Under the Big Top: Detroit's 31st Year Hits a High Note
The buzz at Sunday afternoon brunch was all about Maria Schneider and her debut at the festival, a rare appearance outside of her New York environs. She certainly didn't disappoint with a generous set that was one of the highlights of the entire festival. A thoroughly unique composer and catalyst for inspiration, Schneider's ensemble included a top-notch array of New York's finest with drummer Kendrick Scott again providing to be a valuable foil. Trumpeter Greg Gisbert along with saxophonists Rich Perry, Donny McCaslin, and Steve Nelson would all be featured on various numbers, Gisbert being honored with a feature on an encore of "My Ideal." Written with the memories of a Texas diner as fodder, "Tork's Café" was almost an aural travelogue with its rich harmonies and shifting moods. "El Viento" spoke in a lilting bossa beat, while "Hang Gliding" took a programmatic stance. Fortunately the audience response was on par with Schneider's own obvious enthusiasm. It was a tough act to follow indeed.
Becoming the norm during recent festivals, several matches were made uniting one of the national artists with a few of the Michigan area's finest college ensembles. A smart choice was made when Terrence Blanchard joined forces with the Wayne State University Big Band. Instead of retreads of the standard big band repertoire, Blanchard's experience with writing movie soundtracks served as a creative element. Themes and music from some of the iconic soundtracks of the '50s and '60s were revisited with Blanchard at the top of his game. Standout arrangements included themes from "The Pawnbroker," "Chinatown," and "Anatomy of a Murder."
A complete contrast to the large ensemble performances that kicked off the afternoon, Trio M prepared to engage in spontaneous improvisation of the variety that has been highly touted by devotees of the free jazz crowd. Pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Matt Wilson virtually define the word 'contemporary' and they didn't fail to engage the crowd with a presentation that was as much fun to listen to as to watch. At times, Melford would reach inside the piano to pluck a string or two. She struck me as a savory cross between Cecil Taylor and Don Pullen. Dresser picked, bowed, and tapped his bass to call on different sounds and textures. Wilson is always listening and complimentary and he has his own set of techniques, including muffling his drums with rags and cymbals and utilizing various auxiliary percussion.
Back to the amphitheatre to close out the night, an ensemble of veterans was gathering under the banner of Defenders of the Groove. The front line would include Eddie Henderson, Bobby Watson, and Steve Turre. Other key players would be guitarist Melvin Sparks and drummer Louis Hayes. The material was certainly familiar and seemed to be a crowd pleaser, with vocalist Ernie Andrews weighing in on "Danger Zone" and "Goin' to Kansas City." Turre picked up the conch shells for an appropriately titled "Funky Knuckles" and Sparks was featured on "Alligator Boogaloo." Nothing all that memorable occurred, but a goodtime was had by most.
Making me realize how much I have missed his presence on discs and in person, pianist Benny Green was such a pleasure to hear as he joined forces with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Karriem Riggins in a tribute to Ray Brown to conclude Sunday night's festivities. Both Green and McBride were lucky enough to count the late great bassist as a mentor and employer. What made the homage transcend mere gimmick is that fact that both men have built on the tradition as a way to find their own unique voices. The range of moods was disparate, from the meditative Lil' Darlin'" to the second line groove of "Gumbo Hump." Riggins upped the ante and made the difference for a set that might have been far less engaging had the drummer been less accomplished.
The pace continued to be spirited as we headed into Labor Day. There was still plenty of heady stuff to be heard. Roy Haynes and his Fountain of Youth band were the first main act to be heard at the amphitheatre. Now certainly the fact the Haynes continues to be as strong a drummer as he ever was is something to marvel. What is a bit confounding is the fact that the gentlemen he keeps company work are talented, but not in a way that adds anything new to Haynes's music. In fact, I had seen the same band a few years back and the set list in Detroit was almost identical. Taking nothing away from what was still a fine performance, perhaps the drummer might benefit from a change in scenery.