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

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

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32nd Annual Detroit Jazz Festival
Detroit, MI
September 2-5, 2011
In its 32nd year, the Detroit Jazz Festival decided to drop "International" from its name, only to turn around and proclaim "We Bring You the World." An interesting distinction, but the festival's scope was covered, nonetheless. The celebration brought to Detroit not only artists and music from around the globe, but did so with an eye toward covering the full spectrum of jazz music as it exists today.

Thankfully, and unlike many other festivals, this didn't mean scheduling big-name pop and rock acts in order to boost ticket sales. For fortunately, the Detroit festival still needn't concern itself with ticket sales, because the whole thing's still remarkably free for the spectator. And yet, the breadth and level of talent that cycled on and off its stages over the Labor Day weekend seemed, if anything, to have grown, bringing heightened expectations and harder decisions: would you go see Jason Moran's band on the Waterfront stage on Saturday night or catch the Sun Ra Arkestra on the Amphitheatre stage and then stick around for Dave Holland? Would it be Vijay Iyer or Joe Lovano on Sunday night?

Sadly, that Saturday night dilemma never materialized. On a weekend that began with temperatures pushing triple digits and ended on a chilly fall-like day, a nasty storm also caused organizers to cancel, for the first time in festival history, several of Saturday night's shows. But the weekend's fun never abated. And, in the end, music still ruled the skies.

Chapter Index
  1. Sept. 2: Jeff "Tain" Watts and the Drum Club
  2. Sept. 2: Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright
  3. Sept. 3: Curtis Fuller Sextet
  4. Sept. 3: The Sun Ra Arkestra
  5. Sept. 3: Dave Holland Octet
  6. Sept. 4: Amina Figarova
  7. Sept. 4: Regina Carter and Reverse Thread
  8. Sept. 4: Vijay Iyer Trio
  9. Sept. 5: The New Gary Burton Quartet
  10. Sept. 5: Helen Sung

Sept 2: Jeff "Tain" Watts and the Drum Club

The festival kicked off with the world premiere performance by drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts' Drum Club, a gathering, as the name would indicate, of Watts' percussive compatriots. At a certain point—once "special guest drummer" Tony Allen, the Afrobeat pioneer, came onstage—there were four drum kits in play, with Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez center stage between Watts and Allen, and Susie Ibarra up front.

Jeff "Tain" Watts

Ibarra began the set on kulintang gongs, clanging alongside vibraphonist Joe Locke. She would return, at times, to the gongs, but stayed mostly behind the kit, adding to the beat-heavy, polyrhythmic layers. Whether intended or not, Locke, stationed downstage right, decked in cool, heat-deflecting white garments from head to toe, his purple mallet heads flying like large, happy insects, took on the role of featured artist. His vibrant, singing tones not only graced the music with much-needed high-end sparkle, but his prodigious soloing continually sliced a melodic trail through the dense, percussive forest. Stepping to and from his keys like a sculptor eyeing a work in progress, hips shuffling legs into an easy dance, Locke tapped out well-considered, well-place chordal vibrations that layered into flurries of melodic zip and wonder, most notably on the Watts composition "Coolie Blues" (a reworking of Charlie Parker's "Cool Blues"). Saxophonist Rafael Statin likewise fleshed out the drumming, switching between tenor and soprano, and covering the R&B and soul ground of his native Detroit, along with extended detours into post-bop wailing.

Percussionist Pedro Martinez stood center stage behind his congas, and traded regularly with those around him. Watts, this year's artist-in-residence at the festival, came forward in the early going and took up sticks over the timpani, turning in a mostly light-hearted trio rumble with Martinez and bassist Robert Hurst. Back behind the kit, Watts pounded mightily, though, emerging here and there for solos amidst the clamor. But the focus remained always on the unit—and the music—as a whole. A percussion lover's dream, this shape-shifting, droning, kicking monster danced out the last heat of Detroit sunlight and took the festival into the darkness of its first night.

Sept 2: Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright

Performing under the banner "Sing the Truth!" singers Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright reached back to the roots of spiritual music to not only pay tribute to their forebears—women such as Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and Mick Jagger (more on this anon)—but to trace the path forward to the soul in works by contemporary female vocalists and composers like Tracy Chapman and Lauryn Hill.

Lizz Wright

The trio brought a nice diversity of vocal styles to the stage: Reeves, a classicist favoring clean, melodic lines and scat improvisation; Kidjo, intoning the joy, skip and deep hollering pathos of her native Africa, laced with searing Franklin-like flights; Wright, releasing offerings from a smoldering soul that at times hummed with a startling communal purity. In fact, throughout the set of spiritual and secular soul music—a concert that lifted testifying arms and swaying bodies in the muggy Motor City night—it was these seemingly preternatural moments from Wright that were the most striking, when her vocal lines tapped into an essentially human chord, as if the singer had access to a valve that unlocked the common human voice.

Opening as a trio on Ike and Tina Turner's bombastic "Bold Soul Sister," the group spun through 14 additional songs, plus a three-song encore, a set that featured the women as soloists and brought them together again in twos and threes. As a soloist, Reeves sang a couple of her own songs, "Freedom Dance" and "Endangered Species," plus Tracy Chapman's "All That You Have Is Your Soul." Wright tackled spirituals and folk songs associated with Mahalia Jackson and Odetta. She also transitioned effortlessly from the God worship of "How I Got Over" to the romantic human love of "Heart and Soul," despite speaking to the difficulty of such a maneuver, leaving one to wonder how much difference really exists between the two emotions. Kidjo opted mostly for African songs, often accompanying her singing with swirling dance moves, while trying to entice the other two (usually unsuccessfully) into joining her.

The best of the trio numbers was an arresting reworking of The The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," its lyric stretched into gospel croon and laid over an African beat. (It was at the close of this number that Kidjo remarked, "Mick Jagger deserves to be in this list"—of heavyweight female vocalists, supposedly.)

From left: Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright

Throughout the set, the ladies received strong support from drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, bassist James Genus percussionist Munyungo Jackson, guitarist Romero Lubambo and pianist Geri Allen, all of whom found space for soloing. Allen, in particular, played a featured role, consistently negotiating an invigorating dance between soulful pop-blues and angular post-bop, melded with classical flourishes. Lubambo soloed with racing lines of Latin crispness, and Genus added a heavy—and heavily funky—bottom to the music.

However approached—from the spiritual or the secular—the music proved powerfully uplifting. Kidjo came down from the stage during the encore and snaked through the crowd, pausing here and there to dance with the spectators and rile them to even greater fits of pleasure. They ate it up, as they had the entire set, and, no doubt, continued to boogie as they ventured home, happily tapping feet between all notions of heaven and hell.

Sept 3: Curtis Fuller Sextet

At the age of 76, legendary trombonist Curtis Fuller's gait has slowed by several steps, and his wind isn't what it was before he lost a lung to cancer. He sat when not playing on this sweltering afternoon on the Mack Avenue Waterfront stage, an afternoon, he remarked, that "could put an elephant to sleep." But his playing retained much of its vigor, even if his tone was often muffled and muddied as it barked from the speakers. He came into full form, however, on the penultimate number, "The Maze," dropping well-chosen, clean, yet bluesy notes over simpatico support from pianist Mark LeDonne.

Curtis Fuller

Fuller's sextet, appropriately, ran through six, mostly hard-bop numbers during the 90-minute set. Saxophonist Eric Alexander and trumpeter Josh Bruneau lifted the affair with bright, lyrical statements. Bruneau shape-shifted to fit each piece, adopting the tight spiraling vocabulary of John Coltrane for "The Maze," which Fuller had previously dedicated to the saxophone giant, then sounding a Middle Eastern tone on "Arabia." Alexander favored long, breathy phrases and bombastic shots in solos that regularly shifted gears to attack pieces from different angles and explore new ideas.

LeDonne was given a feature piece in "Round Midnight," a tune he rendered with deep classical flourish, capturing even the song's darkest corners. Bassist Nathan Reeves and drummer Carl Allen then crept in from the shadows, spinning LeDonne into modern block constructions that assembled finally into a danceable Latin finish. The piece was a nice, mid-set departure from a solid, hard-bop show overseen, if not altogether driven, by the trombone master.

Sept 3: The Sun Ra Arkestra, under the direction of Marshall Allen

After a brief, but torrential downpour cleared the early evening environs of the Carhartt Amphitheatre stage, people regrouped and awaited the landing of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Unfortunately, the crowd was once again advised to seek shelter, and stage equipment and instruments were again covered as word came of a second approaching storm system.

But sometime later (before the storm hit), the Arkestra simply—unexpectedly—paraded onstage, blowing and strutting as a second line. The stage was barely lit, there were no mikes, the drum set and piano and various other implements remained hidden beneath a giant blue tarp. But with a wooden surdo drum, a single conga and bongos providing percussion, the intergalactic instrumentalists soldiered on. They paraded the front of the stage in a slowly moving loop, corralled in groups of two and three and blew wild, yet wonderfully inviting blasts of group improvisation. Then they leaned from the stage, inviting the audience to take up a song that lost its voice repeatedly in the swirling wind: "We came from nowhere here, why can't we go somewhere there?" members of the Arkestra implored. On this night, the socially and metaphysically provocative question was thrown not only at a culture teeming with bigotry, oppression and hatred, but before the more elemental attack from nature as well.

The concert, as it was, lasted only about twenty minutes. But, perhaps owing to the lack of electric equipment, which made intimacy inevitable, perhaps caused by the crowd's admiration for the band's insistence on playing, but also owing in no small part to the warm music emanating from the stage (there was a strong on-the-corner-of-Basin-Street vibe to the music that accompanied the musician's physical gathering), the band and audience communed in a unique, shared exuberance. Much encouragement was shouted from the seats, and when the music settled into pauses, the audience erupted in appreciation of the playing.

The uncovering of the drumming equipment brought brief hope of an extended set as drum kit and congas were launched into a rumbling duet. Bandleader and alto saxophonist Marshall Allen strode on stage in a glittering red robe, strumming the lower keys of his alto saxophone like a guitar, and thereby releasing a host of vibrant tones to flutter off into the graying night. Soon the other horn players were on stage again with him. Trumpeter Michael Ray, in black and gold pharaoh headgear and outsized interstellar eyewear, leaned forth, peppering the audience with an extended, blaring statement—at once a warning and a singular cry of defiance. The group paraded the stage a final time and then they were gone. The other acts slated for that evening—Jason Moran and Dave Holland among them—were to be cancelled in the face of the impending storm. But Earth couldn't altogether ground the travelers from outer space.

Sept 3: Dave Holland Octet

Perhaps inspired by the Arkestra's act of defiance, the festival organizers hastily regrouped and set up stage for Dave Holland in the Marriott's Volt Bar and Lounge, where jam sessions were scheduled each night. The band happily agreed to the situation with Holland proclaiming, "We ain't leaving Detroit until we play some music for you guys!" The octet squeezed in among the pressing, expectant crowd and proceeded to blow one of the most thrilling sets of the festival.

Sticking largely to tunes from Pathways (Dare2, 2010), itself a recording of a live event, the octet fed off the Volt's jam session vibe, with each member coming to the mike eager to take what the previous guy had done and push it a couple notches higher. The problem (for the musicians) and the delight (for the audience) was that the first guy had started off at an incredibly high level. But Holland's men exuded nothing if not an easy and supreme confidence in the ability of themselves and their mates. Smiles abounded on the bandstand as they egged each other on. Wild cheers erupted time and time again from the audience as dangerous, expertly turned acrobatics sounded from the soaring horn of saxophonist Antonio Hart or Chris Potter or Gary Smulyan or... And still the soloist would push on, launching more spirals and sticking every landing.

In its 32 years, the festival had never before needed to cancel a night's programming due to inclement weather, or for any other reason. And the story of how Dave Holland's octet saved that first night of cancellations will, no doubt, only expand as it sinks deeper into festival lore. So remember, you read this little nugget here first: when lightning struck the Renaissance Center, temporarily knocking out the power and freezing the hotel's elevators, Dave Holland rappelled down from his room over the tower's outer glass, his double-bass strapped to this back, just to make good on his promise to play the gig in the hotel bar that night. Much obliged, Dave.

Sept 4: Amina Figarova

Pianist Amina Figarova's sextet conjured pieces that opened and closed on lush melodies of Ellingtonian sweep, filled in their middle by more urgent dissections of the wide-angle veneer.

Figarova's soloing on the afternoon was regularly fast-moving, but never rushed, spiraling through perfectly classical lines that were a marvel in their technical proficiency if, at times, a bit stately. A charging low-end statement in the late going broke that mold, as Figarova unleashed a torrent of roiling emotion that later jumped into spacious bop flirting with ragtime. Trumpeter Ernie Hammes likewise favored rapid-fire onslaughts, but might turn from the searing brass to offer pockets of whimsy, as when brashness fed into sweet pop melodies on Figarova's composition for the trumpeter, "Ernie's Song," or to outright jokes as when Hammes immediately and faithfully mimicked the honking from a riverboat passing by the Waterfront stage.

Marc Mommaas

But tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas supplied the real grist for the mill, releasing extended, agitated statements that fluttered and popped under increasing pressure, then rose to expire in vaporous gasps. On "Back in New Orleans," he became the solo bluesman, wailing alone on the street corner. But when bassist Roland Guerin met up with him, the two entered into a spirited conversation, the type two friends might have over politics or sports or other fleeting matters of great importance. Flutist Bart Platteau, Figarova's husband, sailed, as his name would suggest, at the top of the turmoil, supplying a nice leavening effect. On "Flight Number," an upbeat, charging piece, he blew long, wistful calls full of hard-earned wisdom—the calming voice of reason over the band's predominant, passion-driven exuberance.

Sept 4: Regina Carter

Violinist Regina Carter's Reverse Thread ensemble does, indeed, spin back to the origins of Western music, traversing the line from such basins of American song as New Orleans and Carter's native Detroit, back across the Atlantic and through the cafés of Europe, to the cradle of Africa where music and humanity were born.

Bolstered by the kora (West African harp) on one side and the accordion on the other, and with the Western rhythm staples of double-bass and drum kit at her back, Carter swung, scraped and plucked her way through a full yet airy music that, at least figuratively, scattered clouds on this afternoon of intermittent showers. Her violin marched admirably on "New for New Orleans," then squealed high-end trills of delight on the heels of bassist Chris Lightcap's skipping solo. She plucked the melody of "Un Aguinaldo pa Regina," then sent her violin into mournful singing with the bow. The Indian melody, "Kanou," was rendered almost as an Irish fiddle tune ripe for dancing—the thread farther stretched.

Yacouba Sissoko's kora playing was crisp and lyrical throughout, filling grand musical space and, on its own, covering a large swath of the planet's musical language. Will Holshouser's accordion often settled the affair into cozy European cafés, but also blended Old World song with energy sparked from repeated blues figures. He often partnered with Lightcap to forge a thick, yet quickly flowing undercurrent that smoothly swept the group along through a casual yet invigorating set. And the crowd rose to its feet to applaud the journey as it came to its end.

Sept 4: Vijay Iyer Trio

Several times during inter-song banter, pianist Vijay Iyer asked the audience if the sound was okay. "It's cacophonous up here," he said. The sound was, in fact, just fine (aside from the battle it too often had to wage with blaring dance floor pronouncements from an M.C. on a nearby party boat.) Still Iyer's comment captured a key element of his band's performance.

The music was dark and charging, the notes from its individual instruments sounded as if they'd been shot inside a box or small room, causing a tremendous ricocheting that soon formed of a splendid, multicolored webbing that buzzed with constant motion. A natural result of this paradigm was the frequent occurrence of group crescendo, which thrilled each time it arose exactly because it was not shoved in to artificially inflate the music, but instead grew from the music organically, and expired as a natural, welcome release of tension.

Iyer also squeezed this formalizing box to a smaller scale, at times seeming to lay it on his keyboard to designate the range and course on his fingers' motion. On "Darn That Dream," for instance, he steadily worked his way into the highest ranges of his instrument by repeating and repeating rapidly—but perfectly—drawn figures over a specific patch of keys then, a bit later, shifting slightly to his right and continuing the process. Bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore followed similar paths, casting many sharp, cutting edges to form an electrifying rhythm of pulsating metal mesh.

So, no, the music was not free of discordance. But nor did it mash into a blurry, dull mess. For 75 minutes Iyer, Crump and Gilmore weaved a highly modern, progressive, well-delineated yet powerfully tangled form of music that never sagged.

Sept 5: The New Gary Burton Quartet

Touring in support of their debut record, Common Ground (Mack Avenue), released earlier in the summer, The New Gary Burton Quartet pits veteran vibraphonist Gary Burton on the frontline against young guitar phenom Julian Lage, with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez in the back, keeping the music together and often sharing solo space through invigorating trades.

At least that's how it played out on this afternoon. Sticking mainly to the music on the record, the group highlighted counterpoint, while producing a highly melodic, bluesy whole. Burton started the show alone, cloaked casually in jeans and a blue hoody owning to the sudden fall-like temperatures. With his four mallets ringing, Burton tapped clear single notes into romantic, flowing lines, weaving a melodic tapestry staked with echoing chordal tones. Lage likewise favored melody, if with a fat, electric sound that left residual drag on otherwise free-flowing guitar playing. His solo intro to "My Funny Valentine" was the marvel of the set, as he strummed, flat-picked and finger-33picked his way through at least five minutes of fluid, exploratory music, a smile regularly breaking on his lips as if Lage was as surprised and delighted as anyone to hear where his fingers had taken him.

The guitarist's somewhat harsh, aggressive tone brought greater distinction between himself and Burton than is evidenced on the recording. But the pair still worked wonderfully together. Colley's tough, sometimes grubby bass also played well as a grounding element to Burton's wistfulness, as did Sanchez's rumbling percussion (though the drummer too frequently tapped off zinging notes from his piggybacked splash cymbal—a tone sounding like that of a stretched metal cable springing loose, arriving in the music at the oddest times). Still, altogether, the music was delightful—and delightfully inventive. On this afternoon, The New Gary Burton Quartet certainly declared itself a new force to be reckoned with in the world of jazz.

Sept 5: Helen Sung

Pianist Helen Sung joked that her latest project "Sung with Words" sprang from memories of childhood teasing over her last name. "What did you sing today, Helen?" the other kids would ask her. It was time to finally make her last name work for her, Sung said.

And so the second half of her 75-minute program featured singer Carolyn Leonhart, lending her deep, clear voice first to "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing," then to a few songs inspired by the poetry of Dana Gioia (and his translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's "Entrance") and Langston Hughes, ending with an appropriately light, romantic rendition of Wayne Shorter's "When You Dream," a piece Sung said she admired for its positive message.

Earlier, the pianist had injected her warm, gentle playing into her own works of positivity: "H-Town," an homage to her hometown of Houston, "Hope Springs Eternally," which she attributed on this day to the Obama presidency (the president appearing a few blocks away earlier in the day), and "Glass Work," an ode to Philip Glass that featured Reuben Rogers' cello-sounding, bowed bass. Splitting the two halves of the program was "In Walked Bud," which found Sung at her most energetic, pushed on by drummer Rudy Royston's roiling support. The whole was a spirited journey that for all its positive leanings never became flighty, but rather bubbled with authentic exuberance, even as the festival moved into its final hours.

Photo Credit
All Photos: Matt Marshall

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