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Detroit Jazz Festival 2013

Steve Bryant By

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Detroit Jazz Festival
Detroit, MI
August 30-September 2, 2013
You have read the news and heard the stories on radio and TV. Detroit is bankrupt and going into ruin. However, Gretchen Valade definitely doesn't appear to believe the hype, as she managed to fashion the Detroit Jazz Festival (DJF) into one of the largest, most star-studded musical parties in North America, with four stages scattered all over downtown Detroit over the Labor Day weekend.

In 2012, newly-appointed artistic director Chris Collins kicked off his rookie year with an extravaganza which featured the likes of Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, and Wayne Shorter. There was bound to be a letdown for the 2013 edition of DJF, however director Collins made a decision to feature the great musicians who comprise the Detroit jazz community, as well as to honor some well-known and not-so-well-known masters of the music. This year's artist in residence was the great Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, who not only kicked off the festival but was featured in a variety of settings. Collins also brought in some other star power, which included McCoy Tyner backing up dancer Savion Glover, Ahmad Jamal, and Joshua Redman. In addition, the fest featured works by the late great Dave Brubeck performed in part by the Brubeck Brothers.

Danilo Pérez started things off with a performance by his new ensemble Panama 500, which included violinist Alex Hargreaves, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Adam Cruz, and probably the first ever Detroit appearance by master Afro-Cuban drummerRoman Diaz. The music played by Perez and company paid homage to the discovery of Panama during the 1500s, and was quite reminiscent of the music on his debut LP, The Journey. Perez experimented with different variations on the clave, as well as an impressionistic piano style. It took a little while for the group to warm up, but once the group kicked into gear, the music was transcendent.

The highlight of this set was a fiery performance of "Colombia," which featured a jaw-dropping alto solo by Patricia Zarate, with fiery drumming by Diaz. Tenor saxophonist David Murray and his Big Band followed with performances of his recent CD Be My Monster Love (Motema Music, 2013), which featured Macy Gray. Murray's music followed in the footsteps of his mentor, the late great Butch Morris, with driving charts and expansive horn breaks. Surprisingly, Gray's unorthodox style fit in with Murray's charts. Unfortunately, the set got rained out just as they were kicking into gear.

Saturday's program had the more creative sets featured at the Chase Main Stage instead of the tradition Hart Plaza Amphitheater. The day jumped off with a heartfelt tribute to the late, great Detroit bandleader Teddy Harris, whose New Breed Bebop Society was the training ground for many of Detroit's young players, a lot of whom are not internationally known. The more notable soloists were saxophonist James Carter, baritone player Al Harding, trumpeter Rayse Biggs, and the great bassist Ralphe Armstrong. Even though the group could rehearse only once, Director Al McKenzie was able to harness the energy and turned it into a crowd-pleasing set. Altoist Vincent York showed his acumen with a rousing solo on Harris' "Stella," while Carter let loose with a fiery soprano turn on "My Shining Hour."

The Bebop Society was followed with a set by bassist Robert Hurst, who besides being one of the best bottom men on the scene, now teaches at the University of Michigan. Hurst had a group of young cats with him, which was distinguished by up-and-coming tenor man Rafael Statin, and Cuban percussionist Pepe Espinosa. Hurst led his group through a swinging set of tunes from his new CD, Bob: A Palindrome (Bebob, 2013). Watch out for Statin, he is a comer.

Then it was "Star Time." Saxophone master Charles Lloyd hooked up with guitar legend Bill Frisell for a dream-like set which brought to mind the old Forest Flower (Atlantic, 1968) days. The interplay between Lloyd and Frisell made it seem like they've been together for years. The rapport really showed up on a rendition of "Peace," which featured an ethereal turn by Lloyd on flute. While Lloyd's set was like a running stream, the Saxophone Summit with Ravi Coltrane, Dave Liebman, and Joe Lovano was like a locomotive. This group came out firing on all cylinders, especially Lovano on the opening tune, "Alexander the Great." The extra added bonus was the addition of bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart keeping time with this aggregation. Needless to say, this dynamic duo ran the show like a well-oiled machine, laying down a canvas upon which the front line could paint their music. They closed the set with a sizzling rendition of Coltrane père's "India," which showcased the younger Coltrane's now prodigious tenor skills.

Sunday kicked off with a variety of programs. The most exciting was the highly anticipated homecoming of multi-percussionist Francisco Mora Catlett and his Afro-Horn Ensemble. Mora had a frontline which featured Detroiters JD Allen on tenor, the always exciting Al Harding and saxophonist Sam Newsome. The bonus was the Motown debut of the dynamic Cuban duo of pianist Aruán Ortiz along with Roman Diaz. The set kicked off with an invocation to the Yoruba orishas (spirits) which segued into a fiery performance of "Afra-Jum" from the group's second release, Rare Metal. Other highlights were a masterful display of drumming by Mora on "5x Max," which paid homage to Mora's mentor, Max Roach. Mora closed the set with Diaz doing an invocation to the Yoruba deity Shango and a fiery turn by Allen on"125th and Lenox."

Other great sets included a heartfelt tribute to Don Byas by James Carter, which featured a performance on one of Byas' tenor saxophones which Carter had lovingly restored. Playing with Carter was young trumpeter (and Doc Cheatham's grandson) Theo Croaker, who had won the Marcus Belgrave Trumpet Competition. Then there was a turn by drummer/producer Karriem Riggins, who put on a showcase of sound and rhythm along with the great Philly pianist Orrin Evans. Ravi Coltrane closed out Sunday with a set featuring his quartet, which included another great Cuban pianist David Virelles, versatile bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. Coltrane showed that he has stepped out of his father's shadow, with muscular solos on both tenor and soprano.

The Labor Day programs were again the most exciting at the Chase Main Stage. That program started with a moving performance of the rarely performed Dave Brubeck work "Mass: To Hope." The ensemble included the Brubeck Brothers, a choir led by Detroiter Norah Duncan, a string orchestra as well as a guest turn by Detroit tenor man Rick Margitza. Then it was "Electro Funk" time for the rest of the day. Houston's own Robert Glasper performed a high-energy set of his electic jazz/funk/hip-hop mix. The prodigious pianist Geri Allen led a Detroit Homecoming Band, which featured a high-powered Motown lineup of JD Allen, trombonist George Bohanon, saxman David MacMurray (not Murray), Robert Hurst, and Karriem Riggins. Legendary vocalist Sheila Jordan even stepped out on a couple of tunes. The highlights were a rousing version of "Cedar's Blues," featuring the trombone skills of Bohannon and a moving version of "Everytime We Say Goodbye," with Jordan offering her haunting vocals.

The DJF ended on a high note with a blazing set by the Miles Smiles band, comprised of Wallace Roney, Rick Margitza, guitar legend Larry Coryell, Ralphe Armstrong and drummer Alphonse Mouzon. Since everyone onstage had played with "The Dark One," the presentation went well beyond that of mere tribute. The group treated the crowd to great Davis tunes which, for the most part, are not performed too often. Roney started off with Joe Zawinul's "In A Silent Way," which in true Milesian form segued into the dark funk of "Jack Johnson." The band went into fifth gear with a nice take on "Footprints," which featured some sizzling interplay between old Eleventh House mates Coryell and Mouzon.

What made this year's DJF special was the inclusion of so many Detroit players in the lineup. It was truly a homecoming for a lot of them and a chance for the Detroit jazz fans to see their home team do their thing. Artistic Director Collins has shown a lot of creativity in his programming, and hopefully this set the standard for subsequent jazz fests.

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