It was sure to happen sooner or later. North America’s largest free jazz festival had found itself in the red for the past several years. An active search for wealthy donor and corporate bucks had been underway the past two or three seasons, but with a sagging economy it was no surprise that this year’s Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival was a pared down affair that was not only the result of financial woes but a clear attempt to gather a larger crowd and one that was not solely of the jazz variety. With a focus on vocalists this time around, the closing performance of each day (with the cut of Friday’s festivities making this a three day event this year) featured a different crossover artist. Although somewhat of a stretch, jazz sensibilities could be gleaned in the styles of Roberta Flack
and Natalie Cole
, but the same could not be said of Chaka Khan
. From a pure jazz standpoint then, these shows were of marginal interest and you won’t find a blow-by-blow description of any of them here. If the results provide an increase in attendance and money earned on concessions than the compromise would seem to make sense. If this doesn’t prove to be the case, then some soul searching would seem to be in order.
You would think with only three stages now part of the set-up that it would be easier than ever to get catch all the sets you desire. But once again this year, it seemed that in too many cases acts with a similar appeal were staged simultaneously, with lots of down time in between. On Saturday afternoon I took in the second set of the day at the main Ford Amphitheatre stage. Pianist Benny Green and Russell Malone delivered their duo set that they’ve been kicking around the country for the past year or so. The choice of tunes was definitely unique, with Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and the soul ditty “Where Is the Love?” fitting nicely against tin pan alley standards like “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” Mallone kicked off a clever arrangement of “Love for Sale” with a dirty shuffle that led to a Latin clave backing for the rest of the piece. Associated with the Carpenters, “Sing” closed the performance on a positive note, although there was a degree of sameness and lack of an edge (which the addition of bass and drums might have provided) to this type of duo setting that makes a little go a long way.
A quick change of venue to the Waterfront stage allowed me to take in a few numbers from the Caribbean Jazz Project. Nominally led by vibe man Dave Samuels, this group packs quite a wallop with a hard Latin edge and some cutting jazz solos, particularly by the fiery trumpeter Ray Vega. Drummer Dafnis Prieto sported an interesting set-up, with timbales taking the place of tom-toms on his drum kit. Talk about poetry in motion; Prieto dazzled with his pyrotechnic displays and a great musical ability to build the excitement over the course of the solo statements. Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” was a quintessential example of the kind of smart arrangements that this ensemble dabbles in, complete with shifting grooves and some incendiary work by Vega. Samuels never hogged the spotlight, but more than demonstrated his own talents on the vibes and his electronic mallet instrument.
With regret, I had to cut out early on the Caribbean Jazz Project so that I could return to the main stage for the homecoming of bassist Ron Carter. A graduate of Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, Carter is the bassist of his generation and with typical panache he and his group took to the stage with a sense of tradition and formality that is all too rare these days, immaculately groomed and clad in black suits. Pianist Ray Gallon, drummer Payton Crossley and percussionist Steve Kroon meshed beautifully with Carter’s conception, exploring the type of breezy Latin and Brazilian fare that the bassist has recorded in recent years. Kroon contributed a flashy bongo solo on “Seven Steps to Heaven, “ a piece that no doubt was to pay homage to Carter’s former boss Miles Davis. “Mahna De Carnival” found Ron caressing the melody as Kroon added a little sizzle with his pandeiro. Although a bit too smug for his own good in his introduction, Carter invited Hubert Laws to join the quartet on stage for a romp through “Blues in the Closet.” It was a nice bonus for many of us who were unaware that Laws was even in town performing earlier with Russian pianist Eugene Maslov.
It was then over to the Pyramid stage to wrap up the evening with a few numbers from the Greg Osby Quartet. Drummer Eric McPherson was central to Osby’s conception, one that has mellowed over the years but which still is a bit left of center. Bassist Matt Brewer has been working with Osby since April and proved to be a great technician in the lineage of Cecil McBee or Richard Davis, although pianist Megumi Yonezawa was somewhat less impressive and added little to the overall mix. Getting underway with “Jitterbug Waltz,” Osby segued from one number to the next which after a while proved problematic, as you wished for just a bit more time to process and digest each number before moving onto the next. A set highlight was an “avant funk” version of Lou Donaldson’s “Alligator Boogaloo” that also included a killer drum solo from McPherson.
Heading to the Pyramid stage for the first act on Sunday afternoon, I immediately noticed that there was no Hammond B3 set up for what I was sure was to be a set by organist Bill Heid. Instead, Bill opted for a piano trio performance that ended up being no less engaging in the long run, even if Bill had a hard time seeing his band mates with his back facing them on stage. Both “Eating in Progress” and “Gypsy Without a Song” revealed a strong affinity for the trio recordings of McCoy Tyner (of course, astute fans will remember that Tyner recorded the latter on his McCoy Plays Ellington album). His hip and idiosyncratic vocals also had much in common with Mose Allison, a funky spin on “Night and Day” and his own “Falling By Degrees” being particularly memorable. Heid even threw in some boogie-woogie numbers that more than amply demonstrated he has the chops to do just about anything. Maybe a piano trio album is in his future.
Over the course of the weekend, Detroit native Marcus Belgrave hosted three trumpet summits wherein he highlighted the talents of some up and coming players and varied the rhythm sections. I was able to catch a few numbers on Sunday afternoon as he first shared the stage with the Oberlin College Jazz Ensemble and then fronted his own group with pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Andrew Klein, and drummer Kariem Riggins. Youngsters Chris Johnson, Josiah Woodson, Greg Glassman, Maurice Brown, Shawn Jones, John Douglas, and Dominick Farinacci traded licks on a few jam session warhorses, while Belgrave looked on with a smile.
Later in the evening at the main stage, James Moody kept the crowd happy with some lively bebop and a whole lot of laughs thanks to his comedic stories and one-liners. The band was a solid one, with pianist David Hazeltine, bassist Rufus Reid, and Anthony Pinciotti on drums. “Sonnymoon For Two” included fleet tenor work from Moody, while he sang a chorus or two on “Pennies From Heaven” and the prototypical “Moody’s Mood.” Also to be enjoyed was some mercurial flute work on the standard “Cherokee.” Unfortunately, I was not able to catch the whole set because I needed to make it over to the Waterfront stage for another act. It was at about this time that the clouds darkened and the raindrops that seemed to be toying with us all afternoon finally made their appearance. It would make the rest of the evening a soggy mess to say the least.
My evening concluded with first a set by baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber and then one from Russell Gunn and his Ethnomusicology band. Wielding that monster of a horn, Cuber roamed the stage with the intensity of a lion on the hunt, tearing his way through some especially masterful solos. In fact, Cuber’s set had to be the best of the entire festival, thanks to some imaginative charts and the sensational drumming of Jonathan Blake. Horace Silver’s “Tokyo Blues” managed to built to a fiery intensity that even surpassed the original recording. “Summertime” was almost unrecognizable in a complex arrangement that shifted between funk, salsa, and a fast son montuno. Unfortunately, Russell Gunn’s set over at the Pyramid stage was far less satisfactory. With a delayed start time due to an intricate stage set up, things sounded somewhat unsettled and stayed that way as the trumpeter threw in doses of rap with ‘70s Miles into a mix that was one-dimensional and at times meandering.
Hoping that the weather would clear up overnight, I nonetheless awoke Monday morning to a soggy start. Still, considering that this was first time I could remember such a prolonged dose of rain in the six some years I’ve been covering the festival, I guess the odds have been pretty good over the long haul. The crowds were minimal at best when The National Jazz Orchestra of Detroit took to the main stage for a tribute to the late Teddy Edwards, who had provided charts for the band and had appeared with them the previous two years. Teddy Harris, Jr. directed this gifted group through some wonderful Edwards charts like “Lennox Lady.” Furthermore, Mulgrew Miller was on hand for some stirring solos, as was the legendary trombone man George Bohanon, who has made the scene for everything from Blue Note sessions to Earth, Wind & Fire productions.
A salute to Lionel Hampton was then in store from the effervescent vibraphonist Terry Gibbs. Fronting an unusual collective that featured organist Joey DeFrancesco, saxophonist David ‘Fathead’ Newman, guitarist Howard Alden, and Terry’s son Gerry on drums, Gibbs stole the show with his comedic monologues and his effortless vibe playing, not to mention a few numbers where he sat down at the piano. “Moonglow” and “Ring Dem Bells” were just a few of the old chestnuts that found this cross-generational ensemble in top form, even if the rains were still coming down and the winds were sending pools of water from the rooftop onto the gathering throng below.
There was even less cover from the drizzle over at the Pyramid stage for my last set of the day before heading back to Cleveland. I have been a huge fan of guitarist Ed Cherry for several years now, but have not had the opportunity to see him play live and was anxiously awaiting his set with a line-up that sounded very intriguing. With Kyle Kohler on organ, Jay Collins on horns, and Slyvia Cuenca on drums, Cherry wasted no time in getting things smoldering. “Little Girl, Big Girl” was typical of the kind of lines that Cherry likes to write. They somehow sound logical and familiar, but have their own thing to say as well. Collins was a real asset throughout, his soprano sax work particularly fluid and his flute playing dark and romantic. Kohler surprised too, leashing some flashy solos that demonstrated a good deal of originality along with the influence of such contemporary thinkers as Larry Young.
So despite a sunny start, this year’s festivities ended on a rainy note. Even with some commercial concessions, there was still enough music to enjoy over the course of the weekend. Improvements would have to include a better job at spacing things out to avoid stage hopping all day, not to mention booking more of the Latin and Brazilian artists that have liberally graced the festival in previous years. Here’s hoping that when all is said and done the future of this valuable event will remain solid with more opportunities to build on past successes.
View Chris Hovan's Motor City Jazz 2003 Photo Exhibit .