[JPL] Jazz fest closes with Clayton’s nod to jazz heroes of Detroit

Dr. Jazz 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
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