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30th Annual Detroit International Jazz Festival


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Hank Jones / Corea, Clarke & White
Sean Jones / Dave Brubeck Quartet / Brian Auger's Oblivion Express
Alfredo Rodriguez / Dennis Coffey / Wayne Shorter Quartet
Chuchito Valdes / Stefon Harris & Blackout
30th Annual Detroit International Jazz Festival
Detroit, Michigan
September 4-7, 2009

The Detroit International Jazz Festival celebrated its 30th anniversary over Labor Day Weekend 2009, using the occasion to honor one of Motown's greatest jazz families. Adopting a "Keepin' Up With the Joneses" theme, the festival shone a light on the legacy of Hank Jones, Elvin Jones and Thad Jones, while taking a look at jazz families in general.

Pianist Hank Jones, the only surviving brother of the three, kicked off the festival with his trio on Friday night, and music and talks throughout the weekend focused on the impact of each Jones brother. Additionally, there was a host of "family reunions" scheduled: Dave Brubeck with his sons Brubeck Brothers Quartet, The Heath Brothers, Jimmy Heath and Albert Tootie Heath, John Pizzarelli and Bucky Pizzarelli, Larry Coryell and Julian Coryell, Pete Escovedo and Juan Escovedo, Clayton Brothers and Brian Auger's Oblivion Express, which currently features his daughter Savannah and son Karma. It felt an appropriate way to celebrate the festival's rich history as one of the largest free music festivals in the world, where the door is wide open and everyone is welcome.

September 4: Hank Jones

In getting the festival underway, 91-year-old pianist Hank Jones and his trio ran through 13 easy-swing and bop numbers that were mostly of a piece: technically proficient, graceful, charming, but also rather programmed and rarely helping the blood to race.

Some exceptions to this formula were the trio's take on Ben Tucker and Bob Dorough's "Comin' Home Baby" and the Ned Washington-Victor Youngstandard, "Stella by Starlight." Jones opened the former with a repetitive chord figure that emphatically handled the rhythm on its own. To this he added some skipping right-hand lines that, like a world-class sprinter, were swift without ever showing their effort. With Jones tight on the rhythm, bassist George Mraz was free to explore the upper reaches of his instrument, an exercise he later took to melodic heights on "Stella." Drummer Carl Allen, whose solo work in this setting rarely broke from a marching-corps routine, also turned in his most diverse and expressive statement on "Stella," whisking his brushes over the trap set to create a hushed starlight mood.

Jones, nimble throughout the set, fashioned an especially tender interpretation of Thad Jones' "A Child Is Born," and cut from tender to a keep-the-party-going Latin beat on the encore, Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight." Would that we could all be so defiant as the nonagenarian and push aside time at last call.

September 4: Corea, Clarke & White

The headline act for the evening was introduced as "Chick Corea," with the indication that the pianist could introduce the others in the trio. But once the music started, there was no question that this was a three-name act, with all players on equal footing.

Bassist Stanley Clarke especially impressed (and was, after all, positioned at center stage). His extra-worldly skill ran roughshod over the length of his strings, his right hand resorting at times to palm smacks, thumb swats and other—unknowable—manners of attack to augment his bright, fluid lines with percussive snap and guitar-like strumming. Drummer Lenny White shown on Monk's "Straight No Chaser," in which his left-hand stick rocked steady on the cymbal throughout, refusing to flinch even on the solo, where White's right hand simply went to work. More than just an astounding feat of control and stamina, it created a distinct, layered effect of dual drumming—the visual and sonic spectacle meshing to elicit a powerful response.

All this is not to say that Corea sat idly by, resting on Steinway laurels. His solo piano opened many of the tunes, as he worked from soft melodies or cutting block chords into jumping, articulate statements that traded his famous electric keyboard hum for the more bracing tones of the acoustic ivories. During even his most forceful attacks, Corea's hands would float up from the keys, hover for the slightest instant, then lovingly descend, like pollinating bees—it was difficult at times to reckon the soft motion with the rash of sounds it produced. And his interplay with Clarke, especially on "Straight No Chaser," was chest-expanding, the two musicians looping in completion of or engendering one another's thoughts.

After a handful of tunes, the trio returned to the stage for an anthemic yet playful take on Corea's "Spain" that ended with the pianist conducting a call and response from the crowd: the thousands in attendance singing several of Corea's improvised bars back to him. Detroit had certainly been warmed up for the weekend.

September 5: Sean Jones

Not only has trumpeter Sean Jones arrived, he's settled in and is busy changing the wallpaper and drapes. For those wondering where mainstream jazz is heading or those already crying over its demise, Jones' set was the event not to miss at this year's festival. The trumpeter and his quintet came out hard and didn't let up for six rounds.

Opening with two original compositions, "Transitions" and "Life Cycles" (the latter inspired by Microsoft Windows' four-tone boot-up and shutdown music), Jones and saxophonist Brian Hogans led the group in establishing a melodic yet riff-heavy foundation in the hard bop mold. Jones, who switched to flugelhorn for the second number, opened each of his solos with soft, heat-tempering breaths—contemplative but kinetic—that brushed clean his canvas. He then filled it again with bright slashing colors, long broad strokes and rainbow spit. The sleepy-eyed Hogans favored halting, Bird-like bop passages and R&B swoons that were picked up by pianist Orrin Evans. The numbers bespoke force, but were mere kickings in the sandbox compared to the strong-armed throttling that was to come.

On John Coltrane's "Resolution," the group reached a fever pitch—and quickly! Evans opened the piece, bending heavy on the keys. And after the horns stated the theme, Evans leaned in harder, working repeated right-hand blues figures and angular left-hand block chords into a tremor that made his piano—and the crowd along with it—jump. Jones wasted no time building here, but entered from Evans peak and went up, trilling in the high register and piercing with bright metal swaths. Hogans twined flurries of notes into a rolling ball of music, snipped only by the occasional squawk into a lower register. He took chorus after chorus, not letting up till he'd had his say and then exiting to the corner of the stage, victorious but dazed like Muhammad Ali after his 14th round with Joe Frazier in Manila. Drummer Josh Davis took it from there, fashioning a multidimensional crashing that led back to the theme.

The group followed with two melodic numbers, Hogans' "Summer's Spring," into which Jones worked the tender, fluttering warble of a newborn chick, and Jones' "Mama," a soulful dedication to the trumpeter's mother. They closed with a last hard bop number, "The Storm," but the hurricane had already blown in their masterful, passionate reading of Coltrane.

September 5: Dave Brubeck Quartet

Iconic pianist Dave Brubeck's best musical years are certainly behind him. At 88, no one's expecting him to make a 50th-anniversary follow-up to "Time Out" (Columbia, 1959) that will once again knock the jazz world off kilter. Some may turn out to his shows simply to see the man—to pay homage—while others are perhaps more morbidly curious to see what he's got left.

Well, the answer is, quite a bit. While not as dexterous as he once was (he shied away from extended bits on his groundbreaking "Blue Rondo a la Turk" and "Take Five," for example), he knows how to lead a band and to work within himself to paint beautiful, emotive music with surprising misdirections.

A pretty, minimalist "Mood Indigo" jumbled time dreamlike (and, to be sure, Brubeck-like), leading organically into a "Take the A Train" that was carried primarily by saxophonist Bobby Militello. Brubeck broke up the crowd by faking a heart attack at the sound of a mike stand crashing over and passed the bulk of the set with a broad smile on his lips, thoroughly enjoying his own musical contributions and those of his mates, as if he were just discovering the magic of making music. He pumped his fist to celebrate one of Militello's passages and frequently leaned in over his piano to get a better listen at what the others were doing—studying, seemingly, ever-learning and ingesting—and loving every minute of it. Then giving back, as in the group's rendering of Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," which Brubeck opened with showman, time-shifting flare, then took back at its close, completely and effortlessly changing the texture to exit on classical lines that were nonetheless singularly Brubeckian.

Brubeck's sons, trombonist Chris and drummer Dan, and their band, who had played earlier in the day, joined Dad for three pieces, including "Blue Rondo" and "Take Five." It was a family affair welcomed and shared by the crowd, and one that added interesting new wrinkles to the Brubeck classics, most notably in the adventurous harmonica work of Peter "Madcat" Ruth and in the extended, furious drum solo from Dan on the "Take Five" closer. Yet, throughout, it was Dave Brubeck's contemplative, still exploratory and exuberant tapping of the keys that sparked the music and showed that the master hasn't yet pulled all of the rabbits out of his hat.

September 5: Brian Auger's Oblivion Express

There's no resisting Brian Auger and his Oblivion Express. Now working with his offspring, singer Savannah and drummer Karma, and bassist Andreas Geck, the fiery 70-year-old keyboardist is still, in his own words, "out here kicking your ass!" The Oblivion's music is hard-charging soul, sparking a thump and expansion in even the most marble of chests. If you don't loose a scream, a fist pump, a "hell yeah!" or, at least, some serious foot tappin' during an Oblivion set, you're simply not human.

Herbie Hancock once praised Auger for his "unparalleled and relentless" energy on the Hammond B-3. Auger's right hand digs into the keys as if to keep them at bay, his left punching the beast's body and swatting its tail. Sporting a bright blue-collared shirt graced with the large heads of Manga characters, the keyboardist led his group through their usual suspects, including Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance," "Straight Ahead," "Season of the Witch" and Gene McDaniels "Compared to What." But routine mattered little—the energy, the power, was always fresh. Savannah's clean, soulful voice soared on "Witch" and "Compared to What." Karma, always striking the serious, if not downright pissed, visage, busted thunderous solos on "Indian Rope Man" and, especially, on "Whenever You're Ready," where his fury grew from a cow-bell-infused tropical beat. "Indian Rope Man" also featured a funky guitar-like bass solo from Geck, who has been given more space to stretch during longer sets.

And at the edge—the head of the table, as it were—sat or stood Pops, pumping out swamp-fed electric soul, blues and funk, sweating and grunting over his work one moment, then turning to eye the crowd in the next, gauging their reaction—their groove—then digging into the teeth of his beast to take the groove higher.

September 6: Alfredo Rodriguez

23-year-old pianist Alfredo Rodriguez made his Detroit debut with a rousing afternoon set of solo piano pieces that bridged classical and bop motifs with a spark of Dixieland and cubanismo and employed popular touchstones from the collective American consciousness. The son of a famed Cuban singer of the same name, Alfredo defected from his homeland in January and has been taken under the wing of Quincy Jones, who is producing the pianist's first record.

Having been introduced to Thelonious Monk's music just six years ago, Rodriguez has already internalized Monk's jarring mode of attack. He says he most admires Monk's constant thirst for exploration—always a wonderful sentiment to hear from a young artist in this marketing-crazed world that prefers to stamp out the same slick product.

Rodriguez began his set here in the somber, melancholic mood of the Russian classicists that after a time was sparked by the island rap of a percussion foot pedal. The piece then opened, inviting influences from around the globe, which Rodriguez pounded passionately into his instrument or stroked from it with an aggressive sweeping of the keys.

The second number was more wistful and melodic, often finding Rodriguez shrugging his shoulders in contemplation or in agreeable resignation to where the music was telling him to go. He remained bent over the keys for several moments after the piece had ended, still transfixed by its spell.

The third piece was his most Monkian, opening with a repeated right-hand figure that freed the left to explore the entire stretch of keys in mostly clunky, rattling chord shots. He went on through a sort of Cuban ragtime that escalated into a series of power chords suddenly tempered on a dime by soft, but full touches. He stood for his fourth piece and worked the strings in the Steinway's belly, while playing the keys with his free right hand. Sitting, he again employed the percussion pedal in spots and, amidst a fury of angular exploration, continually found pastures of pure melody, touching on snippets of American popular song that thread together all in attendance and brought them along for the journey, humming.

After two more pieces in which he displayed an unfaltering inventiveness and tickled tender ballads into roiling cauldrons of blocked time, Rodriguez returned to the stage to spin "Frere Jacques" from a work initially rendered as classically hewn crystal. The sudden return to childhood sent many in the audience into giggles. It was Rodriguez's most melodic, recognizable number and in its development cast shadows on its initial innocent humor, stretching the childhood rhyme through adolescence and on into the often darker, but deeper and more meaningful, strains of adulthood.

The set was an introduction to a young man who is already a major artist.

September 6: Dennis Coffey

Counter the above with the flashy, fiery guitar work of Motown veteran Dennis Coffey. Decked out like Panama Jack, Coffey wasted no time in defying the relaxed look by tearing off loud metal sheets of sound. His fingers ruled his axe with quick, technically proficient runs. Featuring two original compositions, including the heavily funky score to the "blaxploitation" flick Black Belt Jones, the guitarist produced bright, crisp guitar lines that steadily upped the ante till succumbing to a thrilling blaze of noise.

But while he then turned his attention to Motown hits like "My Girl" and "Just My Imagination"—smash records on which Coffey played and is in no small part responsible—his routine grew formulaic. His skill on the strings was impressive, but the metal blaze revealed itself as an artificial fire, flashing its orange, red and yellow flames in programmed order. The initial thrill sank into tired—if groovy—repetition. Unlike Rodriguez and Wayne Shorter still to come and like many an extroverted party guest, Coffey continued to speak loudly even after he'd run out of things to say.

September 6: Wayne Shorter Quartet

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter has all the star power a jazz personality could want, and no one would fault him for standing at stage's edge, blowing his fame front and center over a band left to the shadows. But Shorter is a musician, not a celebrity. He prefers to keep himself in the shadows as well—or, at least, in equal lighting with his band—nestling in to the curve of the piano and playing his sax only when it's proper—when the music requires and is moved by it.

In fact, if there was a star in the band on this night—a musician whose passion for playing so affected his physical presence—it was unquestionably drummer Brian Blade, who bounced around on his stool throughout the set, spiraling through a mix of drum sticks, mallets and brushes and attacking his kit like it was liable to bite him. At a point near the close of the group's performance (though there were pauses in the playing, it may not be proper to refer to the group's performance as a series of songs, but rather a single suite) Blade even rocketed from his stool and sprang out toward the front of the stage—so moved by the frenetic energy the band had created. He barely made it back in place in time to pick up the beat pianist Danilo Pérez was after.

That said, Shorter's band was of a piece, as was their music. No performer, no instrument, jettisoned from the music to have an individual say. All was interwoven. Shorter was economical in the early going, where the temptation for a lesser artist would have been to blow fast and shine. Instead, the master saxophonist fashioned groupings of three or four notes, followed by ample space. His eyes peered out, seeing notes instead of adoring faces, and in those first stages his brain made more noise than his sax as he figured and refigured what lay ahead and how best to sculpt it—now, tonight, this time.

The rock in a group of younger, more physically vibrant players, Shorter gradually worked up the steam, though never giving way to extended passages of personal glory. Perez, bassist John Patitucci and, especially, Blade were often left to add the thundering fury. Shorter swelled mostly when switching from tenor to soprano sax, using the higher register to burn off any pent-up energy that rose as exhaust from the group's carbonic interaction.

The riffs, the themes (if such they can be called) were mostly simple, repeated notes, but well-chosen. There was a gravitas to the music leavened by a vibrant—danceable—percussive rollick and chest-bending bass lines. An improvised creation of the highest order that employed musical tools and voices, and technical proficiency as automatic as breathing, to express what couldn't be expressed outside of music. To confront visceral planes of human experience and open them for the audience, rather than staging a musical track meet.

Shorter and company did not return to the stage for an encore for they'd already completed their emotionally riveting and depleting suite of music. Taking on some kind of command showstopper was not in order. It wasn't that kind of show.

September 7: Chuchito Valdes

After three wonderfully mild, sunny days, the rain moved in on Monday, opening umbrellas up and down the cement rows of the Mack Avenue Pyramid venue just before Cuban pianist Chuchito Valdes took the stage. Mouths too soon would open, with tides of screams and whistles erupting throughout Valdes' set as if recreating an early Beatles concert.

Backed by Emilio Valdes on drums, Frankie Ocasio on congas and Jonathan Paul on bass, Chuchito came out determined to drive away the drizzle with vibrant island sun. Ever retaining a heavy Cuban flavor in his playing, the pianist also unpacked bop and classical techniques to lift his relentless attack of the keys from simply the accompaniment for dance or mojitos into thrilling, dimensioned artistic statements. On occasion, as when the band had a go at "Take the A Train" (a festival staple for many acts this year), the cubania would spring almost entirely from Ocasio and Emilio Valdes' skins, freeing Chuchito to explore modern jazz motifs that, nevertheless, led back to and seamlessly picked up the Latin beat.

Chuchito's showmanship was also on full display, as when he would stand to conduct a bass solo from Paul, rush up the keys in fitful arpeggios only to run out of ivory and trill off into midair, or slip from the bench in the passion of his playing, yet continue pounding, his back pressed to the edge of the bench and arched back over it. The crowd loved it, mostly because it was authentic—a natural extension of the same mischievous personality that displayed itself in the music: ever dancing, ever clowning, because comedy and joy are as worthy of an artist's examination as tragedy and terror and more vital to the continuation of life.

September 7: Stefon Harris & Blackout

Vibraphonist and marimba player Stefon Harris reteamed with his Blackout ensemble this year to produce the excellent new record, Urbanus (Concord). Sticking exclusively to numbers from that album, the group fashioned funky, often electronically warped, forward-looking music. Harris switched between two and four mallets in lording over both the vibes and marimba, many times simultaneously—a mallet or two on each. Saxophonist Casey Benjamin, a New-Wave stylist is dress and hairmanship, took up his vocoder on two numbers, Buster Williams' "Christina" and Stevie Wonder's "They Won't Go (When I Go)," in order to "space out" his vocals, rendering them the nearly indecipherable intonations of a funky, soulful computer. His alto sax often served as the earthy, cutting foil to Harris' springy, ethereal runs, or as the melodic center of ambient numbers like "Langston's Lullaby."

Keyboardist Marc Cary laid low in the mix on the first couple numbers, but came on with a full, layered, racing piano solo on "Shake It for Me," then led off the following number, "Tanktified," with a bluesy, appropriately church-like organ solo. Drummer Terreon Gully mixed the rhythms admirably, busting in heavy on several pieces to shift the direction then falling back for interplay with one or two of the other musicians. He was given more room to stretch—as all in the band were—on the aforementioned "Tanktified," which the drummer penned: He strung together a vibrant discussion between Harris and Benjamin, then pounded to the fore to have his own say, riding the steady tones of bassist Ben Williams and organ comps from Cary.

Like Shorter on the evening before, Harris placed himself among the band, directing a complete musical concept. To be sure, his juggling of the mallets over the bars of his instruments was singularly impressive, but for all his expertise and individual mastery he never divorced himself from the group effort. As the set wound to its close, the clouds once again began to drip. But there was nothing leaking from the futuristic fusion of Blackout's cohesion. And with the stages across the festival all soon to go dark for another year, the set from Harris' band served as a fitting coda to a fabulous collective experience.

Photo Credit

Matt Marshall

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