[JPL] Jazz fest closes with Clayton’s nod to jazz heroes of Detroit
drjazz at drjazz.com
Tue Sep 8 22:14:33 EDT 2009
Jazz fest closes with Clayton’s nod to jazz heroes of Detroit
By MARK STRYKER
FREE PRESS MUSIC CRITIC/
The Detroit International Jazz Festival has not previously been in the
business of commissioning composers to create new works, but it invested
heavily in the idea this year in honor of its 30th anniversary.
The festival, which came to a close downtown on Monday night, brought
two significant large ensemble works to life. Gerald Wilson’s “Detroit,”
a six-movement suite for big band, was heard on Sunday. (The piece has
already been recorded for Mack Avenue Records and is scheduled for a
Sept. 29 release.)
But the most eagerly anticipated work was “T.H.E. Family, Detroit,”
composed by 2009 artist-in-residence John Clayton and given its world
premiere Monday in the featured closing slot at Hart Plaza. The
three-movement suite pays homage to Thad, Hank and Elvin Jones, the
iconic brothers from Pontiac who became legends of jazz. The commission,
which played into this year’s celebration of family, was underwritten by
a $50,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation of Chicago that also supported
related residency and education activities.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of such an ambitious commission to
the artistic growth of the festival. It sharpens the aesthetic profile,
putting the festival into the mode of curating the art form rather than
simply booking acts. Of course, there is no guarantee that the results
will pay off with a great piece; you pays your money, and you takes your
chances. But there’s no need to worry about Clayton’s piece. He has
delivered one of his strongest works — a major, 30-minute suite, forged
from the soil of Detroit, by a composer feasting on the marrow of the
city’s jazz legacy.
The piece is cast as a concerto grosso with a small ensemble of soloists
(Clayton Brothers Quintet) paired with a large ensemble (the 18-piece
Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra from Detroit). Each movement is a
character portrait of a Jones brother — Thad (1923-86), a trumpeter who
became a major influence as a big band composer, arranger and leader;
Hank, the sole surviving brother at 91, an elegant pianist who performed
at the festival on Friday; and Elvin (1927-2004), one of the great
drummers in jazz history, whose animalistic intensity and rhythmic
innovations have entered the music’s DNA. The piece also opens with a
splashy fanfare in honor of the Guardian Building, an art deco downtown
landmark that symbolizes the city’s golden age.
What was most striking about Monday’s premiere was hearing how
effectively Clayton has managed to distill the personality of the Jones
brothers without sacrificing his own voice. Hearing the piece was like
holding up a mirror and always seeing a reflection of Clayton and
whichever brother he was channeling at the moment. The bravura boogaloo
strut and dense harmony of the brassy fanfare immediately conjured up
Thad. So did the pixieish saxophone section with soprano lead that
scampered through the “T” movement.
Actually, Thad, a longtime influence on Clayton, was a constant
presence, even in the movements dedicated to other brothers. In “H,” the
hymn-like cadences and stately melody carried by Jeff Clayton’s debonair
alto saxophone perfectly suited Hank’s refined élan and spirituality.
Yet the pastel colors created by four clarinets, bass clarinet and the
brass section in bucket mutes was a vintage bit of Thad’s orchestration.
The finale, “E,” was built on broken 12/8 rhythms and swirling triplets,
aggressive percussion and portentous modality — all ideas associated
with Elvin. Yet the imaginative way Clayton meshed the big band and
quintet, mixing and matching foreground and background and orchestrating
key moments with piquant details, kept his personality front and center.
While there was a logical arc and flow to the work, and the three
movements created a gestalt, they weren’t linked by formal symphonic
development. Still, Clayton cleverly pitted the two ensembles in a game
of cat-and-mouse. They began as self-contained units, handing large
sections off to each like a relay baton. Then they began to court each
other, slowly working toward the integration of the third movement.
The players in both ensembles performed with focused expression, and
while a few transitions and other passages were not as polished as they
could have been, the music spoke clearly. The Clayton Brothers Quintet
was a huge asset. The band — with John on bass, his brother Jeff on
alto, Terrell Stafford on trumpet, John’s son Gerald Clayton on piano
and Obed Calvaire on drums — snapped with pulsating swing and intensity.
Stafford’s trumpet solos, full of fiercely articulated lines and a huge
sound that pierced the night sky, were highlights.
Jeff Clayton’s sumptuous ballad playing and passionate, Johnny
Hodges-like vibrato came to the fore in “H,” which opened with Gerald
Clayton’s lovely a cappella turn through the song. Calvaire, an
exceptionally gifted young drummer was a dynamic presence whether
powering the quintet or engaging in a theatrical drum duet with Scott
Kretzer at the close of “E.” John Clayton’s bass was a solid anchor, and
he conducted both the opening and closing sections. Gwinnell conducted
the rest of the piece and the inspired orchestra did itself proud. So
did Clayton, who wrote a terrific piece, and so did festival executive
director Terri Pontremoli, who had the foresight to commission the work
in the first place.
Dr. Jazz Operations
Oak Park, MI 48237
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