When artistic freedom is coupled with the synergy that can develop between "old heads and new", the best jazz can result. In that regard, no young independent label boasts a more impressive mix of big names and young Turks than Detroit-based Mack Avenue Records. Begun by drummer Stix Hooper to release newly recorded music from legendary artists, Mack Avenue is quickly becoming a place that energizes renowned jazz musicians and ensures that younger players don't lose sight of what came before. A music-comes-first attitude permeates, as public relations representative Cary Goldberg states, "...it's really a label that's about the music...If we only do five or six releases a year...that's fine...as long as they are releases that have the musical integrity that everybody at the label hopes for."
Both vibraphonist Terry Gibbs and pianist George Shearing are on the short list of stylists who have redefined their respective instruments. Shearing, with a "touch" that is unmistakable in its elegance, and Gibbs, who helped take the vibraphone from novelty to serious jazz instrument, have careers that stretch across seven decades. While Shearing is perhaps best known for his quintets, Like Fine Wine
presents this master in a wonderfully intimate piano/guitar/bass trio. Shearing is allowed plenty of room to lend his signature sound to Trane's "Giant Steps", Dizzy's "Con Alma" and Oscar Pettiford's "Tricotism". Gibbs has put together a session on 52nd & Broadway: Songs Of The Bebop Era
that clearly exemplifies the Mack Avenue mindset. Bebop standards are recast through the skills of saxophonist James Moody and the strong young horn of trumpeter Nicholas Payton against the backdrop of a 24-member string section. The difficult task of presenting a classic corpus of work that includes "'Round Midnight", "Cherokee" and "Night in Tunisia" in a new light is accomplished by having the strings arranged as if they were brass. Gibbs of course adds the unique voice of his vibes to each cut making them even more special.
Orchestra leader Gerald Wilson's latest effort is perhaps the best evidence that Mack Avenue's philosophy is a reality. Impressive instrumentalists within the context of Wilson's technically superior arranging skills and ground breaking creativity has the Grammy-nominated New York New Sound
projecting a wide open big band energy. Featuring Trane's "Equinox" and Miles' "Milestones" along with eight originals, Wilson ensures that an orchestra of venerable greats and younger stars projects a crisp clear sound. To impart a "New York" sound to songs like his delightfully soothing "Blues for Yna Yna" and the catchy "Theme for Monterey", Wilson has assembled a band that features flugelhornist/ trumpeter Clark Terry and tenor saxophonists Frank Wess and Jimmy Heath along with younger stars such as pianist Kenny Barron and drummers Lewis Nash and Stix Hooper. With close to 70 years in jazz and stints with Jimmie Lunceford, Basie and Ellington, Wilson is able to command the respect that turns this orchestra of leaders into a cohesive musical statement. As Goldberg relates, Wilson's time is now, "People want to play his arrangements...It's his time and it's well overdue...Finally people are beginning to recognize who he is and what he is all about..."
Sean Jones, the youngest of six trumpeters in Gerald Wilson's orchestra and nearly 60 years Clark Terry's junior, could not escape notice. Eternal Journey
, Mack Avenue's release of his debut as a leader, fully reveals this soulfully powerful player. Jones sweetly soothes with a rich tone on the beautiful ballads "Eternal Journey" and the touching self composed testimony to his late father, "John". The former features an exquisite flute solo by its composer Tia Fuller and artfully understated percussive augmentation by top NYC drummer Ralph Peterson while the latter is an unhurried exploration of the piece's melody by Jones, Fuller on soprano and pianist Orrin Evans. With a rhythm section that, in addition to Peterson, also claims top bassist Charles Fambrough, Jones is kept on course for selfcomposed forays like "Searching" with its upbeat post bop line, his leisurely drive down "95 South", the rhythmically exciting "At the Last Minute" and his quickly moving encounter with Fambrough on "The Serpent". Pianist Mulgrew Miller celebrates Jones' debut by joining the band on four standards, the highlight of which is a sensitive piano/trumpet duo interpretation of "God Bless the Child".
Whereas Jones clearly celebrates the tonal trumpet tradition, two of Mack Avenue's other young players, saxophonist Ron Blake and pianist Eugene Maslov are not so easily categorized. As a veteran of personal projects that included heavy doses of Blake's native Virgin Island rhythm and as a member of bassist Christian McBride's band, Blake is no stranger to the NYC jazz scene. His Mack Avenue debut, Lest We Forget
, however, falls directly in line with the label's respect for what came before, both in its use of Blake's musical associations to date and in its reverence for a trio of jazz icons. Produced by native Philadelphian McBride, who also plays on the session, it is a testimonial to three late jazzers who are among the greatest ever associated with the city of brotherly love: saxophonists Grover Washington Jr. and Stanley Turrentine and B3 organist Charles Earland. Goldberg describes Blake as "one of the most eclectic musicians I have ever met" and his versatility, along with a large sound that transcends genre, enables him to present tunes like Washington's "Happenstance" and "Mister Magic" in a way that makes you forget that "smooth" these days is a dirty word. To do the B3 honors, Blake has chosen wisely in including another Philadelphian in Joey DeFrancesco who cooks on tunes like Earland's "Mighty Burner" (highlighting the trumpet skills of Virgin Islander Rashawn Ross) and Turrentine's "Sara's Dance" and "Minor Chant".
Filling out Mack Avenue's young frontline is Russian born and classically trained pianist Eugene Maslov. With three releases thus far, Maslov shows himself to possess virtuoso pianistic passion and a classical precision that belies his jazzman's soul. His style, that can evince both classical and jazz in a single line, is amenable to a wide variety of settings. His latest CD, The Fuse is Lit
, continues this trend with five diverse trio offerings ranging from the quickly moving "To My Teacher/To My Friend" to a pensive interpretation of John Lewis' "Django". In addition, Maslov is joined on several cuts by Pete Christlieb on tenor sax and flutist Hubert Laws. Laws shows his own melodic mastery on the pretty "Dream of Dreams" and Christlieb turns an otherwise soulful "Guru" into a hot cooker. Jones, Blake and Maslov have begun touring as the Mack Avenue Allstars. By all accounts the future is in good hands.
Visit Mack Avenue Records on the web at www.mackaverecords.com .