Amid Stormy Skies, Detroit Jazz Fest Honors Geri Allen


Dave McMurray (left), Esperanza Spalding, Ravi Coltrane and Terri Lyne Carrington pay tribute to the late Geri Allen at the 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Tak Tokiwa)

Over Labor Day weekend in Detroit, many buildings hung their flags at half-mast, as the city laid to rest its favorite daughter, Aretha Franklin. But like a jazz funeral that bursts from solemn hymn to celebratory march, the 39th annual Detroit Jazz Festival—which featured dozens of performances on four outdoor stages from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3—waved in all its glory, leaving no doubt that the soul of the music endures, despite inclement weather that shuttered fest stages three times.

This year’s festival celebrated another one of its soul sisters, the brilliant pianist and composer Geri Allen (1957–2017), with a resident ensemble that had bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington as its core. The ensemble presented three very different concerts.

Three shows also were scheduled for the festival’s artist-in-residence, Chick Corea, but the one by the Elektric Band had to be canceled, due to weather. According to Chris Collins, the festival’s artistic director, reshuffling allowed more than 90 percent of the scheduled shows to be presented.

The Allen shows were a revelation, even for the musicians. Carrington and Spalding at several points commented on how challenging—but also rich and rewarding—the music was. Allen’s free-ranging melodies, slippery key signatures, odd meters, layered approach and probing lyrics all were on full display.

The first concert, aptly titled for one of her tunes, “Open On All Sides,” featured a sextet, with Ravi Coltrane (saxophones), Dave McMurray (flute), Kris Davis (piano) and Maurice Chestnut (tap dance) joining Spalding and Carrington. Though the set occasionally felt studied, it was clear from the drummer’s first muscular, blunt strokes and the bassist’s deeply throbbing vamps that these folks came to play, no holds barred. The ensemble gave “LWB’s House” a lilting ring and went into overdrive on “The Printmakers.” Davis rumbled over the keyboard with delicious momentum, rolling out clusters and sprinkling one bright idea after another. An intense Coltrane soprano solo was followed by Chestnut’s tap display, which brought the set to its apex.

The second, more ambitious Allen concert featured a short opening set by another small ensemble: Spalding, Carrington, Chestnut, Craig Taborn on piano, Camille Thurman on reeds, Negah Santos on percussion, and Nicholas Payton, briefly on trumpet and keyboard.

This was followed by the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra playing Dream Time, an extended work based on compositions by Allen and arranged and conducted by Puerto Rican composer Edmar Colón. True to its title, this rendition of Dream Time highlighted the surreal quality of Allen’s work, with roiling waves of knotty string harmony and effective punctuations in the brass. In eight movements—which included, among others, “Twylight” and “The Glide Was In The Ride”—Colón inked welcome colors over Allen’s melodies and words, conveying how she mingled everyday and spiritual planes.

A standing ovation brought the small group back, with Chestnut dancing for an encore on “And They Partied,” an infectious but tricky tune in 11/4. The crowd was ecstatic.

The third Allen concert offered that feeling in spades, and was the most satisfying of the three shows, perhaps because it was played by a quartet that was not only versatile but well-acquainted with the music: Carrington, Spalding, her longtime pianist Leo Genovese and Seattle-bred producer/emcee Kassa Overall on laptop and electronics.

Electronically enabled highlights included an interpolation of Allen’s poem “Metaphor” and snippets of Allen performing “Bemsha Swing,” written by Thelonious Monk (ground zero for Allen) and reciting a tribute to Betty Carter in which she might as well have been talking about herself: “Celebrate life as a metaphor for freedom.” The instrumentalists evinced a jaunty, Monk-like mood on “Dolphy’s Dance,” with Genovese coloring outside the lines, and found an ecstatic pulse on “Home Grown.” Spalding imbued her vocals on “Your Pure Self” and “Unconditional Love” with a soulful, warm and pliant flow.

At one point, Carrington wondered aloud why she hadn’t done such a tribute earlier and urged folks to enjoy what they have in the moment, rather than wait. It was a message Allen herself would have endorsed. But this tribute was not too late, by any means. Kudos to Detroit for honoring its own.

Hearing Corea at this festival was to experience a master at the top of his game. The pianist’s Acoustik Trio—bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl—had been playing all summer, and they cut through the music like greased lightning.

Corea and the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra, conducted by Steve Mercurio, closed the event with the first two movements of Joaquin Rodrigo’s guitar piece, “Concerto De Aranjuez,” rearranged by Corea for piano, followed by Corea’s “Spain” (based on a theme from Rodrigo’s piece). Rarely does an orchestra play with such clarity on an outdoor stage, and Corea’s elegantly restrained blend of jazz sextet and the orchestra was an exceptional treat.

At the end, Corea led the crowd in a sing-along on “Spain.” This generous spirit of inclusion was emblematic of a free festival that Detroiters genuinely seem to own. Surrounded by classic 20th-century buildings, crowds spilled out onto the streets, sidewalks and lawns or dined at outdoor cafes, drinking in the music. In a city that has seen its share of hard times, the festival was a welcome celebration of the soul. DB

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