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.