Veterans Offer Soulful, Stimulating Sets at Detroit Jazz Festival

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Roy Hargrove performs at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Sept. 3.

(Photo: Tony Graves)

Jazz is urban music, and no festival feels quite so urban as the Detroit Jazz Festival, which took place over Labor Day weekend on three stages in the concrete environs of Hart Plaza, adjoining the Detroit River, and on a single stage three blocks north on Cadillac Square.

At this annual festival, the shows overlap, so it behooves attendees both to strategize and be quick on their feet if they want to hear a good percentage of the offerings of the extraordinary, trans-generational array of performers who descend on the Motor City for this all-killer, no-filler free event. In the past, the festival has attracted an informed, multicultural audience, and this year was no exception.

On Sept. 3, the second day of the 37th edition, DownBeat’s correspondent—in town to conduct a public Blindfold Test with guitarist John Abercrombie on the Absopure Waterfront Stage—was able to catch eight performances.

After portions of a well-wrought two-part tribute to Afrofuturist Detroit pianist Kenny Cox (1940–2008)—who documented only a small portion of his musical production on three cusp-of-the-’70s albums for Blue Note and Strata-East—I transitioned to the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage for a concert featuring pianist Randy Weston and his long-time associate T.K. Blue in collaboration with the Wayne State University Big Band, trained by DJF artistic director Chris Collins.

It was Weston’s second collaboration with the WSU big band, which interpreted trombonist Melba Liston’s arrangements of “Blues To Africa,” “The Healers,” “Little Niles” and “Hi-Fly,” and Blue’s arrangement of the rhythmically gnarly “African Village, Bedford-Stuyvesant” with clarity, precision and focus, propelled by a strong student drummer.

Weston, who recently turned 90, treated his own iconic compositions as sources for creative invention, not repetition, in the manner of his muse, Duke Ellington. Weston also channeled Ellington’s orchestral pianistic approach, addressing the keyboard with a succession of free-associative melodic declamations—some gentle, some spiky—that he rendered in his singular harmonic argot, elaborating on stories with notes and tones drawn from the lowest bass to the highest treble register.

In functioning with the inexperienced, conventionally configured rhythm section, he took charge of the flow more explicitly than when bassist Alex Blake and percussionist Neil Clarke are playing in his African Rhythms band. Weston was continually in the moment, particularly when dialoguing with or comping for Blue, whose kinetic improvisations evoked a refracted blend of Bird, Cannonball, Benny Carter and Jackie McLean.

After a smooth-as-butter solo by a student baritone saxophonist on the penultimate number, “Hi-Fly,” fellow nonagenarian Jimmy Heath joined Weston for the proceedings, and uncorked a swinging, deliberate, melody-drenched three-chorus solo.

I hustled back to Absopure Waterfront in time to hear 30-year-old pianist Alfredo Rodriguez’s “American trio” (Bulgarian bassist Peter Slavov and Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole) play three selections from The Invasion Parade, his second album for the Detroit-based Mack Avenue label.

Now an entity of several years standing, the trio displayed telepathic simpatico, engaging in heady polyrhythmic dialogue between Rodriguez and Cole—triangulated by Slavov—on “Invasion Parade,” then rendering the standard bolero “Veinte Años (Twenty Years)” with nuanced collective dynamics that showcased Rodriguez’s finely calibrated touch and voice-leading abilities.

After the third selection, Rodriguez announced that the trio would play several tunes from his current release, Tocororo (Mack Avenue). The group launched into “Yemaya” with a real-time re-harmonized chant that he complemented with subtone piano passages.

I wanted to stay, but to do so would mean missing an all-star band at the Wayne State University Pyramid Stage under the putative leadership of pianist Stanley Cowell, but also including trumpeter Charles Tolliver (who co-founded the Strata East label with Cowell) and tenor saxophonist Billy Harper (who made his debut recording, Capra Black, for that label in 1972), and a slightly younger but highly experienced rhythm section comprising bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Carl Allen.

I arrived during the final moments of a trio selection intended, Cowell said, “to let the rhythm section put the pots on and get the fires burning.” Tolliver and Harper emerged to play Tolliver’s “On The Nile.” After raise-the-spirits turbulence from Harper, Tolliver uncorked a characteristically brash, in-your-face, turn-the-clock-back-to-the-’60s solo chock-a-block with daring intervals and percussive blasts.

Cowell signified with a percussive solo of his own, interpolating action-painting clusters that resolved to harmonic consonance. The set included Harper’s “The Light Within,” a 6/8 piece on which the veteran horn players laid it all on the line; Cowell’s “Dave’s Chant,” dedicated to the late educator David Baker; and Tolliver’s “Ruthie’s Heart,” on which the trumpeter, by now completely warmed up, unleashed another bold, ferocious declamation.

Back at Absopure Waterfront, Abercrombie and his organ trio (Jared Gold on Hammond B-3, Adam Nussbaum on drums) played three conversational numbers—“How Deep Is The Ocean,” “Ralph’s Piano Waltz” and “Flip Side”—with a swinging, harmonically focused attitude.

Then it was time to stroll to Carhartt to hear saxophonist Chris Potter’s Underground Orchestra, a star-studded group with mid-career master improvisers Steve Nelson on vibraphone and marimba, Craig Taborn on piano and keys, Adam Rogers on guitar, Scott Colley on acoustic bass, Fima Ephron on electric bass, Nate Smith on drums and a string quartet headlined by virtuoso violinist Mark Feldman.

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