Detroit Jazz Festival Offers a Mixed Bag


Danilo Pérez helms a big band on Aug. 30 during the Detroit Jazz Festival.

(Photo: C. Andrew Hovan)

The 40th annual Detroit Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend was a smorgasbord of style, spanning Detroit blues, North Indian punk-jazz and straightahead fare. More than 60 acts performed, and jam sessions—formal and informal—stretched into the early morning.

The free festival, though, began strongly and ended on a less powerful note.

On Aug. 30, Danilo Pérez and his Global Big Band took instant command of the JPMorgan Chase Main Stage, one of four downtown venues reserved for musical immersion during the weekend. Set highlights included “The Expedition,” which like most Pérez compositions, scrambled formats and cultures. Luciana Souza twined with violinist Layth Sidiq on the tune, while saxophonist Miguel Zenón and Pérez curled around each other to introduce “Children Of Light.” The following afternoon, Pérez debuted a completely different set of tunes, blending European and Arabic strains with a set of musicians largely different than the one that performed with him the previous day.

Artist-in-Residence Stanley Clarke followed Pérez explosively that Friday night, revisiting his 1976 School Days. The highlight was a run during George Duke’s “Brazilian Love Affair,” featuring the glottal chanting of tabla player Salar Nader. At times, the duels between Nader and the pair of pianists on the bandstand veered off the rails, but power and virtuosity won out.

Pianist Cameron Graves, who performed with Clarke, starred in several shows during the weekend, including a set with the Detroit Jazz Fest Alumni Band on Aug. 31. That performance, again at JPMorgan Chase, kicked in with drummer Tariq Gardner’s “Echoes,” a dense tune featuring Allen Dennard’s bright trumpet and a hide-and-seek between Graves and guitarist Ian Blunden. The quintet was expressive and physical; Gardner’s witty “Diaspora” confirmed him as an impressive composer.

Saturday evening, Macy Gray offered a show as chaotic as it was charismatic at JPMorgan Chase. It peaked with a reggaefied update of “I Try,” the single that put Gray on the map 20 years ago. Otherwise, she focused on—and at times floated through—later material, including several tunes from Ruby, her recent Mack Avenue album.

Paced by the wonderfully garish keyboardist/saxophonist Jonathan Jackson, Gray kept things loose, her raspy voice endearing. But Tamika Peoples, her backup singer, nearly outshone the bandleader. She was unearthly; her voice seemed to have no ceiling. And the exchanges between the two were the meat of this inexorably compelling set.

The Kenny Garrett Quintet blasted onto the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage on Sunday evening, diving into material from his 2016 Do Your Dance! Garrett’s exchange with drummer Samuel Laviso was the eye of the storm; the way the two challenged each other was absorbing and ultimately forced pianist Vernell Brown Jr. to assert himself and clear a path for solos.

That same evening, pianist Connie Han deployed originals and imaginative covers at the Wayne State University Pyramid Stage. Han’s spidery treatment of Stephen Sondheim’s “Pretty Women” was alluring and respectful; her “Grüvy” was a hip way to honor the Fender Rhodes; and her “Southern Rebellion,” enriched by drummer Bill Wysaske’s powerful solo, was muscular and thrilling.

It was two concerts that made Monday memorable—for different reasons.

The sounds of Side-Eye—guitarist Pat Metheny’s new ensemble with keyboardist James Francies and drummer Marcus Gilmore—filled JPMorgan Chase. The group was transcendent, its tunes spanning modest country blues, bop, prog and psychedelia, and the trio meshed as if it was born for the venture. Metheny played three guitars, several with effects. But Francies was as riveting as the bandleader, threatening to tumble over himself, still always landing upright.

About four hours later, bassist Clarke and the Detroit Jazz Festival String Orchestra presented “Boyz n the Hood-The Live Original” at the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage, a mixed conclusion to the festival.

The bassist led the large ensemble through original music from John Singleton’s 1991 film as long clips from the movie played on a screen overhead. But the images and live music distracted from each other, failing to merge into something unique. DB

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