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Detroit Jazz Festival: Detroit, MI September 2-5, 2011

Detroit Jazz Festival: Detroit, MI September 2-5, 2011
C. Andrew Hovan By

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32nd Annual Detroit Jazz Festival
Detroit, MI
September 2-5, 2011
As chance would have it, over the past 20 years or so attending the Labor Day festivities at the Detroit Jazz Festival, there have only been a handful of weekends marked by less than optimum weather conditions. On average, the gods have largely smiled down upon the plethora of jazz devotees gathered at Hart Plaza on the banks of Lake Michigan. And when you start to think about it, you realize those are some pretty good odds; ones any betting man would take to the bank.

This year's 32nd annual edition of the festival would, however, be marked by extreme weather conditions that certainly tried even the most hard-boiled of jazz enthusiasts. In fact, by the time Friday night's activities got in full swing about 6:30 pm, the temperature in the shade was well over 90 degrees, forcing a decision to opt out of making the trek to Campus Martius for a duo of opening sets, instead preferring to get a bite to eat, followed by a return to the air conditioned comfort of the hotel. The rest of the weekend held its own share of weather ups and downs, including plenty of rain and cooler temperatures that came in by Labor Day Monday.

Another scorcher of a day, Saturday brought with it humid conditions that meant one could work up a sweat just clapping between numbers. Nonetheless, an eclectic mix of music made for some great listening, even if it also meant hopping back and forth between various stages. As the sun beat down on the grassy area directly in front of the Waterfront Stage, people scrambled to find some shade as vibraphonist Warren Wolf debuted his group WOLFPAC, making it made clear that a new star was on the rise.

Performing several originals from his newly released, self-titled Mack Avenue debut, Wolf struck a chord with his smart arrangements and spirited melodies that he often voiced, together with alto saxophonist Tim Green. "Sweet Bread" and "427 Mass Ave." most succinctly addressed Wolf's virtues, as they managed to find new routes to explore familiar ground within the mainstream tradition. And even on an instrument that can sound somewhat impersonal in lesser hands, Wolf managed to speak with authority and a true identity. Likewise could be said for pianist Lawrence Fields—who got a further chance to shine later in the fest, as a member of drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts' quartet—and drummer John Lamkin.

Coming on with a mature sense of poise and a tropical ebullience that matched the climate, singer Luciana Souza delivered a set at the Pyramid Stage, with guitarist Romero Lubambo, that begged the question as to why she has not become more prominent on the current scene. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Souza never comes off as coy or cute. Her intonation is superb and her versatility is an obvious asset. Adding a bit of weight to these delicate duets, Souza peppered the music with her own percussion flourishes, playing brushes on a flat surface and adding some shakers and pandeiro. The duo's Jobim interpretations were spot on and it was obvious that both Souza and Lubambo were having one hell of a good time.

Come mid-afternoon, the decisions became harder in terms of choosing which stage to gravitate towards. Beginning with Detroit native Curtis Fuller's set at the Waterfront, I soon found my attention wandering. While pianist Mike LeDonne and tenor man Eric Alexander kept the pots on, drummer Carl Allen seemed to be too polite at times, and Fuller seemed a bit disconnected from the proceedings.

More engaging was an accomplished set by trumpeter Sean Jones and his group over at the Amphitheatre Stage. Even as many times as Jones has made an appearance at the festival over the past several years, he never fails to speak with a renewed sense of purpose and his original compositions are the fodder that makes it all happen. Pianist Orrin Evans was the man about town in his various appearances during the weekend, including this set with Jones. His solo on "Olive Juice" was a rare combination of chops and advanced storytelling, further support for the claim that he remains one the most original voices on the current scene.


Sean Jones

Back to the Waterfront, another duo was poised to make an impression. Soon to celebrate his 90th year, harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans shared the stage with pianist Kenny Werner, and the two managed some sublime moments that provided relief from the obsessive heat that lingered prior to an approaching storm.

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