Straight Ahead’s Cohesion Keeps the Rhythm Moving Forward

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Friday, June 21, 2019, 6:58 am
By: 
Christopher A. Wardell

Straight Ahead will perform at the East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival from 9:45 to
11 p.m. Saturday on the Founder’s Main Stage. Pictured in this photo, from left to right, are band members Kymberli Wright, Marion Hayden, Yancyy, Gayelynn McKinney and Alina Moor. 

When the original members of Detroit’s female-fronted jazz troupe Straight Ahead reunited in 2018, it became quickly apparent no one had missed a beat.

The group’s current lineup consists of violinist Regina Carter, bassist Marion Hayden, drummer Gayelynn McKinney, keyboardist Alina Moor, vocalist and saxophone, Kymberli Wright, Cynthia Dewberry on vocals and flute, and saxophonist Yancyy. The ensemble is gigging once again and turning heads in clubs and festivals all over the country.

While Carter left the group in the late 1990s to focus on a solo career, McKinney said Straight Ahead never really stopped with McKinney, Moor, and Hayden continuing to carry the torch.   

“We’ve had a few different players in the front line but, Marion, Alina, and I (the core rhythm section) have been performing together the whole time,” McKinney said. “It was absolutely a blast reconnecting with Regina again. It was like we’d been playing together the whole time without the long break.”

The group’s blend of mainstream jazz, rhythm and blues, Brazilian funk, hard bop, pre-bop, and avant garde has been making splashes since their formation over 30 years ago. The group released its first album, “Look Straight Ahead,” on the Atlantic Jazz record label in 1991. They quickly followed with 1993’s “Body and Soul,” and capped their run on Atlantic with 1995’s “Dance of the Forest Rain”. The latter received high praise from Branford Marsalis who called Straight Ahead “a monster outfit that truly swings!”

The Grammy-nominated group once opened for Nina Simone at the 1990 Montreaux-Switzerland Jazz Festival Dance and, after leaving the band after Dance, Carter began gigging solo. One particular special performance included performing as part of a string quartet at a house party hosted by Aretha Franklin.

All of the members of Straight Ahead are accomplished solo musicians in their own right, with a litany of projects and music among them. 

With such a legacy behind them, McKinney looks back fondly but also realizes the group still has to keep the ball rolling.

“Speaking for myself, I just keep pushing forward,” McKinney said. “Time is moving so fast that I don’t realize that we’ve moved onto legacy status. Music is a constant journey and you never know where it’s going to lead to next, so it’s hard to keep thinking about the past. You can only move forward.”

‘We all come from different musical influences’

While each member has a variety of influences and tastes, the group still finds a way to blend their different styles onstage, making for a different performance every time. McKinney said it’s important to keep bringing in fresh perspectives.

“We all come from different musical influences,” McKinney said. “The way it evolves is to stay current. I personally like checking out the younger musicians and seeing what new ideas they bring to jazz and music in general. Marion has a son named Tariq, who is a drummer. He brings us music to check out sometimes and if we like it, we’ll incorporate it into our repertoire. Or, we may like some aspect of the music he brings us (like rhythm or bass feel), and breathe new life into an old song.”

The group has plans to record again in the future, but right now, the outfit is focused primarily on live shows.

“We will probably record again at some point,” McKinney said. “We all have other projects that we are doing, as well as Straight Ahead, but one thing is for sure, we will continue to perform together.”

Straight Ahead has played previously at the Lansing JazzFest but McKinney is looking forward to the group’s Summer Solstice debut. She also hopes to leave the crowds wanting more.

While festivals are different from club gigs, McKinney said the band always has a good time.

“Festivals are a little different as we have one performance, so we plan our set a little different than we would plan a club date,” McKinney said. “Club dates usually have more than one show, so you can be a little more expansive. However, I will say that I really enjoy performing at festivals. The audience is there to hear music and usually they show a lot of love and energy.”

For more information about the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, check out eljazzfest.com.

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