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

Detroit Jazz Festival: Detroit, MI September 2-5, 2011
Matt Marshall By

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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.


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