09/06/11 By Russ Davis
Detroit Jazz Festival, Day Four: A Labor Day Bash Closes Out The Festival
Russ Davis of MOJA Radio blogs about final day of free festival in Detroit
My fourth day at the 32nd Detroit Jazz Festival began with a combination of work and pleasure, if you want to call being asked to serve as emcee for one of the performances at the festival actual work. I was asked to introduce the show by The Anthony Wilson trio at the waterfront stage under the trees next to the Detroit River on this cool and overcast afternoon and as soon as the music began the pleasure portion of my mission began.
What I knew about Anthony Wilson was that he was the son of the legendary NEA Jazz Master, composer, arranger and conductor Gerald Wilson and that he was an accomplished guitarist and composer with a fine collection of solo releases. I was thrilled to know that in his trio on this day would be the great Larry Goldings on organ and Detroit’s own Karrim Riggins on drums. Though his father is famous for being a Detroiter, Anthony was born, raised and still lives in Los Angeles and Larry Goldings, a born and raised Easterner, has lived and worked out of L.A. for over 7 years now himself. Mr. Riggins had also relocated to L.A. for a while, which is where these three gentlemen first got together, but returned to his hometown not long ago. Karrim was enjoying a triumphant day as he would perform on three stages before the day was done including a show on the main stage downtown with his own ensemble and rapper Common.
The Anthony Wilson Trio set began with a cool groove titled “Mezcal” co-written by Wilson & Goldings from the album Jack Of Hearts. From the very beginning you knew this was a different kind of guitar-organ trio that would be investigating the subtleties of the instruments. Instead of bringing the heat they brought on the cool, with a series of tunes that allowed Mr. Wilson to show off his clean, clear tone and Mr. Goldings his command of the more emotional side of the organ as opposed to the powerful side. No “Back At The Chicken Shack” on this day! The mood was easy going throughout the show and the communication among the players was just as smooth with plenty of room for each one to have his say as if a quiet conversation was occurring and the crowd was listening in. I had a chance to chat with Larry after the performance and for an enjoyable hour at the airport on the day after as we waited to board the same plane back to New York. Larry was on his way to do a session with Steve Gadd and Edie Brickell then back to L.A. to be with his family that includes two little ones, a daughter who’s 11 and a son who’s 8. Life is good and easy for Larry these days, just like the set he played with his old buddies Anthony Wilson and Karrim Riggins on this day in Detroit.
Instead of taking in another music set I decided to attend a live interview conducted by the knowledgeable Detroit-area broadcaster, writer and musician Michael G. Nastos with the great Gary Burton under the Jazz Talk Tent. Now, I’ve interviewed Gary a number of times but he’s so intelligent, accomplished, open and generous with his thoughts and stories I couldn’t resist. It was a great hour of listening to Gary expound on everything from how he first started playing vibes at 6, and how he developed the 4-mallet technique because he was playing solo all the time and needed to keep himself interested by playing interesting chords and the only way to do that was to use more sticks! He explained how his duo playing with Chick Corea began as a bit of serendipity when a festival promoter in Europe asked the musicians to do an after hours jam session and the only ones who would volunteer were Gary & Chick. Their work as a duo now extends into their fourth decade beginning with their next tours in 2011-2012. He explained how he became a professional by playing with country music artists in Nashville before becoming the jazz icon he is today. There was a long passage of conversation about the guitarists in his life and how important each one has been to his music, including how Larry Coryell helped him make the move to Jazz Fusion in 1967 by bringing his rock approach to improvised music, helping Gary become one of the first jazzers to embrace what was then called “Jazz-Rock.” He spoke of how the vibes is not as popular an instrument as it could be because it’s so large, expensive to buy and not seen on television like other more popular instruments even though it’s the easiest to play. He spoke of how anyone can make music with it because it’s always in tune, does not require any special tuning or fingering and always sounds great even if you only strike one note. Gary’s a purist when it comes to his instrument as he’s never been attracted to the electric side of vibes and related mechanisms. If the original is good enough for him then it’s OK with me, as well as lots of his other fans around the world. This was one fun hour with one of the greats of all time!
I immediately made my way over to the largest venue on Hart Plaza, the enormous Carhartt Amphitheatre, to claim my spot for the rest of the festival. I’d spent most of my time elsewhere only checking in from time to time on the various performances at the Carhartt, most featuring big bands as this stage is huge enough to hold a couple of orchestras and still have room for more. The last two performances of the festival would feature The Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra with some very special guests preceded by guitarist Kevin Eubanks. I was most interested to hear what Mr. Eubanks had to say musically as I’d certainly found his latest release, Zen Food on Detroit’s Mack Avenue Records, his return to recording after a long stint as the bandleader for NBC’s The Tonight Show, to be most interesting and rather unique. His performance with a great quintet was more than satisfying as he breezed through a set of electric blues, groove and swing that featured his own fine lines and plenty of room for his band mates to shine, most especially saxophonist Bill Pierce.
Quite often in jazz you’ll hear an artist simply adhere to one style that they feel suits them best, and we all go to our “comfort zone” in the things we do, but with Kevin Eubanks it appears that most any style is comfortable to him. I found out in a 20- minute interview after the show why that might be true. Firstly, he loves straight ahead jazz, having studied at Berklee in Boston and worked with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and Ron Carter. Secondly, his time at The Tonight Show was much more valuable to him than just a money gig, though a very lucrative job it was for sure. He found himself working with any number of artists from every musical world imaginable and acquired an understanding of what makes a great artist great though they may be a country crooner or a rapper. He took those lessons to heart, combined them with his jazz knowledge and now that he can spend his time making his own music exclusively, that is when he isn’t working with the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz. Kevin Eubanks is off and running with a great new day in his solo career. I asked him if he’d ever record with his brothers, trombonist Robin and trumpeter Duane and he replied that it was funny that I’d asked. It just so happened that he’d just been working on his Mack Avenue follow up to Zen Food and it featured all three Eubanks brothers with some results that surprised even Kevin himself. He’d gone into the project with one basic idea and as they work began it took on a life of its own and turned out very different. He would not go into detail but suffice it to say he had my interest peaked. Let’s all stay tuned on that one!
I was now set for the last performance of the 2011 Detroit Jazz Festival and once again the last show would carry on a tradition that probably could continue forever with no dissention from the crowd, that being a literal “show-stopping” performance by the all-star Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra directed by Dennis Wilson that features star players, many from Detroit of course, including Wess “Warmdaddy” Anderson, Karrim Riggins, Rodney Whitaker, Gary Smulyan, Etienne Charles and a host of special guests. This time the band would break down the show into various segments. They played the big band charts of Christian McBride with Chris on bass of course fronting the band. He’s set to release his first project as a big band leader in late September on Mack Avenue. It’s titled The Good Feeling and it features his take on classics like “A Taste Of Honey” and “When I Fall In Love,” as well as his own compositions like “Brother Mister,” which has become something of a new standard.
The DJFO was rocking with Chris at the helm and he just couldn’t stop smiling. When his segment ended and the technical changes were being made for the next segment I caught up with the smiling Mr. McBride to do my “sideline reporting” that I love to do. Christian calls me “The Howard Cosell Of Jazz” and always goes into his best Muhammad Ali impersonation when he sees me with recorder in hand. I asked him if he’d finally found his real place to be…fronting a big band and he said “Yes…for now.” I asked how he’d take a big band out on the road and he promised that he’d find a way. I also asked him if he was planning on becoming a Detroit resident since I saw him there more than anywhere else and he laughed simply saying “Don’t tell anyone in Philly!” If there’s a more jovial, talented and positive figure in jazz today than Christian McBride I want to meet him!
The next segment of the finale continued with the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra and Dennis Wilson ripping up with special guest vocalist Ernie Andrews swingin’ and preachin’ the blues for the congregation. The soulful Mr. Andrews thrilled the crowd with his flawless singing, never missing a note at the age of 83, and his wit was equal to his music. He did what every performer should do…leave them wanting more. He was replaced on stage by two super talented women who had led their own bands earlier in the festival, Detroit native violinist Regina Carter, and Israeli-born Anat Cohen with her clarinet in hand. The ladies took turns on leads to the cheers of the crowd and were then joined by Christian McBride again who engaged in a faceoff on bass with Rodney Whitaker. The crowd loved it, and as the set drew to a close the DJFO was joined by the University of Michigan Trombone Ensemble. They surprised everyone by playing from their perch above and behind the audience at the top of the amphitheatre in a call and response with the band on stage. They made their way to the front of the stage and with a rousing and dramatic ending the 32nd Detroit Jazz Festival was over.
The festival has certainly achieved what the organizers had sought to do…bring the world to Detroit. Next year the theme is “From The Delta To Detroit.” I wonder if I can reserve my space now?