Under the Big Top: Detroit's 31st Year Hits a High Note
Moving into the late afternoon and evening, I found myself stage hopping to catch snippets of several acts that had overlapping performance schedules. Pianist Danilo Perez has been spending the past several years with Wayne Shorter and strains of the saxophonist's ethereal approach can also be heard in Perez's somewhat erratic style. He likes to season his pieces with a good deal of variety and shifts in mood and tempo. Percussionist Roggerio Boccato would add further layers of rhythmic complexity. A special sense of unity would emerge over the Latin groove of "Providencia," with alto man Rudresh Mahanthappa helping to make Perez's fusion seem much more individualistic.
Over at the pyramid stage, The Scott Kinsey Group was turning a few heads with a contemporary mix that seemed somewhat a blast from the past. Shades of Zawinul, Weather Report, and Mahavishnu were the signposts that marked the way down a few new paths to some familiar destinations. The standout element would be the work of Seamus Blake. His EWI solos were electric in both the literal and figurative sense. Patched into foot pedals and a Mac computer, Blake even strapped on a headset to trigger the horn through a vocoder. Far from a one-trick pony, Blake was equally inspired when picking up his tenor sax.
Back to the amphitheatre, Terence Blanchard and his quintet were full long into a rich set filled with the trumpeter's passionate playing and synergy with his quintet that makes this one of the music's finest working ensembles. Drummer Kendrick Scott maybe a new name to some, but he has been quickly climbing the ladder to the upper echelon of modern day jazz masters. His melodic approach is perfectly attuned to Blanchard's equally rhapsodic style. Pianist Fabian Almazan also proved to be a talent worth of wider recognition and my only regret was that my time was short, as I planned on closing out the evening at the pyramid stage for a double dose of greasy organ combos.
Having performed and recorded with a number of top-shelf players including Tim Warfield, Lou Donaldson, and Mark Whitfield, up-and-coming Rochester native Pat Bianchi would make his debut in Detroit with a satisfying set that found the Hammond B3 organist worthy of the praise from such mentors as Joey DeFrancesco. Like fellow forward thinkers Gary Versace and Sam Yahel, Bianchi is more interested in pushing the envelope in the direction of Larry Young than revisiting the grits and gravy approach of Jimmy Smith or Jack McDuff. His own originals and choice of standards such as Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile" and Herbie Hancock's "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" bore out his modus operandi. Guitarist Steve Kovalcheck provided a fine counterpoint with a tasty mix of single note lines and chock-a-block chords.
Closing out the evening, it was Mike LeDonne's quartet who really fanned the flames on a brisk and nippy evening. We're talking primo A-list New Yorkers for this unit, one that festival director Terri Pontremoli told me she had just recently heard in Manhattan at the club Smoke, where they have been holding fort for some time now. While many may be familiar with LeDonne as one of jazz music's best pianists and accompanists, he's also been building a reputation as a tasty B3 practitioner through a fine series of discs for the Savant label. Tenor man Eric Alexander, guitarist Peter Bernstein, and drummer Joe Farnsworth share a history together and countless gigs that helps foster a creative vibe that everyone thrives on. LeDonne has a special knack for updating soul classics from the '70s, adding a shuffle beat to Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" and the Temptation's "I'm Going to Make You Love Me." Without a degree of hyperbole, the fireworks soared during LeDonne's closing set prior to the pyrotechnics that filled the skies with sizzling colors and crackling sounds in what has become a Saturday night tradition at the fest.