The Detroit Jazz Festival – Labor Day Weekend, 2016

by | Sep 7, 2016 | Special Features

Covering all bases, and well! – 37th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival….

Review of Detroit Jazz Festival – Labor Day Weekend, Sept. 2-5, 2016

The Detroit Jazz Festival holds a distinct and venerable place as one of the most treasured jazz festivals in the country. It is the largest free (!) jazz festival in North America. Taking place in downtown Detroit, covering four stages on both sides of  Jefferson Avenue, on Campus Martius and Hart Plaza (bordering the picturesque Detroit River), the festival celebrates the rich tradition of Detroit’s past and present jazz scene. It brings together often neglected regional jazz legends with the best of today’s trend setters.

This is the third festival that I have attended, and I eagerly await each visit with the anticipation of an expected jazz smorgasbord of riches. I am proud to say that I have never been disappointed. This is due to the fact that fact that Detroit knows its jazz. From a rich history producing the Jones Brothers (Hank, Thad, and Elvin), to Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Yusef Lateef, Milt Jackson, Donald Byrd – the list goes on and on – the Motor City stands along side only New York City as a jazz mecca. Chris Collins, a noted musician and educator, is the Artistic Director, and takes particular care to not book the “particular flavor of the year” as so many other festivals do to compete with each other for who is “hot” at the moment. Collins mixes the past with the present, mainstream with cutting edge, small group and big band, and allows an amalgam of styles to mesh in late-night jazz sessions at the Renaissance Ballroom of the Detroit Marriott, the official hotel of the festival. (Such was the case on Sunday night when the Harold Lopez-Nussa brothers from Cuba shared the stage with their Senegalese afro-beat bassist, and special guest, the brilliant drummer from New Orleans, Herlin Riley. It was a United Nations percussion fest that had the jazz session audience worked up in a frenzy).

The festival’s mission goes beyond the presentation of live music. In the Jazz Talk Tent, on a daily basis, in discussions led by educators and noted media, both jazz history and trends are explored in great detail including the opportunity for attendees to interact with jazz legends. This year Randy Weston and Jimmy Heath (both celebrating their 90th birthdays this year) were honored and regaled the crowd with stories about their influences and interactions with Monk, Dizzy, and Coltrane. There were two presentations about the local legend Kenn Cox. Freddie Cole led a talk about Nat and Natalie Cole, and Louis Hayes and Nasheet Waits shared their views on what directions the future of drumming may be headed. The festival also gave space for high school and college jazz talent both in stage and jam session settings.

roncartercEach year the festival has a Resident Artist that is presented throughout the weekend in different settings. This year the artist was the iconic bassist, Ron Carter. At over 2200+ sessions, and counting, Carter is the most recorded bassist in jazz history. Raised in the Detroit area, Carter has been a vital part of every evolution in jazz from the 1960s with the Miles Davis Quintet and Eric Dolphy, throughout the Blue Note years, in classical music where his cello was featured, and more recently in hip hop with A Tribe Called Quest. Ron is also a noted educator with numerous honorary doctorates, and serving as a professor at the Julliard School in New York.

Over the weekend, Carter played in a trio, nonet, and closed the Festival with a big band. The trio featured Renee Rosnes, the nonet was sublime with four cellos, and the 16 piece big band included Steve Wilson and Donald Vega.

Highlights from the festival could fill another full review but these artists and groups stood out to me:

I have waited a long time to be able to catch the vocalist, Lisa Fischer, live. Featured in the Academy Award documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom, Ms. Fischer must be experienced in person to fully appreciate her majestic voice. Spanning several octaves, Fischer’s vocal gymnastics reaches deep down to bring the listener to new heights of emotion. It’s no wonder that Mick Jagger featured her as lead background singer. Jagger dominates the stage and only a vocalist with the range of  Lisa could match the Jagger swagger. On “Breathe of Heaven,” “Bird in a House,” and “Fever,” Ms. Fischer (even with miking problems experienced by her band) had the audience in the palm of her hand in glorious rapture. In my mind, she should be within “a few feet of stardom.”

The Stanley Cowell Quintet’s set on the Pyramid Stage was among the best hours spent in Detroit. With a front line of mercurial tenor saxist, Billy Harper, and fellow Strata East colleague, trumpeter Charles Tolliver, the quintet’s set was well-received by an eager following. Backed by bassist Jay Anderson, and drummer Carl Allen, the group’s post bop lit a fire around the intimate stage. Seeing Charles Tolliver in person had been on my bucket list for some time and he did not disappoint. At 74 years old, he could still  blow with an intensity that would be the envy of many young firebrands. Memorable tracks were “On the Nile,” “The Light Within,” “The Cry of Hunger,” and “Dave’s Chant,” written for jazz educator, David Baker, who passed away earlier this year.

Though I was too far back to fully appreciate the sound mix, I still dug the set by the Roy Hargrove Quintet with the Detroit Jazz Festival String Orchestra. The standards they played were arranged and conducted by Gil Goldstein. The burnished tone of Hargrove’s trumpet blended superbly with the full strings as they soared and floated above Roy’s trumpet lines. Hargrove’s vocals are not his strong suit but he held his own on “Never Let Me Go.”

kirklightseycOne of the festival’s strengths is bringing back local artists who have made their mark in jazz after their early days in the Motor City. On Sunday, pianist, Kirk Lightsey, was reintroduced to the Detroit audience. Recording for the Sunnyside and Criss Cross labels, Kirk has largely resided in Europe for years, but he made his mark as Dexter Gordon’s primary pianist in the early ‘80s. He has also recorded with Chet Baker, Sonny Stitt, and Kenny Burrell. His joy in returning to Detroit was palpable in his stage presence which was matched by an appreciative audience. Backed notably by fellow Detroiters Robert Hurst and the iconic Louis Hayes, the trio shined on dedications to Tony Williams (“Pee Wee”), and Bill Evans (“Goodbye Mr. Evans”), as well as Kirk’s “Heaven Dance.”


Among my most memorable Big Apple experiences was spending a Monday night with the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Beginning in 1965 as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, the big band has made Monday nights “theirs” for fifty consecutive years. Now known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the band made up of the best of New York session men, travels occasionally to share their joy in interpreting largely Thad Jones’ brilliant arrangements. The opening night performance (and a set two weeks later) in 1965, were reissued this year by Resonance Records in a 2 CD set reviewed here.

Listening to the 16 piece orchestra under a clear warm night in Hart Plaza surrounded by large buildings, on Thad’s “Central Park North” was so memorable, as the horns and reeds soared.

Lovers of gospel music would have dug the Motown Legends Gospel Choir. There was some serious testifyin’ on the Waterfront Stage from one to two o’clock on Monday. Their energy and passion was more than evident and I got a chill when they channeled Aretha Franklin’s Fillmore West presentation on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Joan Belgrave’s solos were memorable throughout the choir’s set, as were those of EJ Johnson, who sang with the original Vandellas.

With so much music over four stages at most times, there were some acts that I simply could not get to. I heard much praise for sets by vocalist, Charenee Wade; Herlin Riley’s Quartet; the Scofield, Mehldau, Guiliana trio; and Jason Moran’s Bandwagon.

It is so gratifying to see the city of Detroit’s revitalization as a jazz mecca. The entire city shows up to celebrate the resurgence of downtown and to share its rich musical heritage. In today’s material “buy it now” environment, it is a testament to the Detroit Jazz Festival and its primary corporate sponsors ( I counted over 70!) that they still believe that there is a market for the American-originated multi-faceted music genre, Jazz.

Long live the largest free jazz festival, the Detroit Jazz Festival, held every Labor Day Weekend in the Motor City…

—Review and photos —Jeff Krow

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