Saturday, September 1st, Day Two of the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival was my busiest workday of this year’s event for me. I had been asked to moderate a panel with three of the current jazz greats who’ve won multiple Grammy awards by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, AKA NARAS or The Grammy People as they are popularly known. The three jazz titans chosen were Terence Blanchard, this year’s Detroit Jazz Fest Artist-In-Residence, Joe Lovano and Gary Burton. I’d also been asked to take the stage to introduce Chick Corea and Gary Burton with The Harlem String Quartet in the last performance of the night. There were some other events to attend before the work, if one can really call having this much fun “work.”
There simply isn’t a more wonderful place to be on a sunny summer day than sitting right on the Detroit River under the shade of a tree in front of the Mack Avenue Waterfront Stage with a great band of performers giving their all for an appreciative audience. That’s where I placed myself to take in the performance by young Swiss harmonica master Gregoire Maret. I had met Gregoire in Montreal this summer but missed his performance so I wanted to make seeing him here a priority. His performance shifted between peaceful grooving tunes with a Brazilian flavor to high energy pieces that featured Gregoire jumping and strutting all over the stage to squeeze every bit of air and energy from his body to get his musical point across. After the well-received performance I caught up with him for a quick word and found out he is married to a Brazilian lady and has a special affinity for all things Brazilian, doesn’t especially work out to have the energy to perform as he does, it just comes naturally, and that playing under the sun or under a low roof in a club are all the same to him. What a great, young star he is!
As I was in transit to my next event I ran into Larry Goldings and Peter Bernstein, two of the three members of one of the most unique organ trios jazz knows today and pulled out the recording equipment for a quick chat on the record. Drummer Bill Stewart was elsewhere but talking to these two old friends who’ve worked in this trio on and off for over two decades I found out what it’s like to have such a strong and friendly association with fellow musicians and how it makes it so much easier to create great music in short order as these three have for so long. They’d be taking the stage later in the night to play at the intimate, little sunken amphitheatre that is the Absopure Pyramid Stage to a packed venue of organ jazz enthusiasts. They would be treated to the more sophisticated and polished side of organ-guitar jazz as opposed to the more funky side of things. Hearing some of the latter would be my next stop for live music after a trip across Jefferson Avenue toward downtown to take my place under the Chrysler Jazz Talk Tent for the Grammy Sound Table.
Sitting on stage with Terence Blanchard, Joe Lovano and Gary Burton is an honor in itself, but to be asked to pose the right questions that would draw out fun and interesting responses that would reveal their inner feelings about the importance of winning the music world’s most prestigious award, The Grammy, was not as much a daunting task as it was an exciting one. I’ve talked to all three of these gentlemen a few times and know them to be deep, learned and also accessible and fun-loving in nature. My job was simply to tee things up and let them talk among themselves. The discussion became a very personal one as the guys went from telling some fun behind the scenes stories about what it was like to win the award to what it was like to actually hold the physical award itself. The conversation moved on to more general topics like how they have moved from being the “young guns” in other bands to how they now employ and/or mentor young players in their own projects and associations to their feelings about Detroit, it’s musical legacy and the effect of the city and it’s musicians on them personally. The hour went by much faster than most hours do and that means a good time was being enjoyed.
After the panel I found myself drawn back to the Waterfront Stage to take in the performance by another group of jazz titans from the world of the funky, soulful, organ-guitar groove school. On stage were Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums, Grant Green Jr. on guitar and Reuben Wilson on organ, all formerly known as The Godfathers of Groove, with special guest Donald Harrison on saxophone. I sat down with a plate of fried fish, mac & cheese and collard greens in my lap (appropriately so I’d say) and got fed some of the finest soul-jazz I’ve heard in years while I fed myself some of the finest soul-food one is ever likely to get at a jazz festival or anywhere for that matter. I could have listened to this music for hours as the backbeat just wafted from the stage mixing with the gentle, cool breeze from the Detroit River and simply created a perfect synergy of funky peace and tranquility. Viewing the audience revealed many bobbing heads, tapping feet, clapping hands and smiling faces, while whistles and yelps were heard in response to what was coming so joyfully from the stage. The soul-food was satisfying and the music supreme, but because of my next task at hand I had to leave the venue earlier than I would have liked. It left me wishing Donald Harrison would join the band permanently and that they’d all move in next door to me!
To end the night I took the stage to welcome the crowd at the largest venue in Hart Plaza, the beautiful Carhartt Amphitheatre Stage, to prepare the audience for the day’s last performance by Chick Corea, Gary Burton and their Hot House Tour with The Harlem String Quartet. I told the audience the story of how 40 years ago at a European jazz festival the organizer asked all the musicians on the last night if they’d do a jam session. No one wanted to do it except for Chick and Gary, and on that day, in that setting, a dynamic duo of lasting fame was born. After numerous awards for their recordings and tours of the world Chick and Gary have once again found the time in their busy lives and schedules to work together to create a new recording, the brilliant Hot House, which features originals and everything from jazz standards to the Beatles. The show began with Chick and Gary taking the stage as the original duo for the first half of the show. The duo was then joined by The Harlem String Quartet for the rest of the performance. The distinctive, energetic performances by the four member of the HSQ added extra spice to the virtuoso playing of the two masters, who obviously enjoyed their contribution to the night’s activities, most especially Chick who sat in close proximity to the quartet and took the time to stand, smiling and nodding in approval, as he observed their performances during the times they took the spotlight. In a setting that featured the stage set basically in a bowl surrounded by the audience and the sky scrapers of downtown Detroit, and with a full moon over the Detroit River and a cool breeze making the night a comfortable one this mostly gentle, sweet, beautiful music that came from the stage created a perfect atmosphere. Though the performance ended a bit earlier than the crowd would have liked, as the traditional Saturday night fireworks display at the Detroit Jazz Festival was set to begin promptly at 11 PM, no one seemed too upset. The music was rare and wonderful and the fireworks from the stage followed by the fireworks display in the sky were a fitting end to another wonderful day at The World’s Biggest Free Jazz Festival!
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.