Detroit Jazz Festival: Detroit, MI September 2-5, 2011
At the age of 76, legendary trombonist Curtis Fuller's gait has slowed by several steps, and his wind isn't what it was before he lost a lung to cancer. He sat when not playing on this sweltering afternoon on the Mack Avenue Waterfront stage, an afternoon, he remarked, that "could put an elephant to sleep." But his playing retained much of its vigor, even if his tone was often muffled and muddied as it barked from the speakers. He came into full form, however, on the penultimate number, "The Maze," dropping well-chosen, clean, yet bluesy notes over simpatico support from pianist Mark LeDonne.
Fuller's sextet, appropriately, ran through six, mostly hard-bop numbers during the 90-minute set. Saxophonist Eric Alexander and trumpeter Josh Bruneau lifted the affair with bright, lyrical statements. Bruneau shape-shifted to fit each piece, adopting the tight spiraling vocabulary of John Coltrane for "The Maze," which Fuller had previously dedicated to the saxophone giant, then sounding a Middle Eastern tone on "Arabia." Alexander favored long, breathy phrases and bombastic shots in solos that regularly shifted gears to attack pieces from different angles and explore new ideas.
LeDonne was given a feature piece in "Round Midnight," a tune he rendered with deep classical flourish, capturing even the song's darkest corners. Bassist Nathan Reeves and drummer Carl Allen then crept in from the shadows, spinning LeDonne into modern block constructions that assembled finally into a danceable Latin finish. The piece was a nice, mid-set departure from a solid, hard-bop show overseen, if not altogether driven, by the trombone master.
After a brief, but torrential downpour cleared the early evening environs of the Carhartt Amphitheatre stage, people regrouped and awaited the landing of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Unfortunately, the crowd was once again advised to seek shelter, and stage equipment and instruments were again covered as word came of a second approaching storm system.
But sometime later (before the storm hit), the Arkestra simplyunexpectedlyparaded onstage, blowing and strutting as a second line. The stage was barely lit, there were no mikes, the drum set and piano and various other implements remained hidden beneath a giant blue tarp. But with a wooden surdo drum, a single conga and bongos providing percussion, the intergalactic instrumentalists soldiered on. They paraded the front of the stage in a slowly moving loop, corralled in groups of two and three and blew wild, yet wonderfully inviting blasts of group improvisation. Then they leaned from the stage, inviting the audience to take up a song that lost its voice repeatedly in the swirling wind: "We came from nowhere here, why can't we go somewhere there?" members of the Arkestra implored. On this night, the socially and metaphysically provocative question was thrown not only at a culture teeming with bigotry, oppression and hatred, but before the more elemental attack from nature as well.
The concert, as it was, lasted only about twenty minutes. But, perhaps owing to the lack of electric equipment, which made intimacy inevitable, perhaps caused by the crowd's admiration for the band's insistence on playing, but also owing in no small part to the warm music emanating from the stage (there was a strong on-the-corner-of-Basin-Street vibe to the music that accompanied the musician's physical gathering), the band and audience communed in a unique, shared exuberance. Much encouragement was shouted from the seats, and when the music settled into pauses, the audience erupted in appreciation of the playing.
The uncovering of the drumming equipment brought brief hope of an extended set as drum kit and congas were launched into a rumbling duet. Bandleader and alto saxophonist Marshall Allen strode on stage in a glittering red robe, strumming the lower keys of his alto saxophone like a guitar, and thereby releasing a host of vibrant tones to flutter off into the graying night. Soon the other horn players were on stage again with him. Trumpeter Michael Ray, in black and gold pharaoh headgear and outsized interstellar eyewear, leaned forth, peppering the audience with an extended, blaring statementat once a warning and a singular cry of defiance. The group paraded the stage a final time and then they were gone. The other acts slated for that eveningJason Moran and Dave Holland among themwere to be cancelled in the face of the impending storm. But Earth couldn't altogether ground the travelers from outer space.
Perhaps inspired by the Arkestra's act of defiance, the festival organizers hastily regrouped and set up stage for Dave Holland in the Marriott's Volt Bar and Lounge, where jam sessions were scheduled each night. The band happily agreed to the situation with Holland proclaiming, "We ain't leaving Detroit until we play some music for you guys!" The octet squeezed in among the pressing, expectant crowd and proceeded to blow one of the most thrilling sets of the festival.
Sticking largely to tunes from Pathways (Dare2, 2010), itself a recording of a live event, the octet fed off the Volt's jam session vibe, with each member coming to the mike eager to take what the previous guy had done and push it a couple notches higher. The problem (for the musicians) and the delight (for the audience) was that the first guy had started off at an incredibly high level. But Holland's men exuded nothing if not an easy and supreme confidence in the ability of themselves and their mates. Smiles abounded on the bandstand as they egged each other on. Wild cheers erupted time and time again from the audience as dangerous, expertly turned acrobatics sounded from the soaring horn of saxophonist Antonio Hart or Chris Potter or Gary Smulyan or... And still the soloist would push on, launching more spirals and sticking every landing.
In its 32 years, the festival had never before needed to cancel a night's programming due to inclement weather, or for any other reason. And the story of how Dave Holland's octet saved that first night of cancellations will, no doubt, only expand as it sinks deeper into festival lore. So remember, you read this little nugget here first: when lightning struck the Renaissance Center, temporarily knocking out the power and freezing the hotel's elevators, Dave Holland rappelled down from his room over the tower's outer glass, his double-bass strapped to this back, just to make good on his promise to play the gig in the hotel bar that night. Much obliged, Dave.