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Live Reviews

2000 Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival

By Published: March 12, 2004
Detroit, Michigan
September 1-4, 2000B

Even though Chicago often gets the publicity for its gratis offering of jazz events during each Labor Day weekend, the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival is actually the largest free jazz fest in North America. Held on the riverfront in the spacious confines of Hart Plaza, this event drew some 800,000 fans last year with its impressive line up of over 120 acts appearing on five stages over the course of four days. This year’s 21st annual party was as impressive as any in recent memory and changes in name and leadership have apparently been for the best. Now fully established as a first-class affair, the Montreux affiliation has been dropped. And with a nod towards diversity, interim artistic director and legendary Detroit radio celebrity Ed Love, taking over from the departing Jim Dulzo, managed to cover a good deal of ground while pleasing everyone in the long run. From national acts to local legends, free jazz to bop, Afro-Cuban to Brazilian, if you weren’t able to find something to suit your tastes, you just weren’t trying hard enough! Although too numerous to mention, some of the key headliners from this year’s fest included Abbey Lincoln, Pancho Sanchez, Steve Turre, Dr. John, Nancy Wilson, and the Mingus Big Band.
With hundreds of acts appearing on five stages from 12 noon to 12 midnight each day, it’s physically impossible to take it all in. As a result, the coverage that follows focuses on the national headliners who performed on the two main stages over the course of Saturday, Sunday and Monday. In actuality, there are numerous performance outlets each day set aside for local talents and high school and college ensembles, adding an integral educational component to the festival as well.
Saturday, September 2
Fortunately, most of the main acts of the day held forth at the large Ford/Verizon Wireless stage. Sound is consistently excellent and there’s always space to get up close to the stage, yet the humid weather made the few shady areas prime and desirable locations. The JazzTimes Superband was up first on the bill, with tenor man Bob Berg and trumpeter Randy Brecker being backed by organist Joey De Francesco and drummer Dennis Chambers. Connecting immediately with the burgeoning throng, “Dirty Dog” proved to be a tasty shuffle that found De Francesco wasting no time in turning on the crowd-pleasing histrionics. Another blues shuffle of his own concoction, “Blue Goo,” came a few tunes later and De Francesco let loose with one of those repeated note solos that builds tension while managing to sound like a chirping telegraph machine.

Berg and Brecker were both on their toes, the former strutting that muscular tone of his to great effect on a ballad performance of “I Thought About You” and the latter displaying his admirable range throughout the waltz tempo of “Sometime Ago.” With chops to spare, Chambers managed to push the soloists with just the right amount of force without overwhelming the entire ensemble. His fills at the conclusion of “Oleo” included some one-handed maneuvers that had folks scratching their heads in disbelief. Far from being a mere publicity exploiter, this “superband” lived up to its name.

After a set change, we heard from a gentleman who just may be the most prominent new voice on the vibes, 27-year-old Stefon Harris. With two Blue Note albums under his belt and a heap of talent at his disposal, Harris and his working band offered a seamless array of original tunes and inspired arrangements of a few standards. The integration of soloist and backing was a marvel throughout, with drummer Terreon Gully so damn musical and slick that he managed to anticipate and compliment Harris’ every move. And that was no small task, as Harris created a dance of his own, leaping back and forth between his vibes and the darker sounding marimba. Pianist Xavier Davis let loose with his two-fisted attack a la McCoy Tyner on the Afro-Cuban groove given to “Caravan.” Rounded out by bassist Reid Anderson, Harris’ quartet held the audience spellbound during its lengthy set. Picking up on the good vibes (no pun intended!), Harris returned the compliment by declaring that he knew Detroit was a hip crowd. He then added, “Heck, I even got grits this morning and you can’t do that in New York!”

After a trip through the tunnel and a bite to eat in Windsor, with the exchange rate proving to be a major windfall, it was time to stake out seats for the evening’s headliner, Donald Harrison, Jr.. With his natty threads and some hip repartee, the saxophonist delivered his own jazz message, which manages to be true to the mainstream while also borrowing from other contemporary forms such as rap and hip-hop. In lesser hands, tunes such as “Mr. Cool Breeze” and “Feelin’ Jazzy Baby” might be tossed off as merely clichés of the “pop jazz” variety, however Harrison and his gifted rhythm section are steeped in the tradition and this clearly sets them apart from the rest of the crowd. Even the smart and sassy rap routine that Harrison delivered on “Nouveau Swing” never seemed contrived and appeared to be just another color from Harrison’s broad palette.

About a fourth of a way through the set, fellow New Orleans native Christian Scott took the stage for a featured spot on “Misty.” All of just 17 years old, the trumpeter developed his solo with a confidence and logic that was noteworthy considering his age. Clearly impressed, Harrison kept Scott on for the rest of the set, which included two encores. Propelled by drummer John Lamkin's “second line” shuffle, the closing “Oleo” took on a new life. Harrison pulled out all the stops with a solo of great agility, while Scott opened up with a quote from “Dizzy Atmosphere” that provided the kernel for his subsequent lines. Harrison knows how to work a crowd, but he also expertly treads that line between entertainment and art- a rare balance indeed!

Sunday, September 3

A bit more intimate of an atmosphere with excellent sound proving to be an asset, the smaller Motor City Casino stage held forth with a great Sunday afternoon line-up, although the sun was blazing and the shade of an umbrella was the only likely solution to keep from frying. Still, the temperature was just right for the saucy brand of samba and bossa nova that marked a boisterous set from the group Brasil Brazil. Fronted by Los Angeles-based vocalists Ana Gazzola and Sonia Santos, this seven-piece company made the most of such smartly arranged Brazilian standards as “The Girl From Ipanema”, “Mas Que Nada”, and “Agua De Beber.” In addition to a drummer and two percussionists, Gazzola and Santos picked up a drum or two from time to time and when the whole group was in motion they managed to conjure up the spirit of the samba schools during Carnival. A great routine also introduced some of the most common Brazilian percussion instruments by name, complete with demonstration- a bit of education on the side, if you will! A major surprise for many, Brasil Brazil’s performances (they also took to the larger Ford/Verizon Wireless stage later that afternoon) were the talk of the day, making them a group to keep an eye on if your tastes gravitate towards such equatorial pleasures.

Although he made a few albums for Atlantic in the ‘60s which have since become collector’s items, Rufus Harley has not been heard from much over the past few decades. Nonetheless, he continues to hold the distinction of being the first and finest practitioner of the jazz bagpipes. Making a rare appearance outside of his current home in the Philadelphia area, Harley’s Sunday afternoon performance found him leading a Detroit rhythm section including pianist Teddy Harris, Jr., bassist Ralphe Armstrong, and drummer George Davidson. Dressed in kilt and appropriate Scotch attire, Harley made a grand entrance from the top of the stands with the traditional “Amazing Grace,” only to then coax the band into a blues-inflected waltz tempo that made Harley a crowd pleaser immediately. Now, get this for a strange brew that somehow hit the spot- put “Stormy Weather” to a bossa beat and set Harley wailing on the melody! Between his witty banter and obvious talents, one couldn’t help but be taken in by this jazz sage.

Although rehearsals with the local rhythm section had probably not been in the cards, the chemistry developed very quickly between Harley and the trio and drummer Davidson seemed to push the envelope in a way that sparked the entire ensemble. For variety, Harley picked up a curved soprano saxophone that he used on a few numbers and also brought to the bandstand his son Messiah on trumpet, who seemed almost reticent to do much more than support the heads and take a few unexceptional solos of his own. Closing his set with spoken introduction and a sense of anticipation, Harley launched into a tour-de-force by sailing through “God Save the Queen” and other anthems, subsequently interspersing an Irish gig or two with “We Will Overcome” and “A Love Supreme.” It was global awareness on a grand and musical scale, with Harley gaining new devotees by the handful.

Back to the main stage, the closing performance of the evening would feature the Mingus Big Band. A band of leaders and first rank artists in their own right, saxophonist Alex Foster was nominally calling the shots this time around (Steve Slagle has done similar for some time now and his absence was noted). Devoted to performing the repertoire of the late composer and bassist Charles Mingus, the band’s set got underway with “Moanin’,” it’s characteristic melody voiced in the lower register by the baritone saxophone of Gary Smulyan. For pianist David Kikoski’s spell the tempo shifted to an up 4/4 and he replied with a series of punctuated fourths a la McCoy Tyner. Not letting up the pace, “Haitian Fight Song” featured an incendiary solo from trombonist Conrad Herwig, who slyly worked in a quote from Shorter’s “Witch Hunt” (ah, fighting and hunting- quite a burly crew!). As a change of pace, late period Mingus in the form of Joni Mitchell’s “Sweet Sucker Dance” provided space for tenor saxophonist Mark Shim.

In a sardonic twist, a quick suggestion of “Yankee Doodle” then gave to the classic “Fables of Faubus,” complete with vocal interjections as provided by saxophonist John Stubblefield and bassist Andy McKee. Vincent Herring’s alto also held forth for an extended stay. With an emphasis on group interaction and changing tempos, the final two numbers offered much in the way of excitement. Stubblefield’s gutbucket tenor spoke volumes during “Cumbia and Jazz Fusion” and the entire band caught the spirit for “Better Git It In Your Soul.” Repertory jazz is seldom played with this kind of fervor and how often do you get the chance outside of New York to catch so many heavyweights on one stage?

Monday, September 4

With a cold front moving through, what had been a sweltering weekend had given way to a chilly Labor Day. By the time that New York collective One For All took the main stage at 5:30, the wind was picking up and the sun’s lingering rays were dwindling. Making an out of the ordinary appearance away from the Big Apple, the group had become a favorite of director Ed Love’s through their series of recordings for Criss Cross and Sharp Nine. He vowed to bring them to Detroit and by the response of the crowd his decision had proven to be a sagacious one. Fronted by tenor man Eric Alexander, trumpeter Jim Rotondi, and trombonist Steve Davis, this spirited group gets its rhythmic backing from pianist David Hazeltine, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Joe Farnsworth.

Strong writing and solo work of the no-holds-barred variety has distinguished One For All from the start and Alexander’s opening “Straight Up” announced that these guys were there to kick butt and take no prisoners. “Betcha By Golly Wow” was next and Hazeltine’s inventive arrangement gave just a taste of what has become the pianist’s calling card. But then each member is so gifted that the whole truly becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Steve Davis contributed his “Echoes in the Night,” which found Rotondi bristling with emotion in the best of the Hubbard/Shaw tradition. Alexander’s fluency over the entire range of the instrument, along with a earnest approach, marked his solo on “The Good Life,” which was also distinguished by a loping shuffle beat. Although the group had planned to close with “D’s Blues,” dedicated by Alexander on this evening to Detroit, the crowd begged for more and a foot tapping Hazeltine original, “We All Love Eddie Harris” brought the audience together with some solid hand clapping at four to the bar. A major highlight of the fest, One For All provided strong evidence that the jazz tradition is in good hands.

As evening started to fall and temperatures started to do the same, the crowd swelled in anticipation of the arrival of the penultimate act of the fest, the inimitable Abbey Lincoln. Her crack rhythm team of young lions, pianist Brandon McCune, bassist John Ormond, and drummer Jaz Sawyer, opened on their own with a crackling take on Monk’s “Evidence” which announced they’d be taking care of business the rest of the set. Lincoln then stepped on stage and proceeded to spin her magical spell. By the third number she had the audience on its feet. There’s something truly unique to Lincoln’s art, as she never indulges in flash and bravura, yet the stories she tells with her own fine lyrics and writing hit a chord that connects with the listener. One of many highlights, her closing chorus of “I Should Care” offered ample proof of how she had won the crowd. She delivered the final “I should care,” paused and smiled (at this point the band dropped out and you could hear a pin drop), and suavely closed with “and I do.” It was simply enchanting!

It was a committed bunch that toughed it out for the closing performance of the Michael Weiss Septet, winds now whipping it up and folks scrambling to find an extra blanket or sweatshirt. In fact, after the show, alto man Steve Wilson told me his fingers had gone numb by the third tune, although you’d never know it by the intensity and tenacity that marked this final set of the evening. This was New York jazz at its hottest and Weiss, a recent winner in the 2000 Thelonious Monk Jazz Composers Competition, had brought some his most demanding charts. Along with Wilson and trumpeter Ryan Kisor, trombone man Steve Davis and drummer Joe Farnsworth were back, with bassist Paul Gill and percussionist Daniel Sadownick rounding out the group.

Weiss touched on several of his compositions from his current release on DIW, Power Station, including the title track, “Orient Express,” “Atlantis,” and “Soul Journey.” Farnsworth was the real glue here, as he proved to be earlier with One For All. He’s got a great sound and a propulsive swing, truly complimenting the soloists as only the best drummers do. “La Ventana” presented a fast samba tempo with Farnsworth and Sadownick meshing beautifully, then during the latter’s solo feature, Sadownick managed to sound like an entire percussion ensemble through the use of a cowbell beaten via a foot pedal. A charging “Atlantis” gave way to a shouting encore that found Davis going gutbucket alone with just Gill strolling behind him. It was an exhilarating finale to what continues to be one of the best festivals of this or any jazz season. Now with new artistic director Frank Malfitano in place, here’s hoping that the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival continues to build on its already solid reputation.

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