Jim Rotondi with Joe Locke at Jazz Cafe, Detroit

C. Andrew Hovan By

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Jim Rotondi Quintet featuring Joe Locke
Jazz Cafe at Music Hall
Detroit, Michigan
December 22, 2007

It's not an easy proposition. Locating good live jazz has become a major challenge in even the major cities outside of New York. Oh sure, you can find local musicians honing their craft at the neighborhood bar or catch major artists at corporate-sponsored events staged in a concert hall setting, bringing with them all the inherent pomposity usually associated with old money and symphony orchestras. Not that there isn't a place for these kinds of shows, but live jazz has always been best experienced in a small club setting where one can grab a beer, pull up close, and become an active participant in the music-making.

To their credit, the folks at Detroit's Music Hall have recently established a new concert space that meets all the criteria for presenting jazz in the most intimate of club settings. The Jazz Cafe, in fact, has to be one of the best venues in the Northeast to take in a jazz show: moreover, they've been able to bring in heavy names with an ambitious series featuring some of the finest musicians on the international scene— performers who otherwise seldom venture through this part of the country. And if they have, they've fronted local rhythm sections, which rarely leads to the kind of finely tuned expression that can be heard from a working ensemble.

Hitting town just a few days before Christmas, trumpeter Jim Rotondi fronted an all-star conglomerate of New York heavies for a two-night stint that brought in healthy crowds. Opening the first set of the Saturday night gig, Rotondi would take the stage with vibes man Joe Locke, pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Barak Mori, and drummer Billy Drummond. The brisk pace of "Stranger Than Fiction" gave notice that these men were there to play and over the course of the evening the energy would never wane, Drummond providing explosive impetus for some staggering solos by both Rotondi and Locke.

With a knowing sense of pacing, Rotondi built both sets around some of his originals, a few old bebop standards and some lesser-known contemporary items such as James Williams's "For My Nephews." Apropos for the holiday season, the trumpeter also served up warm and ardent versions of "Christmas Time Is Here" and "The Christmas Song." As for Rotondi's own compositions, he's always had a knack for writing pieces that speak in the mainstream vernacular while pushing towards something fresh and new. Both "Shu Shu" and "Gravitude" were striking new pieces that Rotondi and the band delivered with assurance and finesse.

Not to take anything away from the other guys in the band, but I found myself for the better part of the evening shifting a good deal of my attention to either Drummond or Locke. While the old axiom states that the drummer should not overpower the band with volume, Drummond came on like a steamroller and pushed the soloists in ways I've never witnessed in a club setting. The end product was electric and visceral. As a soloist, Locke is something to behold, leaping across the expanse of his instrument and looking back at his ensemble mates often with a large smile before delving into another spurt of frenetic activity. With all this talent up front, it was all the more essential that the bottom end provide musical anchor, and Mori had no trouble filling that role. Furthermore, Grissett held his own in this fast company, demonstrating that his is a star on the rise.

By the end of the second set, it was way into the early morning hours, yet each member of the quintet was more than amicable while meeting and greeting patrons for some banter and autographs. Spirits were riding high to the point that the club was already promising a return engagement from this band sometime in the New Year. In the final analysis, Rotondi and Locke are among those players who lead the pack in demonstrating how vital the mainstream tradition continues to be, providing welcome assurance for those of us who love this music. With musicians like these and allies such as Music Hall and the Jazz Cafe, the future of the music does appear to be in good hands.

Photo Credit

C. Andrew Hovan

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