Detroit International Jazz Festival 2008
But then McBride introduced the show's emcee, Detroit Lions Hall of Famer Lem Barney, and the show spun out of control from there. The gregarious Barney roamed the stage in a black bowler, "favoring" the crowd with his singing chops, fumbling his way through a less than insightful analysis of Gaye's music and repeatedly professing his love for McBride, even if he sometimes referred to him as McDirt. Yet in a way, he was the perfect host, presenting himself as the amiable clown who would honk his nose between songs to remind everyone not to take any of this too seriously. It was a time for kicking off your shoes and dreaming about the music that was to come over the next three days.
Jose James was the first of the night's vocalists to take a crack at Gaye's songs. He came on smooth, while displaying enough vocal agility to hit all the spikes of what Lalah Hathaway would later call the "soft but percussive" nature that makes Gaye's music such a challenge to sing.
In James' wake, the falsetto of Rahsaan Patterson opening "Trouble Man" was like a blast of cold water. But a body warmed to Patterson's vocals, especially after he slipped into a more comfortable tenor, and one was able to bop along with him to "Hitch Hike" and "I Heard it Through the Grapevine."
Hathaway's voice was perhaps the best suited of the three to fill Gaye's music. Smokey when deep, it also retained the heft of soul into the upper reaches, where her male counterparts often tripped into theatrics.
The three vocalists joined for "What's Going On," a finale whose political timeliness was punctuated by a few choruses of "Ooo-Ba-Aaa-Maa, Ooo-Ba-Aaa-Maa" from the backup singers, which a delighted Jones picked up and spread to the crowd.
Smiles carried off into the night. The festival was underway.
August 30: Mikhal Caldwell
Mikhal Caldwell defined his music on this day as "what happens when Coltrane runs into Hendrix runs into Metallica," which isn't a bad summation. Metal bop, perhaps. And, not surprisingly, the primary driver of Caldwell's art seems to be conflict. But conflict with an aim toward unity and resolution, as one often experiences in the mind. It was there on the fest's main stage in the titles and programming of tunes ("Atonement" following on the heels of "Ethics vs. Logic, " with that duo leading into "Press, Press, Pull"), in the two guitars he used during the set (both Strats, one white, one black, each emblazoned with a yin/yang symbol) and in the music itself, bursting forth in a flurry of Eddie Van Halen-like whammy bar gymnastics only to plant its metal foot, cut back sharply and trot out the remainder of the tune in a reggae skip.
Caldwell is a virtuoso, able to run the neck of the guitar as fast and as accurate as anyone in the business, veins bulging from his biceps as he tears off ear-piercing metal. And he's not beyond striking a guitar hero pose after especially tasty licks.
But what keeps the music interesting is his ability to take that crashing steel noise and work it into melodysometimes astonishingly pretty melody, that on its own might flap off into smooth jazz la-la land. Caldwell's group truly is a fusion bandthat is it fuses the gaps between erstwhile musical strangers, while allowing each to retain its individual identity, rather than watering each down to be stirred into a bland soup. Listening to Caldwell and his mates, its not difficult to imagine them all practicing their craft with lowered welder's masks.
In that case, keyboardist Jimmy Pitts might be the solder that holds all the pieces together, varying his sound on this afternoon from that of a second guitar to a Cecil Taylor grand to the tinny piano of a gold- rush whorehouse.
Bassist Eddie Kohen kept up a solid, driving pulse, highlighted by nice melodic lines behind the '80s pop chords of "Atonement." Drummer Greg Tyler, whom Caldwell introduced as the man who taught him to play fusion, crashed admirably throughout the hour, but shined on "Press, Press, Pull," constructing a solo that began like a string of Black Cats popping, then grew into a firing of every pyrotechnic in the trunk.
The quartet played early, kicking off around 1:30 p.m., but still drew a good crowd. One can only hope this native Detroiter and his band can soon find favor beyond the Motor City.
August 30: Bonerama
As Hurricane Gustav blew in toward New Orleans, Bonerama was safely up North, reminding all who would listen (and their number continued to accumulate over the stone bleachers of the pyramid venue like a well-piled cumulus) not only of jazz's birthplace, but of the vital role it still plays in the music's development.