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."
As a rule, themed sets usually soar to new heights or fall flat on their face with no middle ground so to speak. Thankfully, the former would prove to be the case for an ambitious salute to Charlie Parker's recordings with strings. Saxophonist Steve Wilson paired up with arranger/conductor David O'Rourke for a surprisingly rich and varied program of numbers that not only paid homage to Bird, but also offered plenty of room for Wilson's own individuality, not to mention the sparkling piano of Renee Rosnes, the organic violin of Diane Monroe, and the responsive drumming of Bill Stewart.
Numbers such as "April in Paris" and "Easy to Love" would provide familiar touchstones for most in the audience, but it would be lesser known trinkets such as Neal Hefti's "Repetition" and a newly discovered bit of Ellingtonia called "Moon Mist" that would provide Wilson with the fodder for some of his finer moments. Equally memorable would be the premiere of O'Rourke's "Journey to Wilsonia," a suite of three movements touching on disparate moods and working in solo space for Wilson, bassist Peter Washington and some brief exchanges from Stewart and Rosnes.
As Saturday evening started to wind down, three different stages proffered three equally enticing opportunities, but logistics involving time and location worked against any kind of chance of scoring on all accounts. Over at the Waterfront Stage, drummer Bernard Purdie, organist Reuben Wilson, and guitarist Grant Green, Jr. were laying down some funky grooves with Donald Harrison pitching in with his own blend of fatback and greasy licks. Some twenty minutes later and a healthy walk away, Campus Martius was set to present Charles McPherson and Tom Harrell in a double-bill, but it was too tempting to plant roots at the Pyramid for The Trio, making a rare Detroit debut outside their home environs of Manhattan.
Together off and on for over twenty years now, this group featuring B3 heavyweight Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein, and drummer Bill Stewart (ready for his second performance of the night) made some high octane music of the variety that can usually be found only in those New York clubs like Smalls and Smoke. The lion's share of the throngs probably ended their evening with Chick Corea and Gary Burton over at the Amphitheatre, but The Trio held their own for a packed house of devoted followers.
Duke Pearson's "The Chant" provided a strong beginning, Stewart's snare work filling in the spaces on this medium tempo trinket. Goldings penned "Jim Jam" for former employer Jim Hall and it would serve Bernstein equally well, the guitarist's single note runs unfolding in a logical sequence that told a story with all the finesse of a master artisan. Then, on the funky number "Pegasus," Bernstein would use his volume knob to create a quavering wash that added further textures to Goldings deep-pocketed groove.
With Percy Mayfield's "The Danger Zone," one started to get the idea of the type of diversity this group possesses. Goldings literally pulled out the stops in order to cast his solo in various hues. Settling into a comfortable waltz meter, "The Acrobat" provided an encore and Stewart let loose with some volcanic interjections, the crowd enthusiastically anticipating his every beat. To say that this reviewer's intentions were to be rewarded would be an understatement. No wonder these guys are on the first call list. They play with such finesse and a sense of musicality and dynamics that allows the listener to enter a space that almost transcends time.
As Sunday rolled around, it started to sink in that more often than not, overlapping performances would inevitably lead to hard decisions on what to catch and what to skip. Within the span of forty-five minutes, no less than three enticing opportunities loomed. Should one check out Geoff Keezer with Donny McCaslin at the Waterfront, or David Binney at the Pyramid, or catch a rare glimpse of Kevin Eubanks at the Amphitheatre? This reviewer opted for the latter and was duly compensated. Eubanks opted for a unique trio format featuring saxophonist Billy Pierce and bassist Rene Camacho.
This trio touched on some interesting ground, with Eubanks calling most of the shots and providing a lot of the rhythm elements that made it easy to forget they were working sans drummer. "The Dirty Monk" would function as a highlight of the set, replete with Pierce at his most sublime and Eubanks contributing a wash of sound along with some edgier soloing. Closing his set with the blues, Eubanks also took the opportunity to pontificate on the topics of race, social classes, and politics. While uneven in spots, Eubanks and company delivered the goods and then some.
With little time to settle in, it was time to once again get ready for a logjam. Arturo O'Farrill was set to follow Eubanks, while Brian Lynch would take the Pyramid stage during the middle of Pat Metheny's set clear across town at Campus Martius. Despite reservations, Metheny would have to take priority, although one had to be tough to endure the sheer mass of people that gathered for a performance by the guitarist's Unity band with Chris Potter, Ben Williams, and Antonio Sanchez
The energy from the crowd was palpable as Metheny made his way to the stage, 42-string Pikasso guitar in hand. A brief proclamation on this instrument would lead into Williams's bass intro to "Come and See," Potter's bass clarinet further strengthening the bottom end. The hard rock cum Irish folk melody of "Roofdogs" was up next and it kicked the proceedings into overdrive, Metheny's wincing face accompanying the artillery fire of his guitar synth riffs.
Over the course of eight numbers, Metheny fleshed out several pieces from the group's album, a considerable document in and of itself, providing an even fuller treatment to the material. On the tune "Signals," he even brought with him some of the robotic instruments of his orchestrion, which he has somehow rigged up with computers and electronics. As for the encore, it was wholly appropriate to let loose with "Are You Going With Me?," Potter's alto flute mixing nicely with Pat's guitar synth. As Metheny set free his closing cadenza on one of his most iconic pieces, one wished time allowed for more.
The rest of the evening's schedule would allow for not much more than a smorgasbord approach to listening. There would be time to hear a few numbers from Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas and their group called Sound Prints. Contrasts served this ensemble nicely. Lovano blew fiercely, and was balanced by Douglas's more lyrical approach. Pianist Lawrence Fields spoke with a clarion touch, while drummer Joey Baron seemed to throw abandon to the wind.
Over at the Pyramid, it was time to blow out the candles for clarinetist Charlie Gabriel's birthday bash featuring the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Pure intemperance and some occasional chaos accompanied this set, the stage crew certainly earning their money as they tried to keep the microphones in place for the rotating cast of characters taking the stage. Both Marion Hayden and Marcus Belgrave sat in, delivering typical mainstream fare. Then the Nawlins bug bit and the second line grooves started to flow, a perky "New Orleans" bringing out the best in everyone. Especially fun to watch was Ronell Johnson, who strutted and swayed with his tuba, delivering some of the most complex runs to be heard on that most unwieldy of instruments.
Rounding out the evening would be a Latin set by Poncho Sanchez over at the Waterfront and the Wayne Shorter quartet at the Amphitheatre. This reviewer opted to check out the two artists missed during the Metheny set earlier in the day. In the lobby of the Marriott Renaissance Hotel, both Arturo O'Farrill and Brian Lynch would offer performances with a jam session that was slated to run into the wee hours of the morning. The Volt Bar started to fill up a good hour before any of the action was slated to start and once the music got underway, it was strictly standing room only.
The first few numbers by O'Farrill bristled with excitement, drummer Vince Cherico holding down the groove with finesse. Then the jam session kicked in and several youngsters stepped into the fray. This reviewer even got a chance to sit in on congas for four or five numbers. The late show brought in Lynch and his group with the highly underrated Rob Schneiderman on piano. A few more students made the scene, but then Lew Tabackin joined the fold followed thereafter by Chicago vocalist Tammy McCann. Adding to the fun, Detroit trumpeter Etienne Charles eventually paired with Lynch and the two obviously enjoyed spurring each other on during their solo spots. It would be one of the best jam sessions of the festival in recent memory.
By contrast with the rest of the weekend, Labor Day's offerings seemed somehow almost anticlimactic. Saxophonists Kenny Garrett, Donald Harrison, and Donny McCaslin each weighed in with their own individualistic approaches, but time was ticking away for this reviewer, who was due back to Cleveland by late afternoon.
So with his first year under his belt, it seemed that Collins had more hits than misses. Crowds were healthy and enthusiastic. And with Carhartt's continuing support and Chrysler coming aboard as a new sponsor, the future looks bright for this Labor Day tradition and American treasure.
C. Andrew Hovan