27th Detroit International Jazz Festival
Taking in a newly revamped Detroit Jazz Festival this year, it was hard to believe that just a few short years ago it looked like the festival might have come to the end of its healthy run. Financial woes had begun to take their toll and the forecast was bleak for what has become the largest free jazz festival in North America. Enter Gretchen Valade, her generous gift of a sizable endowment, and the establishment of a new festival foundation and things bode well for the future of this Detroit institution. Although artistic director Frank Malfitano can always be counted on for sagacious programming decisions, new executive director Terri Pontremoli (previously serving in the same capacity for Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland) further upped the ante this year by making some badly needed changes in staging and organization. Furthermore, she has brought an educational element into the mix that was largely absent in the past, not surprising since the Cleveland festival is known for its successful efforts in the area of jazz education.
Although early forecasts had predicted that rain would not be a major factor in Saturday's weather, Mother Nature ultimately decided otherwise with some major downpours and lingering showers for most of the afternoon. Dedicated fans stuck it out even with a lack of overhead shelter, however at the Amphitheatre stage strong bursts of wind would periodically splash buckets of water onto the equipment below, at one point bringing a set by Brasil Brazil to a complete halt while guitars and amps could be moved out of harm's way. Meanwhile at the Waterfront stage, folks sporting makeshift rain gear and umbrellas found the soulful sounds of Lou Donaldson much to their liking. Organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and guitarist Randy Johnston locked in tight with Donaldson for a set of old favorites like "Blues Walk and "Wee. David "Fathead Newman sat in for a few numbers including a tasty "Gravy Train, the pair sounding like they were wholly enjoying each other's company.
The showers would eventually let up for what would be a jam-packed late afternoon and evening. Jumping back and forth between the Amphitheatre and Waterfront stages, a much delayed set by drummer Lewis Nash overlapped with Brazilian icon Oscar Castro-Neves' performance with a crack combo that included drum legend Alex Acuna. Nash offered a tribute to the late Tommy Flanagan and had a crew of New York's finest on hand to help him out, namely vibraphonist Steve Nelson, pianist Renee Rosnes, and bassist Peter Washington. Nelson was particularly inspired on many obvious favorites including "Beyond the Bluebird.
Further delays due to the weather also meant overlapping shows for the rest of the evening. Waiting for the proper conditions to initiate the promised fireworks (by the way, the most spectacular I've ever witnessed once they were launched) meant that the closing set by Sergio Mendes at the Amphitheatre took the stage way past the scheduled 9:30 start time. Catching just a few numbers, I decided to leave the Mendes show and jump over to the Campus Martius stage for a set by Kirk Lightsey's Detroit Four + One featuring Bennie Maupin, George Bohanon, and Cecil McBee. Maupin would put forward some great solo work, further providing evidence that he remains one of our modern masters even if he doesn't get the credit and press that he deserves. Especially rewarding was a bass clarinet feature on "Theme For Lester and the quintet's reworking of Maupin's classic "Jewel in the Lotus.
By contrast with the wet and chilly weather of the previous day, Sunday's sunny and warmer temperatures seemed positively balmy. Up and comer Sean Jones held forth at the Amphitheatre stage for his third appearance at the fest and offered proof that he continues to grow and expand his horizons. Very gifted technically, Jones is a strong writer and his forms provide the basis for strong soloing. He also plays with great depth and emotion, telling a complete story with his improvisations. Sean's offering of "B.J.'s Tune would be the highlight of the show, peaking with undeniable intensity before allowing his closing cadenza to lead into an impromptu delivery of "Amazing Grace.
Making a second appearance in Detroit, Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers brought some fiery Latin-jazz to the Spirit of Detroit stage with alto man Eddie Pazant affording a good deal of the fireworks, serving a similar function to that of Sonny Fortune with Mongo Santamaria's group in the mid to late '60s. "Cantelope Island and "Caravan would provide the fodder for some infectious grooves. Mixing it all up to great effect in a new arrangement, the iconic "Milestones would work its way through sections of mambo, Afro-Cuban 6/8 and Swing. Meanwhile, at the main stage the Moutin Reunion Band offered a somewhat average set made a bit more exciting via the sturdy tenor work of Detroit native Rick Margitza
Sunday night's festivities would conclude with two very strong performances. The 14-piece Jaco Pastorius Word of Mouth Big Band would cram into the small confines of the Waterfront stage for a particularly well-received tribute to the late bass master. Led by Peter Graves, who had actually worked with an incarnation of this big band under Jaco's aegis, this ensemble packed quite a collective punch as they romped through such favorites as "Reza and "Liberty City. Bassist Will Lee would sit in for most of the show, his playing offered in the spirit of Jaco, but never delving into copycat imitation. Highlights would include Lee's solo take on "Continuum and two numbers that provided the opportunity for guitarist Hiram Bullock to shake his money maker.
Wrapping up the evening, Ahmad Jamal fronted a trio with bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad on the Amphitheatre stage. Wowing the crowd with his tasteful use of dynamics and space, Jamal brought new life to signature tunes such as "Poinciana and the complex interaction between the pianist and his trio mates was nothing short of dramatic and riveting. At one point during the show, Jamal stood up, coaxing a note or two from the upper end of the keyboard before sitting back down, only to get back on a his feet a few more times before the piece's conclusion. Undeniably, this is a man who feels the music intensely and such sensitivity proves to be infectious for those who experience this music on a deep level.
As the festival wrapped up on Labor Day Monday, more great music was in the offing. Vibraphonist Joe Locke would make a return appearance to the fest with a tribute to Milt Jackson, leading the group heard on his recent Sharp Nine release Rev-elation. Pianist Mike LeDonne, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Mickey Roker locked in tight for one of the best sets of the festival. Locke, who would work up quite a sweat, was a man in constant motion. "Off Minor, "Revelation, and "Opus De Funk contained ample passages of solo brilliance from Locke and LeDonne. Ballad features like "Young and Foolish and "Close Enough For Love also showed Locke to be a mature interpreter whose technical brilliance is balanced with an equally adept feeling of emotional depth.
Rounding out the afternoon would be strong sets from The Clayton Brothers Quintet with trumpeter Terrell Stafford strutting his stuff in a fervent manner and Donald Harrison's Quintet afforded the perfect showcase for the up-and-coming talents of trumpeter Christian Scott. The Detroit Jazz All Stars with Barry Harris, Curtis Fuller, Louis Hayes, Marcus Belgrave, Charles McPherson, and Rodney Whitaker would deliver some sunny bop strains in the tradition, serving as a potent reminder of just how vital Detroit has been in the development of this American art form.