These days it’s tough to create and sustain a jazz label that has any real impact. One challenge is that, as guitarist Marc Ribot has pointed out, jazz artists suffer a great deal more than pop artists when it comes to free downloading. There’s also the lack of exposure for jazz in general. If record companies overall are on shaky ground, how can jazz labels survive in these hard times?
Apparently, though, the right jazz label with the right formula can still make its presence felt. A case in point is Mack Avenue, launched in 1999. With more than 200 releases under its belt, Mack Avenue (www.mackavenue.com) has evolved into a leading jazz marque. Increasingly its roster includes long-established artists whose work is familiar to veteran jazz fans and whose names will quickly pop up when newcomers do their homework. Clearly, too, the company has an ear for new talent.
Mack Avenue stems from Detroit, a city that boasts a rich jazz legacy and a scene that remains lively. Even during the 1950s and 60s, when modern jazz peaked in popularity, major jazz labels were concentrated on the coasts, and it’s nice to see more activity in the middle. Here I’ll admit bias, as I also live in a rust belt city with a grittiness that’s been part of the jazz tradition since the beginning. Along with the re-energized Delmark Records in Chicago, Mack Avenue helps give jazz more of a Midwestern presence, something underscored by the fact that the owner of Mack Avenue, Gretchen Carhartt Valade, has been pivotal in keeping the long-running Detroit Jazz Festival alive.
Although not limited to that, much of Mack Avenue’s catalog is devoted to acoustic jazz. Recently Gary Burton has released two albums on the label with a very special quartet. In TAS Issue 238 Bill Milkowski reviewed the group’s sophomore effort, which shares the same qualities I like about their debut, Common Ground: guitarist Julian Lage is a lyrical player with a lovely acoustic-electric tone, and the unusually tasteful rhythm section includes drummer Antonio Sanchez, whom you may know for his extensive work with a previous Burton sideman, Pat Metheny. Highlights on Common Ground included warm readings of “My Funny Valentine” and “In Your Quiet Place,” a Keith Jarrett composition that appears on an LP the pianist co-led with Burton in 1971.
In just a few years bassist Christian McBride has built up an impressive body of work with Mack Avenue in a variety of settings, including a big band, quintet, and piano trio. The Good Feeling, 2012 Grammy winner for large ensemble, is a straight-ahead, swinging affair that will appeal to fans of the big band tradition. The quintet on McBride’s Kind of Brown (reviewed by Milkowski in Issue 206) includes the Mack Avenue rising star Warren Wolf, a young vibes player who’s already led two albums on the label.
In my review (last issue) of WomanChild by up-and-coming jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, I noted how the young singer displays an uncanny mastery of jazz, blues, and folk dating back to the early twentieth century. Her renditions don’t feel like a history lesson; rather, they feel like now. The sparse arrangements demand the highest level of musicianship from pianist Aaron Diehl, who also has a recording out on Mack Avenue.
What I’ve yet to mention is that, along with coming out as CDs and 96/24 downloads, the titles mentioned here have all been released on vinyl (as have recent albums by Yellowjackets, Kevin Eubanks, Kenny Garrett, and Stanley Jordan). At this point Mack Avenue’s vinyl projects are reserved for bigger names—and Cécile McLorin Salvant, who seems a sure bet for widespread recognition. Each release is on 180-gram-or-higher vinyl with limited runs on the stampers; the mastering is done by Kevin Gray at Cohearant. Because all the vinyl releases contain two LPs, they include all the cuts that appear on the CD. (The McLorin Salvant and Eubanks vinyl releases actually add extra cuts.)
Sonic highpoints include the Cécile McLorin Salvant LP, where the intimate recording matches the high level of artistry, and the two Christian McBride albums mentioned earlier, The Good Feeling and Kind of Brown, both engineered by Grammy-winning Joe Ferla. Pressed on 210-gram vinyl, Kind of Brown may be my favorite. McBride is a remarkably fluid player, and to hear a recording that captures his intonation and warm tone so clearly is a joy. The recording has plenty of air as well as detail that highlights the interplay of a tight-knit quintet as it navigates a mix of bop, ballads, and blues.