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Even though Chicago often gets the publicity for its gratis offering of jazz events during each Labor Day weekend, the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival is actually the largest free jazz fest in North America. Held on the riverfront in the spacious confines of Hart Plaza, this event drew some 800,000 fans last year with its impressive line up of over 120 acts appearing on five stages over the course of four days. This year’s 21st annual party was as impressive as any in recent memory and changes in name and leadership have apparently been for the best. Now fully established as a first-class affair, the Montreux affiliation has been dropped. And with a nod towards diversity, interim artistic director and legendary Detroit radio celebrity Ed Love, taking over from the departing Jim Dulzo, managed to cover a good deal of ground while pleasing everyone in the long run. From national acts to local legends, free jazz to bop, Afro-Cuban to Brazilian, if you weren’t able to find something to suit your tastes, you just weren’t trying hard enough! Although too numerous to mention, some of the key headliners from this year’s fest included Abbey Lincoln, Pancho Sanchez, Steve Turre, Dr. John, Nancy Wilson, and the Mingus Big Band. With hundreds of acts appearing on five stages from 12 noon to 12 midnight each day, it’s physically impossible to take it all in. As a result, the coverage that follows focuses on the national headliners who performed on the two main stages over the course of Saturday, Sunday and Monday. In actuality, there are numerous performance outlets each day set aside for local talents and high school and college ensembles, adding an integral educational component to the festival as well. Saturday, September 2 Fortunately, most of the main acts of the day held forth at the large Ford/Verizon Wireless stage. Sound is consistently excellent and there’s always space to get up close to the stage, yet the humid weather made the few shady areas prime and desirable locations. The JazzTimes Superband was up first on the bill, with tenor man Bob Berg and trumpeter Randy Brecker being backed by organist Joey De Francesco and drummer Dennis Chambers. Connecting immediately with the burgeoning throng, “Dirty Dog” proved to be a tasty shuffle that found De Francesco wasting no time in turning on the crowd-pleasing histrionics. Another blues shuffle of his own concoction, “Blue Goo,” came a few tunes later and De Francesco let loose with one of those repeated note solos that builds tension while managing to sound like a chirping telegraph machine.
Berg and Brecker were both on their toes, the former strutting that muscular tone of his to great effect on a ballad performance of “I Thought About You” and the latter displaying his admirable range throughout the waltz tempo of “Sometime Ago.” With chops to spare, Chambers managed to push the soloists with just the right amount of force without overwhelming the entire ensemble. His fills at the conclusion of “Oleo” included some one-handed maneuvers that had folks scratching their heads in disbelief. Far from being a mere publicity exploiter, this “superband” lived up to its name.
After a set change, we heard from a gentleman who just may be the most prominent new voice on the vibes, 27-year-old Stefon Harris. With two Blue Note albums under his belt and a heap of talent at his disposal, Harris and his working band offered a seamless array of original tunes and inspired arrangements of a few standards. The integration of soloist and backing was a marvel throughout, with drummer Terreon Gully so damn musical and slick that he managed to anticipate and compliment Harris’ every move. And that was no small task, as Harris created a dance of his own, leaping back and forth between his vibes and the darker sounding marimba. Pianist Xavier Davis let loose with his two-fisted attack a la McCoy Tyner on the Afro-Cuban groove given to “Caravan.” Rounded out by bassist Reid Anderson, Harris’ quartet held the audience spellbound during its lengthy set. Picking up on the good vibes (no pun intended!), Harris returned the compliment by declaring that he knew Detroit was a hip crowd. He then added, “Heck, I even got grits this morning and you can’t do that in New York!”