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.

But then McBride introduced the show's emcee, Detroit Lions Hall of Famer Lem Barney, and the show spun out of control from there. The gregarious Barney roamed the stage in a black bowler, "favoring" the crowd with his singing chops, fumbling his way through a less than insightful analysis of Gaye's music and repeatedly professing his love for McBride, even if he sometimes referred to him as McDirt. Yet in a way, he was the perfect host, presenting himself as the amiable clown who would honk his nose between songs to remind everyone not to take any of this too seriously. It was a time for kicking off your shoes and dreaming about the music that was to come over the next three days.

Jose James was the first of the night's vocalists to take a crack at Gaye's songs. He came on smooth, while displaying enough vocal agility to hit all the spikes of what Lalah Hathaway would later call the "soft but percussive" nature that makes Gaye's music such a challenge to sing.

In James' wake, the falsetto of Rahsaan Patterson opening "Trouble Man" was like a blast of cold water. But a body warmed to Patterson's vocals, especially after he slipped into a more comfortable tenor, and one was able to bop along with him to "Hitch Hike" and "I Heard it Through the Grapevine."

Hathaway's voice was perhaps the best suited of the three to fill Gaye's music. Smokey when deep, it also retained the heft of soul into the upper reaches, where her male counterparts often tripped into theatrics.

The three vocalists joined for "What's Going On," a finale whose political timeliness was punctuated by a few choruses of "Ooo-Ba-Aaa-Maa, Ooo-Ba-Aaa-Maa" from the backup singers, which a delighted Jones picked up and spread to the crowd.

Smiles carried off into the night. The festival was underway.

August 30: Mikhal Caldwell

Mikhal Caldwell defined his music on this day as "what happens when Coltrane runs into Hendrix runs into Metallica," which isn't a bad summation. Metal bop, perhaps. And, not surprisingly, the primary driver of Caldwell's art seems to be conflict. But conflict with an aim toward unity and resolution, as one often experiences in the mind. It was there on the fest's main stage in the titles and programming of tunes ("Atonement" following on the heels of "Ethics vs. Logic, " with that duo leading into "Press, Press, Pull"), in the two guitars he used during the set (both Strats, one white, one black, each emblazoned with a yin/yang symbol) and in the music itself, bursting forth in a flurry of Eddie Van Halen-like whammy bar gymnastics only to plant its metal foot, cut back sharply and trot out the remainder of the tune in a reggae skip.

Caldwell is a virtuoso, able to run the neck of the guitar as fast and as accurate as anyone in the business, veins bulging from his biceps as he tears off ear-piercing metal. And he's not beyond striking a guitar hero pose after especially tasty licks.

But what keeps the music interesting is his ability to take that crashing steel noise and work it into melody—sometimes astonishingly pretty melody, that on its own might flap off into smooth jazz la-la land. Caldwell's group truly is a fusion band—that is it fuses the gaps between erstwhile musical strangers, while allowing each to retain its individual identity, rather than watering each down to be stirred into a bland soup. Listening to Caldwell and his mates, its not difficult to imagine them all practicing their craft with lowered welder's masks.

In that case, keyboardist Jimmy Pitts might be the solder that holds all the pieces together, varying his sound on this afternoon from that of a second guitar to a Cecil Taylor grand to the tinny piano of a gold- rush whorehouse.

Bassist Eddie Kohen kept up a solid, driving pulse, highlighted by nice melodic lines behind the '80s pop chords of "Atonement." Drummer Greg Tyler, whom Caldwell introduced as the man who taught him to play fusion, crashed admirably throughout the hour, but shined on "Press, Press, Pull," constructing a solo that began like a string of Black Cats popping, then grew into a firing of every pyrotechnic in the trunk.

The quartet played early, kicking off around 1:30 p.m., but still drew a good crowd. One can only hope this native Detroiter and his band can soon find favor beyond the Motor City.

August 30: Bonerama


As Hurricane Gustav blew in toward New Orleans, Bonerama was safely up North, reminding all who would listen (and their number continued to accumulate over the stone bleachers of the pyramid venue like a well-piled cumulus) not only of jazz's birthplace, but of the vital role it still plays in the music's development.

The aptly named group features four trombones up front, backed by a sousaphone, drums and electric guitar. The effect is that of a marching band who snuck away from the restrictive baton of a virginal director to rally their team on Basin Street.

Matt Perrine's sousaphone provided the expected New Orleans thump, but also loosed solos from its bell that would make a tenor sax beam with pride.

Mark Mullin's electric trombone dipped and swooned like any bone, but also substituted nicely as a second guitar, introducing the Led Zeppelin nugget "When the Levee Breaks" like a Gibson whose wah-wah pedal was running on low batteries. The horn chorus launched mid-song blew several audience members from their seats and set up a blues vocal by Mullins that had just as much power as his horn.

In fact, the singing numbers (handled alternately by Mullins and fellow trombonist Greg Hicks) gave the group a popular grounding that not only allowed their blasts into the avant-garde to be swallowed by the masses, but, more importantly, tethered the chugging funk and flights of screaming guitar onto a long, but secure leash that could be reeled in and let back out as the flow of the music dictated.

August 30: Christian McBride Band

As part of his artist-in-residence duties, Christian McBride hit stages throughout the festival grounds, playing with various groups of musicians specially gathered for the event. While the individual playing of all concerned was never an issue, the overall results didn't always knock your socks off.

But linked with his own band on the stage of the Carhartt Amphitheatre, McBride was able to display what makes him perhaps the greatest bassist working today—a musicianship that expands beyond individual chops (though those chops are considerable) to involve itself so intimately with the playing of his band mates it truly shapes the whole.

The set had an almost organic start, when the McBride original "Technicolor Nightmare" grew out of a last-minute sound check/tuning session into a heady swamp of keyboard and bowed bass noise.

Pianist Geoffrey Keezer worked his four keyboards to astonishing effect, stretching once to lay down Joey DeFrancesco-like swirls on the Fender Rhodes, while accompanying himself with guitar-sounding crunches from the keyboard set atop his piano.

McBride was soon plucking with his fingers, blasting a wah-wah bass that led that first number into a crazy, fantastic mess of a finish.

Keezer kicked off the second tune, a composition of his own titled "Hibiscus," with a sound akin to the opening strains of The Who's "Baba O'Reilly." He then turned matters over to Ron Blake for an extended solo on soprano sax. But Keezer slowly took the piece back, at one point introducing a sonic effect that brought to mind space bubbles drifting from his organ. McBride chuckled, and the keyboardist weaved in Asian touches that later morphed into the buzz of a harpsichord.

The third number (with the strangely formal Spanish title "Lejos de Usted," meaning "Far From You," but using the respectful usted form instead of the personal ti) found McBride back on the bow, stroking out mournful Bach-like passages, before switching to fingers to pluck out a wonderfully ornate, yet rhythmic, solo. Blake, now on flute, picked up the tune and ran off with it into Eric Dolphy territory.

Guitarist David Gilmore joined the group for their fourth offering, and he and McBride traded many superhuman licks and just as many smiles. Blake then took what had been a cool vibe and blew it out of the water with a lung-vibrating blast from his soprano sax. The rest of the band followed suit, playing the number out with a great rush of well-articulated noise. The crowd rose to its feet demanding an encore, and McBride didn't disappoint. He came out alone for an extended solo, then the other boys joined him to bring this modernist gem to a close.

August 31: Pat Martino Quartet

With his small red spectacles blazing in the afternoon sun and the tips of a sly grin pressed into his cheeks (making him look a cross between Ben Stein and C. Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons), Pat Martino, the wise old devil of the electric guitar, seemed to have something up his sleeve. And once he counted off the opening number, that something streaked down his arm and went straight to work on his Gibson.


Throughout the set, Martino burned off ridiculously long lines that never sagged from repetition. They existed somewhere between the single-note crispness of Grant Green and the reverb-leaden tones of Wes Montgomery, to whom Martino paid tribute with his latest album.

Indeed, Martino's band maintained a mid-'60s groove much of the afternoon. Pianist Rick Germanson sprinkled Martino's solos with McCoy Tyner touches that fed neatly into the classical flare of Germanson's own work in the spotlight.

A standout of the set was a heartsick rendering of "'Round Midnight," bookended by power chords that seemed to signal the electric thrill that can accompany the beginning of a new day. In between was the let down, the mood struck on an easy chair in the dark, maybe with a drink in your hand, reflecting on a day wasted. A mood that all too easily turns back on every other day you've let slip through your fingers. Martino's quick, yet heavy notes raced like dangerous thoughts. But in his wisdom, the maestro didn't leave his audience there in the dark, but, before the ride stopped, lifted them back to the promise of that new day.

August 31: Ravi Coltrane's Tribute to Alice, with Geri Allen, Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Brandee Younger and Ed Feldman

Ravi Coltrane will forever carry the weight of Papa John on his shoulders. It's the blessing and curse of all children who enter into the same line of work as a wildly successful parent. The trick being to make your own impact without rejecting your roots.

The trick is confounded for Ravi since his mother wielded considerable influence in the jazz world as well. While less known outside the jazz and new age communities, Alice Coltrane's career spanned more than 40 years and continued the exploration of jazz's spiritual and avant reaches begun at John's side.

It was Mother Coltrane, who passed away in January 2007, to whom Ravi paid tribute on this hot afternoon in Detroit, bringing together musicians who had played with her (bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette), were led to their instrument through her inspiration (pianist Geri Allen) and who evoke the spiritual realm of her music (harpist Brandee Younger and tamboura and tabla player Ed Feldman).

Ravi certainly has the family lips. His sound is full and roomy like his dad's, but as he plays you can hear him carving out his own hollow in the oak, at times catching the grain and scooping out easy notches of originality, at others, striking the knot of immortality and slipping back into the groove supreme. But he seems mostly to be winning the fight—on the verge of making a great singular statement in the coming years that might stand alongside anything produced by his father.

Geri Allen, per usual, was a terror on the keys—meaning she banged out everything great and stormy wild, yet remained wholly in control, like a force of nature that'll return to tranquility only after it's burned itself out. When she melded with Haden and DeJohnette, the trio filled more sonic space than would seem possible for piano, bass and drums.

Younger's harp came on in the set's third number, adding sleep waves to the crash of the aforementioned storm trio. The Eastern buzz of Feldman's tamboura added to the harp's dream and signaled the band was venturing into more spiritual waters. Coltrane's tenor sailed over top of the mix like Odysseus heading home.

A trademark Haden dirge, "For Turiya," which he played with Alice on his album Closeness, (A & M, 1976) followed, displaying the ability to take flight that's present in all of Haden's best music, rising to the anthemic spirit of revolution.

DeJohnette put on a clinic of multidimensional drumming that brought the audience to it feet at the set's close, demanding an encore. For this final number, Coltrane brought out one of his mother's final compositions, "Universe," a haunting ballad that left the crowd in the type of contemplative state for which Alice no doubt was aiming.

August 31: Roy Hargrove Quintet

On the opening night of the festival, emcee Lem Barney observed that athletes often are frustrated entertainers and entertainers often are frustrated athletes. Barney made the case for athletes, singing and prancing about the stage in a pent-up need to entertain. Two nights later, Roy Hargrove proved the point about entertainers.

After firing off trumpet ballistics, Hargrove would stride from center stage like he'd just sacked the quarterback on fourth down. At one moment during the set, he accompanied a Justin Robinson sax solo with a jab and a poor attempt at an Ali shuffle.

Yet this athletic spirit found its true voice in Hargrove's music, his horn soaring into a register so high it would skip for a brief moment beyond the very reaches of sound. It would then drop into an extended trill that, if anything, steadily gained force as it stretched.

Coming in on the trumpeter's heels (those which had quickly excused Hargrove's body from the stage after another amazing play), Robinson's solos often started slow, restoring matters to earth, setting the crowd back on terra firma. At first this seemed a revelation to Hargrove, standing suddenly stock-still on the sidelines, looking every bit the goateed saint, a tragic jazz angel—like Dolphy—a sleepy-eyed thinker wounded by all things life.

But then the band, led by Robinson, would break loose again hard. And by the time trombonist Vincent Chandler joined the affair, working his slide seemingly over rumble strips to produce a staccato blast, Hargrove was back to his devilish shenanigans, passing it around in large doses to pianist Gerald Clayton and drummer Montez Coleman, who exchanged laughter throughout the rest of the set.

Caught in the mix of this company, bassist Danton Boller, clad in a striped button-down and khaki slacks, looked like a last minute sub from the festival's finance department. Oh, but wait—this boy can bust it! Like in some bad Hollywood movie (which is to say, like in some Hollywood movie) Boller quickly stepped up when given his chance and revealed the mean beats that lay beneath the accountant exterior.


By the time Hargrove's band started into the opening strains of Sam Cooke's "Bring It To Me," it had already won several standing ovations. But this seventh number of their set pushed the crowd over the top, stoking the biggest, most unconscious ovation this observer saw during the entire weekend.

The inevitable encore was lit by Boller, who turned a linear solo into a funk beat that brought the other musicians back on stage. Hargrove punctuated this final number by plugging the mike halfway down his trumpet's throat till it gasped sudden deep burps. Trombonist Chandler worked himself into a frenzy while playing, until he had himself, and everyone else in attendance, strutting off into the night.

September 1: Kenny Barron Trio


There's perhaps no better accompaniment to lazing in the hot afternoon sun than the sounds of the Kenny Barron Trio.

Barron is as technically proficient a pianist as you'll find, weaving both the abruptness of Monk and the pretty flourishes of Oscar Peterson into his playing. And he has the discipline to stay within a song's intent, choosing to the agreed upon story line instead of exiting into detours of personal grandeur. This afternoon's second offering, a Barron original entitled "Um Beijo," was a good case in point. Looping out only slightly from the center of the keyboard, Barron kept the piece fixed tightly like the firm press of the titular kiss—flights of emotional fancy running back and away always from the grounding center of the physical reality present on the lips.

Yet Barron can become mired in technique, making intriguing study for the well-educated musician, but leaving the layman feeling that the piano may have been prepped with disinfectant—so clinical might he find the master's performance. The machine-like skill is beyond impressive, but sometimes you wish for a mistake to shoot down from the stage and rip at your gut.

Luckily, Barron brought along bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa to counter the haze and daze of the sun. On "New York Attitude" the man from Japan strummed loose rousing tones from the East—harmonics that could have just as easily sprung from a koto. Cuban drummer Francisco Mela played a fiery set, launching himself over the drum kit on one occasion to settle the cymbals with his elbows.

Near the end of the trio's performance, Barron put his technical skills on full display with a solo rendition of Eubie Blake's "Memories of You." It was as dazzling as the sun, but just as out of reach.

James Carter Septet

There perhaps could not be a stronger contrast to Barron's style than that of James Carter. His art lies in pushing at the frame of a given musical number, a given instrument, to see how far it will stretch, then twisting it some other way to see what that does. Inevitably with this type of playing, things break. But so what? Carter just tosses those splinters aside like the handful of reeds he discarded during this set—a bit annoyed, disgusted perhaps, but confident the fault lay in the arrangement of equipment, or the hairline slip of a finger—never does it scare him off trying again.


Undoubtedly, this is one reason he has a penchant for switching between horns and picking up those usually reserved for the symphony stage, as when he brought out the bass clarinet on this evening. His experiments run from the startling to the hilarious, often on the heels of one another, as with the opening number here, his soprano sax screeching like a pterodactyl that at song's close became wounded and dropped from the sky completely out of breath.

And either this renegade spirit is infectious or Carter gathers those around him with the same joy—no doubt, the need—of pushing it. I'm guessing the latter.

Pianist Gerard Gibbs and drummer Leonard King have been with Carter for several years now, and both have displayed their love for the dissonant, out-there approach. Gibbs, especially, wore his love of the avant-garde on his late evening sun-drenched sleeves. Up and down the keyboard he went, pounding out block chords that seemed to pile on one another like dominoes. He kicked up from his bench during one solo to increase his attack from a standing position.

In that instance, as was often the case during a band member's solo, Carter and percussionist Eli Fountain were at his elbow, shouting encouragement (or good-natured ribbing—it was hard to tell). Laughs punctuated much of the performance as if the musicians were playing for themselves in someone's garage on a Saturday night. And sometimes this spirit of fun and experimentation turned the show into a slam dunk contest instead of a moving game of give and take.

Still, give me this mad music theater any day over oiled perfection. There's nothing like having your bones ground from an abrasive horn blast to let you know you're really alive.

Photo Credit

Matt Marshall



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