If one thing came to mind, among many at this year’s 33rd Annual Detroit Jazz Fest, it’s that youth has nothing to do with giving show stopping performances. The veteran musicians showed up and showed out as much, if not more than the younger artists on the festival’s line up.
Exhibit A: Sonny Rollins, whose electrifying performance during the festival’s opening night made me seriously doubt the the fact that he is 81 years-old, and will be 82 in a few days.
Dressed in an over-sized white shirt and rocking his light gray hair in a free style form, the legendary saxophonist didn’t waste any time going over the history of his music; instead he got down to business and broke into the classic recording “St.Thomas” from his 1956 album Saxophone Colossus. As soon as the drum solo commenced during the famous calapso tune, Rollins went into overload blowing away on the tenor sax so fiercely that it seemed he rarely came up for air. His improvisational skills soared and he created waves of tenor magic that have yet to be imitated.
Rollins was one of many outstanding musicians who packed in thousands of people to downtown Detroit this past Labor Day Weekend to witness the brilliance and freedom of a music so sacred to music history, and in particular to Detroit’s rich musical heritage. There was no shortage of creative musical eminence at the festival, whose headliners included Wynton Marsalis, Rollins, Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter, and Chick Corea. This year’s theme was “Detroit Jazz and You,” which meant that local musicians were represented to the fullest throughout the festival. Renowned hometown musicians such as trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and drummer Louis Hayes performed during the festival. Saxophonist Kenny Garrett, bassist Rodney Whitaker, and drummer Gerald Cleaver were also among the many other creative talent that took the stage in full swing.
Belgrave, who has been a major force on the Detroit scene and beyond, as well as mentored many famous musicians from the Motor City, gave the festival a special treat by performing with his homecoming band, which featured Detroit born musicians bassist Marion Hayden, pianist Ian Finkelstein, Hayes, Fuller, saxophonist Vincent Bowens and vocalist Harvey Thompson. At 76, Belgrave proved that he is still sharp as a razor and his rich, reserved tone on the trumpet was better than ever as he orchestrated beautiful solos during his tribute to hard bop legend Horace Silver.
The entire band swung while going through pieces like “Ecaroh” and drifted to new measures on the soft ballad “Peace.”
As always, the only inconvenience of attending a festival of this magnitude is that it is virtually impossible to catch every performance, no matter how fast you walk from one stage to the next. But, the performances I did manage to see definitely did not disappoint. Mack Avenue Records selected a group of musicians on their roster to perform and show off their distinct compositions either in trio or quartet format. That round up included the swift sounds of saxophonist Tia Fuller, trumpeter Sean Jones, guitarists Evan Perri and Kevin Eubanks, drummer Carl Allen, and pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, among others. The Superband was led by Rodney Whitaker who also performed on bass.
Fuller and Jones, who have recorded together engaged in solo battles as both artists stretched their instruments to its highest range during their performance of Fuller’s original piece “Decisive Steps” from her last album of the same name.
It was also nice to see a symphonic jazz lineup led by saxophonist Steve Wilson, who entertained the audience with Cole Porter standards from the album, Charlie Parker with Strings. Any musician playing compositions by Bird has got to hold their own, and Wilson certainly had no problem navigating the complex bebop structures created by Parker. Wilson and arranger David O Rourke also debuted their project “Journey to Wilsonia,” a three movement suite orchestrated for strings and saxophone.
While there were many amazing performances throughout the weekend, the most spectacular performance of the festival had to be the Wayne Shorter Quintet, which featured Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums. A tribute performance of Shorter’s music took place shortly before the 79 year-old jazz musician/composer took the stage, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for what was going to happen. Shorter conjured up the spirits of all of the free jazz legends of his time and his electrifying skills ascended to new levels that I had never seen before. The band started off in a gradual manner, each member in sync and following Shorter’s moves as he played short, subtle phrases. Then, there was a succession of experimental wonders from the band as Shorter ventured off into a fast, high pitched zone on the sax while Blade hammered on the drums in blinding speed and Patitucci aggressively provided the bass line along with virtuoso piano runs by Perez. It was like each member was doing his own thing but still stayed on the same pace.
Their performance completely summed up exactly what the Detroit Jazz Festival is all about: taking jazz to new heights while celebrating a historic music unlike any other.
Sidenote: The Detroit Jazz Festival took place August 31- September 3. For more highlights and information, visit detroitjazzfest.com