30th Annual Detroit International Jazz Festival
September 7: Chuchito Valdes
After three wonderfully mild, sunny days, the rain moved in on Monday, opening umbrellas up and down the cement rows of the Mack Avenue Pyramid venue just before Cuban pianist Chuchito Valdes took the stage. Mouths too soon would open, with tides of screams and whistles erupting throughout Valdes' set as if recreating an early Beatles concert.
Backed by Emilio Valdes on drums, Frankie Ocasio on congas and Jonathan Paul on bass, Chuchito came out determined to drive away the drizzle with vibrant island sun. Ever retaining a heavy Cuban flavor in his playing, the pianist also unpacked bop and classical techniques to lift his relentless attack of the keys from simply the accompaniment for dance or mojitos into thrilling, dimensioned artistic statements. On occasion, as when the band had a go at "Take the A Train" (a festival staple for many acts this year), the cubania would spring almost entirely from Ocasio and Emilio Valdes' skins, freeing Chuchito to explore modern jazz motifs that, nevertheless, led back to and seamlessly picked up the Latin beat.
Chuchito's showmanship was also on full display, as when he would stand to conduct a bass solo from Paul, rush up the keys in fitful arpeggios only to run out of ivory and trill off into midair, or slip from the bench in the passion of his playing, yet continue pounding, his back pressed to the edge of the bench and arched back over it. The crowd loved it, mostly because it was authentica natural extension of the same mischievous personality that displayed itself in the music: ever dancing, ever clowning, because comedy and joy are as worthy of an artist's examination as tragedy and terror and more vital to the continuation of life.
September 7: Stefon Harris & Blackout
Vibraphonist and marimba player Stefon Harris reteamed with his Blackout ensemble this year to produce the excellent new record, Urbanus (Concord). Sticking exclusively to numbers from that album, the group fashioned funky, often electronically warped, forward-looking music. Harris switched between two and four mallets in lording over both the vibes and marimba, many times simultaneouslya mallet or two on each. Saxophonist Casey Benjamin, a New-Wave stylist is dress and hairmanship, took up his vocoder on two numbers, Buster Williams' "Christina" and Stevie Wonder's "They Won't Go (When I Go)," in order to "space out" his vocals, rendering them the nearly indecipherable intonations of a funky, soulful computer. His alto sax often served as the earthy, cutting foil to Harris' springy, ethereal runs, or as the melodic center of ambient numbers like "Langston's Lullaby."
Keyboardist Marc Cary laid low in the mix on the first couple numbers, but came on with a full, layered, racing piano solo on "Shake It for Me," then led off the following number, "Tanktified," with a bluesy, appropriately church-like organ solo. Drummer Terreon Gully mixed the rhythms admirably, busting in heavy on several pieces to shift the direction then falling back for interplay with one or two of the other musicians. He was given more room to stretchas all in the band wereon the aforementioned "Tanktified," which the drummer penned: He strung together a vibrant discussion between Harris and Benjamin, then pounded to the fore to have his own say, riding the steady tones of bassist Ben Williams and organ comps from Cary.
Like Shorter on the evening before, Harris placed himself among the band, directing a complete musical concept. To be sure, his juggling of the mallets over the bars of his instruments was singularly impressive, but for all his expertise and individual mastery he never divorced himself from the group effort. As the set wound to its close, the clouds once again began to drip. But there was nothing leaking from the futuristic fusion of Blackout's cohesion. And with the stages across the festival all soon to go dark for another year, the set from Harris' band served as a fitting coda to a fabulous collective experience.