Changing of the Guard: The 33rd Annual Detroit Jazz Festival
August 31- September 3, 2012
They don't call it the largest free jazz festival in North America for no reason. Every Labor Day weekend in Detroit, jazz fans try to wrap their brains around the diverse and generous offerings of one of the country's most successful jazz festivals, only to realize that with close to 80 acts performing on four stages over the course of four days, it would take superhuman power to actually take in all that the fest has to offer each year.
The festival's 33rd incarnation was no exception; however it seemed even more of a task to logistically cover all the bases due to new philosophical and scheduling scenarios established by Chris Collins, the festival's new musical director. In his maiden voyage, Collins impressed with his scope of musical interests and desire to present new music. But this did not come without its share of bumps in the road. For the first time, the majority of acts appearing at the Main Stage at Campus Martius were squarely in the mainstream vernacular. In the past, acts with crossover appeal took this stage, while the lion's share of the straight ahead sets took place on the waterfront area of Hart Plaza. This change now meant that attempting to travel back and forth between the two locations proved to be a major challenge.
The foregoing should suggest that a comprehensive review of the entire festival is just not possible, but what does follow is a sampling of some the more memorable moments. No complaints would be had in terms of the weather. After the heat that accompanied Friday's steamy forecast, skies would become partly cloudy with pleasant temperatures around the mid-80s. While exact numbers on attendance have yet to be released, suffice it to say that the crowds were plentiful and sustainable throughout the entire weekend, making this possibly the best attended year in recent memory.
Artist-in-residence Terence Blanchard and his quintet would kick off Friday's evening's festivities, followed thereafter by saxophone icon Sonny Rollins. Due to this reviewer's schedule and the travel time from Cleveland, making it down to Campus Martius in time for these performances wasn't in the cards. However, Saturday afternoon brought with it a full schedule of music starting with up-and-comer Gregoire Maret. This harmonica toting import from Switzerland has been making a name for himself in the United States playing with a diverse set of leaders including Pat Metheny, Me'Shell NdegeOcello, Pete Seeger, and Cassandra Wilson.
At the Waterfront Stage, Maret and his quartet distilled a sunny mood that was perfect for a Saturday afternoon and drummer Clarence Penn was a particularly musical and valuable asset to the proceedings. As a tip of the hat to fellow harmonica ace Stevie Wonder, Maret's take on "The Secret Life of Plants" was ripe for exploration. Although a ballad at its core, "The Man I Love" proved cathartic for Maret. A man in motion, his body rocked to and fro, ripping off quicksilver runs that illuminated his many gifts as an improviser. Milton Nascimento's "Ponta De Areia" served as a sagacious set closer and one had to wonder why it's never been heard before on harmonica. If there was to be one lone caveat in terms of Maret's performance, it would be that the scarcity of up tempo numbers made for a rather monochromatic presentation.
Catching things mid-set, drummer Louis Hayes was holding down the fort over at the Pyramid Stage. Although he has been seen regularly at this festival for many years in a row now, his latest ensemble, billed as the Jazz Communicators, might just be his best of recent times. Musical director and pianist Anthony Wonsey is a real go-getter, as is bassist Dezron Douglas. In tandem with Hayes, they make for one dynamic and responsive rhythm section. By contrast, tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen is at times a bit too orderly and calculating for his own good. This makes his solos seem as if they are cut of one cloth, regardless of the emotional content present at any given moment. Still, the overall effect was a sense of unity that could be heard at its best on Wonsey's funky "The Thang."