[JPL] Sunday's highlights from DJF
drjazz at drjazz.com
Wed Sep 3 23:18:45 EDT 2008
Jam-packed Sunday challenges a jazz critic's stamina
BY MARK STRYKER . FREE PRESS MUSIC CRITIC . September 1, 2008
If any more evidence was needed that the Detroit International Jazz
Festival has elevated its product in the last two years, the gloriously
stuffed schedule of overlapping talent on Sunday was it. The laws of
metaphysics made it impossible to hear it all, and no sane person would
even try to ingest as much as I did. Of course, jazz critics have never
been known for their mental stability.
Here's a diary of thoughts about the performances I heard at Hart Plaza
starting in the mid afternoon, after filing my previous dispatch about
the music I heard earlier on Sunday.
I walked in on fleet-fingered guitarist Pat Martino in mid-flight at the
Waterfront Stage around 4 p.m. as he was soaring through Sonny Rollins'
"Oleo," a bebop staple that Martino had souped-up with hip chord
substitutions. Paced by a dynamic rhythm section at the waterfront
stage, Martino's impeccable articulation and speed as he smoked through
the harmony was inhuman. Martino's approach is scientific in its
mathematical precision and perfection, and it grows wearisome after a
while. But it's jaw-dropping for a tune or two.
Tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane's tribute to his late mother, Alice
Coltrane --- born Alice McLeod in Detroit --- was one of the most
eagerly anticipated sets of the festival. It did not disappoint. The
weighty air of ritual that descended upon the Main Amphitheater
reflected the spirit of a woman whose life traced a remarkable journey,
from bebop pianist to pillar of the avant-garde and Eastern religious
mystic. The music pulsated with turbulent dissonance and peaceful
stasis, searching modality, rhythmic expressionism and, of course,
echoes of John Coltrane, the revolutionary saxophonist whom she married
in the '60s.
Ravi, who has handled the mantle of his parents' legacy with humility
and grace, has matured into a compelling soloist. His incantatory sound
on "Translinear Light" and the spiraling fury of several solos were
channeled from his father's sound world. Still, it was interesting that
his most personal playing came on the music least obviously cut from the
Coltrane family cloth: Charlie Haden's "For Turiya," a spare, melodic
gem with an even-8th note beat and brighter harmony, promoted Ravi's
most melodically and rhythmically varied phrasing. Pianist and native
Detroiter Geri Allen, resplendent in a flowing orange robe similar to
those favored by Alice, played sweeping arpeggios, liquid textures and
bursts of etched rhythm that partnered beautifully with Haden's direct
melodic sensibility and drummer Jack DeJohnette's fierce intensity and
command of color.
I checked in around 6 with the tribute to the late tenor saxophonist
Donald Walden, a warrior-sage on the local scene, who died in April at
age 69. What I saw when I arrived at the Pyramid Stage symbolized the
critical role that teachers and mentors have played in creating and
preserving Detroit's remarkable jazz history. Alto saxophonist Charles
McPherson and pianist Barry Harris were scampering through a fast blues
with bassist and tribute organizer Marion Hayden and drummer Bert
Myrick. Harris, the legendary bebop guru, taught both McPherson, one of
his most famous protégés, and Walden, who eventually became an important
mentor on the local scene. The next tune featured veteran Detroit
pianist Kenn Cox and a fine young tenor saxophonist named Michael
Hiemstra, who --- to close the circle --- studied with Walden at the
University of Michigan.
From Walden's tribute, it was back to the Waterfront Stage to hear the
79-year-old tenor saxophonist and composer Benny Golson, who wrote a
gaggle of jazz classics in the '50s and early '60s. It's always a
pleasure to hear Golson essay his own standards like "I Remember
Clifford" and "Along Came Betty." But despite some isolated moments of
inspiration, Golson, pianist Mike LeDonne, bassist Buster Williams and
drummer Carl Allen, delivered suave interpretations that sounded by
rote. It probably didn't help that the loquacious Golson has been
offering the same extended spoken introductions to his most famous tunes
for years, word-for-word in some cases. I've heard Golson play with more
surprise on other occasions.
I passed through the Main Amphitheatre around 7:30 and was practically
assaulted by the Detroit-born alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, whose band
was cranked up to ridiculous proportion. Sound bleed from the
amphitheater has been a constant issue this year, sometimes ruining
performances at the other venues. I feel like my parents: TURN IT DOWN!
Garrett was also so deep into his electric funk bag that I barely
recognized the sound of his alto. I love the blistering cry of Garrett
in full jazz mode. His fusion thing? Not so much.
Back to the Pyramid Stage: Gerald Cleaver's Detroit, led by the drummer
and former Detroiter, celebrated the spirit of his hometown and his
mentors. The Cleaver originals I heard cast a progressive shadow, with
broken-Latin grooves, free bop interludes, a rhythm section that slipped
in and out of time at will and some simultaneous improvising by the
wailing reeds . The sextet included trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, tenor
saxophonist J.D. Allen, saxophonist and bass clarinetist Andrew Bishop,
pianist Ben Waltzer and bassist Chris Lightcap.
I was about to chalk up Cleaver's set as about the hottest I'd heard
until I returned to the Waterfront Stage for the tail end of the set by
trumpeter Roy Hargrove's Quintet. Lord have mercy --- the cats were on
fire, transforming Cedar Walton's politely funky "I'm Not So Sure" into
nuclear-powered soul-jazz. Hargrove preached, biting into speech
rhythms, growling, reaching for high notes and generally playing with
little regard for personal safety. The young rhythm section of pianist
Gerald Clayton, bassist Danton Boller and killin' drummer Montez Coleman
played wild abandon, without mortgaging focus or groove. I wish I could
have heard more.
Sunday's grand finale promised a battle of the bands with the orchestras
of Gerald Wilson and Count Basie. My energy was fading by the time the
show started around 10 (some 45 minutes late and nine hours after I
arrived at Hart Plaza.) Still, the sight of the Main Amphitheater stage
set up for two big bands was like a jolt of caffeine. So was the
prospect of hearing Wilson, an influential composer-arranger and Cass
Tech grad, who turns 90 this week, finally perform at the festival at
the helm of his own Los Angeles band instead of a pick-up group.
Regrettably, it was hard to tell exactly how good the band sounded
because the sound mix was awful --- the bass was too loud, the horns
muddy. At times, the bass, drums and ensemble were so far apart in terms
of the time feel that I can only assume that the sound on stage was such
that the players simply couldn't hear each other.
Having said that, there were some nice moments, especially Wilson's
indefatigable constitution in front of the band and the guest appearance
by Detroit-born guitarist Kenny Burrell, 77 and looking as dapper as all
get out in his gray slacks and blue blazer. He played the blues and
caressed one of Wilson's most lyrical ballads with his trademark sound
that's still as warm and supple as ever.
The Basie band's set was more rewarding, partly because the balance and
mix on that side of the stage was so much better than the fate of
Wilson's crew. The band swung tightly through staples by Frank Wess,
Ernie Wilkins, Thad Jones and Frank Foster (the latter two have Detroit
ties). I could have done without guest vocalist Nnenna Freelon's
taffy-pull phrasing but that's my taste.
The big finish was worth waiting for: Both bands took the stage and,
under the direction of Dennis Wilson, launched into a quasi-improvised
arrangement of "One O'Clock Jump." A gaggle of guests --- pianists Geri
Allen and Gerald Clayton, Freelon, trombonist Steve Turre, Burrell and
bassist and festival artist-in-residence Christian McBride (using his
bow) --- all joined in the jam. Sure, it was loose, nay, sloppy. But
there was a lot of joy onstage and in the the audience and the feeling
was contagious. Besides, this was something you don't see every day, and
that's part of what a jazz festival is supposed to do. The final shout
chorus came roaring to a close just as the clock approached midnight ---
about 12 hours before it would be time to do it all again on Monday.
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