Since its rollicking debut at the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival, the Mack Avenue SuperBand has become a tradition at the annual event, a gathering of label superstars that the Motor City can look forward to every Labor Day weekend. Live From the Detroit Jazz Festival – 2015 captures the fourth incarnation of the all-star ensemble, for the first time under the leadership of Christian McBride. This year, McBride takes over as musical director (a role previously held by fellow bassist Rodney Whitaker), leading a knockout conglomeration of Mack Avenue artists through a set as sweltering as that late-summer day in the concrete outdoor arena of Hart Plaza.
“I’ve been a Mack Avenue artist for quite some time now,” says McBride, who made his label debut in 2009 with Kind of Brown, the first release from his Inside Straight quintet. He’s since released five more albums by that band, his trio, and his big band. “My catalogue with Mack Avenue is bigger than it has been for any other label I’ve been affiliated with, so I feel like an important member of the Mack Avenue family. It would have been good just to be on the gig, period, but when they asked me to be the musical director it seemed like a simple call to make.”
Joining McBride as first-time members of the SuperBand are pianist Christian Sands and trumpeter Freddie Hendrix. While neither has recorded as a leader for Mack Avenue, both have recorded for the label under McBride’s leadership: Hendrix in the bassist’s Big Band and Sands as a member of both Inside Straight and the Christian McBride Trio. The rest of the seven-piece group all are returning veterans: drummerCarl Allen has anchored the band since the beginning, while saxophonists Tia Fuller and Kirk Whalum and vibraphonist Gary Burton are all three-time members.
The members of the SuperBand represent a diverse range of generations and styles. It offers a rare opportunity, for instance, to hear NEA Jazz Master Gary Burton engage with a group of younger players with more of a hard-bop focus than he usually encounters in his own more modern-leaning bands. “This is definitely not my normal zone,” he admits with a chuckle. “But this is the music I grew up playing. I was a bebop guy in my teens and twenties – that was the standard jazz of the day. Playing straight-ahead is something I hadn’t done much for a while, so I was looking forward to a relaxing, fun, jam session kind of setting where I didn’t have to read a million notes and play a lot of complex music. In spite of that, some of the music ended up being fairly complicated and challenging.”
Burton will be able to further enjoy that opportunity in early 2016, as the Mack Avenue SuperBand heads out on tour, affording audiences outside Detroit the opportunity to share the invigorating experience of witnessing the ensemble live on tour for the first time in its history. The line-up will be a slight variation on the one recorded at the 2015 festival, with Sean Jones returning to the trumpet and flugelhorn chair. Whalum will join the band for select West Coast performances.
“I’m looking forward to playing some of the music that we played in Detroit and a lot more and seeing where it goes,” McBride says. “These bands change a little bit every year and we already know that this is not going to be a permanent group, so we just want to have as much fun as we can while we’re together.”
The 2015 concert recording features pieces penned by six of the seven members, kicking off with the “fatbacks and greens” (to steal McBride’s words) of Whalum’s soul-jazz burner “Preach Hank!” The tune echoes the saxophonist’s roots in the Baptist church as well as his love for R&B sax great Hank Crawford, aligning it with his previous Mack Avenue tributes to soul icons Babyface and Donny Hathaway as well as the collaboration of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.
Hendrix’s aptly named “Sudden Impact” follows, its hard-charging groove and brawny horn melody sparking blistering solos from Sands and the composer himself. McBride’s lovely 5/4 jaunt “Paint Brushes” – one of those trickier-than-expected pieces that Burton cited – passes its trickling melody from voice to voice among the band members before ceding the spotlight to Burton and Fuller. The vibraphonist was inspired to make one of his rare forays into composing with the ballad “All You Have To Be Is You,” which features Fuller’s soprano engaging with his own cloud-like accompaniment.
Burton was also responsible for the one tune not contributed by a SuperBand member, Makoto Ozone’s swaying, Monk-inspired “Test of Time.” The Japanese pianist is a long-time collaborator of Burton, who thought the piece would work perfectly arranged for the super-group’s three-horn frontline. “I knew we’d have a bunch of upbeat and exciting pieces to play, but we’d need something else to play for contrast,” Burton explains. “I thought my ballad and Makoto’s slow blues would probably fill the bill, and sure enough, Makoto’s tune was a big hit the first time we played it through.” It remains a hit on stage, where blues-tinged solos from Whalum and Sands evoke throaty cries of appreciation from the Detroit audience.
Fuller contributes the brisk “Decisive Steps,” unleashing the more tempestuous side of her soprano playing as well as a bold, soaring turn from Hendrix. The set concludes with an 11-minute run through Sands’ muscular “Up!,” allowing everyone in the band to show off their estimable – and crowd-pleasing – chops.
The Mack Avenue SuperBand “follows a tradition of record labels, no matter what genre, having a sense of pride in their roster,” according to McBride. “What I like about Mack Avenue is that it seems to be one of the few – dare I say only – jazz label that really has an eye on straight-ahead jazz. They’re certainly not opposed to breaking tradition – and breaking tradition is actually part of the jazz tradition – but at the same time they don’t shun musicians who like to play swing rhythms.”
Burton echoes that sentiment, recognizing that the “label family” idea harkens back to an earlier generation of jazz. “These days, everybody seems to be off doing their own thing. This really is like something from a past era, and I was a little surprised and pleased that the label decided to put it on tour. But there is something special about the Detroit Jazz Festival for the people on the label, and it increasingly feels like a touchstone. Come Labor Day weekend, we’re going to be in Detroit and a bunch of us from the label will get together and play.”