Motor City Music 2013 Edition

the-joe-louis-fist-scuplture-with-the-gmSo once again I made my annual pilgrimage to Detroit to see the largest free Jazz festival on the planet (That’s Jazz without price, not Jazz without form)

It’s still a great scene, and this being my 5th year, coming home to the RenCen for my annual vacation was great. Every festival should house all of its musicians in one hotel with one lobby, it makes for amazing situations involving old friends catching up and much needed meetings between generations of musicians.

The lineup this year was rather strange, there was no real ringer aside from Ahmad Jamal, at least not in the Jarrett/Metheney/Rollins/Coleman/Marsalis/Shorter stratosphere, and instead there were a large number of performers from the tier second from the top, which was great, of course.

The best shows of the weekend (I left on Monday morning, unfortunately) were in some way few and far-between. The Detroit festival has always been a proponent of “keeping the flame alive”, however this year there was a distinct lack of old-guard musicians, former hard bop pioneers in their 70s. In years past, there were Blakey alumni, Blue Note veterans, and a distinct focus on young musicians who were completely devoted to a certain part of the tradition. This year brought in more of the young NYC musicians, hard blowing, rough and tumble types who are more suited to cutting sessions at Smalls then gigs with elders.

The swerve away from the tradition, however slight, made for some interesting programming in the rest of the festival. David Murray’s big band, for example, would never have played on the main stage three years ago(under the direction of former director Terri Pontremoli, especially had the featured artist Macy Gray not been involved. It was great seeing the band’s atonal cries in Detroit, among the buildings of downtown. Murray sounded amazing, and his band seemed to consist of many young improvisors (none of which I had heard of) committed to the avant-garde and high level ensemble playing. Macy Gray was a different story, and although she was quite the hostess, her performance failed to deliver. Unfortunately, the rest of the concert was cancelled due to rain.

The next night brought an extremely interesting show: Charles Lloyd with guest Bill Frisell. As soon as I heard about this, I was extremely excited to hear Frisell alongside Lloyd collaborator Jason Moran, until I found out that my mother was seeing Jason Moran in Chicago the same night, and that Frisell was a sub.  It was still a very engaging listening experience. Hearing Frisell’s perfect textural playing alongside the groove-focused section of Rueben Rogers and Eric Harland was a compromised to behold. Charles, interestingly enough, seemed to tilt Bill’s way, creating a great combination of starting points for the ensemble.  Charles sounded much better and freer than when I saw him on his birthday, really responding to the new atmosphere created by Bill.  I’m starting to think more and more that the sound on his birthday was terrible on stage.

Right after them was the Sax Summit, with Ravi Coltrane, Dave Liebman, and Joe Lovano, with Cecil McBee, Billy Hart, and Phil Markowitz in the rhythm section. I got to see Cecil and Billy together twice over two days, and I’m so happy I did. The sound, unfortunately, was terrible at both shows in terms of the bass, McBee was far too loud both times. Honestly, the sound guys at Detroit were not at their best all festival, it was a real let-down. McBee and Hart still sounded great through all of the problems, though.

Liebman and Lovano are two saxophonists who are always great when given a little nudge, and having the other onstage was nudging enough to get things going. Now, I am a firm believer(and this probably is my Cleveland roots talking) that given the correct inspiration, Joe Lovano could cut any living saxophonist. I’ve seen him in various situations where he’s motivated, and no one can touch him. This night was no exception, especially on the first tune, “Alexander the Great”.  Lovano soling after Liebman while being poked and prodded by Cecil McBee and Billy Hart? There’s not much better than that. That’s not saying that Liebman didn’t show up to play. On Coltrane’s “India” he was as fiery as ever. Liebman is one of the most consistent musicians I know. I’ve never seen a disappointing performance of his. He’s always committed to the music at hand, always 100% in the moment. I wish other musicians with his visibility played in the same way.

The other show with Hart and McBee was with the Cookers, and man, was that a show.  There were so many shows that I walked in and out of that were hard-bop influenced, with this sheen of academia or hollywood that I hate so much. However it only took one bar of Billy Harper’s “Capra Black” to send shivers up my spine. The rawness of the players and the honesty and drive of the rhythm section was so great, so evocative of a kind of Jazz that is almost dead. The dark and mysterious playing of George Cables(who honestly doesn’t always play with that kind of dark fire), McBee, and Hart is something that I’m not sure you can really see anywhere else.  I had just seen Liebman, Lovano, James Carter, Gary Smulyan, Charles Lloyd, and David Murray, but I have to say that Billy Harper’s raw, brutal sound spoke more honestly to me than any of the others. Simply said, it was truth.

Also, a shout out to Billy Hart. I’ve seen him for a long time now, and as I see him in more and more situations, I realize that he is the consummate professional, bringing exactly what is needed into every gig he plays.  Billy’s intensity and George’s powerful accompaniment were matched by Billy, and it was interesting to see how much more he pushed the band with the Cookers than with Liebman and Lovano, even though the performance with Sax Summit was not in any way lacking. It just needed some different juice.

Liebman’s show with Richie Beirach was great too, although I had seen them before in NYC. As I said, they are a hallmark of consistency. The technical level is always amazingly high (especially Beirach, who seems to be in fine form lately), and the connection they have to their tunes is really special. Seeing them together is great because not only do they have a long friendship and history, but a specific harmonic world which both of them love to swim around in.  You hear imitators constantly, so to see the real thing is great.

The reason I wouldn’t have missed this year was Ahmad Jamal. When are you going to get to see Ahmad for free? His band consisted of percussionist Manolo Badrena, Herlin Riley and Reginald Veal. I’d never heard Herlin live, but of course it was magnificent. He is so great at creating original grooves and feeling out what the situation needs, and it was great to hear him work with Reginald to support Ahmad. Unfortunately, that’s about all the gig came to. Ahmad is still in decent pianistic form, although he is sticking to certain devices, not unlike Herbie is. He was more atonal that I imagined he’d be, and he seems to be thinking more about phrases and shapes than notes themselves. One such device was a trill in the left hand and wild arpeggios in the right, not clean, but rough and sloppy. I didn’t expect him to play that way.

What struck me about it was the presentation. It was a real show, one that all of the lay people in the audience absolutely loved. It was incredibly groove based, with no real songs or forms. The set consisted of 8 or so vamps, with Blue Moon in the middle, not so forward moving, but very groove based as well. They also played a burner, but in the Jamal style, with no real solos as expected in Jazz these days.

I was happy they played Poinciana, but very sad that there wasn’t more swinging.  Ahmad’s tone is glorious, and the extent I got to hear his great subtle swing feel was half a chorus during the encore.

Now, someday, when I’m a 70 year old pianist, I’ll probably understand why Ahmad had a percussionist in this trio. Maybe I’ll understand why there were percussionists on some of Bird’s recordings. I’ll understand why Sonny Rollins uses a percussionist. Why dizzy Gillespie used a percussionist on his bebop recordings. Right now, I don’t understand why this band had a percussionist. I will say that as utility percussionists go, Mandolo stayed out of the way, and played only as a second soloist while Ahmad was resting. Still, I wish I could have heard Herlin’s beat without the distracting marcha rhythm interacting with him. I’ve never heard a conga player make a trap set drummer groove more (now a timbales player, that’s a different story).

The dark horse for the festival was Eddie Daniels with Roger Kellaway. If you get a chance to see this band, do, it’s a fantastic mix of real improvisatory duo playing and great old standards played by men who understand them. Roger Kellaway is an amazing pianist who I’ve wanted to see and talk to since hearing his playing on Alfie, and to hear where his playing has ended up is quite interesting and fulfilling. He obviously has a great love for classical music, but also for some of the greats of the old days, Jimmy Rowles and the like. Really fantastic playing. I was surprised by how interactive and free they were, given the material and the context.

The best thing about Detroit, for my money, is the talk tent, a tent that has 8 talks a day, with a historical and educational mission. I only got to see three talks, but hearing Peter Pullman discuss his research on Bud Powell and David Berger talk about Ellington’s Black Brown and Beige was great.

They also hosted the yearly blindfold test by Ted Panken, probably my favorite Jazz journalist. The participants were Geri Allen and Danilo Perez. I was excited to hear Geri speak about music, but she mostly spoke on NYC in the 80s. The test will be out soon, I’m sure, but I was struck by two things: Danilo Perez has an incredible ear for music, and is very aware of his contemporaries, and Ted Panken may love 70s and 80s Jazz more than anyone.

Another great thing to see at the festival was the involvement and presence of other musicians. At the jam session, I got to play with my childhood hero, James Carter, which was an absolute thrill (if you’ve never been molly-whopped in public before, I don’t suggest it, but still). At Ahmad Jamal, it was great to look to my left and see Gregory Porter, Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes, and George Fludas checking out the gig. Hearing Johnny O’Neal play solo piano into the night after the jam session had finished was amazing as well. This kind of living needs to be celebrated and copied in every Jazz scene, as I keep saying. Keep the community alive.

The last thing I’ll say is that Detroit has some frightening young talent on the rise. Under the watchful eye of Marcus Belgrave, you can bet that in a few years another wave of monsters from the motor city are going to invade the Jazz scene.

“Man, Coltrane never wore socks! He’d be in a tuxedo, no socks!” —Tootie Heath

—Martin

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~ by Martin Porter on September 5, 2013.

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