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Detroit Jazz Festival 2012 Day Four: Saxophones Reign Supreme

Russ Davis reports from the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival

Monday, September 3rd, was Labor Day and Day Four of the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival. Another hot, sunny day greeted the crowds as they filed into Hart Plaza and Campus Martius for the final day of “The World’s Biggest Free Jazz Festival.” The program would end a few hours earlier than other days, tomorrow being a work and school day of course, but the schedule was fully packed with another incredible list of world famous artists and lots of Detroit’s finest to complement the roster of international stars. With the shows I’d chosen to take in I found myself sampling the talents of a number of the greats of modern jazz saxophone, as well as a few of the best trumpeters too. Then there were those saints from New Orleans who would bring the NOLA heat to help bring the proceedings to a close.

My first stop was the Chase Main Stage to witness the Donald Harrison Quintet turned into a sextet with the addition of his trumpet playing nephew Christian Scott. Donald was as dapper as ever with a dark suit while Christian took the modern approach in dress and playing style as he was arrayed in a long-sleeved black and white polka dotted t-shirt with a huge gold necklace and a trumpet with a space-age design to match his hair style. Two more different figures from one family I can’t remember. It was a match made in jazz heaven though as the two lead instruments lifted the music to a fine, grooving, swinging, funky place enjoyed by all. Donald explained how he came about his unique style that’s been called “Nouveau Swing,” a combination of all the music he grew up with including straight ahead, funk, pop, r&b and of course New Orleans music. He used the first song of the set titled Free To Be as a perfect example. He had the band break down the song instrument by instrument to show how a James Brown groove gave the song its basis and then jazz was added to the mix to make it Donald Harrison music. Professor Harrison, who actually looked more like a preacher man delivering the word to the willing congregation, had the crowd in the palm of his hand.

As my survey of saxophone greats continued I crossed Jefferson Avenue and entered Hart Plaza to hear what is certainly a feature of every Detroit Jazz Festival, a big band playing on the huge Carhartt Amphitheatre Stage. In this case young local heroes The Wayne State University Big Band were joined by tenor giant Joe Lovano and his vocalist wife Judi Silvano to swing the crowd with a collection of standards that brought even more heat to this hot Labor Day! At the same time on the Mack Avenue Waterfront Stage an up and coming young saxophonist who just happens to have a new, second, solo release just out on Detroit’s Mack Avenue label, Tia Fuller, was swinging tunes from her new one titled “Angelic Warrior.” When it comes to jazz I like it in all forms, but I’m always ready to discover the newest, most forward-thinking styles and that was what I was in search of as I made my way to the sunken amphitheatre beside the Detroit River, the Absopure Pyramid Stage to catch another saxman playing his latest work.

Donny McCaslin is an artist I’ve programmed quite a bit over the years on my radio endeavors but I’d never had a chance to meet him or see him live. This would be my chance and as he took the stage with his longtime associates that included keyboardist and solo artist in his own right, Jason Lindner, to play the music from a brand new release titled “Casting For Gravity,” I was prepared for what would be a cool deviation from the more traditional approach of most of the festival’s offerings. The set began with a slightly subdued and expressive piece, the title cut from this new work, followed by what would be more representative of the rest of the set, the rousing Stadium Jazz. This song was the more intense, rhythmic piece that blended rock, jazz and electronica that is the primary intent of this new work, as Donny would explain to me later in an interview after the show. Jason Lindner’s electric keyboard work was a major element in achieving the desired musical effect and the rhythm section of Tim LeFebvre and Mark Guilana not only kept the beat going for Donny’s powerful leads but added the perfect accents during the dynamic changes in this modern, quirky music. I surveyed the audience and found that those that seemed to be most in tune with what was happening were the younger group in the crowd and the guys like me who were raised on rock and later turned on to the joys of improvised music. In our conversation afterwards Donny McCaslin agreed that he’d discovered the same thing. It gives one hope that jazz can and will indeed expand the fan base with younger listeners as the new forms reach their ears.

I raced across Hart Plaza to catch some of the set by local hero, the great Kenny Garrett, who was laying down some intense truth for his fellow Detroiters in a glorious homecoming. One of the things that was established early on the first day of the festival by the new musical director, Chris Collins, was that he wanted to fashion a program that presented a “DETROIT” jazz festival, not just a jazz festival in Detroit. The fact that he achieved this desire was brought to fruition by shows like this one by Kenny Garrett. He brought a band that featured lots of powerful rhythm with a drummer complemented by an extra percussionist pounding on the congas. The band laid out a resounding groove perfect for Kenny’s explosive alto leads. At the end Mr. Garrett had the crowd on their feet singing the refrain from his great anthem and signature song Happy People. Afterwards I had a chance to catch up with my old friend and found him smiling ear to ear after this great day in his hometown. Kenny proved again that you can indeed come home and be a prophet in your own land. He’d left his fellow Detroiters happy people indeed.

I was seeking the shade on my next stop, along with some more fine horn playing, and found both under the trees next to the Detroit River in front of the Mack Avenue Waterfront Stage to enjoy the sweet, swinging tunes laid down by two old friends from Philadelphia, saxman Lew Tabackin and his old buddy, legendary trumpeter Randy Brecker. Along for the ride to complete the quartet were two of the young greats, Peter Washington and Louis Nash. With Tabackin’s lighthearted commentary giving us the lowdown on each tune and the mostly easygoing swing of the set, which matched the gentle breeze coming from the river, I found myself in the perfect place for a relaxing respite from the heat of the day. I found Randy Brecker after the show to catch up with a quick conversation and I asked him if the set with his old chum was as easy to play as it seemed to be from a listener’s standpoint. He replied that there was work to do to make it seem so easy but that playing with an old boyhood chum like Lew, who he’d known and played with for so many years did indeed make it easier. He also gave me some very exciting news, that being that the forthcoming Brecker Brothers Reunion Band featuring his wife Ada Rovatti on saxophone and a number of the hotshots who played with Randy and the Brothers back in the day will be arriving soon. He mentioned that they had produced a DVD of performances and that the album was done and in the works for a 2013 release. He also mentioned that they’d be returning to The Blue Note in New York City for a run beginning next week, first sets on Tuesday, September 11th. Get ready for more funky groove from Randy and company!

I had one more stop before the end of my 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival experience would come to an end and that was to return to the Carhartt Amphitheatre Stage to hear the sound of New Orleans one more time. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band was there featuring special NOLA guests Donald Harrison and Christian Scott. When I arrived to take in the last of the concert I noticed that artist-in-residence and New Orleans native Terence Blanchard just couldn’t help himself and he’d also joined the band on stage and was taking turns with the rest of the four trumpet players blowing leads on When The Saints Go Marching In. Donald Harrison led the band in a rendition of St. James Infirmary then by the end of the set the entire crowd was up on its feet, singing, dancing, clapping, screaming approval and generally having the kind of ball that only rousing New Orleans music can conjure.

There would be another set of music to follow on this stage to bring the festival to its ultimate close, a salute to Art Blakey directed by Terence Blanchard and including the talents of Detroit legend Curtis Fuller and an all-star band. It would be an appropriate end to this festival that, as many people have stated from the stages to the festival goers themselves…”this is a REAL jazz festival.” By that they mean it’s more “straight ahead” than many other festivals in the world, more traditional in nature and that you won’t be seeing pop artists on the lineup in the future to boost ticket sales and help pay for the jazz artists. The reason for that is that there ARE no tickets sold. This is a FREE jazz festival and one that reflects the rich, traditional jazz legacy of this great music city. That doesn’t mean that you won’t find variety in the lineup and something for everyone. It does mean that there is a spirit and clear idea of what The Detroit Jazz Festival represents and it seems to me that after 33 years in existence that there is no reason to think that it won’t be maintained forever. Mission accomplished Detroit! See you next year!

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.

Originally Published