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Detroit Jazz Festival 2018

C. Andrew Hovan By

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The jazz legacy of Detroit and its people have ensured that Labor Day weekend always bodes well for live jazz in its many incarnations.
Detroit Jazz Festival
Downtown Detroit
Detroit, Michigan
August 31-September 3, 2018

Over the course of its 39 year history, the largest free jazz festival in North America has seen its shares of up and downs. It once swelled to a five-day event starting on the Thursday evening before Labor Day and there was even a time when names such as Chaka Khan and Nancy Wilson rubbed noses with more mainstream sensibilities. There were even moments when scarcity in economic support threatened the chances of the festival's longevity. But through it all, the jazz legacy of Detroit and its people have ensured that Labor Day weekend always bodes well for live jazz in its many incarnations. As the old saying goes, "If you built it, they will come."

As a veteran attendee of the festival for going on some 27 years now, this writer can personally attest to the many changes that have occurred during the past quarter century. Although it is still possible to hobnob with the musicians while strolling through the lobby at the Marriot Renaissance Hotel, the chance for fan and artist communications on-site have diminished considerably over the years. Not surprising, the post-9/11 society that we find ourselves living in demands tighter constraints on just about everything in our lives including stage security. Furthermore, the need for funding has led to special VIP seating areas that continue to encroach on the lip of the stages and push the masses farther back.

For the first time in many years, the festival also seemed different in that there was a noticeable down-sizing in terms of the number of acts and the more prominent names seemed harder to find among the schedule. Part of that, it must be noted, is due to a paradigm shift in the music due to the passing of so many older jazz icons. Aside from the usual high school and college band performances, most stage schedules didn't even get underway until two or three o'clock in the afternoon. The practice also continued of giving the nod to many of the artists on the Mack Avenue Records roster being that philanthropist Gretchen Valade pulls several of the purse strings for both the label and the festival.

Another factor that would raise its prominent head this year would be the weather. Not something obviously under human control, the humidity and blaring temperatures nonetheless made for sticky conditions in most spots, but particularly at the Pyramid Stage where there is simply no cross ventilation. Such weather is always unpredictable, which led to lengthy rain delays throughout the entire weekend and the festival shutting down early on Saturday night. This managed to put the kibosh on Saturday night's performances of Chick Corea's Elektric Band and Nicholas Payton's Afro-Caribbean Mixtape Project.

Friday night opened the festival with no weather issues and the usual celebratory spirit found at Campus Martius, a space that is quaint and trendy but possibly a bit too small for the demands of an opening-night crowd. Billed as the "resident ensemble," drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding led a group featuring pianist Kris Davis, flutist David McMurray, and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane in a tribute to the late Geri Allen. Knotty and densely textured works like "Printmakers" and "Open On All Sides" brought forth challenging, but highly gratifying music that stunned the crowd and often the performers themselves. At one point, Carrington even commented on how Allen's "tunes look simple, but are often hard to play."

Artist-in-residence Chick Corea would lead his Akoustic Band for the set closer of the evening, featuring bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl. As nimble and alert as always, the 77-year-old pianist covered a lot of ground in a generous set that was ripe with the obvious shared chemistry between these gifted musicians. In his heartfelt salute to Aretha Franklin, Chick and company elevated Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" to new heights. The intricate "Lifeline" featured a feisty Latin romp that ultimately made way for one of Weckl's textbook drum solos of virtuosic proportions. Kicking off with the classical strains of Scarlatti, Corea morphed this exposition into a thrilling romp on "You and the Night and the Music" that brought the crowd to their feet.

Due to health reasons, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith had to cancel his performance on Saturday. Quick to the rescue, Detroit native and drumming icon Louis Hayes filled the vacancy with his own hard bop collective. Another Detroit drummer of note, Gene Dunlap led a talented cast of Motor City jazzmen on numbers from his new album entitled Page 7. Working in a fusion vein, Dunlap's originals cast a wide shadow in terms of melodic structures and rhythmic grooves.

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