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Detroit Jazz Festival 2014 Preview: Moving Straight Ahead in the 21st Century

Russ Davis previews the large free festival in the Motor City

Ramsey Lewis
Ramsey Lewis
John Pizzarelli

From Friday, August 29th, through Labor Day, Monday, September 1st, the jazz world will gather in Detroit to celebrate its wonderful heritage and the present state of the music in a grand event that’s been called “The World’s Biggest FREE Jazz Festival. On four stages that are all in walking distance from the banks of the Detroit River to the Main Stage placed among the beautiful classic buildings of the downtown area fans of jazz will be able to sample a variety of styles leaning mostly on the traditional side of things with a special emphasis on the heritage of Detroit jazz as presented by many of those who call The Motor City their home.

As many festivals do, Detroit features multiple performances by a yearly “Artist In Residence.” This year in Detroit it’s the esteemed saxophonist, composer and bandleader Joshua Redman, who’ll kick off the proceedings on Friday night in a performance with that always surprising and unique piano trio The Bad Plus. There is no telling what these four will come up with but I’d pay good money to see that show. Nice thing is that in Detroit I won’t have to pay for the pleasure. Later that night Kevin Mahogany and other vocalists take the stage with David Berger’s NYC Big Band to present a show they call “A Night at the Apollo.”

If you are a fan of big band and large ensemble jazz you’ll be in heaven, as each day begins with some of that presented by local colleges such as Michigan State, The University of Michigan, Central Michigan and a number of local high school ensembles. Plus there’s the U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note Big Band and a number of large ensembles mainly comprised of active native Detroit players as well as the Mack Avenue SuperBand that features artists on the Detroit-based record label of the same name.

If you come to Detroit looking for the great, veteran players who carry on the jazz tradition then you’ll be in the right place with performances by Phil Woods, Barry Harris, Randy Weston, Pharoah Sanders, Al Foster, John Pizzarelli joined by his father Bucky, Tom Harrell and Ron Carter in a tribute to Jim Hall. The memories of the greats of the past are never far away in Detroit as there will be a number of other tribute shows. Wallace Roney and Nicholas Payton will present two separate tributes to Miles Davis. There will be a salute to Nat King Cole featuring Ramsey Lewis and the aforementioned John Pizzarelli, Steve March-Torme with a salute to his father Mel Torme. Cyrus Chestnut pays homage to Dave Brubeck, while local hero Marcus Belgrave and New Orleans’ own Nicholas Payton join together to celebrate the legacy of Louis Armstrong. In the tradition indeed!

If it’s singers you want you’ll hear the aforementioned Misters Torme and Mahogany as well as newcomer Cyrille Aimee, the award-winning Diane Schuur with an orchestra and Detroit pop legend-turned jazz singer Freda Payne with the USAF Airmen of Note Big Band. If you need a shot of Hammond B3 organ groove you’ll be treated to the likes of Dr. Lonnie Smith presenting his recent In The Beginning: Volumes 1 & release, two shows featuring Joey DeFrancesco and the Lou Donaldson Organ Quartet.

You’ll get a great survey of the variety of recent projects by some of the finest players in modern jazz as Detroiter Regina Carter presents her Southern Comfort release live, along with the newest work of Gary Burton with a quintet, saxophonist Bill Evans and his Soulgrass project, The Mike Stern Band, Christian McBride’s trio and what may be the hottest, funkiest show of all, Stanley Clarke presenting his classic School Days and music from his soon to be released album titled UP. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) folks who hand out the Grammy Awards each year, have once again asked me to conduct a panel discussion at the festival this year and it will feature a panel of two, as I get to have a conversation with Stanley Clarke and field questions from the audience. It’s just another nice feature of the Detroit Jazz Fest.

In addition to the great array of artists I’ve already mentioned the crowds will gather to hear the likes of Orrin Evans performing music from his new release Liberation Blues, Rodney Whitaker, Tim Ries, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Sean Jones, Pedrito Martinez and so many more. So if you’re free for the Labor Day weekend and have a few extra coins in your pocket come to Detroit for a jazz celebration in a beautiful setting that features plenty of delicious food, arts & crafts, music and cool festival merchandise to purchase, family events to take in, lots of informative “Jazz-Talk” presentations with the artists and all those wonderful performances by some of the greats of jazz from Detroit and all over the world. It’s the wonders of Jazz for four glorious days and you won’t even need a ticket!

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