Detroit Fest Delivers Despite Last-Minute Scheduling Shifts


A bold move by president/artistic director Chris Collins at the 44th Detroit Jazz Fest — ditching one of the four stages because of an egress issue two weeks before this year’s event (held Sept. 1–4) — created confusion with out-of-sync start times listed in the official printed program. DownBeat was somewhat bamboozled by this as the festival’s live Blindfold Test with pianist Nduduzo Makhathini subsequently started at noon on Sunday Sept. 3, an hour-and-a-half earlier than anticipated. But revised schedules were made available, no fatalities ensued and it was blissful to be en plein air once again after the not-to-be-forgotten days of indoor isolation and “damn panic,” to quote Wayne Shorter’s witticism about the pandemic.

The late Shorter bagged a Grammy this year, via pianist Leo Genovese’s solo on his ‘Endangered Species’ from 2017’s Live At Detroit Jazz Festival, but his regular rhythm section of Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade, otherwise known as “Children of the Night,” received a rousing reception at the Carhartt Ampitheater Stage on Saturday, Sept. 2. That day witnessed back-to-back performances from two Detroit 2023 NEA Jazz Masters, saxophonist Kenny Garrett and violinist Regina Carter, with a third, the indefatigable 86-year-old Louis Hayes, performing on Monday Sept. 4. Garrett and Carter were both mentored by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, and Belgrave’s widow, Joan (currently producing a documentary about her late husband), sang at the Absopure Waterfront Stage in Hart Plaza. Other Michiganian fest perennials included Dee Dee Bridgewater, prolific bassist Rodney Whitaker (who performed the Spirituals of John Coltrane) and up-and-coming singer Jesse Palter.

Ubiquitous bassist Marion Hayden alongside drummer David Taylor backed local pianists Alvin Waddles, Pamela Wise, Mike Jellick and Cliff Monear, continuing the legacy of hometown heroes Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris. Pianist Michael Weiss, who was the last to perform with Harris in 2021, presented “To Barry With Love” in the company of A-listers Lewis Nash and Peter Washington. But the most vivid tribute to Detroit Piano Masters convened on the JP Morgan Stage where native son (though longtime Alabama/New York/New Jersey émigré) Johnny O’Neal and New Orleans’ Sullivan Fortner faced off on two spooning Steinways. “The festival invited me to do something,” Fortner said, “and I thought immediately of the Detroit piano masters and Johnny.”

When Fortner was a student at Oberlin in 2006, Marcus Belgrave pulled him from a jazz improv class to go catch O’Neal in Cleveland. Though they both sing, Fortner and O’Neal had never dueled on pianos like this. “We talked the day before, had a short rehearsal before the hit,” recalled Fortner, who deferred to O’Neal’s selection of material, which included Billy Preston’s “With You I’m Born Again,” Chaka Khan’s “Through The Fire” and the soul-stirring gospel closer “Climbing Higher Mountains,” sung by O’Neal.

“Johnny has such charisma, when he sits at the piano he commands attention,” Fortner said. “He’d tell me, ‘This is high art and real music but it’s showbiz also, don’t be afraid of that.’ He’s a master manipulator in the way he can pull at your heartstrings with soul and grit.”

Notwithstanding bluesy get-over, the two also rattled through Bud Powell’s squirrelly “Celia” — no mean feat. The double-time hardscrabble bebop recalled Powell-pedant Harris, with whom Fortner actually played Scrabble at the legendary Weehawken home of Baroness Pannonica and Thelonious Monk. “Barry had a dictionary at the ready so everybody knew what was what, the same way he taught bebop,” Fortner said. So what is characteristic of Detroit piano players? “They have this bouncy, buoyant, sensual feel to their rhythm. We have a similar groove in New Orleans, but it’s more janky and raggedy. It cleaned up as it moved north.”

Detroit didn’t neglect dance-oriented music with Collins selecting homeslice hip-hop producer, DJ and drum ace Karriem Riggins as Artist-in-Residence. Riggins’ jazz credentials are scarcely in doubt, having worked with such Motor City pioneers as Donald Byrd, Hank Jones, Betty Carter and Milt Jackson, but he’s also known for collaborations with Paul McCartney, Erykah Badu, Janet Jackson, Kanye West, Common and J Dilla. Underground Detroit hip-hop visionary Dilla was celebrated at the JP Morgan Chase stage with throwdowns from high-energy singer/MC Monica Blaire (founding member of Dilla’s first group Slum Village), rapper T3 and outstanding poet/publisher Jessica Care More. Riggins’ relentless backbeats got more interesting with the arrival of Chicago “cousin” Common half an hour into the set, shifting to an Afrobeat vibe with a double strike on 3. Common acknowledged Dilla’s production of his hit “The Light,” then welcomed Dilla’s mom onstage (she lost her son in 2006 aged 32). Riggins opened the fest Friday with his Madlib collaboration, drawing from the Jahari Massamba Unit’s 2020 release Pardon My French with live horns replacing samples, although guitarist Sasha Kashperko told DownBeat they used stems from the original record. Advance info about Riggins’ presentations was scarce in program notes, and the bump in scheduling caused an egregious clash with Jason Moran’s ambitious, theatrical presentation about World War I bandleader James Reese Europe.

The nonet members, reviving Reese’s Harlem Hellfighters 369th regiment band (a pioneering unit that Randy Weston hipped Moran to), clasped hands and gazed like anachronistic sentinels into orange light emanating from the grand piano during a dramatic finale. Were they gazing into the flames of endless conflict or home fires burning? It was a powerful climax.

Another memorable multifaceted performance came from drummer/composer Allison Miller’s Rivers In Our Veins. Glorious afternoon sunshine blazed into Miller’s eyes on her riser, as high-energy tap dancers Claudia Rahardjanoto, Luke Hickey and Bryon Tittle gyrated heroically in the heat. Tap is, for some reason, an integral part of Rivers (a cycle of 12 varied and intriguing songs celebrating the value of U.S. waterways and watersheds/concepts of flow and renewal). Violinist Jenny Scheinman shone on “Fierce,” pianist Carmen Staaf (who played the previous day with Bridgewater) revealed a pellucid touch on “Water” and Ben Goldberg delighted, digeridooing on contra-alto clarinet, cutting loose from tempered moorings on “Shipyards.”

Other standout moments included the mahogany larynx of Lizz Wright matching melismas with Marvin Sewell’s slide guitar; the iconoclastic, Janis-Joplin-meets-Ella-meets-Freddie-Mercury-in-fishnets of Veronica Swift and Samara Joy, blooming with vermilion confidence. On the intimate waterfront side stage (the lawn crowd channeling Newport, Rhode Island), bassist Linda May Han Oh’s evocative Glass Hours quintet with Sara Serpa, Fabian Almazan and Greg Ward conjured “Phosphorus” and “A Prayer for Peace” ahead of plena plunder and bomba pillage from trenchant trombonist Papo Vazquez and his Pirates from Puerto Rico. DB

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