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Detroit International Jazz Festival 2008

Matt Marshall By

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29th Annual Detroit International Jazz Festival
Detroit, Michigan
August 29-September 1, 2008

Billed as A Love Supreme: the Philly-Detroit Summit, the 29th Annual Detroit International Jazz Festival gathered more than just musicians from those two great jazz cities. The spirit of interchange bubbled over onto all of the festival's stages, showcasing every swatch that makes up the jazz quilt, and inspiring the viewer to see anew just how international this music truly is.

Philadelphian bassist Christian McBride was this year's artist in residence, which kept him busy hopscotching between stages to play in a wide variety of setups and with players of every skill level—from students to the pros of his own tight band.

You would be excused for thinking at times that this event, which remains the largest free jazz festival in North America, was sponsored by the Obama campaign. With the presidential hopeful scheduled to appear here Monday after the Labor Day parade, and with the festival starting the day after he accepted the Democratic nomination, T-shirts, buttons, posters, et. al. with his likeness abounded at booths and on the bodies of festival goers.

But all this just added to the wonderful mix of flavors—spirits were high and the music was smoking.

August 29: Dianne Reeves


Detroit native Dianne Reeves got the festival underway with a set that seemed to follow the weather (or control it)—rising in the cheer of brotherly love to bounce sunlight off the glass and metal of surrounding towers, before becoming breezy and falling into gloom with the threat of showers. More likely, however, Reeves was simply following the bass lines of fellow Detroiter Robert Hurst, whom she aped during her frequent forays into scat, her left hand overworking the neck of her imaginary instrument.

She often took time out during the set to introduce her songs with stories. These ranged from the personal (tales about a high school crush or her grandmother's cooking) to the public (remembrances from the just-completed Democratic National Convention, perhaps meant to stoke the crowd for the Labor Day Obama visit), but, regardless of scope, the stories were always, in Reeves' mind, about family. And her self-confessed love of story naturally carried over into song, joining music traditions from far and wide into a single harmonious unit.

First, there was the blistering finger work of Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, who picked out what might best be termed "bossa blues." It surfed nicely along the crest of the bop, pop and funk that Reeve's rhythm section kicked out, occasionally succumbing to the waves, but rising again throughout the set to provide a nice Latin flavor.

Reeves' voice—the main instrument of the evening—was also a product of motion, rising from the gospel tradition of Sunday morning to curl like smoke into the sultry reaches of Saturday night. And kudos to Reeves for knowing how to use a microphone—as an instrument itself, like Sinatra taught us, keeping it close when her vocal was low, but creating space for her full-throated roars to explode without overloading the speakers (and the ears of the audience).

Her song selection kept to familiar soul territory, including Mahalia Jackson's "If I Can Help Somebody" and a nod to Motown with a humorous rendition of "Just My Imagination." Jobim's "Once I Loved" was a nice touch, making prime use of Lubambo's talents and driven by Reeves' vocal into a place more frightening and desperate than most singers have the nerve or ability or ear to take Jobim's sometimes breezy compositions.

Reeves ended the set, appropriately enough, on a saccharine sweet note of family. Singing "Better Days," a song of her own about the brief time growing up offers us for connecting with older generations, she charmed the crowd in a way that, while maybe a touch too Hallmark, seemed to make the audience feel less like a group of strangers.

August 29: Philly/Detroit Tribute to Marvin Gaye with Lalah Hathaway, Rahsaan Patterson, Jose James and Christian McBride


The second set of Friday night's kickoff party was the festival's first of many "Philly-Detroit Summits," and the first to carry the bulk of its promise in promotion and deliver less from the stage. This one was almost preordained to run flat (as tribute cavalcades are wont to do), the performers too rushed to establish much beyond a wave to the crowd, and that crowd forcing itself to celebrate the thing like New Year's Eve.

Christian McBride assembled a big band for the event, and its horns stretched the length of the stage. And for a while their pep was enough to lift the soul and catapult many in attendance out of their seats and straight into groove mode, working their bodies to the Bitches Brew stylings of guitarist Dan Fahnle and keyboardist Geoffrey Keezer.


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