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Mari McNeil explores jazz standards at release party for her new CD

Jazz vocalist Mari McNeil sings from the heart. Her emotive voice can warm the body like a winter night’s embrace, and her exhaled lyrics can soothe even the most restless Nickel City soul. This is her sound, always laced with words of love.

That’s why it’s no surprise that McNeil used her Friday night performance and CD release party inside the Marfield Room at Buffalo’s Trinity Episcopal Church to both stoke passions and raise money for the nutrition-focused efforts of the city’s Massachusetts Avenue Project.

“All the songs that I sing are about love,” said McNeil, who hoped to raise $2,500 for MAP’s work concerning equitable food systems throughout the community during a two-hour show. “If you don’t feed people properly and help them to be healthy, you’re not loving them. That’s why I think [MAP] is one of the most loving organizations for the work they do.”

McNeil’s own work has included a transition from 12 years (and two albums) of folk to her current four-year-old journey into jazz standards and hidden gems. Her new album, “Here Beneath The Blue,” explores both, and it does so with a home-based quintet behind it. Local names like Wayne Moose (bass), John Bacon (drums), Tim Clarke (trumpet), and Michael McNeill (piano) are a fabulous four on their own. Add the endless resume of saxophonist and flutist Bobby Militello to the mix and you’ve got a superb starting five for any recording, performance or fundraiser.

Friday’s sold-out event confirmed this.

On the night’s opening tandem of E.Y. Harburg’s “Old Devil Moon” and Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” which both appear on “Here Beneath The Blue,” McNeil set the mood as musicians put their stamp on sections of each. Moose’s baseline walked McNeil into Porter’s classic before Bacon, Stevens and Clarke eased in to carry the tune to its conclusion. On Harburg’s number, Militello simply flashed his flute and stole the song, delighting the house with same skills that have backed the likes of Doc Severinson and Dave Brubeck.

“When Bobby was playing on the album, I realized I had to up my game significantly in order to not become a wallflower,” McNeil said. “He’s changed the way I sing, just as all the other band members have.”

Together, they spent the rest of the night’s benefit relaxing the crowd with such noteworthy selections as the Academy Award-winning “Shadow of Your Smile” and the Judy Garland-inspired “I Remember You,” as well as McNeil album tracks like the Frank Sinatra-helmed “Coffee Song” and Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You.” All served notice that McNeil has indeed moved on from her folk genre days and into a new realm of artistic interaction.

“People have said [jazz] fits me like a glove. They liked my folk incarnation, but with those songs, I was writing from a place of unhappiness. This music comes from pure joy and connection. There’s no guitar between the audience and me. It’s pure interaction between me and the listener.”

Such was evident on McNeil’s second-set rendition of “Caravan,” made popular by Duke Ellington and the inspiration for McNeil’s album title. The song is about romance, but also about separate entities taking a united journey under the same blue sky.

“That song captures the idea of connectedness,” said McNeil. “It’s not just about my family and me. It’s about the community.”

On a night that featured one of Buffalo’s best vocalists and some of its finest musicians to advance the work of one of the city’s strongest grassroots programs, there may not have been a more perfect theme song for their union.