“Reunion” was the watchword for the 40th annual Detroit Jazz Festival, which welcomed back five of its former artists-in-residence for the occasion. But one unwelcome reunion threatened the fest’s culminating performance on Labor Day, as storm clouds once again gathered prior to Stanley Clarke’s final set—as they had in both 2014 and 2017, when the bass great’s sets were canceled.
The festival hedged its bets this year, inviting Clarke to be artist-in-residence with three performances over the long weekend, thus all but ensuring that he’d finally be able to play at some point. As it turned out, the rain did fall that Monday but only delayed Clarke’s last set for an hour and a half.
Each of the virtuoso bassist’s three performances explored a different aspect of his artistry. On Friday he took the main stage on Campus Martius for a set billed as “Back to ‘School Days’”—a reference to his classic 1976 album, the familiar title track of which he put through its spirited paces near the beginning of the evening.
The focus here was on Clarke’s fusion past, showing off his electric prowess with a gifted and crowd-pleasing band featuring keyboardists Cameron Graves and Beka Gochiashvili, tabla player Salar Nader, violinist Evan Garr, and drummer Shariq Tucker. The pyrotechnics-fueled repertoire included a slinky funk arrangement of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” as well as an explosive trot through Return to Forever’s “No Mystery” with Clarke proving just as fleet-fingered on acoustic bass, while Graves and Gochiashvili sparred from opposite sides of the stage.
The upright was the star of Clarke’s next set on Sunday, which presented “a night of jazz” including classics by the likes of Monk, Ellington, and Wayne Shorter. The cross-generational band once again included Gochiashvili, along with trumpeter Wallace Roney, 19-year-old saxophonist Emilio Modeste (a regular member of Roney’s band), and drummer Lenny White, one of Clarke’s longest-tenured collaborators. The pair showed off the fruits of that friendship on a duo version of “Take the Coltrane.”
Finally, following the aforementioned rain delay, Clarke closed the festival on Monday night with a tribute to the 1991 John Singleton film Boyz n the Hood, one of the composer’s earliest film scores. The somewhat disjointed hour-long set presented short pieces from Clarke’s soundtrack music played by a 25-piece string orchestra and accompanied by projected scenes from the film, interspersed with brief jazz reinterpretations performed by the bassist along with Roney, Modeste, White, and pianist Bill Meyers. Dee Dee Bridgewater, who had performed the night before with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, guested on one piece.
The event, the first of its kind that Clarke has performed with his film music, felt like a sketch for a more fully realized idea, with a halting pace that allowed neither the orchestra nor the small band to make an impression before moving on. Clarke did offer a tribute to Singleton, who passed away in April, and left the dispersing crowd with the message of “Keep the peace, increase the peace,” in keeping with the movie’s still-relevant anti-violence message.
Although the skies above Detroit spared Clarke this time around, they offered their own challenges to Joe Lovano, who reconvened his nonet for a Saturday night set at Hart Plaza’s Carhartt Amphitheater Stage. Midway through the first tune an enormous fireworks display erupted over the Detroit River behind the audience, the rat-a-tat bursts of color ultimately overwhelming the music on stage. The preternaturally cool Lovano seemed unfazed, engaging drummer Otis Brown III in a sly duel, but the stellar horn line—which included Steve Slagle, Ralph Lalama, Gary Smulyan, Barry Ries, and Ed Neumeister—emerged a bit shaken as they shifted into Tadd Dameron’s ballad “If You Could See Me Now.”
Five of Clarke’s predecessors as artist-in-residence headlined sets throughout the weekend: Pat Metheny, Danilo Pérez, and Ron Carter had two apiece, while Terence Blanchard and Joshua Redman paid homage to their inspirations with a single set each. In addition, the festival’s inaugural AIR from 2007, violinist Regina Carter, returned to play a featured role in composer/pianist Xavier Davis’ tribute to the city, “Rise Up Detroit.”
As part of his residency in 2015, Metheny played an intimate duo set with Carter; the two met again this year on the Amphitheatre Stage, both taking obvious joy from the experience. The set took the bassist’s tenure with Miles Davis as an obvious launching point, including a brisk and ebullient take on “Freddie Freeloader” as well as a playful but harmonically rich exploration of “My Funny Valentine.”
The latter was also a highlight of Carter’s own quartet set a day earlier. Leading a superb band with pianist Renee (or Irene, as the habitually formal Carter referred to her) Rosnes, saxophonist Jimmy Greene, and drummer Payton Crossley, the bassist spun a wealth of variations on the well-worn standard, opening with a soft, introspective solo before Rosnes veered into gutbucket swing that fluidly morphed into an elegant classicism.
With his two sets, Pérez offered pleas for unity in the face of political turmoil (the deep-rooted state of which he evidenced by mistakenly referring to George W. Bush rather than Donald Trump at one impassioned point). Preceding Clarke on opening night, the Panamanian pianist forged a “Global Big Band” from the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra and a series of special guests including Luciana Souza and Miguel Zenón. A duo improvisation with the altoist on “Children of the Light” enticingly cloaked Zenón’s probing lines in a cloud of gossamer piano.
The next day Pérez premiered his new band the Global Messengers, combining the mentorship mission of Art Blakey’s similarly named band with the world-fusion tutelage of his work at the Berklee Global Jazz Institute. The quintet brings together musicians from Iraq, Greece, Palestine, and the U.S. for hybrid tunes, though the meld was let down somewhat by the mix issues that plagued the Amphitheatre Stage throughout the weekend.
Blanchard was a member of Blakey’s original Messengers near the outset of his career, and reflected on those years at the festival alongside fellow ex-Blakeyites Benny Green and Billy Pierce. Along with a cohort of torch-carrying younger players, the band looked simultaneously back and forward, the latter through the lens of Blanchard’s eclectic E-Collective, adding a postmodern edge to Wayne Shorter’s “On the Ginza” and Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere”—a more traditional rendition of which made up part of Sheila Jordan’s eccentrically charming set across the Plaza on the Pyramid Stage.
The final ex-AIR, saxophonist Joshua Redman, convened the quartet Still Dreaming for one of the weekend’s most striking sets. The quartet, an homage to his father Dewey’s tenure with Old and New Dreams, also features Ron Miles and Scott Colley along with, on this occasion, Dave King stepping in for Brian Blade. Their music, faintly echoing that of the earlier band, sounds like four distinctly individual voices dancing nimbly around one another; each in its own discrete corner, skewed at its own unique angle, but joining together in some stunningly abstract geometry.
Other highlights of the weekend included Cameron Graves’ own quartet, a powerhouse conglomeration of technically dizzying prog-metal riffery and jaw-dropping flights of virtuosity, propelled by Mike Mitchell’s flailing rhythmic attack. Luciana Souza’s set on the same stage took the opposite approach, rendering pieces from her Book of Longing album in eloquent whispers alongside Colley and guitarist Chico Pinheiro. The diversity of these and other performances was a testament to the wide-ranging programming offered by the Motor City over the last four decades.