Sometimes Rick Steiger feels like the Sun Messengers have been around 30 minutes. And sometimes it feels like 300 years.
But the Detroit R&B/jazz octet’s 30th anniversary is not a landmark the saxophonist and his bandmates take lightly.
“It’s pretty amazing when I think that it’s been 30 years,” says Steiger, 54, who also serves as the Sun Messenger’s manager, marketer and booking agent. “It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but it has.”
The group’s anniversary, in fact, is something of a nebulous mark. It actually formed during 1978 in Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood as the percussion-heavy, Afro-Caribbean flavored Kuumba, then changed its name, and added more horns, to become the Sun Messengers in 1980. The group, with remaining founders Steiger and trombonist John “T-Bone” Paxton, observed its real-time 30th last year by receiving a Detroit Music Award for Distinguished Achievement, but the release of its first CD in a dozen years, “Get On Up and Dance,” is as good a reason as any to celebrate three decades of music-making.
“I chalk up doing 30 years to the fact we’ve been able to stay relevant to people and their desires of what they like in music,” says Steiger, who also operates a mail-order business specializing in world music. “We’ve been able to tap into an all-time kind of Detroit vibe that resonates with people. It’s not just a band that plays clubs. It’s not just a band that plays weddings. Since we’ve been able to market ourselves in more than one market, we work more.
“And, the fact is, I’ve never found anything I like to do better.”
With an estimated 75-100 musicians who have traveled through its ranks — including saxophonist James Carter, organist Lyman Woodard, local blues and jazz impresario R.J. Spangler and Sun Ra/Kool & the Gang trumpeter Michael Ray — the Sun Messengers have made their mark around the state and beyond.
The group is a regular feature at Detroit Pistons games and plays monthly at the MotorCity Casino. Other notable gigs have included former Michigan Gov. John Engler’s 40th birthday party, the Detroit 300th birthday concert in 2001 at Hart Plaza and, for two years running, Mackinac Island’s Labor Day weekend jazz festival.
The group has also backed artists such as Martha Reeves, Sir Mack Rice and the Drifters, and it’s gone out of state on many occasions; during 1989, in fact, it performed at New York’s famed CBGB’s the night before playing a Rockefeller family wedding on Long Island.
“It goes to show the kind of band we are,” says Steiger. “We don’t consider ourselves a jazz band, but we have those kinds of skills. We have a whole kind of Frank Sinatra/Count Basie side to the band, and we have the whole R&B thing we do really well that most people know us for. We can go into any situation and play what’s right for it.”
Longtime guitarist Dan Mayer, a Royal Oak resident, adds that “over the years, our musicianship has just gotten higher, and ... the Sun Messengers have been able to attract and even higher class of musicians. Everyone in the band makes sure to deliver each time we play.”
The group certainly does that on “Get On Up and Dance,” a seven-song set co-produced by Steiger and drummer-singer Terry “Thunder” Hughley at Roscoe’s Recording in Detroit.
The album is heavy on originals, such as “Let’s Juke” and “Groove City” by keyboardist Arthur “Speq” Colden, and the Steiger-penned “Talk is Cheap” and title track, but it also nods to the Sun Messengers’ expansive covers repertoire with former trumpeter and now Wayne State University music instructor Russ Miller’s funk arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.”
“Even though our market is covers, we wanted to highlight our original material,” says Steiger, noting that songs such as “Talk Is Cheap” and “Get On Up and Dance” have been around since the early ’90s, and “Crazy ’Bout You Baby” is even older. “Since it’s our 30th anniversary, we decided to pull out some of the chestnuts from the past that are still relevant to our sound today.
“We did ‘Crazy ’Bout You Baby’ at The Palace the other night, and one of the ushers said, ‘I like that song. It’s kind of like Michael Buble,’ so it works for people.”
As the group celebrates turning 30 — or, if you prefer, 31 — the prospects for a 40th anniversary, and beyond, loom. Guitarist Miller predicts that, “I don’t think anybody’s going anywhere,” and while Steiger laments the impact the economy has made on the band’s bookings — particularly for private functions — he’s confident about the near future.
“The band is so well established that whenever someone is having a party, the name comes up,” he says. “The challenge, of course, is to stay relevant. We want to play party music, and those tastes change. So for cover material we’re always looking for the right stuff that fits what we do and fits our sound.
“I can’t say the Sun Messengers will go on forever, but we have a booking or two for 2012 already. As long as that phone keeps writing, I think we’ll keep doing it for a while, at least.”
The Sun Messengers celebrate their 30th anniversary and the release of their new CD, "Get On Up and Dance," at 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 18-19, at the Blue Goose Inn, 28911 Jefferson Ave., St. Clair Shores. Cover is $5. Call 586-294-0690 or visit www.sunmessengers.com.
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