Now in its 22nd season, this year’s Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival proved to be somewhat of a watershed moment in the event’s history. A Labor Day weekend favorite for scores of North Easterners, this year’s fest introduced the maiden efforts of new Music Hall artistic director Frank Malfitano. While last year’s deficit forced cutting back from five stages to four, musically things were stronger than ever. In fact, the main changes were in the amenities category and the majority of these were for the better. A better choice of international food vendors in a more organized set-up allowed for a stress-free environment. Unfortunately however, a new philosophy of scheduling meant that many national acts overlapped in a manner that made it almost impossible to jump from stage to stage. Not helping matters was the further decision to put some of the larger acts at some of the smaller venues, a decision that was especially troublesome for Wallace Roney’s performance (more on that later). On a whole though, things managed to go swimmingly for most of the weekend. Friday, August 31st Although things got underway at about 4 pm, the three hour drive after work from Cleveland to Detroit put me onto Hart Plaza at just about seven, with pianist Benny Green just finishing a solo set that had the modest crowd on their feet. Up next was Christian McBride and his current band of all-stars that included tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, keyboard man Geoff Keezer, and drummer Tereon Gully. Sporting a Tiger’s jersey and cap, McBride burned with a funky set that got down to business from note one. “Sci-Fi” and a reworking of Steely Dan’s “Aja” brought forth some strong ensemble work and an equally engaging round of solos, Keezer switching back and forth between acoustic piano and various keyboards. McBride’s favored set closer of recent, a medley of Jaco Pastorius’ “Havona” and Joe Zawinul’s “Boogie Woogie Waltz” pulled out all the stops.
It was then time to move from the Amphitheatre Stage to the smaller Motor City Casino Pyramid Stage for the return of one of Detroit’s most admired musical sons, Tommy Flanagan. The 71-year-old pianist proved to be a real trouper throughout a somewhat truncated set. It was painfully obvious that he was feeling under the weather and he paused at length between numbers to get his energy together and to chat with the audience. Bassist Peter Washington and drummer Tootie Heath helped complete a classy trio and the tunes ranged from “Liza” to Bud Powell’s “Strictly Confidential.” At one point, a heckler made a request for “Giant Steps,” only to find Flanagan volley back sagaciously with, “I hate ‘Giant Steps,’ but I love John Coltrane.” At the conclusion of the five-song set, the crowd boisterously lauded one of their own heroes- a man who still seemed to have much to say even if the body wasn’t always willing.
Saturday, September 1st
One of the great treats of this year’s fest was the inclusion of many performers from the realm of Brazilian and Latin styles. Taking the Amphitheatre Stage on Saturday afternoon was the celebrated Brazilian composer and singer Ivan Lins. Immediately he cooed about how much he enjoyed performing live shows and went on to describe such happenings as analogous to a “non-stop flight.” Highlights included an agreeable Jobim tribute and a spate of samba favorites, including “Tristeza.” Backed by a crack team of gentleman from his homeland, Lins wowed those on hand for well over an hour and a rare encore was even forced by a crowd that included members of a local Brazilian club (in their yellow and green regalia and the flag of Brazil).