Every major metropolitan jazz festival needs a supporting “angel” in these trying economic times to remain viable. In Detroit, the owner of Mack Avenue Records, and family member of the Carhartt clothing line, Gretchen Valade, is that jazz angel, whose wings and foundation have permitted Detroit to continue its reign as one of the country’s premiere (and FREE!) jazz festivals.
From opening night to its Labor Day evenings closing chords, the Detroit Jazz Festival is first class, both in the myriad of acts presented as well as how they treat artists and fans alike. With four major stages running simultaneously, and the prepared Festival volunteers and staff there to cover any contingency, the 2010 Festival, over four days, ran with few mishaps even when the weather turned uncooperative and the winds kicked up.
Detroit’s jazz legacy to the world is unquestionable producing the Jones brothers (Thad, Elvin, and Hank), Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, and Pepper Adams, to name just a few. Now in its 31st year, The Detroit International Jazz Festival, is set primarily in scenic Hart Plaza on the Detroit River, which is a long tee shot directly across from Windsor, Ontario. Crossing the intersection of Jefferson and Woodward Avenues, a three block walk up Woodward brings you to the Chase Stage downtown at Campus Martius, where several local and national pop, Latin, and blues acts were staged. I counted well over 60 performances over the holiday weekend – not including jazz conversations and a small stage set up for jazz education and high school performers.
Friday night was reserved for the Chase Stage where the vocal group, Take Six, was backed by the Festival’s Artist in Residence, pianist Mulgrew Miller. A little grease to lubricate opening night was provided by Oakland’s Tower of Power, who are well into their fourth decade of “funkifizing.” Though many of their original members have departed, the soul group still has founding member, saxophonist Emilio Castillo on board and the horns bottom end is still anchored by the inimitable Doc Kupka on bari sax. Current vocalist, Larry Braggs ranks right up there in soulful expression with the best Tower singers of the 70s and 80s.
On Saturday the festival kicked into high gear with all the stages occupied. The afternoon’s highlight was a discussion with Detroit’s own piano legend, Barry Harris, sharing the microphone with baritone sax star Gary Smulyan, as they honored and extolled the talents of the late Pepper Adams, whose distinctive lower register bari sax tone was in sharp contrast to that of Gerry Mulligan. Mulligan got much more press and acclaim than did Adams, though to true fans of the baritone sax, Pepper never received his due as he was noted more as a sideman than a group leader. He certainly was a major component of the famed Mel Lewis/ Thad Jones Big Band, and both Harris and Smulyan consider Pepper a primary force and an elite stylist on the big sax.
An early evening set, “Hot Pepper”, was Detroit’s tribute to its native son. Smulyan and Harris shared the stage with bassist David Wong, and drummer Rodney Green. I found Barry Harris to be a perfect accompanist for Smulyan’s horn, and Gary comes the closest today in tone to Adams’ slashing assertive playing. Harris, like the recently deceased piano legend, fellow Detroiter Hank Jones, is a firm believer in using space and an astute of minimalism to set a mood that keeps the listener eagerly awaiting his next piano phrase. I have fond memories of the Hot Pepper quartet embracing the blues of Hank Jones’ “That’s Freedom”, and brother Thad’s “Quiet Lady”, with Harris caressing each note. Smulyan was fully revved and tore up “My Shining Hour.” It was announced that four CDs of Pepper Adams’ compositions, newly arranged and recorded, will be released around Sept 15th and available through CD Baby. Pepper fans, take note…
Saturday evening was chock full of treats and kept me hopping between stages to see five different sets, all by headline quality groups. The underrated multi-reed player, Salim Washington, shared the intimate Mack Avenue stage with the Mingus Band firebrand, trombonist KuUmba Frank Lacy. Several members of Washington’s group were resplendent in African garb and Brazilian, African, and spiritual musical themes were explored. “Aquarius Rising” was especially memorable.
Following a quick dinner break near the stage where multi-Grammy award winner, Danilo Perez was featured, it was on to a full evening of jazz royalty. Terrence Blanchard’s quintet has been kept largely intact for quite awhile and tenor saxist, Bruce Winston, and young Cuban pianist, Fabian Almazan, continue to impress. Blanchard is a great incubator of talent with 18-year-old Juilliard student, bassist Joshua Crumbly, getting the current chance to soak up Blanchard’s knowledge.
Blanchard revisited his moving soundtrack to Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke”, as well as his current spoken word project with Dr. Cornell West, where jazz is blended with West’s wise words on what makes us truly human – giving back to society and loving your fellow man.
My visit with the Pat Bianchi Trio was brief and barely sufficient to appreciate Pat’s Hammond B-3 prowess. Saturday night was concluded with hopping between Mike LeDonne’s dream quartet of Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein, and Joe Farnsworth; and the reformed Mulgrew Miller all-star Wingspan sextet. Though the weather was brisk and the winds howling, LeDonne’s group cooked and kept the crowd toasty with a soul jazz set. Memorable were “Rock With You”, from his latest CD, The Groover, and a four-stick drum solo by Joe Farnsworth on “Scratchin’”.
Mulgrew Miller, Detroit’s Artist in Residence, was everywhere throughout the weekend, but nowhere more welcome than with his reformed group, Wingspan. Its front line members – Steve Nelson, Steve Wilson, Duane Eubanks – all have many CDs as leaders of their own groups. This group could headline at most any jazz festival, yet in Detroit their presence was simply indicative of a jammed pack roster of superstars. “Waltz for Monk”, and “Farewell to Dogma”, with its gospel intro, were just a few of the gifts Wingspan gave to an appreciative audience.
Sunday was another smorgasbord of aural delights. Ninety minutes spent with the Maria Schneider Orchestra was sheer bliss. With multiple Grammy nominations this big band plays ethereal majestic arrangements that both swing and inspire. Before their performance, Maria was presented with the Trifecta awards of Downbeat Critics choice as Best Arranger, Composer, and Big Band. Highlights of their set are too numerous to outline but I can share that superb solos were provided by Gary Versace (accordion); John Hart (guitar); Donny McCaslin (reeds); Steve Wilson (soprano sax); and Greg Gisbert (trumpet).
It was a treat to watch Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller in a Downbeat Blindfold test matching wits and piano knowledge with moderator, Dan Ouellette. I’d say they batted .500 with their educated ears. Funny though, that audience members identified a few pianists that had stumped the stars.
The highlight of Sunday evenings concerts was definitely the set of the Defenders of the Groove, made up of a dream team of octogenarian vocalist Ernie Andrews, backed by a front line of trumpeter Dr. Eddie Henderson; trombonist Steve Turre; and altoist Bobby Watson. The rhythm section consisted of B-3 organist Luke O’Reilly, the great guitarist Melvin Sparks, and legendary drummer Louis Hayes. Andrews is a real charmer and his pipes are still silky and strong. “Detroit Blues”, a head arrangement by Steve Turre gave the soloists room to stretch out. Andrews’ vocal on Ellington’s “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” brought down the house. The festival’s theme of “Celebrating the Flame Keepers” was truly brought to fruition by this soulful aggregation.
A late night set honoring Clifford Brown closed out the evening on an exciting note as the young talents of trumpeter Dominick Farinacci and New Orleans pianist Jonathan Batiste, were on full display
The closing day of the festival, Labor Day, was exceptional due to the sets of Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Band; Branford Marsalis Quartet; a tribute to Horace Silver by the Michael Weiss Quintet featuring Michael Brecker and Wayne Escoffery; the reformed Horizon quintet of Bobby Watson; and lastly, the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra conducted by the one and only Gerald Wilson with vocal assistance by Manhattan Transfer.
The ageless Roy Haynes, though jet-lagged by return flights from Tel Aviv and Paris, showed he still is a monster on the drums at age 85. His resume is remarkable, with stints with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bud Powell, Sarah Vaughan, and Monk. Now in his seventh decade drumming, he looks no older than 50. He led a quartet whose members were young enough to be his grown grandsons, yet his energy matched or exceeded those lucky enough to be in the master’s presence. Props must be given to saxophonist, Jaleel Shaw, who belted out solo after solo trying to keep up with Roy.
Branford Marsalis’ quartet was exemplary as usual and Michael Weiss’ quintet did justice to the book of Horace Silver compositions with its mix of the Caribbean and the inner city. Bobby Watson and Horizon (Terrell Stafford, Edward Simon, Essiet Essiet, and Victor Lewis) gave a definitive soul-stirring hard bop set that kept the crowd entranced.
Gerald Wilson turned 92 on Sept 4th and it is no exaggeration that leading a hard charging big band is the best elixir for old age. Any opportunity to see Gerald should not be passed up. I’ll never tire of hearing Gerald lead a big band on “Viva Tirado.”
The festival line-up this year was so extensive that I never had the chance to hear Allen Toussaint; a tribute to Ray Brown with Christian McBride; and Kirk Whalum’s tribute to Donny Hathaway featuring Donny’s daughter, Lalah. All of these would be “must-sees” at any other jazz festival.
I’d be remiss not to laud the leadership of Terri Pontremoli, the festival’s Executive and Artistic Director. Bravo Terri, for giving me the opportunity to experience the BEST organized and talent rich jazz festival that I have ever attended. Both Terri and festival angel Gretchen Valade have given Detroit – and the entire U.S. jazz community – a gift to emulate and treasure!
— Review and photos by Jeff Krow