[JPL] Sunday's highlights from DJF

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Wed Sep 3 23:18:45 EDT 2008

Jam-packed Sunday challenges a jazz critic's stamina


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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