Resilient Detroit Jazz Festival Remains Pre-Eminent

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Few festivals proved as valiant as Detroit through the dark days of the pandemic. Pictured: Chucho Valdés and Emmet Cohen.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Few festivals proved as valiant as Detroit through the dark days of the pandemic. In both 2020 and 2021, the world’s largest free jazz bonanza presented broadcast-only performances from purpose-built sound stages in a downtown hotel. It wasn’t terribly exciting for the musicians, though, and several registered bemusement at the lack of audience participation, so important to the give-and-take of live performance. Festival foundation chair Gretchen Valade and Artistic Director Chris Collins maintained the prestigious profile for the 43rd edition, however, without missing a proverbial beat. Stellar saxophonists are always a feature (since Collins is one himself), and this year saw a return of Jerry Bergonzi throwing down at the behest of David Liebman, who convened (only for their second hit) The Lighthouse Project. This heavy quartet with drummer Adam Nussbaum and bassist Gene Perla was formed to recreate the energy the latter shared with Liebman and Elvin Jones back in the ’70s.

Despite the presence of Donny McCaslin, Joe Lovano, homeboy JD Allen, British up-and-comer Nubya Garcia and versatile new voice Rafeal Leafar, though, it was stellar pianists who ruled the roost. Regrettably missing Ethan Iverson’s early set on Sunday, DownBeat did catch the punchy Vijay Iyer Trio at the Pyramid Stage the night before, followed by closer Abdullah Ibrahim at the picturesque downtown JP Morgan Chase stage. Previous collaborator Marcus Gilmore (Roy Haynes’ grandson) subbed for Tyshawn Sorey on drums, who features on the trio’s 2021 album Uneasy (ECM), and Linda May Han Oh captivated with rippling, sinewy contrabass counterpoint.

The concrete cloister of the Pyramid Stage, free from the noise pollution of the Absopure Waterfront, is perhaps the best stage for piano trio (at least from the audience’s point of view). Salient amidst Iyer’s de rigueur intense dynamics was a thunderous take on Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed”; a nod to his Detroit-born mentor Geri Allen with Allen’s “Drummer’s Song,” plus a poignant tribute to the “Children Of Flint,” which had its genesis in a classical commission with the theme of “water.” Iyer urged audience members to donate to flintkids.org, and appended consideration for those affected by floods in Pakistan and Jackson, Mississippi.

The topicality and urgency of Iyer’s set was contrasted by Abdullah Ibrahim’s relaxed-as-molasses comping behind the fiery front line of Ekaya, which included classy baritone saxophone from Marshall McDonald and muted trombone from Andrae Murchison. The centred, Ellingtonian insouciance of Ibrahim (now 88) has further elongated in advanced age, but he was ever thus and always apt to recast back-catalog chestnuts, including the crystalline “Sotho Blue” and irrevocable, inevitable “The Wedding.” He also included Thelonious Monk’s more rambunctious “Skippy.”

Though a comparative whippersnapper at 80, Chucho Valdés, born almost 8,000 miles away from Ibrahim’s Capetown birthplace, in Quivicán, Cuba, presided as the DJF’s artist-in-residence and opened the fest with his Yoruban Orchestra’s ambitious “Creation,” featuring Hilario Duran and John Beasley. More off-the-cuff, he later duetted with Dianne Reeves on dyed-in-the wool standard repertoire and carried that over to his closing quartet set Monday night in Cadillac Square, with such balladry as “It Never Entered My Mind.” Peppering his selections with populist quips referencing Watermelon Man and Brubeck’s 9/8 romp “Blue Rondo À La Turk,’ the big man then opted for a Mozart medley and had to keep vamping when the multipage sheet music blew away in the night breeze. Valdéz has revisited a concept he documented in 1972 with a group featuring the choppy Yoruban beats of the batá drum for his highly recommended Mack Avenue debut Jazz Bata 2 and revived his coruscating solo on the augmented harmonies of the bolero “Luces,” live on the DJF’s main stage. Mack Avenue label-mate Emmet Cohen caught Valdés’ climactic set after his own high-velocity trio outing at the Pyramid with drummer Kyle Poole and bassist Yasushi Nakamura. Cohen’s afro bounced in tandem with his mighty piano fingers that seem capable of anything, dancing through “Toast To Lo” (a tribute to the late drummer Lawrence Leathers), the rollocking, ambidextrous title track to his excellent 2021 release “Future Stride” and a show-stopping blues dedicated to Joey De Francesco; he even squeezed sufficient indigo juice from the otherwise lugubrious “Lil Darlin’.”

Nakamura, whose rippling quote from Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” revealed a primal (sic) influence, had played the previous night with Cécile McLorin Salvant. Savant exhumed Sondheim’s classic lyrics to “Some People” from her favorite musical Gypsy, spellbound the capacity crowd (when doesn’t she?) with her segue of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” and “Breathing,” which has added resonance after the horrors of COVID victims on ventilators.

José James had set the same stage for such high vocal drama a few hours earlier with selections from his Yesterday I Had the Blues Billie Holiday project, including brave (and at intervals innovative) takes on the quintessential “God Bless The Child” and “Strange Fruit.”

83-years-young Charles McPherson, sharing the frontl ine with Lynch, presented not anticipated standard fare, but original music drawn from Jazz Dance Suites, a self-produced project inspired by his daughter, dancer Camille. After a rendition of the enigmatic “Song Of The Sphinx,” commissioned by the San Diego Ballet, he reminded the crowd at the Carhartt Amphitheater, “I told you we ain’t bums!”

Perhaps the most impressive set at the Carhartt came courtesy of the latest incarnation of the all-female sextet Artemis, however: Renee Rosnes, Ingrid Jensen, Nicole Glover, Alexa Tarantino, Noriko Ueda and Allison Miller. The latter stoked the action with an authoritative polyrhythmic drum solo over the chameleonic “Galapagos” and kicked off her theme for the group, “Goddess Of The Hunt.” Though musical director Rosnes’ tempo-retarded take on Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” (check their eponymous Blue Note debut) seemed almost sarcastic, it didn’t want for burning solos from every participant, including the highly focussed Nicole Glover, who exhibited all the grit and rhythmic determination of Joe Henderson, present on the 1963 original. DB



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