Mack Avenue SuperBand Finds Groove at L.A.’s Disney Hall


Christian McBride performs as part of the Mack Avenue SuperBand at the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival

(Photo: Doug Coombe)

When strong, individually driven jazz players gather under the umbrella of an organizational agenda, such as a road show or an all-star confab, the artistry can get tricky or tenuous. It can feel like a “forced marriage” scenario, where the parties involved are beholden to make the best of the situation. But it’s also a setting in which gifted players can create some surprising fireworks.

Both the virtues and some of the pitfalls of the format come into play with the group known as the Mack Avenue SuperBand, which veered westward for the tail end of its touring stint, putting on a roundly enjoyable (if sometimes disjointed) show at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Hall Concert Hall on April 1.

This band has been around for a spell, with varying membership, but the current line-up is a bold and cohesive one, featuring Gary Burton on vibes and Christian McBride on bass. Elsewhere on the bandstand, the rhythm section was filled out by masterful veteran drummer Carl Allen and the talented emerging pianist Christian Sands.

At this show, the horn frontline consisted of formidable and tasteful trumpeter Sean Jones, the robust saxophonist Tia Fuller (on alto and soprano) and the soul-fueled tenor saxophonist Kirk Whalum, whose hale and hearty Hank Crawford tribute song, “Preach Hank,” kicked off a satisfying if not especially adventurous set list at Disney Hall.

Part of what distinguishes this band from other label- or festival-spawned touring groups is the home team it represents: Mack Avenue Records has been an inspiring success story tied to the generous spirit of label founder and proud Detroiter Gretchen Valade, who has also been a benevolent and driving force in the success of the Detroit Jazz Festival (where this band was more or less born). She has been a model citizen in the too-rare niche of affluent cultural philanthropy directed at jazz. By way of toasting the home base and its matriarchal facilitator, Jones’ original for this program was the touching waltz ballad “Gretchen,” the balladic sweet spot of the evening.

Burton and McBride generally cover disparate waterfronts in their solo careers, but both share a reputation as gentle yet firm bandleaders and team players, qualities which help to solidify this band of parts seeking a whole.

Each supplied a strong original tune to the show, Burton with his brand new Horace Silver-esque tune, “On Lakeshore Drive” (dedicated to his son and daughter, in the house that night), and McBride with his fluid and infectious “Paint Brushes.” McBride’s tune actually provided a vehicle for Burton’s most memorable solo of the night—he is prone to shine on terrain where lyricism meets musical twists.

Sometimes, the players rose to the highest expressive occasion on the turf of their own compositions, as with Allen’s engaging improvisational turn on his Latin-esque hard bop tune, and Fuller’s fiery and semi-free soprano solo on her aptly-titled uptempo tune “Decisive Steps.”

It all ended on a high note, with Sands impressing from yet another angle with his own musical contribution. His tune was given a solid reading by a warmed-up and more-than-game band of mates, however temporary.

Opening the evening with a neo-soul vibe, vocalist José James (backed by a trio, including drummer Nate Smith) summoned up his special blend of warmth, gospel glow, low-key rap and surprise jolts of jazz sophistication for a gusty reading of “Red Clay.” The vocalist laid out the groove-lined groundwork for a night of jazz and related notions, more about carefully tending the genre than pushing boundaries, but potent nonetheless.

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