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Detroit International Jazz Festival 2010: An Embarrassment of Riches

Downtown Detroit comes alive with countless jazz performances

Downtown Detroit was paradise for music lovers over Labor Day weekend when thousands of jazz aficionados enjoyed more than 100 intelligently programmed acts. The Sept. 3-6 event showcased talent on six stages spanning the retro swing of Defenders of the Groove, the modern mainstream of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, and the avant-garde, cerebral improvisations of Trio M. The Detroit International Jazz Festival’s 31st iteration was large and free and fabulous (members of the Rhythm Section got special seating, a meal and a few drinks for $100 a day).

The main Detroit Jazz Fest action was at Hart Plaza on Jefferson Avenue, a few minutes’ walk from the Renaissance Center. There also were performances on stages on Woodward and Monroe avenues; walking Woodward to Monroe felt like revisiting the ’60s, with vendors hawking Angela Davis T shirts, all manner of ethnic emollients, Chinese fedoras, a plethora of soul food, the occasional crepe, but sushi nowhere to be seen.

At Hart, too, there was food, along with sellers of CDs associated with the festival; the vibe was faintly carny. I didn’t get there until Saturday, which was chilly. Sunday weather was much better: dry, in the mid-70s, sunny. Saturday night, I caught Danilo Perez and Terence Blanchard, but by the time Yellowjackets came out, I gave up; too cold. Perez was volcanic, as was his chief co-conspirator, saxophone player Rudresh Mahanthappa, who daubed Raga chromatics onto Coltrane-like streams. Blanchard’s group was nearly as fiery and connected easily with the crowd; the trumpet master’s satin dynamics were especially soulful on a very pretty ballad, his palaver was natural, and his band, particularly pianist Fabian Almazan, clamped onto an astonishing variety of grooves.

Yellowjackets reportedly played a stirring set; the band just signed with Mack Avenue Records, a huge presence at the festival. (Mack Avenue Chairman Gretchen Valade, heiress to the Carhartt fortune, endowed the DJF with $10 million; besides Panamanian pianist Perez, Mack Avenue acts at DJF included saxophonists Tia Fuller and Kirk Whalum; Yellowjackets; and the Django Reinhardt-inspired Hot Club of Detroit.)

Sunday featured performances by the 18-piece Maria Schneider Orchestra in its DJF debut; the piano duo of Kenny Barron and native son/artist-in-residence Mulgrew Miller; pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson, or Trio M; the Mambo Legends Orchestra, Tito Puente’s former band; the Robert Hurst Quartet; Defenders of the Groove, octogenarian Ernie Andrews its dapper crooner; the Tierney Sutton Band; and “Brownie Speaks,” a tribute to trumpeter Clifford Brown featuring a group led by Cleveland-based trumpeter Dominick Farinacci and New Orleans pianist Jonathan Batiste.

Schneider’s set was transcendent, particularly “Hang Gliding,” a mini-symphony about abandoning herself to that activity in Brazil; “Tork’s Café,” a memoir of her waitressing days in rural Minnesota showcasing the barbed, bluesy guitar of John Hart; and “El Viento,” a whirlwind tune that had the willowy Schneider smiling broadly as tenor saxophonist Donnie McCaslin blew what would have been the roof off the place. No wonder the Maria Schneider Orchestra played an encore, a “My Ideal” with a Greg Gisbert solo so sweet, it earned the trumpeter a Schneider hug.

Trio M may have been the most experimental act at DJF. Melford, Dresser and Wilson know no bounds on their instruments and don’t give a hang about boundaries; theirs is improvisation so empathetic, they seem of one mind. The super-group played nine tunes over about an hour, starting stormy with “Naïve Art,” Wilson all over the beat, Dresser keeping the pulse steady, Melford chopping chords with the side of her left hand as the fingers of her right hinted at melody. Standouts: the amphetamine mambobilly of “The Guest House” and Melford’s cross-hand bravura on “FreeKonomics.” The sheer physicality of Trio M enthralled the crowd despite the abstract nature of its work. “Who said Detroit doesn’t like the avant-garde?” a man yelled toward the end of the set.

“Brownie Speaks” was anything but academic or stuffy. Dominick Farinacci, like role model Clifford Brown, is an economical, melodic trumpet player. He and the courtly, commanding pianist Jonathan Batiste, backed by bassist Ben Williams, alto saxophonist Dana Stephens and drummer Carmen Intorre, delivered a lovely “Willow Weep for Me,” a zesty take on Tadd Dameron’s “The Scene Is Clean” and a “Joy Spring” that found Batiste clapping to Williams’ funky solo. Batiste one-upped Williams with a wow of a solo on Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford,” alternating pearly lines with burly stride in a short course in jazz history.

Unlike other festivals, the DJF’s last day is no afterthought. I caught Roy Haynes and his Fountain of Youth Band, most of Branford Marsalis’ set, a smidgen of the singular swing of vocalist Kurt Elling along with sax master Ernie Watts, nearly all of Allen Toussaint’s solo performance, and the finale featuring the DJF Orchestra, Gerald Wilson, Dennis Wilson-and the Manhattan Transfer. Talk about star-studded and back-loaded.

At 85, Hayes is a mighty mite who hasn’t lot a whit of the dynamism that established him as a drum force more than 50 years ago. He drove a fine young band: Jaleel Shaw, saxophone; David Wong, bass; and Martin Bejerano, piano. Among the highlights: a quick rundown of Monk’s “Tinkle, Trinkle”; a strikingly modern “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” featuring thunderous Haynes and abstract Bejerano; and an “I Can’t Get Started” sporting Shaw’s kindest, widest sound.

“Are these guys hot or what?” asked the sunglassed Haynes, just returned from a gig in Tel Aviv. Detroit “isn’t like it used to be, but they’re trying to get it back. That’s why they got this serious festival.” People clapped.

“Goddamn, Detroit got serious rhythm,” he said. “You sound good.”

Haynes was a hard act to follow, but Branford Marsalis measured up. I found much of his work powerful but aimless, and several tunes ended stronger than they started. In any case, such compositions as “Teo” and “Return of the Jitney Man” were fine showcases for his band, which had the crowd roaring approval. Marsalis was tempestuous, pianist Joey Calderazzo galvanic, bassist Eric Revis a compelling anchor-and drummer Justin Faulkner was mesmerizing. Everything came together on the last tune, a gnarly burner called “Samo.”

Allen Toussaint reminded us that at one time, American music was so powerfully vernacular it had character. Dressed in a natty, electric-blue suit, he sang beautifully despite his protestations of vocal ineffectuality. His piano was masterful, as might be expected. But all that was icing to the cake: indelible Toussaint songs that helped define rhythm ‘n’ blues in the ’60s. There were standalones, like “City of New Orleans” and the capper, “Southern Nights”; there were medleys, as Toussaint segued from the Ernie K. Doe hit “Mother-in-Law” to “Fortune Teller” to “Get out of My Life, Woman,” the last a smash for everybody from the Grateful Dead to Iron Butterfly. There were wonderful, self-deprecating anecdotes. Toussaint suggested that Hurricane Katrina persuaded him to open up and perform more, creating an autobiography in song where words failed him. That might be one of the only benefits of that horrible event of five years ago.

The festival concluded with a performance by master musician/composer/bandleader Gerald Wilson, just turned 92. That only served to build anticipation for the grand finale, a rousing rendition of “Birdland” featuring Manhattan Transfer in front of the DJF Orchestra, Dennis (no relation) Wilson conducting. Guest blasters on that lilting, stirring tune: trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Ernie Watts.

The 31st Annual Detroit International Jazz Festival will be a hard act to follow. But it set a bar so high, organizers will be spurred to do their best to do just that. I’m counting on it.

Originally Published