Ron Carter, Detroit’s own & “Artist In Residence” at this years DJF with Russ Davis
The 37th edition of the event that’s been called “The World’s Biggest Free Jazz Festival” took place this year from Friday September 2nd through Monday, Labor Day, September 5th in Detroit. After the hard-working people of the Motor City finished the work week they, along with tens of thousands of their fellow jazz lovers from around the world, gathered on Friday evening for three grand performances on the Chase Main Stage in the inviting setting of the Campus Martius in the city center surround by the beautiful old buildings of downtown Detroit. The celebration began with a performance by this year’s “Artist In Residence,” Ron Carter, NEA Jazz Master, legendary bassist and Detroit native, who perform with his nonet for the first of four performances over the run of the festival. Following that, the fine and funky aggregation from New Orleans, The Soul Rebels, gave the crowd a brief taste of what they’d be offering in a full performance on the following day. It was the perfect warm up for the final show of the first day by legendary guitarist and vocalist and one of the most popular artists in jazz history, George Benson. I think I may have finally figured out Mr. Benson’s secret to success after all these years…”If you keep the ladies happy, smiling, dancing and singing along the rest of the audience will follow!” The 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival was off and running!
The Chase Main Stage was the site of the festival’s beginning and the daily lineup there would probably be enough to thrill the organizer of most any jazz festival in the world but, to get the complete picture, one must take the time to cross Jefferson Street and enter Hart Plaza where three more stages are filled with the stars of jazz for the Labor Day Weekend. One of my favorite places ever to see a show is the sunken concrete amphitheatre called the Pyramid Stage. Next to the Detroit River and down some steep steps lies a stage that puts the artist and the audience literally face to face in an intimate setting. Then there’s the beautiful setting of the Water Front Stage that faces the magnificent scene of the Detroit River with Windsor, Ontario on the other side. The fans take seats in the shade of the cluster of riverside trees that sway beautifully in the breeze. Lastly there’s the massive Carhartt Amphitheater Stage with a space for the crowd to bathe in the sunshine and take in the music from the largest stage at the festival, which is a perfect setting for the larger presentations like big bands and jazz orchestras. This stage was the site for the first show I’d take in on Saturday, the second day of DJF 2016.
A feature of jazz at this point in the history of the music, and a definite emphasis in the lineup of this year’s Detroit Jazz Festival, is the infusion of “World Music” into the mix. I heard this in a number of projects presented at the festival this year including another legend that performed on the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage, pianist Randy Weston, whose connection to Africa is as legendary as he is as a pianist, composer, bandleader and musical visionary. After spending an hour in conversation with Mr. Weston and his fellow nonagenarian Jimmy Heath as moderator of an interview with these two masters under the DJF “Jazz Talk Tent” I’d learned much from the mouths of these deep and delightful gentlemen and was ready to hear what they had to say from the stage. Mr. Heath would join Randy Weston as a guest during the set with Mr. Weston’s African Rhythms Band and the Wayne State University Big Band. The sound was certainly traditional and in the big band vein but with some African spice as part of the mix.
Saturday continued for me as I took in more performances with a “World Jazz” flavor. The great Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza and an all-star, international band with players from various continents including Benin’s Lionel Loueke and Swiss harmonica star Gregoire Maret thrilled the crowd with music from her latest work Speaking In Tongues. Cuba was well represented with the work of two brilliant pianists, Omar Sosa and Alfredo Rodriguez while Japanese trio Trisonique featuring pianist Hakuei Kim played in the first of two appearances at the festival. More jazz greats doing extra duty were featured on the Saturday lineup as “Artist In Residence” Ron Carter played the second of four shows, this time with his quartet. New Orleans funk sensations The Soul Rebels played their second show on the Main Stage while trumpet master Roy Hargrove filled the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage with his first of two festival shows, this time with his quintet joined by a string section. Chris Potter and Robert Hurst played twice on Saturday with shows earlier in the day topped off with jam sessions into the early morning at the Detroit Marriott. Saturday was certainly a sensational all day affair!
See Cyrille Aimee in concert and you’ll fall in love!
If there is a not-so-good side to the Detroit Jazz Festival experience it is the fact that as close as the four stages are to one another you still can’t be in all the places you want to be at the same time. Plus, for me, the festival is a work/play situation as I strive to get the comments of the artists acting as a “sideline reporter” so that a listener to my radio programs can get the feeling of being right there with the artists and understanding what they are experiencing. Before her performance on the Chase Main Stage I caught up with the newest vocal sensation in jazz, French-born and now Brooklyn-based singer Cyrille Aimee who wins the award for the most charming and talented singer to come along in some time. I had a chance to see her perform at this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival and we were not able to connect for a scheduled interview because of her tight schedule. We made time in Detroit and I look forward to sharing her unique story along with her music with the audience around the world. She has a French father and mother from the Dominican Republic. She was born in the part of France from which Django Rheinhardt hails and hung out with the gypsy musicians, soaking up that influence. As a young girl she was given a collection of Ella Fitzgerald music and now scats in the most unique way you will have ever heard with a classic yet modern sensibility that is uniquely hers as well. See her live and prepare to fall in love!
Ms. Aimee’s performance was just one on Sunday by a wonderful group of jazz greats including her fellow “rising star” vocalist Charenee Wade and the legendary Freddie Cole who charmed the crowd with his salute to his family members, brother Nat and niece Natalie Cole. Ron Carter’s trio, featuring the great guitarist Russell Malone who gave us some choice and spirited comments off stage, was another treat on the Sunday lineup. I was able to catch a bit of the “world jazz” offerings of harmonica master Gregoire Maret, right after taking in the set that may have been my favorite of the entire festival. Though trumpeter Roy Hargrove has been around for quite awhile I still get the feeling that he’s under-rated. You could not prove my statement by judging the response to his second performance of the festival, this time featuring the hard driving, all out funk and groove of his RH Factor band. Roy and company had the crowd howling and dancing through the entire set and me hoping for a new RH Factor recording in the future. It was a fitting way to bring down the curtain on the Sunday lineup in Detroit.
Roy Hargove & RH Factor!
Labor Day in Detroit turned out to be quite a work day for me as the festival asked me to be the emcee for the entire day at the Chase Main Stage in the middle of the beautiful buildings of downtown Detroit. Though I would have to miss Freddie Cole’s appearance in the Jazz Talk Tent and performances by Jason Moran & Bandwagon, Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project, Cuban piano sensation Harold Lopez-Nussa and others you won’t get any complaints from me. The lineup I was asked to introduce produced some of the best performances of the entire festival! First on stage was a meeting of two worlds as a collection of Detroit’s all-star players led by Chris Collins, the president and artistic director of the festival who also blows a mean saxophone, collaborated with the Japanese trio Trisonique. It was a spirited cultural exchange featuring energetic renditions of jazz classics to the delight of the crowd.
The next show was a special treat as the brilliant Italian-born singer with the flawless voice and irresistible charm, Roberta Gambarini, collaborated with the legendary saxophonist Jimmy Heath in what was billed as a celebration of his 90th birthday. Mr. Heath was reluctant to join in the “birthday celebration” part of the activities as he slyly reminded everyone that he was still 89 and would be until October 25th. The performance was a celebration itself with the musical compatibility and friendship between the two principal artists more than obvious. The last set of the day was one that I had looked forward to since the moment I first read the lineup. It featured guitar master John Scofield, keyboard wiz Brad Mehldau and one of the most versatile percussionists in jazz today, Mark Guiliana in a trio that could go in many different directions.
Scofield, Mehldau & Guilana!
I’d seen the versatile Mr. Scofield just weeks before in a quartet with his old friend and Berklee classmate Joe Lovano with a mostly swinging set. Of course he’s been known to groove hard in Detroit with his Uberjam band and various other aggregations, plus his new release, Country For Old Men, is a collection of country and folk classics. Brad Mehldau has done everything from solo piano and all-acoustic trio work to techno-jazz electronic projects, some of which he’s created with Mark Guiliana, who’s gone about the business of re-defining what percussion can be for jazz in its second century. Honestly I expected something very electric, chunky and funky and instead got mostly dreamy grooves of a decidedly spacial nature that majored on sound and mood as opposed to electricity and force. This was a most inventive and surprising set that leads me to hope that this trio will venture into the studio sometime in the future to put down some of this one-of-a-kind modern jazz!
The 37th Detroit Jazz Festival was a completely enjoyable four days, as always, marked by a collection of fantastic performances, many with a decidedly Detroit-centric theme. The festival setting is beautiful and the atmosphere inviting with the spirit created by the friendly and welcoming nature of a city filled with people who obviously love their hometown. Plus the festival grounds feature kiosks with fun arts and crafts and festival merchandise plus terrific culinary choices that are second to no festival I’ve ever attended. All things considered the Detroit Jazz Festival is a tasty smorgasbord of treats for any palate no matter what style of jazz activates your appetite. One thing is for sure. No one goes home hungry from Detroit and this is one time over-indulgence is encouraged!
Russ Davis programs, produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” – for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio at http://www.mojaradio.com. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting http://russdavismoja.com/voice-america-2/