New release reflects diverse jazz styles of Mack Avenue SuperBand

superbandUp tempo grooves meet listeners from Mack Avenue SuperBand’s “Live From the Detroit Jazz Festival – 2014″ release. The project 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,” Stiwell says in a recent news release. “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.

SuperBand returns with Mack Avenue Records release available Sept. 2

superbandMack Avenue SuperBand’s Live From The Detroit Jazz Festival – 2013 documents a concert at the Motor City’s capacious Hart Plaza by an ensemble of leaders culled from Mack Avenue Records‘ extraordinary artist roster. It’s the second configuration of the group, which debuted at the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival, mixing veteran stars with mid-career leaders and up-and-comers. The resulting album, Live From The Detroit Jazz Festival – 2012, received critical kudos for the fiery chemistry and soloistic derring-do contained therein.

Back for round two are trumpeter Sean Jones, guitarist Evan Perri, and the rhythm section of pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist (and music director) Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen, plus Gary Burton returns as a special guest. Joining the mix are veteran soul/jazz saxophone giant Kirk Whalum and the sensational vibraphonist-marimbist Warren Wolf. The results are scintillating-a program as cohesive and precise as a studio recording, but infused with energetic vibrations emanating from the several thousand hip, enthusiastic fans who attended the concert.

Whitaker attributes the simpatico in part to his process of following collective, inclusive principles in organizing the program. “I solicited everyone’s input,” he says in a news release. “With artists at this level, you don’t need to dictate every moment. Sometimes it’s more important to listen and facilitate. When you have a conversation with everyone about what music we’re playing and the direction we want to go, everybody buys in.”

Whitaker discerns several common denominators that promoted camaraderie. One is the role of gospel music in the musical development of Whalum, Jones, Wolf, Diehl, Allen and himself during formative years. “Everyone – not just those who grew up in church – tries to tell a story in the way they play, in the way they try to touch an audience and say something to them,” he says. “They put together their solos to get across a message that music is not just about notes, but has some greater meaning, whatever you may translate that to mean.”

That communicative quality permeates the proceedings. So does the high level of mutual respect of each member for the musical abilities of all the others.

“Everyone liked performing together,” Whitaker says. “You could feel it in the rehearsals. Everyone felt empowered. There was no hierarchy, no one playing the star. In 2012, the idea was more to have a showcase for everyone’s skill, and have people come on and off the bandstand. This year, Al and Denny wanted a more cohesive sound, and that’s how all the musicians felt, too.”