Live Review: 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival

Bad weather didn’t dampen performances by Chick Corea, Ravi Coltrane, Julian Lage, and many others

ChickCorea_DetroitJazzFest2018

Artist-in-residence Chick Corea at the 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

In Switzerland, a snowman effigy called a Böögg is burned and exploded at the stake as a way of marking winter’s end and predicting the fortitude of the upcoming summer. Native American elders have been known to speak to tornadoes in hopes of diverting them. The ancient Greeks spent an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to appease Zeus. In 2019, the organizers of the Detroit Jazz Festival might consider something in the way of their own good-weather superstition—say, a first pressing of Kenny Cox’s Blue Note debut and a Coney dog left as offerings at the Hart Plaza amphitheater. They could use the help.

Detroit is among the very finest American jazz festivals: an admission-free marvel, held downtown over Labor Day weekend, that is easily navigable and balances headliner-caliber artists with resources from the Motor City’s rich but more localized scene. It also has a keen understanding of how to make an annual event seem momentous, with an artist and ensemble in residence, inspired tribute concepts, and an impressively adaptable, world-class house orchestra. What the festival hasn’t had of late is much luck with the weather. Last year, Monday’s programming was truncated by a storm, eliminating among other sets Wayne Shorter’s orchestral performance of his Emanon. This year, Saturday was called early, cutting the Chick Corea Elektric Band, Nicholas Payton’s Afro-Caribbean Mixtape Project, and more. On Monday, a midday storm cell required cancellations and a reshuffling of the program, but the rain was merciful enough to allow a beautiful night for artist-in-residence Corea’s orchestral finale. Oodles of great music did go down uninterrupted, and it should be noted that the festival’s producers and staff handle inclement weather nimbly, with prescient evacuations and a Twitter account. But still—what gives?

In any case, an excellent music festival is, for a thoughtful fan, a series of good problems to have. Detroit especially puts your decision-making acumen through the wringer, especially if you’re looking to take in full sets as opposed to bits and pieces. Consider this, then, more of a travelogue than a definitive highlight reel.

“The Nurturer, the Comforter”
The fest’s last two installments have had to process the deaths of Detroit pillars that occurred within weeks of Labor Day, making looser tributes possible but not full-scale programs. In 2017 it was pianist/composer Geri Allen, who’d passed in June and was scheduled to perform in a band featuring saxophonist and artist-in-residence Wayne Shorter, second pianist Leo Genovese, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Allen thus received her thoughtfully produced salvo this year, while Aretha Franklin garnered many heartfelt dedications but will no doubt center larger, months-in-the-making homages in 2019.

An apex arrived early on Friday via “Open on All Sides,” an Allen tribute featuring Carrington and Spalding—the fest’s inaugural “resident ensemble”—with pianist Kris Davis, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and Detroit flutist/saxophonist Dave McMurray. It was stunning: a deep dive into Allen’s early recorded repertoire, and a lifting up of the progressive work that ran parallel to neobop during the 1980s. Saturated in both the percolating grooves of spiritual jazz and the advanced rhythms of M-Base, with melody and harmony that matched blues to the knottiest corners of postbop and the avantgarde, compositions like “Black Man,” “Open on All Sides/The Glide Was in the Ride…,” “Printmakers,” and “Running as Fast as You Can … TGTH” incited head-bobbing and foot-tapping while presenting the musicians with one challenge after the next. The players rose to meet them, especially Davis, whose reputation as a hyper-intellectual composer and improviser shouldn’t overshadow the inner McCoy Tyner (or, for that matter, Geri Allen) she harbors. Her authoritative chording, locked into Carrington’s polyrhythms, pointed up the Afro-Caribbean undercurrent in Allen’s writing and made her art into dance music—even onstage, where tap virtuoso Maurice Chestnut guested toward set’s end. Magnified on the jumbotron, Davis’ moments of Cecil-inspired burnout—backhand to the keys, rolling and tumbling to and fro—elicited whoops and hollers from the generalist audience.

Kris Davis, Dave McMurray, Ravi Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding, and Teri Lynne Carrington pay tribute to Geri Allen at the 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival
L to R: Kris Davis, Dave McMurray, Ravi Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding, and Teri Lynne Carrington pay tribute to the late Geri Allen at the 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

On Sunday, Allen was saluted on a lavish scale, when the festival orchestra, arranged and conducted by Edmar Colón, joined Carrington, Spalding, and special guests. Again, the program was culled mostly from the ’80s (with a few exceptions), and primarily from Allen’s 1989 album Twylight. Colón managed to convert this mercurial small-group music into grand, gorgeous language that evoked Bernstein, Copland, and Maurice Jarre. The guests were used with similar savvy, especially Craig Taborn, who showcased his avant-jazz mastery and, in other striking moments, sounded like a luminous mainstream pianist, framed by and in service to the orchestra’s warm, plush outlines. Nicholas Payton’s resolute technique also sounded marvelous atop the orchestra, and it was a delight to hear the rising saxophonist Camille Thurman thrive in such a high-stakes situation.

The final Allen tribute, held just after Monday’s shutdown had thawed, was titled “Flying Toward the Sound,” and boasted a seamless blend of organic musical flow and the high-tech performance possibilities Allen loved to explore. First the flow: Carrington, Spalding, keyboardist Leo Genovese, and Kassa Overall, handling rapping and electronics duties, made powerfully elegant work of “Amazing Grace,” the free-swinging postbop workout “Home Grown,” “Bemsha Swing,” and more. But much of the piano to be heard was from Allen’s own recordings, to which Genovese added synth. Throughout, the acclaimed academic Farah Jasmine Griffin, Allen’s collaborator on two theatrical projects, contributed spoken word in real time from Power Station at BerkleeNYC, using Internet2. As an MC, Overall showed both poise and a winsome nonchalance, seeming to straddle the hip-hop and slam/spoken-word schools. (Let it also be known that, during a paean to Allen’s generous spirit, Overall uttered, “JazzTimes wrote about….” The magazine’s representative felt honored.)

For Alice, and Geri, and Aretha
Universal Consciousness—Ravi Coltrane’s tribute to his Detroit-raised mother, the late keyboardist, harpist, and composer Alice Coltrane—has gotten a solid share of playing time over the past year, and on Saturday evening it exhibited something like progress. It’s now a distinctive entity that contrasts the period touches you might associate with Alice’s landmark Impulse! recordings—harpist Brandee Younger can deliver 1971 in one glissando—with contemporary, pancultural angles of its own. Drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and percussionist Román Díaz enjoyed a special hookup that put you in mind of electric Miles. As a soloist, Adam Rogers combined the tight linear motion of advanced jazz guitar with the cresting quality of great rock lead playing; Ravi and pianist David Virelles brought their singular voices as improvisers, honoring the material without becoming beholden to it. The repertoire, including “Journey in Satchidananda,” “Blue Nile,” and Charlie Haden’s “For Turiya,” hit the spot. And Ravi’s expanded dedication, to his mother, Geri Allen, and Aretha Franklin, was a very sweet notion.

John Patitucci (left) and Dave Weckl of Chick Corea's Akoustic Band at the 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival
John Patitucci (left) and Dave Weckl of Chick Corea’s Akoustic Band at the 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

Chick’s Orkestra Band
This year’s artist-in-residence, pianist/composer Chick Corea, chose to dig into his midcareer past. Headlining on opening night, Corea’s Akoustic Band sounded splendid, somehow freer and more malleable than I recalled from their recorded performances, captured in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when they were a continuation of the Elektric Band that became a staple of A-list jazz programming. Much of this good feeling had to do with drummer Dave Weckl, whose reputation in fusion and as an educator shouldn’t obscure how thrilling he can be in an acoustic setting; here he set the taut polyrhythmic drumming that descends from the likes of Billy Cobham into symmetry with the best and most interactive piano-trio swing. This was a well-rounded set, with plenty of action-packed, prog-tinged postbop but also some real pathos. Corea waded into gospel soulfulness during an Aretha-dedicated “In a Sentimental Mood,” where bassist John Patitucci’s arco work was pure lyricism. Toward the close, a breathless interpretation of Scarlatti foreshadowed the festival finale on Monday.

There, for a focused audience diminished somewhat by the afternoon’s weather, Corea fronted a sextet—Patitucci, Weckl, trombonist Steve Davis, saxophonists Steve Wilson and Eric Marienthal—plus the Detroit Jazz Festival orchestra, conducted by longtime Corea collaborator Steven Mercurio. Following a sextet warmup of “All Blues,” Corea called upon the arrangements of his Grammy-winning Corea.Concerto project from 1999, featuring Wilson and Davis in a sextet with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Then, as now, this was an ambitious, outsized, talent-soaked enterprise that nonetheless went down easy. The orchestral part of the program began with the slice of Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” that the pianist has used as a preamble to his own “Spain”; as expected, it came next, in an extended, fleshed-out form with the sextet melding seamlessly into the strings. (You couldn’t help but hear Gil Evans’ contributions to Sketches of Spain, whose take on Rodrigo inspired Corea’s best-known tune.)

The big impression here was one of totality and through-composition, constant motion and divergent strategies: Think huge, cathartic symphonic statements bolstering small-group jazz interaction and trading (including exchanges between Corea and the audience). For his part, Corea came off like a renowned concert pianist, right at home fronting yet another pristine orchestra.

Julian Lage at the 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival
Julian Lage at the 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

The Gentlemanly Guitar God
Guitarheads across genres should feel a sense of duty to try and turn people on to Julian Lage’s trio. The band played twice in Detroit, first during a brief preview set on Friday and then in a full-length amphitheater set on Saturday, and both times you could witness the conversion taking place in the crowd. What’s so special? For one thing, there’s the perfect midcentury tone of a Telecaster through a Fender amp, with a grit and midrange punch that’s an instant antidote to the sterility that marks the timbre of so many jazz guitarists. Then there’s the composing, which takes cues from advanced jazz harmony but places a premium on glorious melody. The results can summon up so many things—Jarrett, Metheny, singer/songwriters, bluegrass standards, instrumental rock hits of the ’50s and ’60s—while providing the same effect: that you leave the gig humming. (In Detroit, it was “Splendor Riot” and “The Ramble” that did the trick.) The ensemble chemistry—bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Eric Doob on this weekend—is postbop-oriented in its ability to shift dynamics and responsibilities in an instant. But those rock-leaning sonics make the enterprise feel new; in Detroit they played classic Ornettewith an unbridled, razor-edged knack for engagement that got closer to the real thing than most interpretations I’ve heard. Finally, there’s the fact that Lage is just … so … good. Rarely does virtuoso technique feel so comforting.

Fun and Funky
Groove jazz and fusion, in various incarnations, also made up their fair share of the program. Marcus Miller played to a sprawling crowd at the amphitheater stage on Sunday night, breaking up the slap-bass funkiness with a solo bass-clarinet rendition of the hymn “How Great Thou Art,” a moving nod in part to Aretha, for whom he played and wrote. The Brecker Brothers Reunion delivered the back-breaking groove-fusion of “Some Skunk Funk” and the like with aplomb, and with authentic Brecker Bros. personnel: trumpeter Randy, bassist Will Lee, guitarist Barry Finnerty, keyboardist George Whitty, and drummer Rodney Holmes, plus the gifted saxophonist Ada Rovatti (Randy’s wife) in brother Michael’s tenor spot. The Detroit bassist Ralphe Armstrong, whose distorted lead playing is fierce enough to summon up the ghost of Metallica’s Cliff Burton, similarly reignited heyday jazz-rock with his Fusion Reunion, offering heavy-duty personnel and epochal repertoire (example: original Headhunter Bennie Maupin blowing on “Butterfly”).

The Tia Fuller Quartet at the 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival
The Tia Fuller Quartet at the 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

Saxophonist Tia Fuller’s quartet, playing from her new album Diamond Cut during a daytime press event, brought postbop to a fusion boil. A range of organ groups was also on hand, including Pat Martino’s quintet (hard-bopping, deep-swinging), Joey DeFrancesco’s Project Freedom (delectably funky and blindingly virtuosic), and the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio (a terrific blend of Booker T.’s R&B with soul-jazz; also, kudos for the Aretha homage). Drummer Chris Dave and the Drumhedz were a fascinating showcase for fusion’s evolution from studio-ace rock and R&B toward an aesthetic of artful hip-hop production. Their set, mellow in temperament but intense in technique, was part groove-fest, part woodshedding session, and part game of name-that-tune, such as when they toured J Dilla’s revelatory beats.