[JPL] Review of the Detroit Jazz Fest 2007
drjazz at drjazz.com
Wed Sep 5 22:47:26 EDT 2007
Return to jazz roots makes 2007 fest one of the best
September 4, 2007
BY MARK STRYKER
FREE PRESS MUSIC CRITIC
There are many reasons why the 28th annual Detroit International Jazz
Festival was the most inspired since the event expanded its footprint
into the downtown core in 2005. In fact, with the possible exception of
1999, this year's festival, which closed Monday, was the most memorable
in my 12 years in Detroit.
More than anything else, it came down to this: Organizers put their
faith back into jazz and fresh programming ideas -- not crossover
styles, R&B, zydeco or the same-old, same-old names and formulas. There
was a substantial theme: the Rumble in the Great Lakes between Detroit
and Chicago musicians. And Detroit-born violinist Regina Carter appeared
three times as the festival's first artist in residence.
There were real-deal jazz stars on the bill like Herbie Hancock,
progressive warriors like trumpeter Charles Tolliver and hip beboppers
like pianist Bill Charlap's trio. More former Detroiters were on hand
than usual, including multi-reedman Yusef Lateef, ageless at 86, who
even played the blues Monday night on oboe. For the first time in eons,
the avant-garde had a place at the table, and the breadth of the Detroit
scene was better represented this year, too.
But the best thing was not just that you kept bumping into brilliant
music but how much great stuff you missed.
On Sunday afternoon, for example, I couldn't hear what I was told was a
fine set by guitarist Russell Malone because I was encamped at the
amphitheater in front of Tolliver's blazing post-bop big band. That
night, Conrad Herwig's Latin Side of Miles, Trane & Wayne -- one of the
most compelling bands I heard all weekend -- overlapped at least two
other appointment acts, clarinetist-saxophonist Don Byron's Tribute to
Junior Walker and the Gerald Wilson Big Band.
So it was all weekend. Those kind of scheduling frustrations are
actually a plus, adding the kind of overstimulation that builds
momentum. In years past, a jazz fan could go hours without being moved
to cheer; this year, if you blinked you missed something grand. There
were some R&B stars in play, among them Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette
on Monday, and there was blues and funk to be heard, but the karma of
the festival was better because the balance was right.
Helped by spectacular weather, attendance appeared to be up sharply.
Preliminary reports said concession sales through Sunday were up 40%
compared with last year, and the stages were packed more consistently
than I can ever remember. Last year's crowds were estimated at 600,000.
Not all of the new ideas fully blossomed, among them the playful
competition between Detroit and Chicago. That was because Chicago's
bebop tradition was nowhere to be found and because there wasn't a
high-profile evening collaboration of players from both cities.
Still, there was only one true folly: Organizers relocated the major
stage at the beautiful miracle of Campus Martius Park to an ugly side
street near Cadillac Square -- something about larger audience capacity
and better sight lines in the new space.
In fact, the resulting shoebox felt more cramped, with inferior sight
lines for those stuck in the back, a less attractive view of Detroit's
cityscape and sound quality generally inferior to what the park offered.
*All about the music*
So why the great leap forward this year? The festival, produced by a
recently endowed Jazz Festival Foundation, has new leadership, with
Executive Director Terri Pontremoli taking the artistic reins from Frank
Malfitano. Jazz fans still owe Malfitano roses for expanding the
festival up Woodward and broadening the programming beyond
straight-ahead jazz and blues.
But the pendulum swung too far toward populism under Malfitano, and the
jazz programming turned perfunctory, even stale. The opening-night
double bill of Carter's quintet and Hancock's quartet at a jam-packed
Cadillac Square was a fitting symbol for the new era. The past few
festivals used Motown or R&B as a kickoff, but starting with Carter and
Hancock gave the event a welcome jolt of the real McCoy, even if Hancock
played up the funkier side of his personality.
Hancock's V8-powered quartet with guitarist Lionel Loueke, electric
bassist Nathan East and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta may have been built to
boogie, but the great pianist also found lots of room for improvisation
in a nearly 2-hour set. The fun was watching him squeeze advanced
harmonic and rhythmic concepts into the corners of the music without
dampening the grooves.
As early as Saturday afternoon, there was a feeling in the air that
something special was afoot: a reaffirmation of the Detroit festival's
historic willingness to embrace all of the tradition without timidity or
Back-to-back sets at the Pyramid Stage by Detroit's Faruq Z. Bey and the
Northwoods Improvisers, followed by charismatic percussionist Kahil
El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble from Chicago, drove a stake through
the mistaken notion that a festival audience can't relate to free jazz.
El'Zabar's dynamic ensemble, which connected the dots between the
African diaspora and earthy open-form improvisation, was a special
The healthy afternoon crowd cheered wildly. It was the kind of music
that people will carry with them for years, and the same could be said
for the 2007 festival as a whole.
/Contact *MARK STRYKER* at 313-222-6459 or mstryker at freepress.com
Dr. Jazz Operations
Oak Park, MI 48237
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