The Makanda Project is dedicated to performing works by the late saxophonist and composer Makanda Ken McIntyre. The pianist and band leader John Kordalewski was given access to many unperformed tunes and scores, and has assembled a band featuring several of Boston's best musicians (among them John Lockwood, Charlie Kohlhase, Kurtis Rivers, Yoron Israel and Jerry Sabatini), plus the occasional special guest, to bring them to life. Their home base is the drab but cozy auditorium at the Boston Public Library's Dudley Square Branch (beautifully lit up at night), in the desire to present the music in the community where McIntyre grew up.
The compositions are all first rate and the arrangements take clever pathways down seemingly familiar roads, allowing much space for improvisation, especially from this concert's featured guest, the great alto saxophonist Oliver Lake. Lake moves easily from fluid beboppy lines, to biting blues tones, free-jazz squonks and snarls, and smoochy soul slow jams as called for, or even in place of what you might expect. The band's lineup seems to be fluid, likely depending on who's available for each show. I'm not sure if this was the standard ensemble configuration, but on this particular evening featured an almost standard big band line up, but along with the rhythm section and the standard five saxophones, there were three trombones, one trumpet, and wordless female voice on top. I'm not clear if this is McIntyre's or Kordalewski's idea (or just a result of circumstance) but it gives the arrangements a unique sound, and Diane Richardson performs her role superbly, contributing a distinctive sound, but without calling undue attention to it's distinction, either. (I can't think of another big band that does this, but Joe Lovano has done some similar things with three or four horns plus voice. There's also McCoy Tyner's album Inner Voices, which features a chorus singing like a horn section.)
My only quibble would be the sound of the group that resulted from all the horns being squished in together stage left, while piano, bass and drums took up the other half of the stage (the horns were unamplified except for soloists). On the boisterous calypso number that ended the first set, the horns stepped out from the stage to walk around and through the audience, and the sound really opened up. I'm sure the musicians are more familiar with what works in that space, but it seems like it wouldn't hurt to experiment a little.
If all of this sounds horribly pretentious, trust me, it's not. The performers and the performances were all audience friendly without being condescending or pandering. As I said, the attempt is to bring the music to the composer's home community, and while there certainly were several people like you see at the city's jazz clubs, the Celebrity Series or at college performances, there were more regular folks (for lack of a better term) from the neighborhood checking things out (along with a few I'm sure were just looking for free entertainment), hopefully getting intrigued enough to head out to those other venues, where they're sorely missing (and needed).