Straight Ahead at the Blue LLama

Live music is not entirely back but Saturday night April 3 gave a strong indication that the path is clearing. Straight Ahead played two rousing sets at the Blue LLama in Ann Arbor for a socially distanced crowd that ate, drank and enjoyed the veteran contemporary jazz quartet that enthusiastically was pleased to play to a live and streamed audience.

Bassist Marion Hayden, pianist Alina Morr, drummer GayeLynn McKinney and guest Leslie DeShazor on the electric viola played their mix of Latin music, originals and the jazz that not only identifies their sound, but harkens back to their origins when Regina Carter was a founding member.

The kicker was the Larry Willis classic “To Wisdom the Prize” — a marvelous piece that stands the test of time as a memorable modal melody and rhythm. Nat Adderley’s “Azul Serape” followed in much the same stance for its historical importance and the authenticity that Straight Ahead interprets it. A SEMJA Review Pete Escovedo Latin cha cha cooker loosely titled “A Bailar” has infectious rhythms — really a showcase for the immense and underappreciated (similar to Charles Boles and the late Gary Schunk) talents of Morr. She digs in, adding supportive chords, has wit and wisdom wrapped in a calm demeanor, and supports the band with every phrase for sure in each measure. Pat Metheny’s “Minuano” (in 6/8 time signature) is unique in the wordless vocal treatment via McKinney in that DeShazor is upfront but does not sing. Believe me in my personal experience singing while drumming is tricky at best but GayeLynn pulls it off. The Eddie Harris evergreen “Listen Here” identfied the set in familiar funky style — exclamation point.

In set number 2 the band did a unique version of “Li’l Liza Jane” in New Orleans Second Line fashion. The funky and at times swinging tune sports an arrangement by trumpeter Nicholas Payton — very enjoyable universally and so much fun. Montuno King Eddie Palmieri contributed “Hey Que Rico,”a song allowing Morr to dig in where she is expert in the repetitive phrases. Hayden’s “Joy” is another signature staple coming from one of her albums as a leader. Of course she’s solid as a rock and exceptionally consistent as a player and ostensible leader.

A Brazilian bossa/samba “Barumba” was lacking nothing as far as energy or authenticity with the drumming of McKinney driving the band. The finale was a funky version of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” which in essence was the overall mood of the band and patrons. In fact, the two hours of music was just enough.

At the end of the night all were full of great food courtesy of Chef Louis, music and good vibes thanks to the Blue Llama staff and host Dave Sharp.

GayeLynn McKinney and the McKinney Zone appears at the Blue Llama Saturday, May 8 for two shows.