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August 30-September 2, 2002 Detroit sure knows how to throw a party and every Labor Day weekend for the past 23 years they have invited their hometown fans and neighbors from near and far to take part in what has become the largest free jazz festival in North America. While the talent on hand has been consistently stimulating over the past several years, it’s the non-musical logistics that seem to have made the biggest strides most recently. This year the food vendors took cash, dispensing with the aggravating ticket method that had worn out its welcome long ago. Also worth noting was the new improved set-up of the Waterfront Stage, now assembled to the side of Lake Michigan and covered from the sun, with ample seating provided to boot. As in the past, there’s simply so much going on that it’s impossible to take it all in and overlapping performances kept this journalist hopping at all times. Nonetheless, what follows can surely be considered the highlights of this year’s festivities, even if by necessity the coverage is not all-inclusive. See photos. Friday, August 31 Although things get started at about 3 o’clock on the opening day, this reviewer needs a few hours after work to wing from Cleveland up to Detroit, check into the hotel, and then make a way to the main stage for usually the last act or two. Competing for an audience, performances by Carl Allen and Legends of the Bandstand commenced within 15 minutes of each and a toss of the coin wouldn’t be out of the question in making such a tough decision. I opted for the latter, choosing to catch a truly all-star ensemble featuring trombone luminary Curtis Fuller, David ‘Fathead’ Newman on flute and tenor sax, Cedar Walton at the piano, and rhythm mates Earl May on bass and Louis Hayes at the drums.
A pleasing, if somewhat restrained, set included many familiar numbers from the pens of Fuller, Newman, and Walton. “Arabia” provided a feature spot for Fuller, although it seemed that throughout the evening his endurance was somewhat limited. Newman’s earthy and organic flute work was particularly attractive on “Delilah” and his tenor as robust as ever on the funky “Hard Times.” Giving an old workhorse a different taste, Cedar Walton allowed “Body and Soul” to float on a lovely bossa nova groove Not to be left out, Hayes had a chance to stretch out at length on the closing “Caravan” and his stature as one of the all-time Detroit legends, not to mention one of the music’s most important drummers, was securely maintained.
Saturday, August 31
Getting a busy Saturday underway, bassist and Detroit native Rodney Whitaker held forth with a quartet that included pianist Rick Roe, saxophonist Diego Rivera, and drummer Randy Gillespie. Bird’s “Air Conditioning” let the quartet’s bop chops get a workout while its title might have subliminally brought cooling thoughts to those caught in the searing afternoon sun. A spate of Whitaker’s melodic and creative originals provided the fodder for the remainder of the set. “Winter Moon” and “Fall Shadows” featured Rivera’s crisp soprano work; with “For Garrison” demonstrating its composer’s own virtuosity as a bassist. On the closing three numbers, a colleague of Whitaker’s from Michigan State University (where Whitaker leads the college’s jazz program) joined the ranks. Derek Gardner was cool and poised as he tore up the changes on “Lady Be Good” and brought an attractive set to a close.
It was then over to the smaller Pyramid Stage for a rare appearance by vocalist Giacomo Gates and his trio including Cleveland-based drummer Greg Bandy. Choosing items from the standard repertoire, Gates not only flaunted some great scatting but also offered a few vocalise gems, providing the lyrics to iconic improvisational lines. It’s not easy vocalizing a Charlie Parker solo, but Gates tore it up on a very accurate run through “Lady Be Good.” His own words to Monk’s “Think of One” offered apropos commentary on society’s overwhelming need for self-gratification. Used sagaciously, Gates included in his own personal devices a technique where he waved the microphone back and forth giving the resultant tone a tremolo or quavering effect. Although he does have an album available from a few years back on Sharp Nine, Gates really needs to step out front more often. He provides the next step in the vocal lineage following the lead of Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson.