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Live Reviews

2002 Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival

By Published: March 12, 2004
Hart Plaza
Detroit, Michigan

August 30-September 2, 2002
Detroit sure knows how to throw a party and every Labor Day weekend for the past 23 years they have invited their hometown fans and neighbors from near and far to take part in what has become the largest free jazz festival in North America. While the talent on hand has been consistently stimulating over the past several years, it’s the non-musical logistics that seem to have made the biggest strides most recently. This year the food vendors took cash, dispensing with the aggravating ticket method that had worn out its welcome long ago. Also worth noting was the new improved set-up of the Waterfront Stage, now assembled to the side of Lake Michigan and covered from the sun, with ample seating provided to boot. As in the past, there’s simply so much going on that it’s impossible to take it all in and overlapping performances kept this journalist hopping at all times. Nonetheless, what follows can surely be considered the highlights of this year’s festivities, even if by necessity the coverage is not all-inclusive. See photos.
Friday, August 31
Although things get started at about 3 o’clock on the opening day, this reviewer needs a few hours after work to wing from Cleveland up to Detroit, check into the hotel, and then make a way to the main stage for usually the last act or two. Competing for an audience, performances by Carl Allen and Legends of the Bandstand commenced within 15 minutes of each and a toss of the coin wouldn’t be out of the question in making such a tough decision. I opted for the latter, choosing to catch a truly all-star ensemble featuring trombone luminary Curtis Fuller, David ‘Fathead’ Newman on flute and tenor sax, Cedar Walton at the piano, and rhythm mates Earl May on bass and Louis Hayes at the drums.

A pleasing, if somewhat restrained, set included many familiar numbers from the pens of Fuller, Newman, and Walton. “Arabia” provided a feature spot for Fuller, although it seemed that throughout the evening his endurance was somewhat limited. Newman’s earthy and organic flute work was particularly attractive on “Delilah” and his tenor as robust as ever on the funky “Hard Times.” Giving an old workhorse a different taste, Cedar Walton allowed “Body and Soul” to float on a lovely bossa nova groove Not to be left out, Hayes had a chance to stretch out at length on the closing “Caravan” and his stature as one of the all-time Detroit legends, not to mention one of the music’s most important drummers, was securely maintained.

Saturday, August 31

Getting a busy Saturday underway, bassist and Detroit native Rodney Whitaker held forth with a quartet that included pianist Rick Roe, saxophonist Diego Rivera, and drummer Randy Gillespie. Bird’s “Air Conditioning” let the quartet’s bop chops get a workout while its title might have subliminally brought cooling thoughts to those caught in the searing afternoon sun. A spate of Whitaker’s melodic and creative originals provided the fodder for the remainder of the set. “Winter Moon” and “Fall Shadows” featured Rivera’s crisp soprano work; with “For Garrison” demonstrating its composer’s own virtuosity as a bassist. On the closing three numbers, a colleague of Whitaker’s from Michigan State University (where Whitaker leads the college’s jazz program) joined the ranks. Derek Gardner was cool and poised as he tore up the changes on “Lady Be Good” and brought an attractive set to a close.

It was then over to the smaller Pyramid Stage for a rare appearance by vocalist Giacomo Gates and his trio including Cleveland-based drummer Greg Bandy. Choosing items from the standard repertoire, Gates not only flaunted some great scatting but also offered a few vocalise gems, providing the lyrics to iconic improvisational lines. It’s not easy vocalizing a Charlie Parker solo, but Gates tore it up on a very accurate run through “Lady Be Good.” His own words to Monk’s “Think of One” offered apropos commentary on society’s overwhelming need for self-gratification. Used sagaciously, Gates included in his own personal devices a technique where he waved the microphone back and forth giving the resultant tone a tremolo or quavering effect. Although he does have an album available from a few years back on Sharp Nine, Gates really needs to step out front more often. He provides the next step in the vocal lineage following the lead of Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson.

Cutting out a few numbers before the conclusion of Gates’ set, it was a quick jog over to the newly-revamped Waterfront Stage for an incendiary performance from trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and her quartet, featuring tenor phenom Seamus Blake. With Gary Versace at the organ, an affinity with the Larry Young classic Unity was strongly evident, Jensen already a heady melodic whiz in the tradition of Woody Shaw. Blake tightly closed his eyes and ripped through each solo with laser precision, creating lines with great cohesion and powerful story-telling appeal. Even with the fairly large crowd on hand, it was a shame that a very busy afternoon made it difficult for even more folks to catch a sound from what had to be among the strongest performances of the entire fest.

With just about an hour to catch some libations, if was right back over to the Amphitheatre Stage for the rest of Saturday evening. First up, drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts brought in his new ensemble fresh off the release of his latest release, Bar Talk. Saxophonist Marcus Strickland, pianist David Budway, bassist John Benitez and guitarist David Gilmore (a last minute replacement for the slated Paul Bollenback) helped Watts create the kind of ‘burn out’ grooves that have been part and parcel of the drummer’s approach since his earliest experiences with Wynton and Branford Marsalis.

A bit of a minor irritation, after Watts and crew presented their first three numbers, they left the stage and all weathered the healthy pause before things were in place for televising the rest of the set (fortunately, the emcee didn’t mispronounce Jeff’s name on the air as she had earlier in the evening). Aside from such distinctive originals as “The Impaler,” “Vodville,” and “Stevie in Rio,” Watts paid homage to the late Kenny Kirkland with a melancholy performance of “The Tonality of Atonement.” The closing “Like a Rose” proved to be a virtual tour-de-force for all hands on deck. Watts set off with an atypical vocal over a slow ballad tempo before the Fender Rhodes kicked in a funk groove that alternated nicely with some fiery swing passages. Gilmore’s rock-inflected guitar turned up the heat even more, although it would be Watts’ pyrotechnics that brought the crowd to their feet. You just have to see the guy in action to fully appreciate his contributions to modern drumming!

It was in a brief few minutes after the end of Watts’ set that I swung over to the Pyramid Stage to catch one or two numbers by Sonny Fortune and his quartet including pianist George Cables, bassist Charles Fambrough, and drummer Steve Johns. The sparks were flying on a tribute number to John Coltrane where Fortune created periods of great tension through the masterful use of circular breathing techniques. Unfortunately, my stay with Fortune was brief as it was back to the main stage for a second dose of Watts, this time as part of Branford Marsalis’ Quartet.

Sticking closely to a set that almost mirrored the tune selection from his newly released Footsteps of Our Fathers, Marsalis and his group (featuring Watts, pianist Joey Calderazzo, and bassist Eric Revis) had to also suffer an interruption in order to prepare for the synchronization of a televised segment of their set. The first two parts of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” brought forth a cathartic recital that found Watts creating the required energy. It was all technically dazzling, yet one had to wonder if there was just a bit of sacrilege in recreating an iconic piece of work so wholly identified with another artist.

Ornette Coleman’s “Giggin’” found Marsalis on soprano saxophone and although the avant-garde tendencies of the tune’s composer were clearly audible, there was more of a sense of Marsalis making the piece his own. A funky “16th Street Baptist Church” brought with it some of the key moments of Marsalis’ performance, as his extended improvisation included some coy moments where “worrying a phrase” seemed to suspend time in animation. “Mr. J.J.” put Calderazzo in the spotlight for a full throttle romp as well as Watts, who would be the inspiration for the wild encore. “Blue Tain” would bring to the stage a large number of musicians who were on hand earlier in the day for a classic jam session, including drummer Carl Allen, saxophonists Marcus Strickland and Diego Rivera, and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. Not something usually seen at this festival, the format seemed to provide a great way to wind down the evening.

Sunday, September 1

Things would get off to a slow start Sunday over at the main Amphitheatre Stage. Mexican native and Detroit mainstay Francisco Mora held forth with his Latin American ensemble that included a full horn section, yet the results overall seemed perfunctory at best. Another local star, organist Gerard Gibbs got things back on track with a stylish and funky set that made the most of the leader’s own estimable chops and those of guitarist Perry Hughes. “Killer Joe” and Jimmy Smith’s “Off the Top” were just two of the scorching numbers that made this act a real crowd pleaser.

Back over to the Waterfront Stage, pianist D.D. Jackson was set to debut his current power trio featuring bassist Ugonna Okegwo and up and coming drum great Dafnis Prieto. In my humble opinion, this was justly the most incendiary and rousing performance of the lot. Jackson has a way of telling a story, starting at a slow simmer and then turning the heat up to full boil. Furthermore, within that framework he may throw in some stride phrases, a dose of Cecil Taylor, and some churchy gospel strains to boot. As solid as Okegwo always is, it would be Prieto who would play the most prominent role in the group after Jackson, contributing musical and technically stunning forays at every turn. Cuts from his recent album, Sigame, such as “Jam Band” and “The Welcoming” brought raves from a crowd that offered appreciation commensurate with what could only be described as jazz at its best.

After a very rewarding set with Dr. Lonnie Smith and his trio, guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg told me it was his first gig with the organist and he was dealing with a broken amplifier, yet you would have never known it. Kreisberg, along with drummer Matt Wilson, responded to Smith’s every move with telepathic accuracy and the organist himself seemed to be having an especially good time as he turned out such comical originals as “Your Mama’s Got a Complex.” With turban on head and a flowing red silk robe, Smith’s facial contortions and audible grunts and groans made him as visually beguiling as he was musically stimulating. Wilson’s extended stay on “Caravan” provided further evidence of his chameleon-like character, a virtue that makes him one of the first-call drummers on the New York scene (Wilson, a genuinely nice fella, gave me an earful after the show of his recent activities, including gigs with Dewey Redman, David Gilmore, Dena DeRose, and Denny Zeitlin).

As Sunday wound down, my time had to be split between violinist Regina Carter’s Quintet and guitarist Mark Whitfield’s set over at the Pyramid Stage. With a healthy mix that was as much jazz as it was Latin-inflected, Carter seemed to astound the crowd over the course of her generous set. Whitfield played to a smaller throng, but was no less charismatic. On his opening gambit, he almost attacked the guitar with a lengthy and dazzling spot that was truly something to witness. “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” might have turned down the tempo, but Whitfield and his trio still seemed hell bent on draining every bit of substance from Herbie Hancock’s ‘60s classic.

Labor Day brought with it a decidedly less provocative line-up, holding the performances of Geri Allen and Joey DeFrancesco until late in the day. As such, for the first time in several years, I opted to skip the festivities on Monday and catch an earlier than usual ride back home to Cleveland. This begs a question, of course. Instead of overlapping so many fine acts on Saturday and Sunday, could they have been spread out over the entire weekend? On a different tangent, there also seemed to be less in the way of Latin/Brazilian music that usually befits the “International” status which is a part of the festival’s nomenclature. Still, beggars can’t always be choosers and there was music enough to satisfy all but the most jaded fan.

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