Detroit Jazz Festival 2012 Day One: Sonny Rollins & Terence Blanchard Get The Party Started!

Russ Davis reports from the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival

My first 24 hours at the 2012 Detroit Jazz Fest has been a momentous one already. On the shuttle ride in from the airport I shared the back seat with none other than the great saxophonist from New Orleans Donald Harrison who is almost another “Artist In Residence” along with his fellow New Orleanian, Terence Blanchard, who has the official title for the festival. Donald is just about as busy performing multiple duties with various appearances during the next few days. He’ll lead his own quintet, which will feature his up and coming young nephew Christian Scott, then play as a guest with The Godfathers of Groove, Arturo O’Farrill and who knows who else. He gave me an insider’s view of the aftermath of the recent hurricane Issac on the New Orleans area as well as a state of affairs update on jazz according to Donald Harrison. Unfortunately I didn’t have my recording equipment ready but I hope to catch up with Donald again during the festival’s run.

Upon arriving I had a chance to catch up with a number of old friends and associates in the radio industry who attended the JazzWeek Radio Summit which preceded the beginning of the Festival. Many artists talk about the jazz festival circuit as being like a family reunion for them as they travel the world and run into old friends that don’t see otherwise. It’s the same for jazz radio’s tightly knit group of professionals. It’s always fun. The topper of the night though was attending the first two performances of the 2012 Detroit Jazz Fest…Terence Blanchard and his quintet followed by my first ever chance to see the living legend Sonny Rollins.

Terence Blanchard leads a great group of young guns, and though he just turned 50 he stills seems like he’s a young gun himself. The set began with an extended treatment of the standard Autumn Leaves. Terence explained that he felt that he couldn’t play Detroit without playing the classics, which is a tip of the hat to the tradition of the music that has been so carefully maintained in Detroit over the years. Many of the events that will take place under the “Jazz Talk Tent,” the venue for the interesting interviews and other presentations staged by the festival, cover the history of Detroit Jazz, its artists and place in the history of the music in general. Terence and his band continued with a set that included compositions written by current and former members of the band. Some were from the band’s latest release “Choices” and some, with one stand out piece by Blanchard’s great, young Cuban-born pianist, will arrive on the next recording. There were great moments of soaring leads and gentle ballads that filled the air as a rising full moon emerged above the grand Detroit skyline. As the tempo rose as the end of Terence Blanchard’s set the anticipation rose for the arrival of artist for the second and last set of the night…the Saxophone Colossus himself, the great Sonny Rollins.

There are a few things in my life I have not been able to explain. In all my travels around the world I have never been to Rome and in all the jazz performances I’ve witnessed I’ve never heard Sonny Rollins…until now. I’ll always remember the first notes of the first song played on this night in Detroit as Sonny and the band leaped into the opening strains of his classic and probably most famous composition, St. Thomas. The thing I will always remember most is that SOUND! Sonny Rollins simply creates such an awesome, full, powerful sound on his tenor. He’s 82 years old as of September 7th of 2012 and honestly as Sonny Rollins took the stage he appeared every day of that age as he stood stooped over on stage with his back to the audience. Word has it that he has been told that he needs double hip replacement but refuses to have the procedure. But no matter his physical appearance, when he begins to play with that full, white beard and long flowing hair flying in the warm breeze, he grips the horn as if it’s a permanent part of his body and stands straight and strong as he emotes through the instrument as few, if any, ever have. The band vamps for long passages to give Sonny plenty of space to do his thing as the crowd roars with respectful approval and standing ovations. Sonny throws in a Stevie Wonder classic, Isn’t She Lovely, after running down the list of Detroit greats he’s played with over the years from the Jones Family to Tommy Flanagan and beyond and professing his deep love of the city. The feeling is mutual between the city, audience and him and I leave the venue, my first Sonny Rollins concert and my first day of the Detroit Jazz Festival 2012, with complete satisfaction.

At breakfast I run into the great keyboardist Larry Goldings, who will be performing with his longtime associates Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart in “The Trio.” We catch a quick chat before eggs and coffee and the day is off and running. It’s another great day in Detroit!

Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” - for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting MOJA Radio's website.

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