Detroit Jazz Fest Digs Deep & Virtual


The heroic Detroit Jazz Festival pivoted again this year, two weeks before a live festival kick-off scheduled for Labor Day weekend, going virtual in response to the Delta variant spike, infrastructure issues downtown (where the festival is usually enjoyed by the public, free and al fresco), plus diverse distancing demands from touring musicians.

Detroit already knew what to do, having miraculously held the festival in 2020 at the massive Renaissance Marriott, where it set up sponsored stages with state-of-the-art film crews. The hotel bistro was pandemic-ready, bagging food with disposable knives and forks, and there was no bar operating. Several random fans wandered into the lobby hoping to catch stars en route to out-of-bounds soundstages and collect autographs, but otherwise civilian traffic was sparse.

That said, nothing was sparse about the performances, which were plentiful — 36 in all — and rapid-fire: as soon as one broadcast finished another went on-air, from mid-morning past midnight.

Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles began his set with Creole Soul at a matinee hour but brought the fire, as speedboats, cruisers, sailing ships and larger industrial vessels traveled up and down the Detroit River, visible through the bay window behind the converted hotel bar. One could almost imagine this was a “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” Newport Festival … almost.

Sartorially splendid, Charles moved from horn to congas with zeal. Reflective of his upbringing in the cultural melting pot of Port of Spain — as historicized on his recent recording Carnival, The Sound of People Vol 1 — this was Charles’ first time presenting his Creole jazz ensemble at the Detroit fest. The sextet included altoist Godwin Louis, guitarist Alex Wintz, bassist Barry Stephenson, kit drummer Harvel Nakundi and pianist/Fender Rhodes protagonist Axel Tosca Laugart, who was quite a sight masked under orange glasses and impressive, part-bleached afro.

There was way more edge and angle to the music than anticipated, despite the oasis of Mancini’s percussive lounge anthem “Lujon,” which featured rhapsodic alto from Louis.

More Latin-infused music returned to the intimate Absopure Stage in the form of festival honcho Chris Collins’ collaboration with Barcelona-based Cuban Omar Sosa, but before that Kenny Barron held elegantly forth with his trio of 15 years: bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Jonathan Blake. The unprepossessing pianist, now 78, seemed more disappointed than most about the lack of live audience yet delivered his de rigueur impeccable set with zero grandstanding. Not as demonstrative as Ahmad Jamal, Barron balances the elements in his music with occasionally reminiscent rhythmic counterpoint, as evidenced with the bolero feel of “Copacetic,” during which he measured with equanimity in both hands. The band burned on Barron’s tribute to Bud Powell and Blake opened up the polyrhythms on his lowrider kit.

The collective that followed on the bigger Chase soundstage exhibited more posturing. A jazz/hiphop merger under the leadership of trumpeter Keyon Harrold, it featured rapper eLZhi, beat master Chris “Daddy” Dave and the enigmatic Georgia Anne Muldrow, who came across like Sun Ra-meets-Angela Davis-meets Yoko Ono at her Moog. The show recalled Harrold’s hip release from 2017, The Mugician (a nickname bestowed on the trumpeter by Don Cheadle when they worked together on the soundtrack to the movie Miles Ahead), which has an expansive, socially aware modus operandi. Fronting the Collegiate Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra, Harrold later performed his “MB Lament” — a valediction to unarmed teenager Michael Brown, who was shot by authorities six times and left in the street for four hours in Harrold’s hometown of Ferguson, Missouri.

“He could have been my nephew,” Harrold told DownBeat at the break. The lament included a snatch of “St. Louis Blues” and a passing refrain that held hints of Marcus Miller’s “Tutu.”

Another superb trumpeter convened on the opposite soundstage the following day, also with a fresh perspective. Sean Jones’ Dizzy Spells was ostensibly a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, the “first black president,” as wildly energetic tap dancer and spoken word artist Brinae Ali proselytized from music stand pulpit, conjuring the aura of Amiri Baraka with “Vote Dizzy,” an updated “Salt Peanuts.” Jones offered more than lip service to Gillespie. Dressed plainly, in contrast to the technicolor stagewear of Harrold, his Ohio-born contemporary seemed almost oblivious to the pressure of the cameras trained on him and the gaze of a million potential on-screen viewers (the figure that viewed the live telecast last year). Though it was Sunday, he wasn’t dressed for church, either; nevertheless his playing was shot through with gospel feel as he parlayed Gillespie’s wry “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac,” with scratching contributions from turntablist Wendell Patrick.

It speaks about the wealth of talent in America and the effectiveness of music education that the DJF was almost entirely populated by homegrown stars (save Cubans Omar Sosa as well as Melvis Santa in Kenny Garrett’s group; Jamaica’s Monty Alexander and Anat Cohen from Tel Aviv). This must have circumvented a mess of international quarantine-related red tape.

One instrumental category was represented particularly handsomely during the fest: the saxophone. Scant surprise as artistic director Chris Collins is a top-drawer tenor player in his own right. One of Collins’ personal heroes is bruising, brilliantly original Bostonian Jerry Bergonzi. “I’m like a little kid gazing up at the master,” Collins commented after Bergonzi’s quartet show on the Absopure stage. As a one-time sideman with Dave Brubeck (he made nine albums with the pianist in as many years during the ’70s/early ’80s), Bergonzi was invited to join the Brubeck Brothers Legacy Band the following afternoon, with bassist/trombonist Chris Brubeck and drummer Dan Brubeck celebrating the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth. Dave Brubeck passed away in 2012.

Among classics “Kathy’s Waltz,” “In Your Own Sweet Way” and a deep-swinging “Blue Rondo À La Turk” (with shout chorus) was “Weep No More,” Brubeck’s post-war palliative that reminded he’d started the first integrated band during World War II. Similar, but starker, empathy echoed in Bergonzi’s own meditative “Refuge” (“dedicated to refugees in Afghanistan, South America, everywhere,” declared the tenorist), that rang out the previous evening, in the same room.

From the West Coast came altoist David Binney’s Angeleno Group, intriguingly comprising twin bassists Logan Kane and Ethan Moffitt as well as in-demand drum star Justin Brown. Binney premiered new music for an upcoming release on Ghost Note Records called Tomorrow’s Journey, and his mood seemed somber, disinterested in winning over a remote audience. He let his episodic, wide-ranging music do the talking and hardly moved from a static stance, affording his young sidemen plenty of space, despite his own exhaustive virtuosity.

Another virtuoso presided for the penultimate performance of the festival, with Jimmy Greene delivering a late set on Labor Day. Aware that Greene is a solid tenor/soprano saxist, it was a revelation to realize just how good he is, and what a prolific composer he is, too. In contrast to Binney, Greene’s large frame moved plenty, and his eagerness to impart feelings as well as technical prowess shone like his silver tenor under the makeshift studio lights. “Big Guy” from his Mack Ave release Flowers: Beautiful Life — Volume 2 was salient and an epic reharmonization of Cole Porter’s “So In Love” from the recent While Looking Up (2020), abetted by the executive rhythm team of Reuben Rogers, Aaron Goldberg, Mike Moreno and Kendrick Scott.

Artist-in-residence and Flint, Michigan-bred vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater made sure women weren’t underrepresented, premiering her all-woman big band on the closing night. Elsewhere in the program pianist Pamela Wise presided in an afro-Cuban infused quartet with local hero, reedist Wendell Harrison, and Anat Cohen, with sweeping confidence, smiles and verve, fronted her stunning ensemble in cahoots with Oded Lev-Ari, parlaying (alongside guitarist Sheryl Bailey with her Santana-esque flourishes) nostalgic clarinet swing among more plaintive cuts from her tentet’s 2019 release Triple Helix (Anzic).

Alicia Olatuja exhaled, “So glad to get out of the house!” in front of the cameras in the sepulchral Renaissance ballroom, optimistically urging viewers, “Go out and meet the sun. Instead of waiting for opportunities, go out and create them.” She sang her saucy revamp of Tracey Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” from Intuition: Songs From the Minds Of Women as well as Sade’s “No Ordinary Love.” The detailed narrative “Cherokee Louise” was particularly evocative.

Shirazette Tinnin was a fixture in Olatuja’s quintet, and the drummer also helmed Bridgewater’s orchestra. Elsewhere, the redoubtable Terri Lyne Carrington co-led a celebration of Charlie Parker at 100 with Rudresh Mahanthappa, remarkable young trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, Matt Penman and Kris Davis, that had been scheduled to tour widely pre-pandemic. One has to wonder what Bird would make of Mahanthappa’s re-imaginings. Though the altoist cites Parker as a primary influence, the topography of his pugnacious, ultra-fleet lines remains infused with the dynamic ebb-and-flow of the Carnatic and Hindustani music he has also closely investigated. The band did concede a lightly displaced “Little Suede Shoes” after recasting rarities “Segment” and “Constellation,” and after tour de force ensemble work over apocalyptic ostinati, Mahanthappa threw in a rapid kiss-off of Bird’s wry “English Country Garden” quote. A highlight was über resourceful pianist Davis’ fiendish “Bird Call Blues” — a witty, ingenious mélange of “Blues For Alice” and Messiaen’s “Le Petit Esquisses d’oiseaux (movement 5).” DB

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