Live From the Detroit Jazz Festival - 2014 documents the third incarnation of the Mack Avenue SuperBand, an all-star ensemble of bandleaders from the superb roster of the Motor City jazz label. Once again, this powerhouse congregation joined forces under the leadership of bassist Rodney Whitaker to dazzle a hometown crowd in picturesque Hart Plaza, with the results captured for another knockout live recording.
Joining Whitaker as three-time veterans are his longtime rhythm section partner, drummer Carl Allen; pianist Aaron Diehl; and guitarist Evan Perri of Hot Club Of Detroit. Alto saxophonist Tia Fuller returns from the SuperBand's debut outing after taking the second year off, while vibraphonist Warren Wolf and tenor saxophonist Kirk Whalum make it two in a row after joining the band for the first time in 2013.
The SuperBand comprises a distinctive blend of generations and styles, which Mack Avenue Records President Denny Stilwell says captures the diversity of the label itself. "The SuperBand has always been and will always be a mix of veteran players and top younger talent, which really represents the Mack Avenue roster. When you look at this particular line-up, there are a wide range of styles represented: from the Django-influenced guitar approach of Evan Perri to the soulful/gospel leanings of tenor saxophonist Kirk Whalum, and when you consider the other players, you can find just about everything in between. And each of them are bringing performing and writing chops that are top shelf."
The final - and perhaps most important - member of the ensemble is the enthusiastic Labor Day weekend crowd. "The Detroit Jazz Festival is one of the best live festivals on Earth to play," Whitaker says. "That audience is pushing you to play and encouraging you. Then you're on the bandstand with a lot of cats that really admire each other, so the combination of having a good time and an excited and lively audience makes for a great recording."
Or, as Diehl adds succinctly, "Quite simply: Detroit knows jazz. They'll let you know when you're on the right track, and certainly when you're not."
Whitaker sees the gospel roots of most of Mack Avenue's artists as the common thread that binds them together and allows a once-a-year gathering like the SuperBand to be so successful. Even guitarist Perri, who would seem to be an outlier with his gypsy jazz influences, is a Detroit native in whom the bassist recognizes the influences of Motown, funk, and soul. The SuperBand helps to lend a distinctive identity to a label whose artists spans multiple generations, styles, and hometowns.
"These days, not everyone who plays jazz necessarily lives in New York," Whitaker points out. The Detroit Jazz Festival is the culminating place where we all get together every year and talk about music and career development - and form a mutual admiration society. It makes the label more of a family. The hang is part of the music, and the hang happens every Labor Day weekend."
For Whitaker as music director, the hang begins several months earlier, as he reaches out to each musician to solicit their contributions to the year's repertoire. Of the half-dozen tunes on this year's release, all but one were written by members of the SuperBand. The exception is Herbie Hancock's "Riot," which kicks off the album in combustible fashion with fiery solos from Wolf, Perri, Diehl, Whitaker, and Allen.
Wolf's soulful, plaintive "The Struggle" follows, with the composer, both of whose impressive albums were Mack Avenue releases, building a solo of great craft and intensity. He wrote the tune with Whalum in mind, and this performance shows off the saxophonist's deeply felt blues roots. "Being able to share Mack Avenue with these artists is truly wonderful," Wolf says. "There's just so much history on the label it's hard to beat or compete. Playing with my label mates is a lot of fun. Everyone is a band leader in their own right, it's not often that we get to play together."
The music director, who has two co-led albums with Carl Allen on the label along with his own 2014 release When We Find Ourselves Alone, contributes "A Mother's Cry," the theme song from his score to the PBS documentary "Malawi & Malaria: Fighting to Save the Children." Despite the darkness of the theme, the song retains a hopeful melodicism and is highlighted by Whitaker's meditative solo bass intro and a solo that passes among most of the band members, with a keening sense provided by Fuller on soprano and Whalum on flute.
Opening with a tour de force piano intro, Diehl's "Santa Maria" is a showstopper that reveals traces of the composer's jazz, swing, blues, and classical influences all in one package. The pianist recently released Space, Time, Continuum, his sophomore Mack Avenue album. He calls the yearly get-together with the SuperBand "an incredible experience because we typically have our own separate projects. Mack Avenue has an exemplary roster with a variety of artistic approaches. I'm just honored to be a part of it all."
Perri and the Hot Club of Detroit have released four albums of Djangology on the label, and "For Stephane" is prime evidence of his ability to take his gypsy jazz influences and transform them into his own distinctive take on modern jazz. The tune's shifting time signature spurs intricate playing from Wolf and Perri.
The set draws to a close with Kirk Whalum's "Bipolar Blues Blues," which may come as a surprise to those who know the saxophonist only in his smooth jazz guise. Whalum's Mack Avenue discography includes homages to soul icons Babyface and Donny Hathaway, the collaboration of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, and the conjunction of gospel and jazz. Here, his tenor duels with Fuller's soprano on a down-home blues that feels right at home on the streets of Detroit.
By the time this set draws to a close, listeners at home may feel transported to the city, or at the very least feel some of the excitement that the Hart Plaza crowds were swept up in last August.