Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Portland Jazz Festival: A Celebration of ECM

Charles McPherson

So often I have heard the complaint from fellow critics and assorted curmudgeons: “Why can’t an American city put on a festival as efficiently run, impressive and FREE as the Montreal International Jazz Festival?”

Note to colleagues: It’s already happening in Detroit.

Like the great Montreal clambake held in late June and early July, Detroit’s smaller counterpart (held over Labor Day weekend) integrates the city itself into the festivities by blocking off streets in downtown Detroit’s central business district to create a pedestrian mall surrounding two of its six outdoor stages. The other four stages are conveniently situated across the street at pedestrian-friendly Hart Plaza, located on the riverfront and looking out to Windsor, Canada.

Artistic director Frank Malfitano, a mainstay at the Syracuse Festival for the past 24 years, took on programming duties in Detroit six years ago. With his guidance-and the substantial financial backing from philanthropist, jazz aficionado and Mack Avenue Records owner Gretchen Valade (who made a gift of $10 million to create a nonprofit foundation to ensure the festival’s long-term future-the festival has grown in recent years both in scope and quality to a level befitting a city with such a rich and longstanding jazz heritage.

The joys of this world-class festival are many. Besides the endless stream of free music issuing forth from noon ’til midnight at six different stages, there are rows of food booths where patrons can sample such down-home selections as catfish, ribs, collard greens and mac ‘n’ cheese. Another nice touch are the huge video screens erected next to each stage, which continually broadcast vintage clips of Duke Ellington with a slick, young Ben Webster blowing on “Cottontail,” Bird and Dizzy playing “Hot House” and Count Basie playing to a dancehall full of eager young jitterbugs, along with classic footage of Miles Davis and Gil Evans playing “So What,” Bud Powell with a youthful Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass playing “Yardbird Suite,” John Coltrane playing “Afro Blue,”and assorted clips of young Ella Fitzgerald and Lester Young. It all adds to the ambiance, helping to create an atmosphere of total jazz immersion for patrons throughout the weekend.

The entertainment at this year’s Detroit Jazzfest was wildly eclectic. From bebop to brass bands to down-home blues, a wealth of musical styles was represented. New Orleans was well-represented by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Regal Brass Band, Charlie Gabriel’s Traditional New Orleans Jazz Band, Marcia Ball and her Down the Road Band, Donald Harrison’s quintet with trumpeter (and nephew) Christian Scott, and the indefatigable Dr. John & His Lower 911 band. West Louisiana bands Nathan & The Zydeco Cha Chas, Buckwheat Zydeco, CJ Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band, Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience and cajun troubadors BeauSoleil featuring Michael Doucet brought their joyful sounds up from the bayou, to the delight of dancers who twirled in the aisles. Brazil was represented by master guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, Sergio Mendes Brasil 2006 and the dynamic contemporary group Brasil Brazil featuring singers Ana Gazzola and Sonia Santos. And Motown was represented by a gala opening night showcase Friday night at the Chase Campus Martius Stage featuring The Funk Brothers and The Temptations.

A rack of Texas-styled ribs went perfectly with the blues-soaked set that alto sax great Lou Donaldson cooked up at the Absopure Waterfront Stage on Saturday afternoon. Accompanied by Dr. Lonnie Smith on Hammond B3, Randy Johnston on guitar and Fukushi Tainaka on drums, 80-year-old Papa Lou dipped deeply into his standard bop-‘n’-blues bag while also entertaining the gathered crowd with hilarious between-songs banter throughout his set. On an earthy, real-deal rendition of Big Bill Broonzy’s telling blues “Just A Dream” (a hit for Cleanhead Vinson in the ’50s), Donaldson updated the witty verse with a sly reference to George W. Bush and weapons of mass destruction, to the sheer delight of this largely Democrat-voting, working-class audience. And Donaldson’s riff on Viagra making him a threat to the ladies at his advanced age had the locals in stitches.

Special guest David “Fathead” Newman sat in on a swinging rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” dropping in a facile quote from “As Time Goes By” in the middle of his robust tenor sax solo. Dr. Lonnie (aka The Turbanator) turned in one of his typically dynamic B3 solos on this standard vehicle, beginning subtly with signature finesse before slowly building to an extroverted peak of B3 fantasia. Guitarist Johnston flashed fluid and bluesy chops throughout the set, at one point dropping in the obligatory Wes homage with some slickly thumbed octaves on a Latin-tinged swinger that also featured Fathead on flute. They ended on a buoyant note with Donaldson’s “Gravy Train” from Lou’s early ’60s Blue Note heyday. In the course of his robust tenor solo on that infectious shuffle blues, Newman quoted nimbly from both Alexander Borodin’s “Stranger in Paradise” and Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.”

Friday evening at the Absopure Waterfront Stage, Detroit native Gerald Wilson led the Mack Avenue All-Stars, a dynamic 15-piece big band assembled by bassist and Detroit native Rodney Whitaker (currently director of jazz studies at the Michigan State University School of Music) and featuring trumpeter Sean Jones (who hails from nearby Warren, Ohio) and alto saxophonist Wessell Anderson, through a set of swinging originals. At age 88, the incredible elder Wilson is still a spry conductor and good-humored frontman with an intimate understanding of old-school entertaining. His makeshift ensemble opened with a blues dedicated to Basie, “Blues for the Count,” whom Wilson explained to the crowd he had met in Detroit as a high school student, shortly before leaving town to hit the road with Jimmy Lunceford’s band in 1939. Wilson literally screamed on the shout chorus of this Basie-flavored flag-waver, then told the crowd afterwards, “Sorry, I got carried away there.” The Mack Avenue All-Stars also played a slick arrangement of “Perdido,” which Wilson explained he had written in 1947 for Duke Ellington’s band as a feature for trombonist Juan Tizol. A Wilson medley entitled “Diminished Triangle” was a brilliant example of the great arranger’s penchant for intricate and lush horn voicings.

On Saturday night at the Chase Campus Martius Stage, pianist Kirk Lightsey, a Detroit native and longtime resident of New York who has been living in Paris over the past ten years, performed a set of urgent post-bop originals with fellow Detroiters George Bohanon on trombone, Cecil McBee on bass, Bennie Maupin on tenor and soprano saxes and bass clarinet and Bert Myrick on drums. During the late 1950s and early 1960s they played together around Detroit at hip underground venues like the Unstable Theater. Myrick, an inveterate swinger, remained in the Motor City while the others pursued their respective careers in Los Angeles and New York. Trombonist Bohanon was highlighted on a beautiful reading of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “But Beautiful” and also on his own tune, “Theme for Ramona.” Maupin opened up considerably with the bass clarinet on his own expansive “A Message to Prez,” while Lightsey was prominently featured on his moody ballad “Ladybug.” On Lightsey’s “Light Blues,” a swinging, uptempo burner, the pianist took off on a harmonically provocative solo that elevated the proceedings a couple of notches.

Tenor saxophonist Rick Margitza, another Detroit native currently living in Paris, played to an enthusiastic hometown crowd at the Ampitheatre Stage on Saturday evening with the Moutin Reunion Band, co-led by twin brothers Francois on bass and Louis on drums and featuring Pierre de Bethmann on piano. An underrated tenor man since his days at Blue Note in the late ’80s-early ’90s, Margitza seems to have taken his game up a notch or two, as evidenced by his incendiary breakdown with drummer Moutin on the ironically titled “Take It Easy,” on which they both unleashed with ferocious abandon in the spirit of Trane and Elvin Jones. Margitza, who played his first Detroit Jazzfest 25 years ago, also revealed the depth of his ballad playing on his own melancholy composition “Dark Blue.” The twin brothers then united on a freewheeling drum ‘n’ bass duet that gradually evolved into an extrapolation on Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” with Louis playing the kit with his hands and Francois demonstrating astounding facility on his deep-toned upright. Bass players and aficionados who haven’t yet caught Francois in concert with either the Moutin Reunion Band or with pianist Jean-Michel Pilc’s trio would be well-advised to check him out. He is indeed a real bona fide bass monster.

The Jaco Pastorius Big Band rocked the Absopure Waterfront Stage on Sunday evening with bristling, expanded renditions of tunes written by Pastorius or associated with Weather Report during Jaco’s tenure with the band from 1976 to 1982. Conducted by Peter Graves, an early pre-Weather Report employer of Jaco’s from their days together at the Bachelors III nightclub in Fort Lauderdale as well as a former musical director for Jaco’s Word of Mouth big band, this aggregation of Florida musicians opened their set in classic Jaco fashion with Pee Wee Ellis’ “The Chicken,” a perennial set-opener for Jaco during the ’80s. Anchored by bassist Jeff Carswell, this big-band rendition of that funk staple featured a ripping guitar solo from Randy Bernsen and an outstanding contribution from tenor saxophonist Ed Calle, the band’s resident killer soloist. The JPBB also turned in a swinging rendition of Jaco’s burning small group vehicle “Dania,” which featured a fluid solo by Carswell. Special guest bassist Will Lee made his entry to the bandstand with “Barbary Coast,” a molasses-thick groover that Jaco premiered on Weather Report’s Black Market in 1976. Will, who had obviously woodshedded diligently for this gig, followed up with an impressive fretless bass reading of Joe Zawinul’s “Cannonball,” a poignant ode to Joe’s former mentor Cannonball Adderley, which also happened to be the first tune that Jaco recorded with Weather Report (also appearing on Black Market). On a letter-perfect reading of Pastorius’ inventive arrangement of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” (which appeared on Jaco’s 1982 Word of Mouth album), Will expertly cut the challenging arpeggios before unleashing a nasty, distortion-laced solo that cut through the tumult of the big band. With Ed Calle covering the Toots Thielemans harmonica parts on soprano sax, the piece ultimately took a radical shift into a Latin vibe with Will grooving over a son montuno rhythm while trumpeter Walter White took it to the stratosphere.

Lee, who earlier in the day had spoken so eloquently on a panel discussion about Jaco’s contribution to the bass world, also turned in a stirring solo reading of Jaco’s profound anthem, “Continuum,” replete with reverb-soaked harmonics and the obligatory quote from “The Sound of Music.” On the turbulent “Reza,” an imposing Jaco composition that appeared on Word of Mouth, Will exhibited uncannny endurance on a relentless string of 32nd notes, marked by frantic machine-gun picking with his busy right-hand fingers. Guitarist Hiram Bullock, a former bandmate of Jaco’s and a visceral presence on any bandstand, made a special guest appearance on Jaco’s “River People” (from Weather Report’s 1978 album, Mr. Gone), exhibiting audacious showmanship (in the tradition of Pastorius himself) while also turning in a wicked guitar solo. Hiram remained onstage for a ripping rendition of Jaco’s “Teen Town,” a Weather Report number from 1977’s Heavy Weather that Hiram had played with Pastorius in their PDB trio during the mid ’80s. Playing side by side on that Pastorius chopsbuster rekindled an obvious and immediate chemistry between Hiram and Will that goes back to their days of playing on the frontline of The 24th Street Band back in the ’70s. High-note trumpet specialist Jason Carter and fellow trumpeter Ken Faulk, an original member of Jaco’s Word of Mouth big band, contributed sizzling solos here. Hiram and Will also made a dynamic twosome on the JPBB’s encore number, a raucous rendition of Buster Brown’s blues shuffle “Fannie Mae,” a perennial set-closer for Jaco during the ’80s.

A highlight at the Ampitheatre Stage on Labor Day Monday was a performance by the Detroit All-Stars, featuring hometown favorites Barry Harris on piano, Marcus Belgrave on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone and Louis Hayes on drums. The group was filled out by bassist Rodney Whitaker and alto sax great Charles McPherson, who played in the Detroit jazz scene through the 1950s. Their quintessential hard-bop set included lively renditions of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation,” Monk’s “Epistrophy” and Bird’s bluesy “Now’s the Time,” on which trumpeter Belgrave sang the funky refrain: “It’s your last chance to dance…GET UP!” Piano master Harris turned in an eloquent trio reading of the romantic ballad “I Love You,” underscored by Hayes’ sensitive brushwork, and then the 76-year-old bop elder applied his inimitable touch and expansive harmonic palette on an affecting rendition of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Like Someone in Love.” The Detroit All-Stars potent set was preceeded by vibist Joe Locke, who performed a tribute to Detroit native Milt Jackson with pianist Mike LeDonne, bassist Bob Cranshaw and the eternally swinging drummer Mickey Roker. Together they offered a heated rendition of Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism” along with the obligatory set-closer, “Bags’ Groove.”

One of the joys of this free outdoor festival was being able to stroll aimlessly from one stage to another, grabbing samples at each before moving on to the next. A kind of “golden triangle” existed near the banks of the Detroit River whereby you could obstensibly move from the Ampitheatre Stage to the Absopure Waterfront Stage to the Boogie Bayou Pyramid Stage with minimal effort. In testing this theory Sunday evening, I was able to move quickly and easily from the Absopure Waterfront Stage, where the Jaco Pastorius Big Band lit up the audience with a rousing rendition of Jaco’s “Liberty City,” to the nearby Ampitheatre Stage, where Ahmad Jamal engaged the crowd with his classic “Poinciana,” underscored by drummer Idris Muhammad’s loose second-line groove, before ending up at the Bayou Boogie Pyramid Stage, where Louisiana boogie woogie queen Marcia Ball lit into a Professor Longhair-influenced rendition of “Crawfishin'” with her Down the Road Band. The statuesque bandleader (aka Long Tall Marcia Ball) struck a reflective note with a moving rendition of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” a melancholy tune that resonates with such deep meaning in this post-Katrina era. She also tossed off some salty, politically tinged comments directed at George W. Bush before launching into a rousing set-closer, “Hot Tamale Baby,” her signature tune for the past 25 years.

Elsewhere throughout the four-day extravaganza, guitarist Harry Stojka, a Roma Gypsy from Vienna, made a rare American appearance on Monday at the Ford Spirit of Detroit Stage with his heartfelt tribute to Gypsy guitar legend and Hot Club of France co-founder Django Reinhardt. His sizzling set included such familiar Django vehicles as “Avalon,” “Nuages,” “Limehouse Blues,” Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” and Sammy Cahn’s 1940s hit for the Andrews Sisters, “Bei Mir Bist Du Sheen.” Local Djangophiles and Mack Avenue recording arists Hot Club of Detroit also paid their own homage to the great Gypsy guitarist on Monday with a spirited set of swing-era staples at the Absopure Waterfront Stage. More musical variety was reflected in appearances by Mose Allison, pop singer Joan Osborne and jazz trumpeter (and recent Mack Avenue signee) Sean Jones, who played with his own quartet and also appeared as a special guest with the Wayne State University Gospel Chorale.

At the Chase Campus Martius Stage, Detroit native John Sinclair delivered impassioned poems over the earthy accompaniment of his Motor City Blues Scholars, featuring hot-rod guitar slinger Jeff Grand. In charismatic Beat fashion, Sinclair riffed on “Everything Happens to Me,” in which he reminisced about seeing Thelonious Monk on the bill with John Coltrane in 1967 at Cobo Hall, just down the block from where he stood. The poet, a founder of the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival and onetime manager of the proto-punk band from Detroit, MC5, also delivered a moving ode to the late New Orleans filmmaker Stevenson Palfi, creator of the great documentary Piano Players Rarely Play Together, a 1984 project which focused on three generations of New Orleans pianists in Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint. (Distraught over losing years of precious files and photos to the flood waters of Hurrican Katrina, Palfi committed suicide in December of last year). Sinclair also waxed poetic on other fallen comrades including a little-known Detroit sax player named Big Redman and Lee Bridges (“The cannabis poet, a great American, an exemplary human being and the sweetest guy you’d ever want to meet”) while reminiscing about Lester Young, Howlin’ Wolf, the Detroit Tigers of the 1960s and the Detroit radio disc jockey of his youth, Frantic Ernie Durham on WBBC.

On her haunting rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” vocalist Ilona Knopfler revealed a beautiful, soaring soprano voice with flawless intonation and natural phrasing. She also turned in a beguiling rendition of “Windmills of My Mind,” which she sung in French and scatted up a storm on an uptempo swinger during her Saturday afternoon set at the Absopure Waterfront Stage.

The local B3 trio Organissimo invigorated the organ trio tradition with a fresh takes on the genre on Saturday afternoon at the same stage. Their eclectic set ranged from classic shuffles to Latin-tinged grooves to an inventive take on Frank Zappa’s “Peaches En Regalia.” Zappa was the subject of an informative panel discussion on Sunday in the Jazz Talk Tent involving former FZ sideman Napolean Murphy Brock and bassist (and Detroit native) Ralphe Armstrong along with big bandleader Ed Palermo, who for the past several years has been interpreting the music of FZ (documented on his recent Cuneiform release Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance). At the Absopure Waterfront Stage on Sunday evening, Palermo’s precision big band covered ambitious large-scale arrangements of such challenging Zappa fare as “Theme From Lumpy Gravy,” “King Kong,” “Sleep Dirt,” “G-Spot Tornado,” and “Redunzel.” The effect of hearing a 16-piece band tackling these FZ tunes was a bit like, as special guest singer-saxophonist Napolean Murphy Brock put it, “Duke Ellington’s orchestra playing Zappa.” Theatrical frontman Brock turned in affecting vocal performances on “Village of the Sun” and “Uncle Remus” while tearing it up on the tricky “Pygmy Twilight,” adding a verse from Grandmaster Flash’s seminal rap number “The Message” in the middle section.

Late Monday night at the Chase Campus Martius Stage, Dr. John mesmerized the crowd with his signature hoodoo anthem “Walk On Guilded Splinters,” which featured special guest David “Fathead” Newman on flute, then had them swooning on his wistful “Such a Night.” Fathead blew some urgent tenor sax on a rendition of Johnny Mercer’s “Blues in the Night,” from the Dr.’s latest Blue Note recording, Mercernary. And guest vocalist Catherine Russell spun a soulful reading on a funkified version of the Mercer-Mancini gem “Moon River” while also serving up Danny Barker’s “Save the Bones for Henry Jones” with requisite earthy humor. The band’s funereal rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” was underscored by a slow grooving second-line rhythm from drummer Herman “Roscoe” Ernest. And it wouldn’t be a Dr. John concert without a rendition of his funky anthem from the early ’70s, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” which had this enthusiastic crowd up on its feet and boogieing in the aisles. Dr. John & the Lower 911 encored with an infectious good-foot version of Professor Longhair’s Mardi Gras number “Big Chief,” featuring a guest appearance from second-line dancer Cynthia from the 7th Ward of New Orleans, to close out the 27th edition of this Motor City bash in rowdy good-time fashion.

Originally Published