Detroit Jazz Festival 2013
August 30-September 2, 2013
Summing up the modus operandi that seemed to characterize so much of the performances at this year's Detroit Jazz Festival, one might sagaciously go with the phrase 'wild abandon.' Now in its 34th year of existence, the festival still boasts the title of "largest free jazz festival in North America." Musician Chris Collins in his sophomore effort as artistic director continues to hone his skills in putting together this cumbersome smorgasbord of delights. As such, things continue to evolve and change, some for the better and some for the worse. The theme-based or tribute performances are often a mixed bag and the scheduling of sets in similar genres at the same time continues to frustrate those wishing to see more than a tune or two before whisking off to another venue. Still, what makes this festival work are the varied opportunities to hear working bands stocked with New York's finest.
From the get-go, Friday night's opening performances were all about a loose sense of collective exploration. Up first was this year's artist-in-residence, Danilo Perez, leading an ensemble he calls Panama 500. Joining the pianist were Alex Hargreaves on violin, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Adam Cruz, and two percussionists. The music was long on musical probing and short on cohesion. Often when the ensemble seemed to hit its stride, Perez would follow up with a new tangent, taking things in yet another direction. The most remarkable moments came when the groove had time to establish itself, buoyed by conguero Roman Diaz, whose vocal chants provided the ultimate stamp of authenticity.
Leading his big band composed of ten horns and a four-piece rhythm section, saxophonist David Murray's truncated set began with the communal roar of "Stressology." Wildly loose and somewhat sloppily performed, the overall effort benefited from the solid bass foundation provided by Jaribu Shahid... and the kinetic energy of drummer Nasheet Waits. Vocalist Macy Gray's histrionics are somewhat of an acquired taste and her animated delivery marked the three numbers she performed with the band. Then, in the midst of "Talk About Jesus," the skies opened and a flash of torrential rains brought a quick end to the evening's performances, sending droves of listeners scrambling for cover.
Saturday's schedule included a rarity for this festival, a chunk of time spent at one venue, in this case the Carhartt Amphitheater, with limited stage hopping involved. Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap brought their musically satisfying duo to the stage replete with two concert grand pianos. Everything about the presentation was classy, as was an inspired take on Monk's "Off Minor." Up next, the Mack Avenue Superband lived up to its moniker, highlighting the compositional talents of its members. Sean Jones provided the lovely waltz "Mars and Venus" and newcomer Aaron Diehl's "Blue Nude" was a fabulous showcase for this immensely talented pianist.
One of the highlights of the festival, the Mack Avenue showcase featured the legendary Gary Burton in duet with young phenom Warren Wolf. The pair, on vibes and marimba, coalesced on Wolf's fine arrangement of the iconic "Senor Mouse." Another memorable moment from this set would be Kirk Whalum's 5/4 groove on the spiritual "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me."
Elsewhere that afternoon, Charles Lloyd and friends, including Bill Frisell, Reuben Rogers, and Eric Harland, played a transcendent set over at the JP Morgan Chase Main Stage. Earlier in the day, pianist Michael Weiss brought his band of New York cats to the Absopure Pyramid Stage where he played his original compositions with the valuable assistance of saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, drummer George Fludas, and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. Escoffrey voiced the robust tenor melody for the loping "Power Station," while Sadownick and Fludas locked in tight for the fast clip of "Orient Express," a tune somewhat akin to Coltrane's "Giant Steps."
As the evening started to wind down, it was time to face the fact that in choosing to see B3 firebrand Tony Monaco wrap things up at the Pyramid also meant that there would only be time to hear a few tunes by McCoy Tyner back at the Amphitheater. Even at the age of 74, Tyner still plays with a molten fire that, in this case, was aided and abetted by bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Francisco Mela. By the time special guest Savion Glover made it to the stage, Monaco had already started to heat things up next door.