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Under the Big Top: Detroit's 31st Year Hits a High Note

Under the Big Top: Detroit's 31st Year Hits a High Note
C. Andrew Hovan By

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The mixture of mainstream jazz and other styles was once again handled sagaciously, with a smattering of blues and soul acts thrown in for good measure.
31st Annual Detroit Intermational Jazz Festival
Hart Plaza
Detroit, Michigan
September 3-6, 2010

Last year may have been their 30th anniversary year, but this past Labor Day weekend, The Detroit Jazz Festival pulled out all the stops for what had to be one of the most memorable line-ups of recent memory. Mother Nature would cooperate for the most part, with pleasant temperatures and no precipitation for the majority of the weekend, although a few of the nights got pretty chilly. The mixture of mainstream jazz and other styles was once again handled sagaciously, with a smattering of blues and soul acts thrown in for good measure. There were also some notable 'firsts' making the event something special, including rare appearances from Tower of Power and the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

Setting up camp at Hart Plaza, three main stages held the majority of the major performances, with other smaller venues hosting sets by high school groups, presentations geared for children, and discussions on a range of topics with some of the participating musicians. Just a hop across Jefferson Avenue and down Woodward a few blocks, the lovely Campus Martius would play host to acts with more of a popular appeal, and they ranged from The Mambo Legends Orchestra to New Orleans icon Allen Toussaint. And if you hadn't had your share of music by day's end, each evening the bar at the Marriott hotel would be host to an extended jam session. Over the course of the weekend, this reviewer spotted many of the event's heavyweights enjoying the afterglow, including Matt Wilson, Seamus Blake, Terrence Blanchard, Rodney Green, Jimmy Haslip, Peter Bernstein, Mike LeDonne, and artist-in-residence Mulgrew Miller.

Hitting the road right after work, this reviewer checked into the hotel on opening night and made it over to Campus Martius just in time to catch the last few numbers by the vocal combo Take 6 with Mulgrew Miller and his trio. Although not my particular cup of tea, these gentlemen certainly have talent and their blend of harmonies is quite remarkable, especially when singing a capella. They appeared to set the bar high for what was to come, but once the gauntlet was thrown down, the competition was on.

Tower of Power would then hit the stage and they were by no means ready to play second fiddle. Lead vocalist Larry Braggs worked the crowd with his high-energy approach and an equally phenomenal voice that brought freshness to all of the bands favorite oldies. Hard to believe these guys have been together for over 40 years. Drummer Dave Garibaldi and bassist Rocco Prestia anchored the groove for a generous set that often brought the packed house to its feet. The iconic "What is Hip?" and "Soul with a Capital 'S'" were standouts, along with an impressive James Brown salute that featured Detroit native Emilio Castillo singing "Diggin' on James Brown."

Saturday brought with it much cooler temperatures, although the sun poked through occasionally. Detroit drummer and percussionist Maruga Booker would spark some heat at the main amphitheatre with his large ensemble featuring avant-garde clarinetist Perry Robinson and tabla master Badal Roy. Extended jams and a hypnotic groove were the entrée of choice, a culinary feast that certainly would have pleased any Deadhead, not to mention the free jazz iconoclasts in the audience. A complete 360 stylistically, The Michigan State University Jazz Orchestra next took to the stage with special guests Mulgrew Miller and Gary Smulyan. The focus was primarily on bop numbers, but clever arrangements of "Tones for Joan's Bones" and Miller's "Second Thoughts" provided the needed balance.

Meanwhile over at the waterfront stage, saxophonist Tia Fuller was busy gaining some new fans. While one might think that her recent time spent performing with Beyonce might have dulled her jazz chops, nothing but the contrary was on evidence during a perfect set. Fuller has been heard at previous festivals, but this is the best she has sounded. Weighing in with several numbers from her recent disc Decisive Steps (Mack Avenue, 2010), Fuller spoke in a variety of tongues, from the Ornette-like tonal manipulations heard on "Decisive Steps" to the burnished tone of her curved soprano on "Kissed By the Sun." Drummer Rudy Royston and pianist Shamie Royston can share the accolades as integral members of a well-oiled quartet that is solidly hitting its stride.

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