Detroit Jazz Festival: Detroit, MI September 2-5, 2011
By 7:00 pm, the skies opened and rain poured down as crowds scattered to take cover. The tarps came out as crews scrambled to cover up instruments and unplug microphones. Soon, the power went out to all the stages and the scuttlebutt that started to spread was that things might be closing down for the evening. Over at the Amphitheatre, the Sun Ra Arkestra barely got started before high winds forced an end to their set. After the recent tragedy at the Indiana State Fair, I'm sure a heightened sense of caution came with the final decision to close up shop, as further storm fronts threatened to move through the area for the rest of the night.
Jeff "Tain" Watts
Several national headliners had been slated to conclude Saturday's evening's festivities, with fireworks to follow closely thereafter. Sets from Deacon Jones Blues Revue, Mandrill, organist Tony Monaco, Jason Moran and Bandwagon, and the Dave Holland Octet were hanging in the balance as artistic director Terri Pontremoli and her staff pondered the alternatives. Soon came word that things would move to the bar at the Marrriot Renaissance, the host hotel for the festival. It was reported that Moran was asked to start things off followed by Holland, but the pianist declined.
Around 9:30 pm, Holland and his ensemble decided to make the best of the situation and proceeded to mesmerize a standing room-only crowd that hung on the band's every move. One could say the air was electric both inside and out, as the band hit its incendiary stride and lightning lit up the night sky. Holland favorites like "Blue Jean" and "Happy Jammy" provided fodder for Gary Smulyan's blustery baritone and Chris Potter razor sharp tenor. Those wanting to rub shoulders with some of the festival's stars had no problem spotting fellow onlookers like Joe Lovano, Christian McBride, and Joe Locke. After the set, Smulyan said that the band hadn't played a gig in about a year, and so they were ready to bring it. Knowing the intricacies of the octet's charts made the magic of the evening seem even more miraculous. Joining us in conversation, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson said that Holland's set was one of the best things he has ever seen, a sentiment shared by just about everybody in the room.
Following Saturday's storms, the temperatures retreated to more comfortable levels. Starting Sunday afternoon listening to two big band sets at the Amphitheatre Stage, The US Airmen of Note featured special guest vibraphonist Joe Locke, while bassist Rodney Whitaker directed the Michigan State University Jazz Orchestra, with artist-in-residence Jeff "Tain" Watts. The former of the two sets proved to be the most cohesive, with Locke playing an integral part in the arrangements, and bringing inspired charts with him on such iconic numbers as John Coltrane's "Naima," Wayne Shorter's "Gaucho," and Chick Corea's "Inner Space."
Later that day, Anat Cohen delivered a fantastic set, with a singular voice on clarinet and soprano saxophone that set her apart from her peers. Also impressive was Cohen's versatility and ability to speak in a variety of genres, from the Brazilian strains of a rare Milton Nascimento number to the authentic son montuno of "Siboney." There every step of the way, and adding his own incendiary accoutrements, was pianist Jason Lindner, who has gone underappreciated for far too long. His prepared piano on "All Brothers" gave the piece its appropriate "world music" vibe, while his stride chops were put on display for "Jay Blues."
The rest of the evening proved to be a challenge and provided the only caveat for what was an otherwise superb festival. An embarrassment of riches made for overlapping performances, and the only remedy was to try to catch a few numbers in piecemeal fashion on one stage, before hopping over to anotherhanging around the Amphitheatre to check out Jeff "Tain" Watts, for example, and then returning later in the evening for the first number from Joe Lovano and Us Five.
In between, the decision to keep feet firmly planted at the Pyramid for Steve Wilson and Wilsonian Grain was duly rewarded. Another sagacious choice for the fest, Wilson has become a yeoman of sorts who has appeared on hundreds of recordings, but has also quietly been doing his own thing for many years now. The alto saxophonist paced a perfect set with a little bit of something for everyone, from a Thelonious Monk tune to his own "Step Lively," a musical account of a New York City subway ride. Pianist Orrin Evans was typically inspired, as was Clarence Penn, an animated drummer who upped the ante with his incredibly musical style.