Review: The Detroit Jazz Festival 2014
Free music for the stubbornly resilient--even in the rain!
Rain cut short the 35th annual Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day, but it failed to douse the city’s spirit. Two hours after Stanley Clarke’s closing performance was set to begin, the audience showed no sign of budging from their seats in Cadillac Square Park, instead chanting “Stanley” and “We won’t go” as ominous clouds gathered overhead. Even when the torrential downpour began, many simply clustered under a nearby awning, lit a few cigarettes of various kinds and reminisced about School Days and Return To Forever in hopes the show would go on.
It never did, but the moment was emblematic of a city that remains stubbornly resilient despite the tempests that have struck it over the past few decades. The sheer number of t-shirts expressing Detroit pride through one slogan or another evidenced the fact that the people of The D see the festival as a chance to show off their civic pride. Proclaimed as the “world’s largest free jazz festival,” the holiday weekend-long event did just that, gathering an impressive roster of artists over four days on four outdoor stages.
The fest kicked off on Friday night with The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, which paired the irreverent trio with the tenor saxophonist, who was this year’s artist-in-residence. The weather was much better that night, though the breeze that blew through the park seemed to whip up into a hurricane-force frenzy by the time the quartet ended with bassist Reid Anderson’s “Silence Is the Question.”
The set was the first of three featuring Redman over the course of the weekend. On Sunday he led his rejuvenated quartet with Aaron Goldberg, Reuben Rogers and Gregory Hutchinson, which he claimed would be their last gig as a group for the foreseeable future (their last hiatus lasted a decade); and on Sunday he celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act with a suite of music from the era, including Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite” and John Coltrane’s “Alabama.” The highlight was a stirring arrangement of “Strange Fruit” performed with the Wayne State University Big Band, with Joan Belgrave’s recitation of the lyric disrupted by a prolonged howl of anguish from Redman’s tenor. The Motown Legends Gospel Choir and Detroit’s own Marcus Belgrave joined for a rousing “This Little Light of Mine” to close on a hopeful note.
The Belgraves were far from the only homegrown greats shown off by the festival. Despite a fall in his hotel room the night before, 92-year-old bandleader Jimmy Wilkins conducted the festival’s house orchestra in a vigorous set of material composed or arranged by his late older brother, Count Basie arranger Ernie Wilkins. The rousing set featured guest appearances by violinist Regina Carter and pianist Barry Harris, both of whom also performed their own shows during the weekend. Leading his trio with bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Leroy Williams on Saturday, Harris took the opportunity to rattle off a list of his Motor City contemporaries and to involve the crowd in a bit of “jazz karaoke,” penning a sing-along tune from numbers called out from the audience.
Always an evangelist for the jazz tradition, Harris was careful to differentiate his brand of “proper jazz” from the more modern takes he referred to as “funny jazz,” so he was probably better off not wandering across Hart Plaza to the nearby Waterfront Stage, where Cuban pianist Aruán Ortiz’s Orbiting Quartet with guitarist Rez Abbasi, bassist Josh Ginsberg and drummer Gerald Cleaver were locking into tight, angular rhythms and spacy expansiveness—though Harris may have had an easier time recognizing the fieriness with which the same quartet played at the Renaissance Marriott Hotel’s after-hours jam session later that night.
The Mack Avenue Superband’s annual congregation was anchored as always by Rodney Whitaker and Carl Allen and this year featured labelmates Tia Fuller, Kirk Whalum, Warren Wolf and Evan Perri, showing off the kind of rollicking, down-and-dirty small-band jazz most associated with the city. But some of the weekend’s most stunning moments came in lusher settings, as when Nicholas Payton performed Gil Evans’ arrangements from Sketches of Spain with solid backing by Vicente Archer and Bill Stewart (though his own playing occasionally suffered by his insistence on simultaneously playing trumpet and Rhodes); or Wallace Roney’s resurrection of orchestral music written by Wayne Shorter for the Miles Davis Quintet but never performed or recorded. Bob Belden conducted the gorgeous Sunday evening performance, which was also cut slightly short by a sudden downpour.
Other highlights from the weekend included fiery, wide-spectrum music from the perpetually somber Tom Harrell’s Colors of a Dream project, with lively soloing by Wayne Escoffery and Jaleel Shaw and moving vocals from Esperanza Spalding; a concise treatise on the many incarnations of the blues in duo form by Randy Weston and Billy Harper; a celebratory set by the Sean Jones Quartet with newlywed Luques Curtis on bass; and Dave Holland’s PRISM Quartet with Kevin Eubanks, Craig Taborn and Eric Harland stretching the rock-fueled tunes from their debut CD past the 20-minute mark, inspiring an explosive response from the crowd gathered in the concrete amphitheater in Hart Plaza.