project with two all-star big band recording sessions – one in New York, the other in San Francisco. As described by leading Jazz Journalist Andrew Gilbert, “East West – Music for Big Bands embraces multiplicity. It’s not either/or, it’s and/also. It’s beauty AND burn, intense swing AND sweet balladry, all united under Zilber’s commanding and ever-expanding creative purview.”
Starting in 2018, Zilber formed a bi-coastal group with legendary New York drumming great, Mike Clark. In addition to prominent gigs at Kitano and Small’s in New York, as well as the San Jose and Monterey Jazz Festivals, SFJazz, the Bach Dynamite Club, and Kuumbwa (among other major venues), the co-leaders released Mike Drop on Sunnyside Records of New York in the Summer of 2021 The recording reached the top 10 on the national Jazzweek charts and was named one of Downbeat’s top CDs of the year. As All About JAZZ raves, “A first encounter with saxophonist Michael Zilber in a live setting leaves a very large impression. Enshrouding the marvelous facility and deeply melodic approach to improvisation is “the sound” which allows the listener to receive the music in a soulful way. When that sound and imagination are driven by the post-bop mastery of drummer Mike Clark, illuminating things can and will take place.”
The Clark-Zilber quartet recently recorded new material in New York this past October, 2022, Tentatively set for a summer 2023 release on a major jazz label, the group includes New York jazz masters Jon Davis on piano and Alexander Claffy on Bass,. The group performed at Small’s in Manhattan in March, 2023 and will be back in the city in June of this year.
Zilber remains active as a sideman in or part of a collective in various prominent projects, including long-time Bay Area collective Happy Hour, top Trumpet/composer Erik Jekabson’s Stringtet and Sextet, and playing in and writing for highly acclaimed SF-based Electric Squeezebox Orchestra. This composers’ big band has released 3 CDS, including Cheap Rent, a “top CD of the year” receiving 4.5 stars in DownBeat.
In Berkeley, California, Zilber continues to lead the multiple DownBeat award-winning Jazzschool Jazz Workshop and the Advanced Jazz Summer Intensive, as well as teaching Composition, Advanced Chromatic Harmony, and the Miles Davis/Wayne Shorter ensemble at the California Jazz Conservatory. Zilber holds a Doctorate in composition from NYU.