Mack Avenue Superband, “Live From the Detroit Jazz Festival 2015” (Mack Avenue). Various Artists, “Detroit Jazz City” (Blue Note).
Two celebrations of jazz in Detroit – one live and present-day, one an anthology mixing the present with the past. “This is definitely not my normal zone,” admits vibraphonist Gary Burton about the current traveling septet of label artists that Mack Avenue Records calls the Mack Avenue Superband. “But this is the music I grew up playing. Playing straight ahead is something I hadn’t much done for a while so I was looking forward to a relaxing, fun, jam session kind of setting. In spite of that, some of the music ended up being fairly complicated and challenging.” I’ll say.
You can, in fact, hear on group leader Christian McBride’s tune “Paint Brushes” that Burton is in real trouble for the first few bars of his solo trying to meet the rhythmic demands for escalating heat from bassist McBride and drummer Carl Allen. He gets into it eventually but it takes a while. On the other hand, on pianist Christian Sands’ tune “Up!” it’s Burton who can keep up with both the fast tempo and the complex harmonic demands which is a lot more than can be said for tenor player Kirk Whalum.
The disc’s great moment is Tia Fuller’s ferocious alto playing on her tune “Decisive Steps.” “Detroit Jazz City” is a well-intentioned benefit anthology of new and old Detroit jazz mixed together. It’s hampered by the opening mediocrity of tracks by Marion Hayden and Kenny Cox. Once you get to prodigious James Carter’s “Many Blessings” on soprano saxophone, you’re in more powerful territory followed by such classics as Joe Henderson’s “Mode for Joe” and Elvin Jones’ pianoless trio tune “Reza” with tenor saxophonist Joe Farrell.
The disc ends with Sheila Jordan singing some droll autobiographical Detroit blues. To make clear who did what and when, producer Don Was should have included dates for each track, to separate conclusively new from old. The whole disc is dedicated to memory of Detroit’s trumpet master Marcus Belgrave who died this year at the end of May. Proceeds will benefit “Focus: Hope.” Ratings: Three stars for both.
– Jeff Simon