The 33rd annual Detroit International Jazz Festival was long on big names, U.S.-oriented but still diverse, and, as usual, way too stuffed with talent to cover as a whole. Trying to get from an act performing at Campus Martius off Cadillac Square to one playing Hart Plaza by the Detroit River was a major challenge, particularly when both were on at the same time.
That’s a pleasant problem to have, the kind that typifies an embarrassment of riches like this, billed as the largest free jazz festival in the world. The place was thronged from the start on Friday, Aug. 31, when artist-in-residence Terence Blanchard and his quintet played the JP Morgan Main Stage, followed shortly by Sonny Rollins. The crowds held through the end on Labor Day, nearly 80 acts later. The weather was warm but cooperative.
At 81, Rollins remains commanding. Though his walk was halt and his back bent, he swung mightily, blowing chorus after chorus to renovate his classic “St. Thomas,” buzzing through the ultramodern and aggressive “Patanjali,” reviving calypso in “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” and ending with “Isn’t She Lovely?,” his homage to Detroit soul man Stevie Wonder. There were moments he fell short of ideas, but he never lacked energy. Sparked by the familiar warmth of trombonist Clifton Anderson, long-time associate Bob Cranshaw on bass, and the efficient guitar of newcomer Saul Rubin, Rollins was a perfect gateway to the long weekend.
The festival, largely underwritten by Chrysler and the local and prolific Mack Avenue label, also featured panel discussions on the history of jazz in Detroit, Gerald Wilson and Don Byas. Marcus Belgrave, a storied bebop trumpeter who worked for Ray Charles before settling in the Motor City, traded anecdotes with former Mingus saxophonist Charles McPherson, Curtis Fuller of the Jazz Messengers chiming in.
The panels seemed designed to integrate the weekend’s jazz performances with the city’s more popular heritage, exemplified by Motown, which the panelists suggested generated a lot of paying work just when jazz was beginning to lose its commercial clout.
“It was something about Detroit that was different,” opined McPherson, a Joplin, Mo., native who moved to Detroit as a young man.
“It was a dancing city.” It was also, shall we say, stimulating: if you lost a cutting contest, “you got parts taken away.”
While such sessions looked back, the music looked forward even when the program was nostalgic. Saxophonist Steve Wilson’s recasting of Charlie Parker’s work with strings updated some of Bird’s repertoire (including a freshly tangy “April in Paris”), but happily went farther afield. Sparked by the quickening piano of Renee Rosnes, the earthy violin of Diane Monroe and the surprising arrangements of bandleader David O’Rourke, Wilson turned in an unpredictable set, capped by the premiere of O’Rourke’s “Journey to Wilsonia,” a suite of three parts: “A joyful synergy,” “Tiptoe Through the Two Hips” (a blues) and “Dance of the Aquarians” (Wilson and O’Rourke were both born in February). “Journey to Wilsonia” should be recorded. It’s a witty, captivating piece.
The evening of Sept. 1, McPherson and the remarkable flugelhornist Tom Harrell fronted a fine quintet. McPherson delivered biting saxophone, Harrell-a paranoid schizophrenic who collapsed into himself when not “on”-strikingly lyrical and warm horn. With Jeb Patton’s piano as filigree, the group shone on McPherson’s aggressive “The Journey,” relaxing into Harrell’s sultry “Nightfall.” Trouble was, it was time to get over to The Trio on the other end of this pop-up jazz town.
The Trio-B3 kingpin Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Billy Stewart-rocked old-school funk on Goldings’ deep-grooved “Pegasus,” plumbed blues depths on Percy Mayfield’s “The Danger Zone” and went pyrotechnic and Latinate on “The Acrobat,” an old Goldings tune that flirts with the waltz form. The Trio swung hard and effortlessly, corralling enthusiasts in Hart Plaza’s Absopure pyramid stage.
While the smaller gigs drew their share, the big numbers went to the big names: Wynton Marsalis performed late that afternoon, and Chick Corea, with Gary Burton and the Harlem String Quartet, ended the evening.
The marquee draws Sept. 2 were the Pat Metheny Unity Band featuring saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Anthony Williams. The evening ended with the Wayne Shorter Quartet featuring pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. But other, smaller acts also struck musical gold. Among them: the David Binney Quartet featuring saxophonist Binney and his younger, equally dynamic cohorts: Jacob Sacks, piano; bassist Elvind Opsvik and drummer Dan Weiss.
The Binney group was fierce, relentless and intellectual. Tunes like “Gesturecalm,” the tricky “London” and the wonderfully chiaroscuro “Simple Vibe” (Sacks was unexpectedly eloquent and warm here) generated a lot of dynamic tension, released joyously when saxophonist Potter, an old friend of Binney’s, joined in on “Bastion of Sanity,” the most visceral tune of the set.
The Metheny set was grand, if uneven. It was replete with electronics, exotica like Metheny’s 42-string Pikasso guitar, and a dazzling array of textures. Metheny’s first appearance at this festival was long overdue, and he was clearly happy to be there. “Roofdogs” was so strong, the crowd felt ready to follow Metheny into battle. Same held for the encore, the 1982 tune “Are You Going With Me?,” Potter soaring on flute as Metheny peeled off an amazing, stratospheric solo. The eight-song set swung between the impressive and the transcendent.
The Joe Lovano-Dave Douglas Quintet, Sound Prints, seemed relatively sedate following Metheny, but it sparkled nevertheless. The set, also featuring Linda Oh on bass, the pushy and persuasive drums of Joey Baron, and the pearly piano of Lawrence Fields, was all originals, all provocative and sharp, all unrecorded. Douglas’ bright, questing trumpet dovetailed perfectly with Lovano’s more expansive saxophone, and the two always seemed to have fun. The standouts were Lovano’s “Soundprints,” Douglas’ pretty “Libra,” and “Newark Flash,” Lovano’s homage to Wayne Shorter.
The evening ended with a packed house for the Shorter group, which delivered just over an hour of energetic, largely formless jazz. Driven by the helplessly overdramatic drums of Brian Blade, the group spent the first half-hour exploring sonorities, and then settled into relatively discrete song craft. Titles touched upon included “Starry Night,” “Plaza Real” and “Joy Ryder.” Everyone played beautifully, Shorter not enough. All that virtuosity was so relentless, it seemed to cage Shorter. Or, perhaps, relieve him.
Labor Day was relatively low-key. The Kenny Garrett Quintet packed one of the larger Hart Plaza houses, the Carhartt Amphitheatre stage. At the same time, the Donny McCaslin Group worked the Absopure pyramid stage, following hard upon the Donald Harrison Quintet at the other end of the venue.
Harrison and his nephew, the versatile trumpeter Christian Scott, pleased the crowd with tunes like “Free To Be” (Harrison explained it featured James Brown-style bass and Art Blakey-style beat), an engaging update of Louis Armstrong’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and a New Orleans treatment of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” The playing was expert and assured, but not innovative. The one time Harrison showed how far out he can go was on “The Sand Castle Head Hunter,” a relatively recent, and unexpectedly fiery, original. Otherwise, Harrison seemed stuck in tropes, able but all too eager to please.
McCaslin’s set was something else. Based on Casting for Gravity, the album he released that day, it showcased this tenor sax man’s commitment and unusually visceral style. McCaslin blows unforgettably hard, hitching his passion to questing improvisations until inspiration runs out-which it rarely does. Like Binney’s group, McCaslin’s features instrumental hotshots equally comfortable with jazz and hard rock: Jason Lindner on electric and acoustic pianos and synthesizers, Tim Lefebvre on electric bass and the livewire drummer, Mark Guiliano. McCaslin-and to a lesser extent, Binney, who produced McCaslin’s new album-are crafting a new, welcome kind of fusion.