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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.

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