Review: Detroit Jazz Festival 2017

Artist-in-residence Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and others impress at this outstanding free fest in the Motor City

Photo from the Detroit Jazz Festival
Danilo Pérez, Wayne Shorter, John Patitucci and Brian Blade (from left) at the 2017 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo by Marek Lazarski)

It says something about the curatorial sharpness and magnitude of the 2017 Detroit Jazz Festival when sets including the Vijay Iyer Sextet, Karriem Riggins with Esperanza Spalding, a tribute to Elvin Jones featuring Dave Liebman, and Wayne Shorter plus strings can be cancelled and a serious fan still feels sated.

Unfortunately that point was proven early Monday evening, when a no-nonsense storm swept in and washed out the second half of the day’s programming—including Shorter’s third and final set of his 2017 artist-in-residence obligations, a performance of his recent work “Emanon” with the fest’s superb house orchestra. It was a damn shame, to be sure, but to get too upset, given the absolute tragedy the weather has wrought elsewhere in past weeks, would be in bad taste. And things had gone so well up to that point.

In the annals of American jazz fêtes, Detroit, most likely due to its relative youth, isn’t mentioned as frequently or discussed with as much reverence as events like Newport, Monterey or New Orleans. But you could make a very convincing argument that it is best jazz festival in the United States, without too much effort. Its lineup is stacked with a versatile spread of the highest-profile artists, who are given healthy hour-and-15-minute-long sets. Held in and around the amphitheaters of downtown’s Hart Plaza, it’s deftly organized and easily navigable. It hosts an attentive and Midwestern-warm crowd. It’s a long haul that covers Labor Day weekend in total, with three full days of music plus an opening-night concert and late-night jam sessions at a nearby hotel. And the ace in the hole: It’s completely admission-free (with pricey purchase options available for VIP seating and other amenities).

Detroit rightfully touts its designation as the “world’s largest free jazz festival,” a reality made possible through many, many corporate sponsors in addition to philanthropy. Still, the caliber of these admission-free bookings can be bewildering, especially if you’ve ever spoken off-the-record to a major jazz concert or festival producer. Take the fest’s opening night, for instance: A double bill featuring the Wayne Shorter Quartet and Herbie Hancock’s working group does not come cheap.

Especially in the case of Shorter’s band, it’s also a pretty courageous presentation. Last year’s opening-night headliner, George Benson, worked his quiet-storm singles to crowd-pleasing peaks. Shorter’s longtime quartet, featuring pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, is many things: a major event on the jazz calendar of your local symphony hall; on the short list of jazz’s finest bands of the past quarter-century; a peerless vehicle for one of the music’s great composers; an embodiment of jazz’s ideals of risk and invention, in which failure can often be more interesting than success. What it is not, generally, is fodder for a free Friday-night concert on a holiday weekend.

Not that the crowd, mostly respectful and mindful, treated it as such. A healthy sense of patience and a willingness to be perplexed are usually rewarded with Shorter’s quartet. But here the joys felt familiar. Blade—an entertaining focal point when everything else leaves you slipping off the cliff—provided a mercurial rhythmic bedrock as only he can; remarkably, he never seems to intimate straight time, but his work has so much more dimension and purpose than a lot of what passes for textural drumming in the avant-garde. Blade often formed an axis with Pérez, who used dynamics and chordal density to meet the drummer’s intensity and spur Shorter from brief, searching melodic fragments toward more complete statements. In addition to a couple of those orgiastic moments that give this group its reputation—you know, when the collective improvisation has built steadily and maxes out as the saxophonist intones like a machine gun—we received plainly spoken themes. Strong, deceptively simple, memorable lines like “Orbits” and “Lotus” were important landmarks in making your way through the constantly changing terrain.

Photo from the Detroit Jazz Festival
Herbie Hancock at the 2017 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo by Marek Lazarski)

Herbie Hancock, on acoustic piano and keyboards, with bassist James Genus, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and Terrace Martin on alto saxophone and keys, hewed closer to Shorter’s artistically brazen model than to Hancock’s own hits-stuffed tours of recent years. (No “Rockit,” mercifully.) Long acoustic piano solos of postbop ilk existed in music that is etched into our collective memory as fusion. Themes cropped up and dissipated and returned out of nowhere. There was at times an elasticity, an audacity present with regard to form and atmosphere that evoked Hancock’s role in Miles’ Second Great Quintet. Still, people cheered: It was electric and loud and honored staple repertoire like “Chameleon,” “Actual Proof” and, teased as if making a cameo, “Butterfly.” Martin, the wildcard, blew confidently, with an emphasis on short bursts of rhythmic phrasing, and on 1978’s “Come Running to Me,” he formed a robot-voiced harmony tandem with Hancock, both men on vocoder. It was a clever display of how aesthetics in pop music are recycled, of how old can easily be new again.

The remainder of the festival put forth an excellent survey of jazz’s modern mainstream. Detroit’s programming can skew adventurous without ever dipping into the avant-garde proper, but it doesn’t seem to overtly play the crossover game either. One particular set might have appeared as a pop concession on paper but displayed such sharp improvisational acumen that it came to present a gold standard for matching hip-hop with jazz. Drummer and producer Karriem Riggins, a hometown hero whose credits include Kanye West, collaborated with rapper Common, keyboardist Robert Glasper and others in a sort of unofficial celebration of the late beat-making lodestar J Dilla, and of an especially inspired epoch in hip-hop history that occurred around the turn of the century.

This was a smart, seamless jazz/hip-hop fusion that proved how generations of musicians have now been raised on both idioms, without subscribing to any politics of separation. Riggins, Glasper and bassist Burniss Travis opened with Hancock’s “Butterfly” before seguing into Common’s repertoire, providing soulful approximations of DJ culture with room for fluid improvising. (You could recognize Glasper’s touch, infused with gospel and Herbie and Mulgrew Miller, a mile away.) Common kept the program clean and purposefully conscious, with highlights including “Letter to the Free,” his contribution to Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, on the historical mass incarceration of African-Americans. At one point during the set, a long-form freestyle pointed up the seriousness of the improvisational art behind emceeing, and earned a standing ovation. It was the only single “solo” I witnessed garner that reaction all weekend.

Photo from the Detroit Jazz Festival
John Scofield performs in Hudson at the 2017 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo by Marek Lazarski)

Other standout sets stayed within the crop of current festival-circuit favorites while still extending a hand toward pop, rock and world-music fans. The supergroup Hudson, with drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Larry Grenadier, covered Hendrix and Dylan while also delving into a groovy, wandering brand of psychedelic experimentalism that brought to mind Scofield’s work with MMW. Cuban singer Daymé Arocena, filling up her hour-plus with crowd-work and freight-train Afro-Cuban rhythm, was no doubt a welcome discovery for many. The chameleonic Dee Dee Bridgewater assumed the guise of a soul singer for a set culled from her new album, Memphis … Yes, I’m Ready.

What little I caught of Kamasi Washington was powerful but very familiar from other festival spots of his I’ve absorbed. Patitucci’s Electric Guitar Quartet, featuring guitarists Steve Cardenas and Adam Rogers and drummer Blade, presented a terrific idea for a band and executed on it. Here was a guitar band, playing jazz but also stretching out into blues and fusion, with an aesthetic of control—solos showcasing deep harmonic knowledge, even with R&B language; an absolute sense of taste and democracy as to how one sound or line should intermingle with another; and Blade’s ability to support each soloist with a tailor-made temperament and pattern. The leader, especially on his six-string electric bass, offered his own guitar-like delights during the solo sections.

The Donny McCaslin Group carried its music from David Bowie’s Blackstar toward big exultant ensemble moments, climaxing in the way post-rock bands tend to with each composition. McCaslin was a highlight of a special homage to Michael Brecker, featuring fellow saxophonists Joe Lovano and Rick Margitza, plus Patitucci, Blade and Gil Goldstein’s impressively cogent charts for the house orchestra. (Goldstein, who also played piano and accordion, understands that just because you have an orchestra doesn’t mean you have to fill every nook and cranny of a program with it. This is a profound lesson lost on many writer-arrangers.) Later that night, Lovano stunned as a balladeer on “Monk’s Mood,” alongside pianist Chucho Valdés in a Latin-jazz unit that held those styles in a remarkably interdependent balance. Panamonk, with Danilo Pérez, bassist Jared Henderson and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, found a similarly engaging symmetry, with more of contemporary postbop’s everything-at-once approach. Also in the way of unimpeachable acoustic jazz was trumpeter Sean Jones’ quintet, whose set-closing burn through Woody Shaw’s “OPEC” crossed the threshold of visceral intensity into something like musical violence. (There’s a reason it’s called “killing.”)

Nearing the festival’s premature end on Monday was Detroit-raised hero Johnny O’Neal, whose trio set reiterated his singular place on the jazz landscape: part-limitless well of jazz, pop and R&B repertoire; part-piano slayer; part-stately jazz crooner; all charisma. Another Detroit success story, violinist Regina Carter, played from her recent tribute project, Ella: Accentuate the Positive, traversing swing, second-line, blues, a bit of free-improv and more, and allowing a comfortable band including the underrated guitarist Marvin Sewell to stretch out.

Leo Genovese, 2017 Detroit Jazz Festival artist-in-residence Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington (from left)

One of the most brilliant musicians to come out of Detroit (or any city, for that matter) was sadly, conspicuously absent: pianist, composer and educator Geri Allen, whose passing in late June, at age 60, overcast the weekend. (I’d expect some official tributizing at next year’s event.) Wayne Shorter’s Sunday-night set, his final appearance due to Monday’s cancellation, was originally scheduled to be a quintet performance with Allen, second pianist Leo Genovese, bassist Esperanza Spalding and Carrington, but it went on as planned as a quartet gig.

In many ways, it wasn’t dramatically different from the attack and vernacular heard in Shorter’s working group on Friday. Carrington, a perceptive and sensitive accompanist, burrowed deep into the interior of this ensemble, making her kit a melodic, harmonic and textural tool in a way that put you in mind of Blade. At one point a drum-and-bass pattern emerged, as if putting into relief the truly improvisational drumming that marked most of the performance. As a bassist Spalding seemed especially malleable and responsive to Shorter’s action, his searching scraps of melody or unexpected shouts, which can shock you into focus when he’s playing soprano. One of the most illuminating stretches here was a game of cat-and-mouse Shorter played with Genovese; another was a series of Spalding’s ascending vocal lines, which Shorter filigreed with odd-angled harmonies. (And another still, this one more sheer fun: Genovese’s piano rhapsody accompanied by fireworks down the river.) Compositions were tackled, among them Allen’s “Feed the Fire” and Shorter’s “Endangered Species,” but as in Friday’s quartet performance they quickly swept past you and through you, submerged into the collective independence of the playing. Also evocative of the opening concert: a kind, relatively quiet and homed-in crowd, out for a night of free music in the city but receptive to an artistic challenge.

View Marek Lazarski’s photos from first two days of the Detroit Jazz Festival.

View Marek Lazarski’s photos from the last two days of the Detroit Jazz Festival.

Read Natalie Weiner’s coverage in Billboard of the Detroit Jazz Festival.