Review: The 34th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival
Despite the city's economic woes, a free jazz festival still offers a wealth of great music
On the closing night of the 34th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival, Marcus Belgrave made an observation that went something like this: Even though the Motor City is financially bankrupt, it’s wealthy in an artistic way due to the music it continues to produce.
The city’s elected officials might have bristled at the trumpeter’s blunt choice of words, but this wasn’t merely one of his off-hand comments, delivered in a rasp that’s almost as engaging as his horn work. If visitors judged the city simply by what they saw and heard over the Labor Day weekend, the Motor City could be viewed as doing quite well.
The outdoor event, which emcees regularly lauded as the biggest free jazz festival in the world, looked back on the city’s musical progeny that made great contributions to the music. But rather than stopping at a backward glance, it also brought back several natives who spoke about the climate that nurtured them. If there was a recurring theme to the four-day festival, it might have been to continue an atmosphere that remembers the past but insists on creative ways to advance it. Between engaging panel discussions and concerts that paid homage, it was easy for attendees to see the truth of Belgrave’s words.
But things began with both feet planted firmly in 2013. Danilo Perez, this year’s Artist in Residence, kicked things off with a performance by his new project called Panama 5000. Combining the music of his native Panama with African and Asian influences, the band occasionally wandered a bit while trying to find a groove. When they did lock it and move as one it sounded pretty intense. Even at the loosest, conguero Roman Diaz kept the energy high with his chant-singing and propulsive drumming.
David Murray’s Big Band wasn’t there to perform a polite homage like his recent Cole Español. With a group of 10 horn players, and a four-piece rhythm section, they immediately set the stage on fire with “Stressalogy,” in which tenor saxophonist James Stewart and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding took hints from their leader’s fiery work. But the big attraction of the evening was R&B singer Macy Gray, who has been working with Murray. Decked out in a red boa and purple sleeveless dress (with gloves to match), Gray performed three songs with the band, beginning with a swinging rearrangement of her hit “Try.” Each song lasted close to 10 minutes, which made the groove start to wear a little thin. Then again, Murray’s arrangements still left room for some quality blowing from the horns. Gray was slated to return later in the set, but after the band’s fat-bottomed take on James Blood Ulmer’s funky “Talk About Jesus,” the clouds opened up, shutting down the music. And those that hadn’t already run for shelter came to regret it. Fortunately, this was the only time it poured all weekend.
The challenge with this festival often comes down to picking and choosing favorites from the schedule of four stages hosting music. Luckily, three of the stages were located in Hart Plaza, separated by a walk of a few minutes. This year the Chrysler Jazz Talk Tent also boasted a strong schedule of discussions with authors and musicians as well as performances by the likes of Lee Konitz and Dan Tepfer, Warren Wolf, and Sheila Jordan and Cameron Brown. Talk highlights included a remembrance of trumpeter Donald Byrd by a cross-generational group that included Belgrave, trombonist George Bohannon (back home from the West Coast) and Theo Croker, the DJF 2013 National Trumpet Winner and grandson of the late Doc Cheatham.
Saturday afternoon, the husband and wife team of Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap played a piano duo set at the Carhartt Amphitheater. Impressive in its lyrical quality, the duo possessed the ability to shift duties mid-chorus from soloist to accompanist in a manner so seamless that it took a look at the Jumbotron to see whose hands did what. Also remarkable was their reading of Thelonious Monk’s “Off Minor,” which recreated the harmonic heft of the pianist’s Town Hall big band version in the bridge, thanks to the dual keyboards.
When the JD Allen Trio hit the Absopure Stage in the late afternoon, the energy didn’t let up during the 75-minute set and it made for one of the strongest performances of the weekend. The tenor saxophonist worked with simple melodic fragments that he repeated and reshaped with a determined drive and focus. At times, it almost seemed like a channeling of Motown licks with the spirit of John Coltrane. While the structures might have been repetitive, it was easy to get lost in them, especially with bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Jonathan Barber spurring him on. While the former held down riffs often with thunderous double stops, the latter regularly moved around his whole kit with a force that never relented. Breaks between tunes were virtually nonexistent.
A short time later, back in the downtown at the Morgan Chase stage, Charles Lloyd had a similar impact on his audience, albeit with a tone that was much softer and smoother. Guitarist Bill Frisell joined the saxophonist’s rhythm section of Reuben Rogers (bass) and Eric Harland (drums). Even when playing over blues changes, the quartet was the epitome of quiet fire, with Frisell’s dreamy chords complementing Lloyd’s deceptively simple lines on tenor and flute.
Later that evening, that same stage hosted Saxophone Summit, with Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman and Ravi Coltrane. While everyone put on a strong performance, it was Liebman (in the first of three appearances this weekend) who impressed the most, going from thoughtful lines to jagged, upper-register wails.
It’s impossible to visit the Detroit Jazz Festival without hearing the name Pepper Adams mentioned frequently during the weekend. On Sunday afternoon, the Carhartt Amphitheater hosted a tribute to the late baritone saxophonist and native son. Three baritones shared the stage: Gary Smulyan, Howard Johnson and Frank Basile. The set focused on solo spotlights and unison themes, but it was great hearing those three horns coming together. Highlights included Adams’ original “Witches Pit” and a Duke Ellington medley of “Lotus Blossom,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Sophisticated Lady,” with each guy taking a tune.
Translating pop music into jazz is dangerous territory. The source material isn’t always built for greater harmonic or melodic interpretation. The result often leads to a few choruses of a simple melody with a little bit of embellishment and a hope that listeners will remember the original songs. Guitarist Bill Frisell’s All We Are Saying Project, an exploration of John Lennon tunes, had some moments of bliss on Sunday afternoon, but too much of it was stuck in a slow, Pink Floyd-like tempo.
Every song had a long, undulating intro that was fine initially, when the group unfolded “Across the Universe.” But virtually every song started the same way and maintained the slow tempo. When the group (filled out by violinist Jenny Scheinman, bassist Tony Scherr and pedal steel whiz Greg Leisz) did the post-Beatles song “#9 Dream” things clicked, since the song has several uniquely twisted melodies parts. Leisz did some nice howling too. The same held true for “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which, like the opening of the set, had Frisell imitating the backwards guitar sound that John and George perfected the old-fashioned way. Frisell cleverly closed the set with a rubato take on the project’s complete lyric rather than launching into a whole “Give Peace a Chance.” It provided a suitable ending, but too much in between felt a little thin.
A hasty exit after Frisell and there was still time to catch Warren Wolf’s set a stone’s throw away. Not only was the vibraphonist’s technique draw-dropping in its rapid clarity, his prowess as a composer was on full display in “Wolfgang,” the title track of his latest Mack Avenue release. Pianist Benny Green relinquished the instrument to Aaron Diehl for this tune, which acknowledged the sound and feel of the Modern Jazz Quartet, before heading a blue, syncopated direction. Before it was over Wolf jumped to the marimba (and jumped all over it) and Diehl hammered out some delightful Garner-esque chords.
Liebman returned with his longtime friend and collaborator Richie Beirach for a set that took some familiar music and made it sound new again. This was clear with from the opening piece, “’Round Midnight,” which Liebman introduced by saying, “We changed it, but you will know it.” The same description held true for a couple of Wayne Shorter tunes (“Prince of Darkness,” “Footprints”) and the duo’s theme song, Beirach’s “Pendulum.” They would return Monday afternoon with drummer Billy Hart and bassist Ron McClure as Quest, playing a slow version of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” (with Liebman on bamboo flute), but this duo setting had as much fire power as the quartet.
Leibman’s Saxophone Summit bandmate Ravi Coltrane performed with his own quartet on Sunday evening. Spurred with Gregory Hutchinson (drums), Dezron Douglas (bass) and David Virelles (piano), Coltrane could have been a little louder in the mix because he was clearly going to town with a set largely built on tunes from last year’s Spirit Fiction. While many artists paid tribute to Detroit native sons and daughters, for Coltrane the tribute was personal: His late mother, Alice Coltrane, hailed from the Motor City. Her “Jagadishwar” was a fitting tribute to her and the city. The set closed with an unusual recasting of Charlie Parker’s “Segment.” Something of a Bird deep cut to begin with, Coltrane put a unique stamp on it by playing sopranino saxophone, over a 5/4 ostinato from Hutchinson and Douglas. What sounded like a wild challenge helped Coltrane and Virelles really catch fire in their solos.
By Monday afternoon, it was possible to feel as if the musical saturation point has been reached. The Labor Day heat and crowds didn’t help either. Sitting back and reflecting was the first order of the day, and the panel Jazz in the Motor City: Past, Present and Future (sponsored by JazzTimes) offered a good start. George Bohannon, James Carter, JD Allen and Geri Allen spoke frankly about growing up in the city. While the subject of arts in the schools (or the current lack thereof) was a hot-button issue, as it always is with such a discussion, the panelists gave personal testimony of how seriously things like musical education were regarded when they were coming of age. Bohannon recalled being a teenager who was allowed to sit in the kitchen of a bar in order to hear and learn from bands that were performing onstage. Saxophonist Allen offered a more frank testimony, saying that he might have gone down a less savory path had he not been handed a musical instrument.
The remainder of the day presented a mix of the music’s modern streak, strong traditionalism and salutes to the roots. The Robert Glasper Experiment got a late start downtown at the Morgan Chase stage, kicking off with heavy grooves with Vocoder-affected vocals from Casey Benjamin. While the quartet might not appeal to the traditionalists (who were probably checking out Terrell Stafford’s tight set at the time), they did commence to blow when Benjamin picked up his alto sax. With effects adding a harmony to his solo, the semi-distorted tone made things sound like Soft Machine’s Elton Dean jamming with TV on the Radio.
Lee Konitz doesn’t give two hoots about looking hip these days, but decked out all in black with shades on, he nevertheless looked pretty badass on the Absopure Stage. And that was before he put the horn in his mouth. The veteran alto saxophonist drew from his pool of standards—including “Solar,” “I Can’t Get Started” and Lennie Tristano’s reimagining of “Out of Nowhere” as “317 East 32nd Street”—making new discoveries as he played, with a tone that sounded extremely vocal at times. It also lacked something Konitz mentioned a day earlier in a Jazz Talk: schmaltz, which he defined as exaggerated romanticism. Pianist Dan Tepfer, who has collaborated with Konitz for several years, spun complex counterlines and two-handed harmonies that elevated the horn solos. Bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Matt Wilson provided steady foundation.
While Geri Allen was leading a Homecoming Band that included JD Allen, George Bohannon, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Kareem Riggins, her longtime teacher and collaborator Marcus Belgrave was getting five other trumpet players in order. The Belgrave trumpet call saluted the brass men that “started all this mess”: Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd and Thad Jones. To that list Belgrave also gave props to Morry Cohen, the late Detroit resident who supported the festival and also played a bit of trumpet, according to our host.
Anecdotes like this were as much a part of Belgrave’s set as the music. He occasionally went off on tangents to frame the stories. But like his solos, he always brought it back around and delivered them with both humor and humility. His approach underscored the feeling of the performance, which put forth the idea that these songs might be several decades old, but they must continue to be played like they’re living, breathing works that still have room to grow.