It’s always hard to leave Detroit after the 4 days of this glorious event that runs each year over the Labor Day Holiday weekend, this year Friday through Monday, September 4th through the 7th. The music is great, the people are knowledgeable music fans, friendly, welcoming, proud of their city and in a festive mood. The festival occurs in the splendid downtown area with multiple venues all within short walking distance of one another and in a spectacular setting that includes the classically beautiful buildings of old Detroit juxtaposed with the modern, almost space age, look of the Renaissance Center and other new structures and the expansive Hart Plaza next to the Detroit River with Windsor, Ontario sparkling in the distance.
As for the music, I certainly won’t take the time and space to list all the performances that took place, you can go to the festival website at http://www.detroitjazzfest.com and get all the details, but the 36th edition of the festival billed as “The World’s Biggest Free Jazz Festival,” was once again nothing short of a non-stop jazz party. Under the direction of the festival’s artistic director Chris Collins, the lineup was varied in scope with an obvious focus on Detroit and its musical heritage, jazz history in general, the sound of the big band and large ensemble in jazz, an exhibition of artists from various generations and a special spotlight on the work of the 2015 “Artist In Residence,” Pat Metheny. The lineup may seem a bit short on the funky side of things as well as the more modern, electric, hip-hop flavored, techno-influenced jazz, but as more than one person said to me, “it’s great to come to a ‘REAL’ jazz festival.” That seems to be by design without a doubt.
Out of the almost 100 shows in the festival at least 10 were listed as part of what is called “The Homecoming Series” featuring performances by native Detroit musicians like Ron Carter, Kenny Garrett, James Carter, J.C. Heard and many more. In fact the first day, Friday, September 4th, featured Detroiters in the spotlight right from the beginning. A limited, 2-performance schedule kicked off the festivities as Chris Collins welcomed the Grammy-winning Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band joined by 4 master clarinetists, Anat Cohen, Paquito D’Rivera, Ken Peplowski and Eddie Daniels, and a trio of Detroit musicians, including piano legend Barry Harris, with a unique presentation in honor of Benny Goodman titled Benny’s Threads. The performance was complete with mannequins on stage dressed in 4 of Mr. Goodman’s actual suits and historical commentary by a gentleman who acquired those suits from the swing legend who just happened to be his former New York City neighbor. The next show on Friday featured the first of four performances by Pat Metheny and his trio of drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Scott Colley. The trio was joined on the last few tunes by Detroiter and current saxophone star Kenny Garrett. The set include everything from unique versions of Metheny’s “So May It Secretly Begin” to Garrett’s “Sing A Song Of Song” each given a new twist. The first day’s lineup was short but sweet and the Detroit Jazz Festival was off and running with a bang!
The toughest part of attending an event like the Detroit Jazz Festival is seeing the shows you want to see but knowing that you’ll be missing some performances that you’d also like to hear. On day 2, Saturday, September 5th, after the performances in the early afternoon featuring mostly local youth, high school and college big bands, the lineup included shows by Paquito D’Rivera, Maria Schneider Orchestra, Kenny Garrett, Brian Blade, Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, Stanley Jordan, Manuel Valera, James “Blood” Ulmer, Rene Marie, the all-star Mack Avenue Superband and Steve Turre in a celebration of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s birthday with special guest James Carter. And those were the shows I was NOT able to attend. I had been asked to emcee performances at the Apsopure Waterfront Stage next to the Detroit River and there I spent the day in the company of and listening to the clarinetist from Israel, Anat Cohen, followed by Detroit guitarist Perry Hughes and his organ ensemble, alto saxophone sensation Rudresh Mahanthappa performing his latest work Bird Calls, and the second of 4 performances featuring Pat Metheny, this one being the reunion of the Gary Burton-Pat Metheny quartet. During this hot, steamy day I spent my time under the trees next to the river and when I was not listening to the performances I enjoyed my conversations with the artists who were all in a fantastic mood. It seemed like I had been invited to the family reunion of the music community, a continuing theme of the rest of the festival.
One of the features that sets Detroit apart from most any other festival is a series of conversations and presentations that occur under what they call the “Jazz Talk Tent” which is positioned right on Woodward Avenue in the middle of the festival grounds. On Saturday, Sunday and Monday, if you’d spent your time only in the tent, you might have learned more about the history of Detroit jazz, or the life and careers of Benny Goodman or Dizzy Gillespie with commentary by expert musicologists. Or you could have gotten up close and personal with artists like Monty Alexander, Eddie Daniels, Anat Cohen, Rene Marie, Steve Turre, James Carter, Joanne Bracken and Gordon Goodwin. I had the honor of conducting an interview and multi-media presentation with the great saxophonist, artist, poet, educator and general Renaissance man Oliver Lake. This occurred on Sunday afternoon and precluded me from hearing some of the great performances on this, the third day of the festival. I’ll place that in the category of “There’s a price to pay for every good thing!”
Sunday featured some interesting presentations that one would imagine artistic director Chris Collins, an educator, composer, player and arranger, was instrumental in putting together. Mr. Collins either led, condoned or commissioned various large ensemble, orchestra and/or big band presentations including one that fused Celtic music and Jazz under his direction, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra honoring the late great bassist and led by his old friends Carla Bley and Steve Swallow, Eddie Daniels with a jazz version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the Detroit String Orchestra and Danilo Perez, who performed his Panama 500 at the festival in recent years, presenting his newly-commissioned Detroit World Suite.
As for small group shows, Pat Metheny, in his third of four festival presentations, performed in a duo setting with Detroit legend Ron Carter, emerging piano star Aaron Diehl led his trio, Ken Peplowski led his quartet, Richard Bona brought “World Jazz” to the festival with his ensemble presentation of what he called Mandekan Cubano and trumpeter Dave Douglas led his quintet. I was pleased to hear some of Mr. Douglas and his band pushing the musical envelope after I’d taken in another trio featuring drummer Will Calhoun, bassist Doug Wimbush and vocalist/percussionist Vinx doing some “envelope pushing” themselves as the trio Jungle Funk. Then I was off to hear Oliver Lake take the saxophone-organ combo to a new, inventive place with his Oliver Lake Organ Quartet. The man who may be best known for his work with his fellow musical adventurers in the World Saxophone Quartet, never wants to leave a musical stone unturned if there’s something rare and uniquely his own underneath. The open-minded jazz fans of Detroit “got it” with his new take on organ combo, as they seemed to with another performance that featured jazz of a more free nature by Rudresh Mahanthapa. I ended the day enjoying the high level give and take between two old friends that revisited their musical union that began when they were Berklee College of Music classmates in the 1970’s. Guitar master John Scofield and one of the reigning tenor sax giants Joe Lovano thrilled a packed Carhartt Amphitheater crowd with their performance and the third day of the festival was in the books on a high note!
With the day after Monday, Labor Day, being a work/school day, the Detroit Jazz Festival presents a slightly shorter schedule but that does not mean it’s short on quality or variety. This just might have been my favorite day of the festival, as near impossible as that is to imagine. The day included the Cuban-born legendary trumpeter Arturo Sandoval followed on the Chase Main Stage by Jamaica’s national treasure Monty Alexander with his Harlem-Kingston Express. Mr. Alexander’s performance brought even more heat to a 90+ degree day under a blazing sun that made things feel more like Kingston than Detroit. For lovers of great singers there was the perfect voice of the charming Carmen Lundy, followed on the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage by the dashing Ron Carter and his trio featuring equally dashing Russell Malone on guitar. I say dashing in that these gentlemen were immaculately dressed in matching, dark three piece suits and never seemed to break a sweat while they cranked out one cool jazz classic after another for an adoring audience. Youngblood trumpeter from New Orleans, Christian Scott, returned to the festival again this year and played at the same time as the legendary Joanne Brackeen who was joined by special guest Rudresh Mahanthapa who stayed overtime at the festival just to hang and have fun sitting in.
My two favorite shows of the day, and possibly the performances that had the greatest impact on me personally, both occurred on Sunday and featured drummer Will Calhoun in the second of two shows by groups led by him and the final performance by “Artist In Residence” Pat Metheny. I’d seen Will Calhoun the previous day with the Jungle Funk trio playing in a stripped down setting that featured his drum kit and various percussion devices with electronic embellishments, along with his long time associate Doug Wimbish on bass and some electronic toys of his own. Vocalist Vinx, who could probably sing opera or on the Broadway stage, also added percussion elements to the mix. It was jazz and funk, yes, but there was more than just that exhibited in the performance and I knew that when Mr. Calhoun took the stage on Sunday with his quartet, featuring rising keyboard star Marc Carey and saxophone master Greg Osby, that more modern innovation would be revealed. Truly there was as we heard everything from the standard “Afro Blue” to Will Calhoun originals, to rock and funk reminiscent of the sound of his band Living Color, and world music inspired by his travels all over Africa to investigate the source of American music. Marc Carey was brilliant on both acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes while Greg Osby’s contribution of his signature alto sound serving up his free, improvisational soul was the icing on a delicious cake. Will Calhoun’s pounding drum style together with his use of rare electronic percussion instruments made for a brilliant and unique performance.
To top off the festival and bring things full circle, Pat Metheny took the stage of the huge Carhartt Amphitheater with a massive ensemble, The Detroit Jazz Festival Big Band directed by Alan Broadbent along with Gary Burton on vibes, Scott Colley on bass and Pat’s old friend, drummer Danny Gottlieb, with whom he explained he had not played for 31 years. The set began with a big sounding piece of swinging jazz to loosen up the players and the audience. Then Mr. Metheny explained what would come next…the 35 minute piece that he had been commissioned to create by the German nation to salute one of their honored artists and a personal friend and associate of his and Gary Burton’s, German bassist Eberhard Weber, with whom Pat and Gary had recorded with in the 1970’s & ‘80’s on various projects on the ECM label. Mr. Weber had recently suffered a stroke that took away his ability to play music, so it was important to Pat to “include” him in some way on the creation of this work. His did this in a brilliant way as Metheny remembered having seen a German television special featuring a live performance by the master bassist playing his unique bass that he’d had made just for him and his own style. Not only did Pat lift the audio from those performances and weave them into the audio tracks for this new work but he also projected the image of Eberhard Weber actually playing live from the television special totally in sync with the live performance. It was nothing short of astounding! Seeing the performance as it blended with the live playing of this marvelous piece had brought Mr. Weber to the festival. Pat Metheny has certainly become a master of the long form in modern jazz and this work, soon to be released as Hommage A Eberhard Weber on ECM Records, is a brilliant addition to his long list of long-form masterpieces. The set ended as the full big band was replaced by the Detroit Jazz Festival String Orchestra backing up Mr. Metheny on some of his famous compositions like “Last Train Home” arranged by Alan Broadbent. The last song was a touching and personal rendition of Charlie Haden’s “First Song,” dedicated to Pat Metheny’s close friend who just recently passed away. On that gentle note the 36th Detroit Jazz Festival came to an end. I only hope that my mental faculties will allow my memory to remain active for years to come because once again a number of wonderful memories were created at this marvelous event!
<I>Russ Davis 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, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting http://www.mojaradio.com