Rollins, Shorter Dazzle in Detroit
Posted 9/25/2012

On Sept. 2, fans flocked to the Jazz Talk Tent, where DownBeat contributor Dan Ouellette conducted a Blindfold Test with Harrison. The saxophonist demonstrated a high batting average, successfully guessing several tracks and offering commentary on the culture of his hometown: “Music from New Orleans is music for the mind, body and soul.” (Look for this Blindfold Test with Harrison in the February 2013 issue of DownBeat.)

Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, who is working on an album for the Detroit-based Mack Avenue label, performed with pianist Aaron Diehl’s trio. A gifted vocalist who can gracefully navigate the lower register, she showed off her chops on Richard Rodgers’ “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (from the 1939 musical Too Many Girls) and got delightfully bawdy with the double-entendre drenched “You’ve Got To Give Me Some” (a blues that Bessie Smith recorded in the 1920s).

The festival’s programmers made an intriguing curatorial decision for the slot that immediately preceded Shorter’s set. Chris Collins, the fest’s artistic director, played saxophone and acted as the master of ceremonies for “A Tribute To The Music Of Wayne Shorter,” a big band set featuring the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra performing newly commissioned arrangements by Renee Rosnes, Ellen Rowe, Scott Gwinnell and others. Some of the arrangements in this uneven set worked much better than others, but the ambition was admirable. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s ultra-athletic solo during Russ Miller’s arrangement of “Beauty And The Beast” made the whole endeavor worthwhile. Following this performance, Collins recounted a sly comment that Miller had made to him during rehearsals of the arrangement: “I had to put some Detroit stank on it.”

Fans who have followed Wayne Shorter know that he leads one of the most compelling, adventurous quartets in all of jazz: pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. Spontaneity is essential for these seekers and their 79-year-old leader, who go wherever the muse takes them. On this night, they made agile shifts from song to snippet to quote to long sections of intense improvisation.

Shorter was like a boxer who entered the ring not with a predetermined strategy, but with an openness to creatively react to the swirl of stimuli onstage, whether it was Patitucci’s compact narratives, Blade’s snare explosions (Thwap! Thwap!) or Pérez’s unpredictable maneuvers, such as intentionally sliding his right elbow onto several keys at once or quirkily crinkling a plastic water bottle near the microphone to create additional percussion. Shorter’s soprano sax became an opponent that he’d jab to create a sturdy shriek or punish with a sonic uppercut to change the melody’s direction. Late in the set, Shorter lifted his hand to his cheek and mimicked a quick succession of punches to his mouth and then subtly leaned backward against the piano, as though he were a pugilist who’d been belted. But it was actually us, the members of the audience, who were pushed back on our heels by the muscularity of the music.

Shorter’s set opened with “Zero Gravity” and included (or touched on) “Starry Night,” “She Moves Through The Fair,” “Plaza Real,” “Joy Rider” and “By Myself.” He let the music do the talking—no one in the quartet said a word to the crowd during the show.

Music at this festival continued until the wee hours for the first three days. After the festival stages had gone dark, there were late-night jam sessions at the Detroit Marriott (inside the Renaissance Center), which was a central meeting spot for musicians, who could be seen hauling their gear across the hotel lobby at all hours. (Some of them were traveling to the Chicago Jazz Festival, which ran Aug. 30–Sept. 2, and was also covered by DownBeat).

Among a plethora of great performances in Detroit, the two names that will remain laser-etched in many fans’ minds for years to come are those of Rollins and Shorter. On a grand public stage, in front of an eager, enormous and generally attentive audience, each of these veterans showed that the musical quest for something new is not only rewarding in the moment, but is perhaps a secret to staving off that inevitable journey into darkness.

Bobby Reed

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Saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Danilo Pérez in Detroit (Photo: Len Katz/Detroit Jazz Festival)


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