33rd Annual Detroit Jazz Festival
August 31st – September 3rd, 2012
During a Chrysler Talk event at this year’s Detroit Jazz Festival, Wayne Shorter recalled a précis from another legend, Sonny Rollins, when asked about his approach as a modern jazz musician. “We didn’t play this music to show off,” said Shorter. “We’re playing this music to be human.” As he emphasized the word “human,” it was hard not to think about the city of Detroit itself. From its small population of over 700,000 to the barren streets where thriving businesses once stood, Detroit has more than seen its share of hard times. “We are going to fool the world,” said the energetic mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, who kicked off the festival’s opening night. Bing’s conviction was a much needed surge for the crowd and he reminded us that Detroit, much like the human spirit, is resilient.
For much of Labor Day weekend, this year’s festival illustrated how both humanity and jazz are inextricably linked. The selection of artist performances and in-depth panel discussions not only offered something different for everyone, but especially when much of today’s music sounds homogenized, this festival was a reminder that there are still unique perspectives and takes on what jazz can sound like.
“I feel like I’m home,” said Terence Blanchard as he began his set recalling early memories of performing in Detroit with Art Blakey. Blanchard retraced his “Young Lion” roots on the standard “Autumn Leaves” as he opened with clipped notes before his fellow quintet members chimed in. After a quick run through the melody line, Blanchard jumped head first into improvisation, relishing in high and strong tones, which were complimented by Kendrick Scott’s steady rat-a-tat-tat on drums.
If Blanchard was the cool wind that blew in on a warm Friday evening, Sonny Rollins was an indomitable cloud that literally hovered over you for much of his nearly two-hour long set. Rumors of poor health and lack of stamina circulated throughout the crowd that night prior to his taking the stage. And there was slight trepidation felt by some as Rollins, 82, appeared somewhat hunched over. But the moment his reed touched his lips, Rollins fooled everyone as he straightened up and started to sway in sync with the rhythms courtesy of his tenor saxophone and bandmates on his classic cut “St. Thomas.” Both percussionist Sammy Figueroa and drummer Kobie Watkins kept the steady rhythm going which allowed both Rollins and trombonist Clifton Anderson to dance and linger in the melody. While his band was certainly in fine form that night, it was hard not to be in awe of Sonny Rollins, whose energy and strong tone were aspirational at any age.
Steve Wilson summoned the spirit of Charlie Parker during much of his Bird with Strings set, opening with the standard “April in Paris.” The arrangement initially allowed for both Wilson, whose texture and tone were clearly influenced by “Bird,” and the accompanying string section to play off of one another. With an undeniable driving bassline from Peter Washington, the tune gradually shifted into straight-ahead swing. Pianist Renee Rosnes was noticeably absent during the opening cut, but eventually found her way back with a solo on “Moon Mist.” According to Wilson, “Moon Mist” has some mystery attached to it. Not included in the original 1950 Parker recording, Wilson was fascinated by both the “bird with strings” marking on its original chart and the minor debate over who actually penned this number. “It’s credited to Mercer Ellington,” said Wilson. “But Ellington scholars seem to think that this was not the penmanship of Mercer, [but that of] Billy Strayhorn’s.”
Short of announcing his original composition “The Journey,” alto saxophonist Charles McPherson skipped introductions and dove right into the opening number. The infectious unison segued into a call and response between McPherson and featured trumpeter Tom Harrell. It soon evolved into a lyrical round where McPherson’s alto sax began a half measure after Tom Harrell’s cool, hollow trumpet. From his Midwest upbringing in Detroit to his twelve-year stint in New York with Charlie Mingus, McPherson has been inspired by different regional sounds. If “The Journey” borrowed from his bebop roots of Mingus and Bird, “Nightfall,” another tune penned by McPherson, clearly channeled the blues on this ballad. That influence not only affected Harrell’s post-bop sound, but it was also evident in the rhythm section as Jeb Patton’s melodic chords subtly framed Johnathan Blake’s rhythmic touch on drums.
Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave is an institution not only in jazz culture but also in Detroit’s musical legacy. He not only helped to shape the sounds of both The Ray Charles Orchestra and Motown in its prime, but he’s educated an impressive list of today’s leading Detroit-native artists like pianist Geri Allen, violinist Regina Carter and saxophonist/flautist Kenny Garrett, who appeared in this year’s line-up. Belgrave’s Homecoming Band featured renowned Detroiters like drummer Louis Hayes, trombonist Curtis Fuller, Marion Hayden on bass and relative newcomer Ian Finkelstein on piano. Even in such illustrious company, Finkelstein more than held his own. As much of their set honored the music of Horace Silver with classics like “Song for My Father” and “Ecaroh,” one could not help but also take away the image of Belgrave smiling down at Finkelstein and wondering if there was yet another jazz legend in the making.
To hear Wayne Shorter at this stage in his career forgo convention and embrace innovation was nothing short of inspiring. Sans introductions and song titles, The Wayne Shorter Quartet, which also featured drummer Brian Blade, pianist Danilo Pérez and bassist John Patitucci, made it quite clear that night that their only statements would be musical ones. Much of the hour-plus long set unleashed the ferociousness in all of the band members, notably in Blade’s powerful thunderclaps and Pérez’s pounding, rhythmic piano. Although Shorter sat idle for much of the amorphous set, when he appeared, his lyricism and lingering tones offered a nice juxtaposition against the more aggressive harmonies that his bandmates put down. At times, Shorter touched on “Juju” in his playing while Asian influences were easily apparent in Pérez’s piano trills. Perhaps the title for much of this free-form set should be “Juju Reexamined.”
Donald Harrison is one of the coolest musicians around today. Another disciple of Art Blakey, Harrison can channel Bird or Cannonball Adderley in his playing and then “drop it on the one” on a James Brown number with ease. Along with his latest group Quantum Leap, which featured guitarist Detroit Brooks, drummer Joe Dyson, Max Moran on bass and Zaccai Curtis on piano, for much of the afternoon set, Harrison showed how jazz is merely an extension of a large umbrella of black music and should be enjoyed as such. The earlier set also featured trumpeter Christian Scott, who just released his most personal album to date, Christian aTunde Adjuah (Concord Jazz). Understandably, Scott took a backseat for much of this set to watch his uncle Harrison and Quantum Leap move the crowd.
During the final evening of the festival, “A Night in Treme” allowed us all to let our hair down. It not only honored Charlie Gabriel, as the clarinetist/saxophonist recently celebrated his 80th birthday, but also featured other key members of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Scott and Harrison, who also sat in on piano, not only rediscovered their New Orleans musical roots on Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief” and John Boutte’s “Treme Song,” where Scott’s soulful, clarion trumpet resonated with the dancing crowd, but they couldn’t abandon their hard-bop influences for long, especially as Scott was joined by Preservation Hall’s Mark Braud, James “Twelve” Andrews, even a surprise appearance from Terence Blanchard. Perhaps a new Night of the Cookers album lies ahead for these four talented trumpeters. Such was a bittersweet end to this enthralling weekend-long festival.
Words & Photographs by Shannon J. Effinger (@ShannonEffinger)