A homecoming for guitarist and vocalist Michael Gregory Jackson and a return Valley engagement for the Boston-based Makanda Project came together to rock Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on Saturday, January 26 as Season 7 of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares rolled on.
The guitarist, who has reclaimed his last name after dropping it years ago, lived in the Valley for decades, and there were lots of old friends among the 130 people transfixed by some powerful, blues-drenched music. I suspect Jackson also made more than a few new friends over the course of the evening.
The 13-piece Makanda Project was founded in 2005 by pianist and arranger John Kordalewski to expand the legacy of the Boston-born, internationally-recognized reed player and composer, Makanda Ken McIntyre (1931–2001.) They gave a riveting Jazz Shares concert at the Springfield Community Music School in 2014. In recent years they have begun to reach out to a few special guests such as Ricky Ford to collaborate with the ensemble. Concerts this spring in Roxbury, featuring Marty Ehrlich and Chico Freeman, are on tap. Long-live the large ensemble.
Over his 40-year career, Jackson has had one foot in the avant-garde jazz world (Wadada Leo Smith and Oliver Lake are two long-time associates), and one foot in pop/singer songwriter territory. Kordalewski used Duke Ellington’s oft-cited phrase, “beyond category” to describe Jackson’s place in the music. Even so, I was unprepared, but very pleased, that the program contained so much blues.
On Jackson originals such as “Heart and Center” and Ku-umba Frank Lacy’s “Settegast Strut”, I heard echoes of Magic Sam blowing over a horn section, full of funk, jump blues, and that great wail. The evening closed in dramatic fashion as all of the horns: Paavo Carey, Jason Robinson, Charlie Kohlhase, Kurtis Rivers and Sean Berry (saxophones), and Haneef Nelson, Ku-umba Frank Lacy, Alfred Patterson, Bill Lowe and Jerry Sabatini, (brass), left the stage to wind through the crowd towards the end of Jackson’s “Blue Blue”, leaving the excellent rhythm section, John Lockwood (bass), Yoron Israel (drums), Kordalewski and Jackson alone on the dais. It was a joyful, life-affirming moment.
What made things even more exciting was the creative riffing of horns behind Jackson’s solos. Often, baritone saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase, bass trombonist Bill Lowe or Kordalewski would increase intensity by conjuring odd little figures for their mates to play while Jackson tore it up. Excitement was further amplified by consistently excellent horn solos. Typical blues bands allot highly prescribed 8 to 16 bar solos for instrumentalists. Because the Makanda Project is populated by accomplished jazz musicians, individual statements transcended the perfunctory, adding fervor and a surfeit of interesting ideas.
Jackson’s two other original compositions, “Just Another Day” and “We Are”, featured dulcet vocals from the New Haven-born guitarist, providing beautiful sonic respite from the extroverted drive of the rest of the offerings. That I could clearly hear the lyrics was a testament to both the sensitivity of the band and the engineering acumen of sound man Jared Libby.
The evening’s penultimate piece, McIntyre’s “Spectrum”, provided a welcome cacophony. The tricky head quickly gave way to a jarring slab of sound that pinned us to the back wall. After spending all evening in a feel-good place, the dissonant energy was oddly refreshing, invigorating even.
Kudos to John Kordalewski, who despite current trends and against all odds, has managed to keep a top-level big band together for over a decade, while spreading the gospel according to Makanda.