2016 Detroit Jazz Festival

C. Andrew Hovan By

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2016 Detroit Jazz Festival
Hart Plaza
Detroit, Michigan
September 2-4, 2016

The staging of North America's largest free jazz festival must indeed be some kind of massive undertaking. In the years since artistic director Chris Collins has taken the reins of the festival, there have been many changes, some for the better and some for the worst. There certainly has been a more concerted effort to garner donors and folks willing to pay the big bucks for some extra perks. These VIPs now have their own special seating areas, thus limiting the space around the front and sides of each stage. There also seems to be a narrowing of the stylistic diversity that the festival used to boast as a genuine strength. Gone are the days of those crossover artists like Chaka Khan or Brazilian icons like Sergio Mendes or Ivan Lins. By comparison, the mere scope of this year's festival seemed smaller, narrower, and logistically more difficult to take in. It all had the feel of a scaling back on what has been a consistently strong and vibrant jazz festival.

For only the second time since starting their artist-in-residence program at the fest, a Detroit native carried out the role and functioned in various capacities, both in the performance and educational realms. Bassist Ron Carter (read related interview) was omnipresent as he presented four very distinct ensembles in appropriate venues and at times that did not conflict with other major offerings. The same could not be said about much of the rest of the schedule. So many of the performance times overlapped in such a way that it was not humanly possible to take it all in. It is understandable that such a strategy attempts to spread the masses out among the four stages. Indeed, that works when you have a variety of styles presented. But when artists of the same genre are at different sites and scheduled at similar times, it makes for some difficult choices. Thus, the reader should consider that what follows is not intended to be all-inclusive, but a sampling of what this reviewer found to be the most memorable moments of the long weekend.

Over the past several years, opening night has been held in the close quarters of Campus Martius. While the early hours are just fine, by the closing act, there are usually so many people packed into this small space that there is hardly any room to move. Ron Carter opened the show with his quartet augmented by a quartet of cellos. Even though the material was familiar, the unusual instrumentation gave it an added dimension that was somewhat at odds with the festive spirit of the gathering throngs. The group Soul Rebels spun the wheel another 360 degrees as it marched in Second Line style to take a smaller stage off to the right for a brief taste of their wares.

The main attraction Friday night was George Benson and depending on who you talked to, his performance was either considered a treat or a bust. Although his voice seemed a bit worse for the wear, Benson pulled out such hits as "Love x Love," "Turn Your Love Around" and "Give Me the Night." As one of the most talented jazz guitarists of his generation, Benson can blow with the best of them and it would have been nice to have heard a few jazz chops. Nonetheless, "Breezin,'" "Affirmation" and a scorching "Mambo Inn" served up plenty of hot licks.

Pianist Randy Weston joined with the Wayne State jazz ensemble to celebrate his 90th year on the planet. Under the direction of Chris Collins, the group more than did justice to some of Weston's most definitive works such as "African Rhythms" and "Little Niles." TK Blue brought his flute to the stage to duet with Weston on "The Healers" and fellow jazz luminary Jimmy Heath shared his own moment with the pianist on "Hi-Fly." As energetic and luminous as always, Weston was the star of the show and rightly so.

One of the most memorable sets of the weekend brought together three criminally underrated artists who are deserving of wider recognition. Trumpeter Charles Tolliver and tenor saxophonist Billy Harper teamed with pianist Stanley Cowell for an impressive set of originals chock full of incendiary solos and extended jams that marked much of the best jazz of the 1970s. Tolliver's "On the Nile" would be sparked by drummer Carl Allen's agile beat and anchored by bassist Jay Anderson. "Quiet Hunger" was as fun to watch as it was to hear, marked by stop time figures that each player anticipated with clocklike precision. Harper's "The Light Within" found the dynamic Cowell imbibing his solo with hand over hand runs and quicksilver flourishes.

Making what might have been his first appearance at the festival, guitarist John Abercrombie teamed up with organist Jared Gold and drummer Adam Nussbaum for an agile trio set that was immensely satisfying. Somewhat of a jokester, the guitarist had a field day with the boat horns from the touring Detroit Princess. During "Another Ralph's," Abercrombie touted that the horn hit one of the same pitches as the melody, which he thought was "fucking amazing." Gold justified his claim to fame as one of the best up-and-comers on the organ. Nussbaum was a joy to watch, particularly on his own "Sherwood, Baby." As loose as his feel and touch are, the drummer nonetheless zeroes in on the beat with the precision of a metronome.

Serving as a homecoming event, Detroit icon Kirk Lightsey has actually made his home in Paris since 2000. The pianist was in great spirits when he took the main stage on Sunday afternoon, teaming with Bob Hurst and fellow Detroiter Louis Hayes. There was a theme to the program, as it seemed that both Miles Davis' 60s bandmates and Joe Henderson were on Lightsey's mind. The first part of the show included Herbie Hancock's "One Finger Snap," Tony Williams' "Pee Wee" and Wayne Shorter's "Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum." Closing out the set would be Henderson's "Inner Urge" and "Isotope." There was a vibrancy to Lightsey's playing that was contagious, even if there were a few bumps along the way. Hurst seemed to be delighted to be in such royal company and Hayes was as a solid as ever.

When it comes to jazz of the most effervescent variety, no one can even top drummer Herlin Riley. His closing set at the Pyramid Stage Sunday night was nothing short of revelatory. Performing many of the tracks from his recent album New Directions, Riley's quintet is like a well-oiled machine. "Harlem Shuffle" was a fine introduction to the immense talents of Emmet Cohen, a pianist able to speak with authority in a variety of genres. On "Connection to Congo Square," both trumpeter Bruce Harris and saxophonist Godwin Louis demonstrated their own distinct dialects while locking up tight as a front line. Riley himself is a man in constant motion, adding cowbell flourishes to "The Big Banana" and some flashy tambourine hand jive on "Hi-Fly." For the closing "Tootie Ma," Riley would also sing Danny Barker's line with a greasy Nawlins feel. Amped up on the sheer energy that Riley and company generated, the audience reluctantly let the evening come to its conclusion.

Rounding out Ron Carter's other musical offerings, there would be the trio with pianist Donald Vega and guitarist Russell Malone. This group definitely channeled the spirit of the iconic Nat Cole Trio or Ahmad Jamal's early sides, but was somewhat less engaging possibly due to the lack of drums. The big band performance was a triumphant send-off stacked with an A-list of New York's finest musicians. This reviewer's favorite Carter set however, was the quartet featuring Renee Rosnes on piano, drummer Payton Crossley and percussionist Rolando Morales-Matos. Familiar lines such as "Seven Steps to Heaven" and "All Blues" would take on new life voiced by Carter's bass and complimented by Rosnes' piquant piano work and Matos' tasty percussion accents. Adding to the ambiance of this performance was the use of the intimate Pyramid Stage, the very spot where Carter and Pat Metheny enraptured an overflow crowd last year.

It should also be noted that more musical fodder was to be had by checking out the later performances staged in the ballroom of the Marriott Renaissance hotel. While the festival has traditionally held jam sessions at the bar in the lobby of the hotel, they decided this year to opt for a larger space in order to accommodate a larger crowd. The results were somewhat mixed, however. On the one hand, there was definitely more room. But instead of tables and chairs, they staged the space with couches and large ottomans that actually worked against the idea of seating larger crowds. Touted as an after-hours jam session, this was not really the case and performances by Chris Potter and Harold Lopez-Nussa took on the feel of another concert, leaving little opportunity for budding performers to sit in.

Photo Credit: C. Andrew Hovan
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