The Mack Avenue SuperBand features bassist Christian McBride and his own trio members, Carl Allen on drums and pianist Christian Sands, augmented by Tia Fuller’s saxophones and the trumpet of Sean Jones. Add the virtuosity of vibraphone player Gary Burton, and one quickly understands why the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield, Wisconsin, was full on Feb. 13, even in the midst of uninviting weather conditions. That word “superband” is no hyperbole-the possibilities are exciting.
These six musicians, who initially connected because of their mutual association with Mack Avenue Records, have become a working ensemble (although the personnel has been somewhat fluid since its inception-previous members include Rodney Whitaker and Kirk Whalum). McBride is acting as group leader for this go-round and Burton was the best known figure on stage, but this sextet performed comfortably as a group, with every member given numerous opportunities to shine. Each player had an original composition performed, and solos were distributed evenly during both sets.
Two of the evening’s 10 selections were tributes, including the hot opener, “Preach Hank!” This was dedicated to saxman Hank Crawford, famous for leading Ray Charles’ horn section and a successful solo career. The first set also honored the founder of Mack Avenue Records, Gretchen Valade. Jones sheepishly admitted to the audience his promise to Valade that he would compose something for her, but how he then spent years procrastinating. The now-completed piece is titled simply “Gretchen” and was absolutely worth the wait. The number slowly emerged out of a repeated bass note played by McBride. Sands’ piano chords filled the open space, followed by Fuller’s alto and finally the beautiful tone of Jones’ flugelhorn. This gentle number provided a showcase for each member of the group, and included one of Burton’s best vibes solos of the night.
Jones’ original composition was simply titled “Up,” and up it was. The pianist’s precise, chord-driven technique dominated the number, but hot solos were also heard from trumpet, alto sax and vibes. All the while, Allen happily percolated away on drums, with a full but never busy sound. His playing was consistently impressive, particularly when leading the group through tempo changes at unexpected junctures, and when shifting into swing or shuffle patterns. Before playing his original composition “The Sacrifice,” the drummer told the audience that this gig was “a bit surreal” for him, as he is a Milwaukee native. Maybe it was Allen’s hometown status that allowed him two drum features. Fortunately, these percussion solos differed markedly from one another and were, above all, interesting.
In contrast, Fuller’s initial saxophone solos often seemed disconnected from the piece being played. She knew where she was going, but was not always able to take the audience along with her. Then came Fuller’s own composition, “Decisive Steps.” This work gave her a lengthy solo spot, and it was here, on this larger canvas, that Fuller was able to develop her musical themes. This expanded exploration contained her best playing of the night, and her earlier solos now made sense: she had been trying to present too many ideas in a small amount of space. The second set continued with a ballad that Burton had written especially to feature the sound of Fuller’s soprano saxophone, called “All You Have to Be Is You.” This number included a setting for vibes and sax interplay, followed by a call-and-response interaction between bass and drums. These musical dialogs were among the night’s many high points.
Closing the concert was “Test of Time.” The sound of a muted trumpet, coupled with an understated alto saxophone, brought the group as close to the blues as it had come all night. McBride now bowed his bass for the first time. Then, just as suddenly, the bow was put away and he set down a walking bass line. Jones’ mute was likewise cast aside and impossibly high trumpet notes were successfully sought. Allen took the tempo to a double time and the band swung hard before the pace once again became calm, with this number, and the concert, ending in tranquility. Within this single work, “Test of Time” encapsulated the flexible nature of this sextet.
The SuperBand is on the road to promote the Mack Avenue record label and the collective’s latest release, a live recording from the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival-its fourth annual set from the event. Some of the evening’s compositions were even more recent. Burton introduced an original so new that he had not even decided on a name. He told the audience it might be titled “The Road Home,” since he would be going home the following day. I initially thought he meant that Milwaukee was the last night of the tour. But no: Burton was travelling to Indiana for his mother’s 100th birthday celebration. Let’s hope that Gary Burton has inherited some of his mother’s genes for longevity. The jazz world is a better place with him in it, both for his great talent and for his great generosity toward fellow musicians.