2009 Detroit Jazz Festival
September 4-7, 2009
A short distance from Hitsville USA, where Berry Gordy created the Motown sound, shaping the history of American music and culture, and the Diego Rivera Court, where the artist's murals pay tribute to the workers whose hands made the auto industry a reality, sits Hart Plaza, Detroit's waterfront public space, where for 30 years, Detroiters and jazz enthusiasts from around the world have convened on Labor Day weekend for the Detroit Jazz festival. The history of jazz has a deep debt to the city and the festival has always celebrated its native sons and daughters. Detroiters featured this year included pianist Geri Allen, reedmen Bennie Maupin and Charles McPherson, bandleader Gerald Wilson, bassist Rodney Whitaker, esteemed veterans Hank Jones and Marcus Belgrave and drummers Karriem Riggins, Carl Allen and Louis Hayes.
Much eager anticipation surrounded the Chase Mainstage appearance of Riggins. Equally notable for his work with jazz artists like Mulgrew Miller and hiphop groups like The Roots, Riggins presented a varied set, starting with burning post-bop originals and one Tony Williams Lifetime tune, in a group with pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst and vibraphonist Warren Wolf. The ensemble then expanded to include New York DJ Pete Rock, along with a guest appearance by Slum Village. Riggins and Rock played an intense and inspired duo, with rhythms and textures colliding furiously, then locking together for a huge backbeat, only to break off again, continuously exploring new territory and refining their deep rapport.
Mack Avenue Records, from nearby Harper Woods, were well-represented at the festival, with inspired sets from Christian McBride, The Carl Allen-Rodney Whitaker Project, Sachal Vasandani, Gerald Wilson and trumpeter Sean Jones. Wilson's Orchestra performed works from its fourth record for Mack Avenue, Detroit. "Blues on Belle Isle," "Cass Tech" (named for the high school where many of Detroit's most famous musicians, including Mr. Wilson, all studied) and "Before Motown" all created a deeply moving portrait of the city, its storied history embedded in the music's lush harmonies, evocative melodies and splendid solos.
A recurring theme for the festival was mentorship and the fostering of young talent. Eclectic vibraphonist Stefon Harris, himself not so long ago a very noteworthy up-and-coming sideman, brought his band Blackout, featuring pianist Marc Cary and bassist Ben Williams, both of whom are still at college in New York. Saxophonist Casey Benjamin brought both intensity and lush shading to the band, occasionally switching to digital vocoder. Young, emerging talent cropped up in many other bands, including those of McBride, Jones and drummer TS Monk's Tentet, which performed the original arrangements from his father's well-known Town Hall tentet performance 50 years earlier. "Off Minor" featured a blistering trombone solo from Andy Hunter and pianist Helen Sung also shined, channeling Monk's idiosyncratic phrasing. The leader had plenty of fond remembrances of his father to share, both onstage during his set and hours earlier at the Jazz Talk Tent.
Wayne Shorter's quartet appearance captivated all in attendance, a 90-minute succession of Shorter originals, seamlessly woven together through the improvisational virtuosity of pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. Geri Allen's set also turned ears, with her unprecedented blend of abstraction and introspective beauty supported by not only bass and drums, but also another surprise star of the festival, tap dancer Maurice Chestnut, who interacted with the ensemble with enthusiasm and skill, often executing complex unison rhythms with drummer Kassa Overall. Saxophonist Bennie Maupin's Dolphyana brought a coolness and lucid calm, capturing the iconoclastic Eric Dolphy's penchant for challenging orthodoxy while remaining accessible for those less familiar with the more adventurous side of jazz. Drummer Billy Hart and vibraphonist Jay Hoggard walked a careful balance between subtlety and intensity while bassist Derek Oles used thoughtful restraint even when featured for solos. Maupin shined with charismatic brilliance, remaining uncompromising in his ideals, but still conjuring an inviting sonic environment.
Bassist and 2009 Artist-In-Residence John Clayton's role was multi-faceted as was the breadth of his contributions to the festival. His quintet, co-led with his brother Jeff, features two young musicians, drummer Obed Calvaire and John's son Gerald on piano. The centerpiece of the festival was a large-scale world-premiere, composed by John for the quintet plus the Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra. The resulting piece, titled "THE Family," was a tribute to famed Detroit natives, the Jones brothers (Thad, Hank and Elvin). The three movements each represented a specific brother. "Thad" featured an opening chorale inspired by the newly-renovated Guardian building, a monument of Art-Deco architecture, representing the height of Detroit's renown in the '20s. "Hank" gracefully floated along, calling to mind the sublime beauty of its namesake (who opened the festival with a set by his trio). "Elvin" burned brightly throughout, closing the festival with an intense drum duet and densely-voiced ensemble lines.
The Festival's 30th year brought incredible talent from all over the world, while celebrating the city's heritage. The positive energy sounds an undeniable call for a future as bright as its past.