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Detroit Jazz Festival 2022: The 43rd Edition Returns to a Live Audience

Detroit Jazz Festival 2022: The 43rd Edition Returns to a Live Audience

Courtesy Detroit Jazz Festival


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Detroit Jazz Festival
Hart Plaza and Campus Martius
Detroit, MI
September 2-5, 2022

The main lobby of the Detroit Marriott at Renaissance Center was abuzz with greetings and joyful conversation. You could feel the ardent positivity in the room as well as you could feel the near ninety-degree heat and accompanying steady breeze just outside, along the Detroit Riverwalk. A quick glance around the room revealed festival resident artist Chucho Valdes and trumpeter Brian Lynch among the multitude of arrivals passing through. The festival would open that Friday evening, with Valdes performing "The Creation" with the Yoruban Orchestra under the musical directorship of Hilario Duran & John Beasley. Valdes would front a band composed of a combination of Latino and Detroit musicians.

The 2022 Detroit Jazz Festival represented in so many ways, a return to normalcy after the socially isolating onslaught of the Covid- 19 pandemic. Indeed, this lobby was the center of activity for the 2021 edition of the festival, the Marriott representing the totality of the festival territory itself. Two weeks before the festival would return to a live audience, the Delta variant set the planet back to social isolation once again, with festival directors deciding to pull the event back into a streaming only format. The musicians came to Detroit and performed live on soundstages constructed in the hotel's three ballrooms. The skills acquired streaming the 2020 festival allowed the quick and almost seamless transition to a broadcast format, a remarkable feat all things considered. Only a handful of journalists and photographers would actually attend in person, along with soundstage staff.

The Detroit Jazz Festival is the largest free jazz festival in the world, annually attracting 300-500 thousand fans to witness world class performances on four stages in downtown Detroit. With the festival in a streaming-only, digital format the past two years came the realization that in 2022 the music could simultaneously be streamed and performed before a live audience, increasing exposure from the aforementioned, historic in-person levels by at least the 2021 streaming audience of 2.5 million fans. The skills acquired out of necessity in '20 and '21 would facilitate a huge positive for the event moving forward. Viewers and listeners around the world could now join the live audience in Hart Plaza and Campus Martius in Detroit, feeling the unique urban vibe of this great city of music.

The festival would be streamed for free at DetroitJazzFest.org, with the performances from the Carhartt Amphitheatre streamed on the festival YouTube page. Performances from Campus Martius would be broadcasted on the festival's Facebook page. Festival President and Artistic Director, Chris Collins said that allowing the festival to be accessible to audiences beyond Detroit is key to maintaining the mission to remain the world's largest jazz festival that is free to attend.

"For 43 years now, the festival has focused on being free to attend," Collins told the Detroit Free Press. "I once asked Gretchen Valade, the chairperson of our board who is also a major donor to our festival, 'Is there something I can do for you?' It was around Christmas and I saw people giving her gifts, and I asked, 'What can I do for you?' And she looked at me very clearly, and she said, 'Chris, keep the festival jazz—real jazz —and keep the festival free.' And I was so touched by that answer. When you look at the nearly two and a half million viewers we've built over the last two years and the millions who come with Qwest TV and the 325-530,000 people live and in-person in downtown Detroit... however you choose to experience the festival, you will be part of one of the largest single jazz audiences in the world. It's historic."

While much of the festival's selection of Valdes to headline this year's event is based on his association with Mack Avenue Records, his inclusion was a perfect match in many ways. The sheer joy of his music reflected the vibe of the audience as it gathered for his opening-night performance. "The Creation" is a piece that digs deep into the connection between African rhythms and the music of his native Cuba. In turn, Valdes connects the dots between Afro Cuban music and the blues/jazz tradition seamlessly to lead his audience to the realization of the unbroken ties that bind Black American musical forms as one.

In waiting on arrival, audible ads for Mack Avenue were heard on a loop. A parade of donors were introduced to the audience to the extent that the performance was delayed by nearly a half hour—a reminder of what must be done to keep the festival free. While initially a bit overbearing, a glance at the smiling faces, the joyous social interaction in the crowd put any of those concerns to rest. Generosity in both the private and corporate sectors of the jazz community is what facilitates free gatherings such as this.

Valdes appeared onstage dressed all in white, his trademark Rangor cap in place. The Yoruban Orchestra included a union between Latino and Detroit musicians, built around his touring quartet.

The ensemble achieved the aforementioned fusion of sound, a thrilling combination of brilliant writing and skillful arrangements. Soloists spanned the entire band, highlighted by a spirited collective improvised solo by a trumpet section that included notables Brian Lynch, Detroit native Keyon Harrold and Trinidad born Etienne Charles. The music combined melodicism with spirited percussive overtones, slipping at one point into a minor blues. The composition in many ways reflects the approach of Valdes' piano style. While steeped heavily in the Afro Cuban music of his homeland, the pure jazz of his playing is not only plainly evident, but integral to his overall sound. HIs playing within the composition impacted greatly the overall sound of the band, and its interpretation of his brilliant opus.

If jazz is about freedom, as it is often said, then the gathering that began with this performance must be seen as born in freedom as well. Freedom is what allows us to gather, what allows artists to create and witness beauty as an integral element of humanity. With the shutdown that accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic, that freedom became more elusive. Somehow, the international jazz community, and certainly the Detroit Jazz Festival, found a way through the darkness into the light. The inclusion of live in-person performances has torn open that small aperture that allowed us to see the light over the past two digital years, pushing the darkness aside.

Saturday, September 3: Day Two

Day two began with Detroit based performances in the early afternoon, followed by headliners Julian Lage, Donny McCaslin, Ambrose Akinmusire, Vijay Iyer and Abdullah Ibrahim to follow into the evening hours. Over the course of the day, the crowd increased in size, with international stars and cooler temperatures happening in the evening. As if on cue, a cool breeze blew off the Detroit River each evening, attracting concert goers to the grassy knoll overlooking the waterway that flows from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie. The breeze was well appreciated by the thousands in attendance, as temperatures crept into the high eighties near ninety degrees. Fortunately, high humidity did not accompany the high heat, but nonetheless, it was very hot.

The downtown JP Morgan Main Stage sits in Campus Martius Park, surrounded by tall, vintage buildings. Drummer/composer/arranger Marc Lipson was first to perform there at 2pm Saturday, leading the Detroit Composers Collective. The collective is a Detroit group dedicated to recording, performing and archiving original music by Detroit artists.

The local scene was presented at Hart Plaza in the afternoon as well, with another drummer, Keith Hall leading a trio. Hall is a jazz veteran with stage and recording credits that include names like Betty Carter, Curtis Stigers, Janis Siegel and Steve Wilson. The Wayne State University Big Band graced the amphitheater stage, with the quality of the ensemble's performance standing as a reminder of overall historic excellence of that program under director Chris Collins.

The New Orleans Groove Masters, a band led by a trifecta of drummers, added to the already prominent contributions from that particular canon of music from the Crescent City. Drummers Herlin Riley, Shannon Powell and Jason Marsalis presented contemporary stylings of modern New Orleans groove music that spread joy throughout Hart Plaza.

As the sun began to peak below the horizon of tall buildings to the west, the perfectly matched trio led by guitarist Julian Lage hit the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage. Sporting a Fender Telecaster, Lage worked seamlessly with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King. This eclectic trio benefited from the audience being able to settle in and focus on this threesome that in some ways resembles the modern piano trio in approach, yet at times utilizing scorching electric sounds that more align the music dynamically with the psychedelic guitar sounds of the 1960s and '70s. The three players had equal part in the collective improvisation that acted like water flowing downhill, finding avenues of eclectic flow based on not only the active playing of the participants, but the acute listening that takes place and assists in formulating spontaneous ideas along the way. This trio often eschews performing in traditional jazz clubs, favoring rock venues that attract a younger audience. Still, boomers who were raised on guitar-dominated music during the zenith of progressive rock in the late '60s and early '70s found appeal as well. Like most jazz audiences, the generational divide simply did not exist. Drummer King stood out as a perfect match for Lage. His style is more about enhancing feeling than keeping time, his percussive insights as much Grateful Dead as Coltrane. The trio's interpretation of Johnny Mercer's beautiful ballad, "Emily," was one of the top highlights of the entire festival. Lage's original, "Tributary," was a wandering jam piece that seemed to flow dynamically and tempo-wise on its own accord.

The Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet set on the riverfront stage was one of the most anticipated of the four-day festival, and the foursome did not disappoint. Akinmusire was joined by longtime mates in bassist Harish Raghavan and pianist Sam Harris, this time around joined by sensational young drummer, Timothy Angulo. Angulo's tidal, polyrhythmic approach provided a distinctive undercurrent to the music, a perfect canvas for Akinmusire's deep, resonant tone. The trumpeter has a remarkable ability to play high tones sweetly and quietly in contrast to his deeper, flugelhorn-like sound. Akinmusire is a storyteller, requiring that the listener participate wholly, resulting in a musical experience of great emotional depth. At times, the quartet played completely in rubato, with time possessing expansive barriers. Akinmusire's solos floated on top of the beat, gently. The thick, humid air-mass that flowed off of the Detroit River seemed to carry the quartet's music aloft, tempered by a welcoming, cooling breeze. "Maurice and Michael," an Akinmusire original, served as the perfect vehicle for the quartet's collective mind. It capped one of the most memorable performances of the 2022 Detroit Jazz Festival.

Drummer/composer/arranger Ulysses Owens, Jr., Jr. played Saturday's final set on the amphitheater stage, with a full grandstand in tow. Known for his work with Kurt Elling and Christian McBride, Owens is a stand-out as a bandleader and mentor on his own. Joined in the rhythm section by pianist Luther Allison and bassist Phillip Norris, the band was tight without being restrictive, swinging madly from the start. Soloists included on-the-rise tenor phenom Nicole Glover, alto saxophonist Sarah Hanahan, trombonist Michael Dease and a cadre of swinging trumpeters featuring Benny Benack, Walter Cano and two brilliant young players out of the Juilliard School—Summer Camargo and David Sneider. After swinging through "Two Bass Hit," "London Towne," and "Giant Steps," the band was joined by a generational talent in trumpeter Marquis Hill. After working their way through "Inner City Blues," the band hit on an unusual and innovative interpretation of the Neil Hefti pearl, "Girl Talk." Marvin Gaye's iconic anthem, "What's Going On" was approached as well, giving it a shove towards status as a modern standard.

Saturday night's activities continued at the noted jazz spot, Cliff Bell's, unofficially until 3 am. The jam session there that began at midnight, personified a city on the comeback trail, and a stark difference to the past two years in which the festival was streamed, and the clubs were temporarily shuttered due to the pandemic. Many young players from the Ulysses Owens band were there, the long line of horn players waiting their turn extending down the entirety of stage left and then some. Veteran bassist Rodney Whitaker attended as well, taking in the waft of soloists, many of which benefited from his tutelage at Michigan State University. The fellowship and sense of community one feels on their own local scene seemed to translate to Detroit, a fully embracing vibe. As in all aspects of this festival, and the experience of the host city, there is a profound sense of pride among Detroit jazz musicians not only in celebration of the city's storied musical past, but in its current state of affairs that extends through jazz programs in Ann Arbor and Lansing as well.

Sunday, September 4: Day Three

The story for day three was the rain—not in the sense of it hindering the festival in any form or fashion, but in the Detroit audience pushing through, refusing to allow it to put a damper on their enthusiasm. For the most part, it was a light rain, with a bit of fog. Stages were covered and fans found refuge under trees, under umbrellas, or in indifference, seeing it as a refreshing change from the ninety-degree heat the previous afternoon. By six o'clock the rain had completely subsided, with a stout breeze blowing in off the river,

Early in the afternoon, Detroit's Michael Jackson did his best Leonard Feather in hosting the Downbeat Blindfold Test with Jason Marsalis as his subject. As he nailed the first recording, a Stefon Harris piece, the rain began to fall for real, and for half an hour things looked worrisome for the day to come. The wind began to blow as well, the rain eventually settling into a dull drizzle. When guitarist Bill Frisell took the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage, the audience somehow were all clad in yellow ponchos supplied by festival sponsor, Mack Avenue Records. Press members settled in behind the stage protected by a stand of stately maple trees. The trio set with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston was on.

As the light rain fell, the trio played around a common center, notes darting between the raindrops and through the dense, moist air. Frisell's audience is notoriously loyal, a valuable commodity on this day. The pioneering guitarist has spawned a style that has been embraced by a generation of younger players. That neo-guitar shift can express itself in ageless classics, as was the case as the trio eased into "The Day of Wine and Roses." The piece slowly ascended to a dynamic peak, with the veteran guitarist utilizing brilliant harmonic extensions and tasteful delay effects. Throughout the set, drummer Royston not only tied everything together, but responded melodically with intricately placed polyrhythms. While Morgan comes off as somewhat unspectacular, he is nonetheless a very gifted and intelligent player, understanding the pathways he must embark on to facilitate the imaginative impulses of his bandmates.

Once again, difficult choices abounded at the 2022 Detroit Jazz Festival. While the Frisell trio played its set, trombonist Michael Dease performed on the Absopure Waterfront Stage with his quintet. With sets lasting seventy five minutes, it is common to divide one's time between several sets over a two-hour span. Fans felt marvelous to be considering these choices over the course of the festival, remembering the back to back format during the streaming events in 2020 and 2021. As the rain began to subside, the realization that it was a refreshing counterbalance to the previous day's sweltering sun and heat refreshed the very outlook of the gradually increasing numbers that occupied Hart Plaza, and the downtown mainstage.

Walking towards the waterfront, one reaches the nexus point of sound, where you can hear two stages of sound. Upon reaching the press area next to the stage, Dease's quintet came through loud and clear, highlighted by the beautiful handiwork of pianist Geoffrey Keezer. Young bassist Liany Mateo and drummer Colleen Clark rounded out a solid, swinging rhythm section, with young clarinetist Virginia MacDonald joining Dease on the front line. It was a surreal scene in a sense, with the river serving as a backdrop to the audience, the slight drizzle falling on the near capacity crowd. Dease's low tones were heavier than the rain-drenched air, tender and mournful and at times, growling and sharp-edged. There was a wide dynamic gap between Dease and his front line partner, MacDonald. Perhaps the highlight of the set was Dease's soliloquy to his six and a half year old daughter, "Brooklyn." Dease brought a little thunder to the front line for the last offering, "Seiko Time," with Nicole Glover joining on tenor. Glover's sound filled the air with yet one more diverse element to this marvelous gathering of musicians. She has a distinctive sound that raises echoes of past masters, playing with intelligent intensity. Her appearances with Dease, Ulysses Owens and Artemis would prove to be one of the definitive highlights of the festival. There is a lot to look forward to with Glover, but let's not let that distract us from what she is playing in the here and now. She can take the listener to astral heights, or tear their heart out within a beautiful ballad. It's all there.

At the mainstage on Sunday, the 6 pm set from Antonio Sanchez & Bad Hombre was delayed by more than half an hour due to technical difficulties. While these can be rare in jazz, the increasing use of electronics have increased the possibility. The band featured vocalist Thana Alexa, who offered a dynamic approach assisted by spectacular range, thoughtful narratives and at times, spoken- word performance of free-verse poetry. Sanchez's polyrhythmic undercurrents upheld the sound and pushed it forward. Because of the long delay, those wanting to hear Detroit veteran Charles McPherson had to leave this set after less than twenty minutes. This was one of the more unfortunate moments of the festival.

In jazz, it is pure truth to see a jazz veteran like McPherson perform. Most in attendance weren't of age to have seen him perform in his days with the great Charles Mingus in the 1960s. Many knew and appreciated his legend as a performer, and pridefully respected his tenure as one of Detroit's true greats. He didn't disappoint. Versatile trumpeter Brian Lynch moved from Latin hard hitter to hard bop master in this quintet that also featured drummer Billy Drummond and bassist Rodney Whitaker.

Starting with the Charlie Parker pearl, "Blue Bird," and the McPherson original, "Bud Like," the veteran altoist tapped into his bebop roots, employing his snarling, hard-biting tonality that has become a definitive part of the modern jazz lexicon. McPherson stated that his sound came from the west side of Detroit, where he grew up. Lynch, for his part, was his usual dynamic self, playing free-flowing lines drawn from an extensive vocabulary. He is one of the few trumpeters who can play extremely fast melodically. The two front-line mates were a direct, dynamic counterbalance to each other.

By the time Cecile McLorin Salvant took the JP Morgan Main Stage in Cadillac Square, the rain had stopped. It was seventy degrees, with a stout breeze and frankly, it felt just marvelous. Accompanied by her touring and recording partner, the pianist Sullivan Fortner, the Grammy-winning vocalist added bassist Yasushi Nakamura, flutist Alexa Tarantino, guitarist Marvin Sewell and percussionist Keita Ogawa to the mix, creating an intimate, chamber-like ensemble. As to be expected, she was an eclectic curator of song, taking older, almost forgotten tunes and adding powerful, sonic interpretation. She as well is a fine composer of her own tunes. Whichever the case, in the moment, she was a powerful messenger of this great Black American art form. With great whimsy, she offered "Optimistic Voices/ Love Dying," and "Obligation." Her interpretation of the Dianne Reeves composition, "Obsession," was stunning in terms of the mastery of her instrument—her range, sense of dynamics and ability to deliver a narrative poetically. Near stage left, four Detroit Police officers assigned to that area began the set looking like cops, doing "cop things." Halfway through the set, all four were locked into McLorin Salvant's magic, madly trying to find her in their Spotify for future exploration. In leaving at the end of the set, I, in passing the four officers, smiled and asked, "How good was that?" Four fist pumps later jazz music had four new followers and a positive police experience for the effort.

Monday, September 5: Day Four

High clouds and cooler temperatures arrived for the festival's final day, a welcome respite from the combination of heat on Saturday, to rain and wind on Sunday. With afternoon highs settling in the low seventies and a cloud cover, festival goers were rewarded with the perfect day to take in a schedule that may have amounted to the strongest of the four-day event. One disappointment however, was the news that guitarist John Scofield, tied up in some unfortunate travel delays, would not appear for his early evening set. Nonetheless, with the crowd settling in for another day of music, visions of 2021 danced in the collective mindset of thousands, when many took in the final day on the streaming platform. A fortunate few, this reporter included, sat in relative obscurity in the Renaissance Ballroom a year ago, the outside world in a state of Delta shutdown, the expanse of Hart Plaza occupied only by a few pedestrians. As the Carhartt Amphitheater slowly filled, the diversity of the audience was once again a striking image of unity in a city slowly healing the wounds of two long years of social isolation.

The day began with the Ethan Iverson Trio, featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Nasheet Waits. Waits settled the trio into an Duke Ellington-esque groove for "Technically Acceptable," with his beautiful brushwork painting broad strokes behind Iverson's sparse playing and Grenadier's even-keeled bottom end. Iverson described, somewhat humorously, his second offering, "She Won't Forget Me," as his attempt to compose a TV theme. All in all, throughout the set, Iverson revealed his post-Bad Plus persona as having the mind of a nineteenth-century Romantic era composer that somehow time traveled to twenty-first century America. His sense of humor is a prominent pillar of his style, something of great importance in this particular moment of healing and reimmersion. The trio acted like a chamber group before eventually breaking apart into separate, but equal pieces. Both Grenadier and Waits feature intricate styles that seem to be in direct contrast with Iverson's, yet somehow, it worked beautifully, much to the appreciation of the audience.

Theo Croker's set on the JP Morgan Mainstage was in sharp contrast to Iverson's stripped-down essential intelligence. He performed compositions from his album, Love Quantum (Sony Musicworks, 2022). While the album more features Croker's extensive production skills than his organic trumpet playing, the live set seemed to flip the script. Croker tastefully mixed synth work with his melody-based playing that often draws comparisons to Miles Davis. Statements made by the eclectic Croker include, "Jazz is dead, long live music," with the band bringing life to a fusion of Black musical art forms captured as one sound. It was ironic then, that the bandleader chose Gary Bartz as a musical partner, the saxophonist who perhaps best brings forward the Coltrane tradition to the modern age. Whether playing on top of chordal sequences or electronic washes, Bartz demonstrated that his spirit still burns brightly. He was seemingly inspired by the immensity of young talent surrounding him, including pianist Michael King, bassist Eric Wheeler and spectacular drummer, Michael Shekwoaga Ode. Through the maze of electronic intrusion, the band delivered on an organic level, with Croker's playing standing front and center. Performing Benny Golson's "Along Came Betty," Croker smiled and exclaimed, "We do the swing thing too, ya know!"

The ten-minute walk from the downtown mainstage back to Hart Plaza passes through food trucks, street performers and sidewalk cafes. The full-on celebration was ignited, with jazz music bringing the city to life. The buzz around the amphitheater stage was prominent, with the all-female supergroup Artemis about to take stage. The brainchild of pianist Renee Rosnes, the band has changed personnel, with bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Allison Miller being the constants in Rosnes's ultra- tight rhythm section, along with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. For this iteration of the band, alto saxophonist and flutist Alexa Tarantino, and tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover joined. Portland born, New York-based Glover is a rising star on tenor, and may have been the most exciting all-round performer at the festival. She evokes images of players like Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, with a probing intelligence and distinctive sound—yes, that sound that one can only hear and not describe aptly.

The brilliant performance included originals such as Rosnes's beatific "Galapagos," and covers of the Beatles classic, "The Fool On the Hill," and Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder." Glover raised the bar for her veteran bandmates that include Jensen, whose influence as a musician and mentor cannot be over-emphasized. "Love Does Not Wait," featured the always energetic and profoundly dynamic Miller and Tarantino, an exquisite altoist gaining a reputation as a top-shelf flutist. Tarantino finally stretched out a bit on alto for Miller's "Goddess of the Hunt," and Ueda's gorgeous "Lights Away From Home."

One of the true challenges in attending a festival such as this, is to see every artist you hope to see, deciding along the way which sets you will attend from beginning to end. On Monday, with Scofield's set canceled, it was still a struggle to see the remaining acts. Traversing Hart Plaza to catch pianist Emmet Cohen's trio at the intimate Pyramid Stage, tenor saxophonist JD Allen's trio set down by the river and finally, the grand finale with the Chucho Valdes Quartet in Cadillac Square, was a sprint of sorts. Considering the activities of the previous four days, energy was wearing thin, yet with a profound sense of dedication, lift-off could be attained. Cohen's energy, pushed to the surface by exquisite bassist Yasushi Nakamura, Allen's total sense of cool, and Valdes's collective stylistic insights were a fitting way to cap off what was a spectacular return to live audience for the 2022 version of this, one of the true pearls of live jazz music. While festivals such as Newport and Monterey pluck the music from its urban roots and place it in an idyllic setting, Detroit, and similar mindsets in Washington DC and Pittsburgh, present the music in its natural urban surroundings. In Detroit's case, there is a tremendous resident jazz scene to further welcome jazz visitors from around the world. The graciousness and generosity of the festival staff led by Chris Collins, and of the people of Detroit in general, truly revealed the essential nature of the city, and the soul of its people. It is that openness to possibility that will continue to draw hundreds of thousands of people to Hart Plaza each Labor Day weekend.

Over the course of four days, the dedication to detail, the immensity of the project itself became graphically evident. The hard work of professionals and volunteers alike complete the overwhelming tonnage of work required to stage an event of this magnitude. The city of Detroit benefits not only culturally, but financially as well. An impact report commissioned by the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation cites $4.5 million as direct spending from the festival, with $20 million in festival-related spending by attendees. Of this $24.5 million in total, $12.6 million in income goes directly to Detroit residents. This is the equivalent of nearly 500 full time jobs. $3 million is generated in state and local government revenue, while more than fifty percent of festival attendees live outside of Wayne County.

DJF President and Artistic Director Chris Collins stated eloquently, "This study sends a clear and welcomed message—The Detroit Jazz Festival is an investment that supports jobs, generates local and state revenue, is the cornerstone of tourism and economic development, and drives a cultural and creativity-based economy. We continue to thank all of our sponsors and supporters for their continued investment in Detroit's gift to the world."

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