35th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival, Aug. 29 – Sept 1, 2014

I last attended the Detroit Jazz Festival four years ago (and raved about the ambiance and quality of artists presented).  It was about time to return to Motown this year to check out the vibe, and whether to validate my previous impressions of the festival.

I am pleased to share that I feel even more strongly that the Detroit Jazz Festival is the finest festival that I have ever attended bar none. After attending portions (or the entirety) of 16 concerts, two Jazz Talks, and one incredible late night jam session at the festival’s sponsoring hotel, I am both elated- and a bit fatigued- but proud to share that jazz is more than alive and well in Detroit.

Detroit has a long jazz history that has produced legendary artists such as the Jones brothers (Thad, Elvin, and Hank), Barry Harris, Pepper Adams, Donald Byrd, Milt Jackson, and many others. The legacy continues today with Regina Carter, Marcus Belgrave, and natives and newcomers from the Mack Avenue Records roster.

I have so much to share from my immersion in this year’s festival – but with limited space I will reminisce about some of the most special highlights over the three and a half days of the DJF:

Catching the Phil Woods Quintet on the JP Morgan Main Stage on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 30, was a bittersweet experience. Phil is clearly suffering from serious emphysema, as he was playing his alto sax with the aid of full time oxygen. He joked that “it was nature’s way of telling you that you’re playing too many notes.” Nevertheless, Woods soldiered on, aided by his rhythm section of 37 years, bassist Steve Gilmore, and drummer Bill Goodwin. Rounding out the quintet was long time mate, Brian Lynch on trumpet, and the inimitable pianist Bill Mays, who has “only” steadily been with Phil for the last five to six years.

After opening with “Bohemia After Dark” and “An Affair to Remember,” the quintet made the chestnut, “Willow Weep for Me” their own by constructing (and deconstructing) the well-known chord changes. Mid-song, they threw in a Miles Davis type chorus. Phil then tore into some bop lines and Bill Mays improvised for multiple choruses before we were treated to a marvelous bass solo by Gilmore. The quintet’s longevity and strengths were encapsulated on this one song.

Racing over to the Carhartt Amphitheater stage, I was able to catch a good portion of the Mack Avenue Records Super Band’s live recording. Their performance from last year’s Fest was recently released on CD and is highly recommended. Stand out contributions from this year’s group were provided by Warren Wolf on vibes, Kirk Whalum on tenor and flute, Tia Fuller on alto sax, and de facto band leader, Rodney Whitaker, on bass.

Sanders4x6What makes the Detroit Festival extra special every year is the opportunity to honor and bask in the presence of living jazz legends. Hearing Phil Woods, and then a mere few hours later being ten rows away from Pharoah Sanders is jazz heaven. If “the creator has a master plan” it must include the magisterial Mr. Sanders. Though Pharoah moves a bit slower these days, he is still like a proud elderly lion ready to pounce. Backed by the magnificent creative pianist, William Henderson, and the younger masters in waiting, Nat Reeves on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums, Sanders had the audience entranced. Going from tender to bellowing, the tenor giant found time to literally “shake his booty” to the crowd’s delight. Young at heart and wise in spirit….

The DJF takes tributes to its favorite sons seriously, even honoring its more obscure native musicians. The festival’s Artistic Director, Chris Collins (also an able saxophonist) led a group of Detroit based musicians in honoring altoist Sonny Red. Memorable was an expanded Sonny Red chart, which I believe was titled “Nikki.” A special treat was the addition of veteran trombonist, George Bohannon (another native Detroiter) on several tunes.

Though he plays virtually the same sets lately (and tells the same stories), it’s always a gas to catch octogenarian Lou Donaldson. He had an organ quartet in Detroit with Pat Bianchi on the Hammond B-3, and Randy Johnston shining on electric guitar. I never get tired of hearing Lou play “Blues Walk” and “Alligator Boogaloo.” Lou is like your favorite uncle testifying about playing “no fusion, no confusion, no Kenny G, no Najee, no Snoop Dog, and no 50 Cent (ain’t worth a quarter)”…

Payton-5.5wSaturday night was ended blissfully soaking in Nicholas Payton leading the Detroit Festival Jazz Orchestra playing tracks from Miles Davis’ classic LP, Sketches of Spain. Payton ably one-handed both trumpet and organ during the set.

Walking back to the festival’s sponsoring hotel, the Renaissance Marriott, the remaining attendees were treated to a fireworks display that capped a wonderful full day.

My Sunday was spent scampering between four different stages, and ending with a late evening jam session that brought out the most goose bumps of the whole holiday evening. Beginning with prolific pianist Orrin Evans’ quintet premiering his latest CD release, Liberation Blues, (reviewed here)   We were off to a roaring start. Backing Orrin were JD Allen, Sean Jones (more on Sean later), Vincent Archer, and the fiery Bill Stewart on drums. Evans’ arrangements ranged from avant to elegiac. The last few years have been dynamic for Orrin both as a first call pianist, and as a small group and big band leader. He is a force to be reckoned with.

I made a brief appearance at the Elio Villafranca Quintet set to check out the Cuban pianist and his guest saxophonist, Eric Alexander. I never pass on the chance to hear Eric blow as he can caress a ballad, and then blow like a madman on a hot number with cascading fluid tenor runs. Especially compelling was Elio’s “Sunday Stomp at Congo Square,” which deals with the African slave period in the South. Elio Villafranca is a name to remember…

Rodney Whitaker and Soul R Energy put on a rousing set highlighted by the hot drumming of Clarence Penn, and the addition of Tim Warfield on sax. Two songs that stood out were “The World Falls Away” and “When You Play with Roy” (Hargrove) from his latest Mack Avenue release, When We Find Ourselves Alone. 

A must-attend concert was that of Tom Harrell’s Colors of a Dream band. Including stars Jaleel Shaw, Wayne Escoffery, and Esperanza Spalding, Harrell’s band checks their ego at the door when given an opportunity to play Tom’s extensive songbook. Harrell is prolific and certainly one of the top hard bop trumpeters over the last three decades.

Carter3.5wI had to make a briefer stop at Tom’s venue so I could run over to hear Regina Carter’s Southern Comfort set. Carter loves to take on projects and her latest endeavor involved a trip to the South to research the music of her father’s roots. Her group includes an accordionist, and it is tough to put a genre classification on the music found on the Southern Comfort CD. It includes spirituals, old school country, with folk, and jazz. Carter blended Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin” with Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind” and the traditional “Miner’s Child.” One wonders where the inquisitive Carter will go next.

JoeyDeFrancesco3.5HSunday night’s jam session at the Marriott was maybe the highlight of the weekend for me. It featured the bands of Joey DeFrancesco, Sean Jones, and Brian Lynch. I was able to get an early table so as to be just a few feet from the musicians. Joey, as usual, displayed his high energy Hammond prowess and trumpet skills getting the audience hot and bothered. He had to play ringleader with all the local musicians who wanted to join in on a tune or two. Most fascinating were some Detroit youngsters who were unflappable when called up. These kids were well on their way to college scholarships and with continued “wood shedding” will make their mark. Especially exciting were a very young boy on drums, and a girl (his sister?) who was half the size of her full size acoustic bass. Both were knockout performers who displayed real skill and showed no signs of nervousness.

SeanJonse3.5HPerhaps the break-out performer of the whole festival for me was Sean Jones, whose trumpet skills were astonishing. The man has blistering power, awesome chops, and can hit high notes that can peel paint. Jones was active throughout the festival playing on several sets as a guest as well. I have not been this excited about a younger trumpeter as much as Sean since Jeremy Pelt. Born in 1978, Jones has over ten CDs as a leader, and I am looking forward to reviewing his latest issue, Im pro vise soon.

Monday was another full day of great jazz. Starting out with a Downbeat Blind Fold Test with Ron Carter, there were several more concerts to attend to wrap up the weekend. Ron Carter was erudite as always trying to solve the identity of a recorded bass soloist, he probably batted .500 in correctly guessing the identity of the mystery bassist. He was stumped a few times and gracefully accepted his lumps. I felt proud to at least identify Charlie Haden playing with Hank Jones on a track from Steal Away.

Right after the Blind Fold Test, it was a honor to watch Jimmy Wilkins conducting the music of his brother, Ernie, the great arranger for Basie and Gillespie. With guest Detroit artists, Barry Harris, Regina Carter, and Tim Ries, accompanying the Detroit Festival orchestra, it was thrilling to hear “Sixteen Men Swinging,” “Birk’s Works” and “Bag’s Groove.”

Redman3.5WLater Monday a major concert was led by Joshua Redman, the Artist in Residence for this years festival. Jazz Speaks for Life honored the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act. The Wayne State Big Band and the Motown Legends Gospel Choir had pivotal contributions.

Redman’s group did new arrangements of “We Shall Overcome,” Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite,” Coltrane’s “Alabama,” while Sean Jones raised the roof with Joe Henderson’s “Power to the People.” Joan Belgrave gave a poetry reading of the somber “Strange Fruit.” The emotional set ended with an upbeat and swinging “This Little Light of Mine” with the Motown Choir leading the way, and Marcus Belgrave soloing on trumpet. I was glad that I had the opportunity to be there for this festival highlight.

The only wrinkle for the entire weekend was when the closing set by the Lonnie Smith Octet was stopped after only one song due to a thunder storm that was rapidly approaching. It would have been cool to catch the good doctor with a bigger band setting than his normal trio or quartet formation.

(Well that just leaves next year to come back and start all over again…)

If you are a true lover of jazz you simply must attend the Detroit Jazz Festival at least once. It is a first-class production with top notch, mostly mainstream, talent from beginning to end. Just to give you an idea of what I missed out on due to the embarrassment of riches presented, the artists I could not catch included John and Bucky Pizzarelli, Randy Weston, Cyrus Chestnut, Dave Holland’s Prism, Wallace Roney, Gary Burton, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Diane Schuur, Christian McBride, and Freda Payne. Those artists alone would make any promoter proud to headline a full separate festival.

Long live the Detroit Jazz Festival…. It’s jazz done right. Though you can pay for VIP seating, the festival is free, and the environment is as soulful as its attendees. It could be the beginning of an annual sojourn to Motown that you will eagerly await each summer. Come and enjoy…

—Review by Jeff Krow
—Photos provided by the Detroit Jazz Festival

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