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The 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival: A World Community, Day 3

The 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival: A World Community, Day 3

Courtesy Jeff Dunn


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Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

This is the third of four pieces covering the 2021 Detroit International Jazz Festival. Two weeks before the festival, a decision was made to go to a virtual format due to the surge provided by the Delta variant of Covid-19. Three outdoor stages became three soundstages in the ballrooms of the Renaissance Marriott hotel. All sets were run back to back, with no overlap. This made roaming the grounds and catching at least a piece of everything, impossible. While the broadcast of Facebook and YouTube formats offered every note of the festival, we as media members were allowed into the soundstages to witness the music live. The broadcast crew and writers were the only members permitted in the broadcast area. In order to find time to write, have a bite to eat, or take care of any professional and personal matters, you literally had to pick and choose which sets to miss from the continual flow of performances from noon to midnite. Writing a set by set description encapsulating each performance became impossible. While in the soundstage, you could not tap into the broadcast for context, set lists and other helpful items. We were virtually in the dark, pun intended. The real stories began to emerge—the quick change to virtual, the amazing quality of the broadcast, the vibe of the music minus a live audience and exceptional deeds in terms of mentorship and impacting the future of jazz. Our times, the worldwide pandemic, was indeed a huge part of the story. And so you will find highlights of many sets, plus storylines that helped make the 2021, 42nd annual Detroit International Jazz Festival a unique success. Thanks to festival photographer Jeff Dunn, wonderful images of the four days are included.

Day Three: The Music Runs Deep... For Free

As Sunday dawned on the Detroit Jazz Festival, there were mixed emotions. The sun was out after a cloudy Saturday, unbeknownst to most, as festival participants had moved from gig to gig within the confines of the climate controlled Marriott, essentially unaware of the goings on outside of those walls. The Saturday evening hang out on the patio off the third floor lobby was outstanding—musicians and media members enjoyed the cool night air, a few drinks, and the fellowship of friends. Many became re-acquainted after nearly two years of absence due to the pandemic. Sunday was the most active day of the festival, with hour sets hitting in seventy five minute intervals across the three sound stages. DJF was a bit more than half way through, and the festival production was receiving rave reviews. The audio and video quality was remarkably bordering on excellent. Somehow, the musicians and production personnel had managed to not only put the music out on the airwaves, they had managed to maintain the vibe only a free festival can provide. The good work of getting the music out to the people for free had not skipped a beat from the point of view of the audience.

The early afternoon saw the Absopure stage host a grouping of musicians united as jazz educators in Michigan. Guitarist Randy Napoleon led a quartet that included fellow Michigan State professor Rodney Whitaker on bass, pianist Xavier Davis and drummer Keith Hall. Whitaker is an iconic figure not only in the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit, but as an international star in jazz, having performed with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Kenny Garrett. Throughout the set centering on classic Grant Green, Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell pearls, Napoleon showed a remarkable blend of harmonic genius and melodic adventurism. His plectrum free right hand technique produced an organic sound that was beautiful in tone and texture. With Whitaker being the vibrant center of the band, drummer Hall kept things pulsing with a Philly Joe-like exuberance. Pianist Davis comped with lush voicings and minimalist intuition, contributing sparkling solos and in general, gathering the energy of the band and shrouding it in chordal elegance.

Clarinetist Anat Cohen and her Tentet layed down a memorable set of original music, playing a continual hour long performance that exhibited her dedication to the deepest aspects of the jazz tradition, while lending hints of her connection to folk and classical forms. For the arranged sections, the band was conducted by famed Israeli composer/arranger, Oded Lev-Ari. The band performed pieces from their two albums, Happy Song (Anzic, 2017) and the Grammy-nominated Triple Helix (Anzic, 2019). Cohen exhibited her usual vibrant, positive stage presence to go along with her stunning virtuosity on her chosen instrument. The clarinet, long passed over in jazz for the soprano saxophone in modern large ensemble jazz for its voluminous qualities, is like a stick of dynamite in the hands of Cohen. Her powerful, yet classic and tonally exquisite sound filled the stage with thrilling quicksilver runs and rich long tones, delivered dynamically by the effervescent Cohen. She has a penchant for melodicism, spinning lines that spool out like free verse poetry.

The band, performing together for the first time since April of 2020, rolled through "Happy Song," Milonga Del Angel," and "Oh Baby" with precision nonetheless, the music still singing inside of them, a trait only familiarity can bring, "Lonesome Train," "Loro," "Trills and Thrills," and "Kenedougou Foly" followed, as the band fell into sixty minutes of continuous music.

While Cohen was the main soloist supported by her nine bandmates, trombonist Nick Finzer showed why he is lauded as a major player in the world of modern jazz trombone. Bassist Tal Mashiach stood out with his deep throated chordal tones, and deft touch, truly acting as the foundational presence in the band. Drummer Ferenc Nemeth played with uninhibited fury, and necessary restraint within the ebbs and flows of the set. Even within arranged parts, the band seemed to go off like a New Orleans collective chant, with Mashiach pulling the proceedings down to earth and releasing again upward. Cohen's uplifting presence onstage, and for that matter, around the festival "grounds" in general, was a major factor in pulling the four day festival production from the depths of virtual darkness to the heights of enlightened presence. The performance, along with David Binney's burning late night set just hours before, put the power of the music front and center as a force of healing and celebration of community. The contagious emotion that she graciously lends to her band was plain through the music that flowed from Ellington-esque melodies, to New Orleans joy and flat out swinging magic, to anthemic rock. In short, it was a bridge from Cohen's roots in Israel leading to an exploration of the Black American music idiom.

Festival goers always have choices to make. In doing simple things, like grabbing a bite to eat, getting a bit of rest, or as in the case of journalists, returning to the hotel room to write, while the vibe and energy of the proceedings before them is fresh inevitably disallows one to witness every moment, every note. Such was the case on Sunday for media members. After taking in some of Kenny Garrett's high energy, high volume set featuring music from his latest release, Sounds From the Ancestors (Mack Avenue, 2021), and a brief flirtation with the Brubeck Brothers celebration of Brubeck 100 featuring Jerry Bergonzi, a large cadre of photogs and scribes descended on the evening's final set, featuring the Aziza Quartet. Led by iconic bassist Dave Holland, the quartet featured an all-star cast that included saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Eric Harland and guitarist Lionel Loueke.

At the beginning of the set, Holland spoke to the virtual audience for the first and last time, announcing that the band would play a set of continuous music composed by the band's four members for the sixty five minute set. So they did, with the festival again finishing a day of great music with a memorable final set.

The four members of Aziza have played often together over the years, creating a vital chemistry for this gathering of musical souls that ebbs and flows together like the tide. There is genuine caring, love and familial sense not only in the music, but how the foursome interacts before, during and after the set. Their uninhibited humanity is refreshing and rare.

Loueke, appearing for the second time at the festival following his appearance with Herbie Hancock, lent an element of open space to the band, mixing wide open chordal washes with skillful, tasteful use of electronics. His open-ended approach is the perfect counterpoint to Holland's probing style. Holland has a way of playing everything within the context of the music, revealing it all, not leaving anything out. Loueke, as the chordal instrument of the band, can then wander unattached, or play grounded in the wide open harmonic framework of each piece. Harland played stunningly different from what one might expect from him in prior incarnations. His playing seamlessly passed from quiet, finely imagined cymbal work, to sudden, titanic bursts. His work on bass drum nudged the band to move in different directions. Harland's playing was dynamically emotive, beyond what many in the audience and media had witnessed from him in the past. It would seem that the quartet is in a constant spiral of evolution, as the sound during this performance contained a strength and vitality that is elevated even beyond their fine recent release, Aziza (Dare2, 2021).

Potter's performance was one of the true highlights of this year's festival that has featured many. Having performed with Holland for more than a decade, Potter brought his highly original approach and sound that plays well off Holland's orchestral style. The band wavered on the edge of rubato at times, with the eclectic tenorist weaving through, and uniting the sounds of the band with vicious fast passages, thick, grainy long tones all delivered with a distinctive elegance that is Potter's alone.

The body of Holland's music allows his bandmates to explore all things. To say much by speaking wisely. Aziza's riveting hour-long set ran a bit over the prescribed time allowed—a production snafu that benefited the festival's thankful audience. Day three of the Detroit Jazz Festival had ended on a high note, and once again, as it has for the past forty two years, the music was delivered to the people for free.

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