Changing of the Guard: The 33rd Annual Detroit Jazz Festival
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.