Here’s E.E. Bradman’s road diary of a weekend with legends at the 2019 Detroit Jazz Festival
For many bass fanatics, Detroit is synonymous with James Jamerson — but it’s safe to say that without Motor City jazz, there’d be no Motown. Like his fellow Funk Brothers, Jamerson was one of the city’s working jazz musicians, an illustrious group that includes Yusef Lateef, Joe Henderson, Alice Coltrane, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, as well as brothers Elvin, Thad, and Hank Jones. “The history of jazz and the history of jazz from Detroit are indivisible,” says Mark Stryker in his 2019 book Jazz From Detroit. “You can’t tell one story without the other.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the city’s annual Detroit Jazz Fest, held over Labor Day weekend, draws more than 300,000 music lovers to the city’s downtown. For its 40th birthday, in 2019, festival organizers chose Stanley Clarke to be the artist-in-residence — and invited Bass Magazine to join the party.
The Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center is the tallest of seven skyscrapers at General Motors’ world headquarters, and the view from my room on the 21st floor is sharp: Below me, I can see the festival grounds, the sparkling Detroit River, and on this clear August day, Canada right across the water. The hotel lobby buzzes with excitement, and when I get to Jazz Fest, I see grown men dancing and grandmas drinking Miller Light as hipsters, Japanese tourists, high school kids, and families of every size and color take in Danilo Pérez’s Global Big Band. The sound system is primed for hip-hop — fat lows, clear highs, and not much in-between — but Pérez, with Jared Henderson on upright and vocalist Luciana Souza at the mic, gets things rolling with an affable, welcoming set.
The festival doesn’t really kick in, though, until Stanley Clarke hits the stage. “School Days” gets the crowd on their feet, and although the hour-long show has plenty of badass bass moments, the 68-year-old superstar seems excited to share the spotlight with the rest of the band. Giant screens make it easy to see every musician, and the crowd, diverse in every way, is in good spirits. I can’t help but smile when violinist Evan Garr’s blazing solo inspires one slightly tipsy onlooker to exclaim, “Stanley done found himself another Jean-Luc Ponty!”
Back at the Marriott that evening, organizers kick off the first jazz jam session of the festival in a swanky ballroom with candlelit tables. Jeffrey Pedraz ably anchors the house band as veteran Detroit musicians catch up outside the door. Young players step up to sit in, and the room comes alive until the wee hours.
Ron Carter and James Jamerson are the bass gods of this town, but “the D” is home to many other low-end titans, too. Doubler Ralphe Armstrong studied with both icons, and although he’s probably best known for his stints with Jean-Luc Ponty and Mahavishnu Orchestra back in the ’70s and ’80s, the 63-year-old is far from a has-been. Even on a packed plaza within earshot of three other performances, his hard- swinging, muscular approach with a trio and singer Freda Payne grabs my attention.
As I walk among a constant stream of folks with lawn chairs migrating between the four outdoor stages (as well as food trucks and festival vendors), I wonder if a free, open-air jazz festival can afford to take more programming risks than a festival that depends on ticket sales. Here, tradition is sacred: Shannon Wade does a fine job of conjuring history with Jon Kelso’s Hot 5, as does Roland Guerin with Shannon Powell’s New Orleans Jazz Masters, while Dan Kolton brings big tone to a celebration of beloved Detroit saxophonist George Benson. Vocalist Sheila Jordan, in a class by herself, is sensitively supported by Marion Hayden and her trio; in ELEW, a vibrant three-piece headed by powerhouse pianist Eric Lewis, Eric Wheeler isn’t shy about soloing.
The overall aesthetic is so legacy-heavy that I’m surprised to see Macy Gray on the schedule. Alex Khyn, playing a Rickenbacker through an Aguilar rig, starts the set with a brief solo, but Gray and her band seem tentative. Closer to home is the stately Ron Carter, 82, whose performance is a masterclass in confidence, musicality, and intonation. With his Gallien-Krueger MB112 combo up near his shoulders and a quartet that fits him like a glove, Carter is definitely a master at the top of his game.
I leave Australian phenom Dane Alderson and the Yellowjackets’ reliably catchy set early to get a good seat for Joe Lovano, whose nonet is firing on all cylinders. Sadly, Cameron Brown — pushing the band forward with every fiber of his being — is too low in the mix. Still, the music is a blast.
What do Armstrong, Carter, Chambers, Doug Watkins, Major Holley, and Al McKibbon have in common? They all went to Cass Tech, a Detroit public high school and jazz incubator since the ’40s. At a roundtable for journalists near the campus, Stanley joins five former Jazz Fest artists-in-residence (Pat Metheny, Danilo Pérez, Terence Blanchard, and native Detroiters Regina Carter and Ron Carter), who speak warmly of the city’s jazz history, the fans, and Jazz Fest artistic director Chris Collins’ avoidance of pop acts. Everyone, especially Stanley, pays homage to the easygoing Ron.
Back onsite, throwbacks are all the rage. Drummer Rob Pipho and Dan Kolton expertly anchor a group with shades of ’80s/’90s contemporary jazz. Similarly, Xavier Davis’ gorgeous integration of a string quartet into swinging arrangements propelled by former Terence Blanchard bass man Rodney Whitaker recall Blanchard’s orchestral/jazz contributions to Spike Lee films like Malcolm X.
If it’s mildly surprising to see Macy Gray at a jazz festival, it’s shocking to hear Red Baraat, who fuse Balkan brass-band flavor and funky Indian folk drumming, with sousaphone by John Altieri. But perhaps the appearance of these uptempo, in-your- face bhangra specialists is a nod to the reinvigorated spirit of Detroit, where Jazz Fest sponsor Quicken Loans, headed by founder Dan Gilbert, is a major player. In a city that’s cautiously hoping this latest uptick does the trick, a fun press jaunt to the sprawling, 129-year-old Eastern Market shopping district naturally leads to interesting discussions about race, gentrification, and police brutality.
Old-school Detroit is still alive in Thornetta Davis’ sassy rhythm & blues, enhanced by Joseph Veloz and his Jazz Bass 5-string, but I pull myself away to see Stanley again. His upright tone — woody, with signature articulations, slides, and vibrato — melds perfectly with trumpeter Wallace Roney, pianist Beka Gochiashvili, and Stanley’s Return To Forever bandmate Lenny White. The crowd applauds wildly for “Maiden Voyage,” “Two Bass Hit,” and 19-year-old saxophonist Emilio Modeste’s epic solo on “Footprints.”
The festival itself runs smoothly: Sets start more or less on time, security is present but chill, food is varied and reasonably priced, and the vibe is good; shows delayed by a few minutes of rain are quickly rescheduled. But not everyone survives the mixing board. Although Kenny Garrett’s transcendent sax solos take me back to late-era Miles, his bass man Corcoran Holt barely gets any love; measly low end (and noise from other stages) makes it frustrating to watch the highly anticipated Ron Carter/Pat Metheny duet. Likewise, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s upright (Amina Scott) and tuba (Steve Glenn) players are buried by an unfriendly mix.
All is forgiven, however, when I see the Cameron Graves Quartet. The thirtysomething L.A. keyboardist, familiar to fans of Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, is rocking Jazz Fest with Stanley but leading his own group, too, with Max Gerl on an MTD 6-string. The intense music nods to jazz, gospel, metal, and hip-hop, and although the fast unison lines and fearless drumming wouldn’t be out of place on a Meshuggah album, the dazzling piano parts might.
That evening, Graves and his youthful quartet are the house band for the jazz jam at the Marriott. They remind me of a couple in the first flush of love: voracious, over the top, and still discovering each other.
One of the joys of going to a jazz festival, of course, is experiencing players you’ve heard but never seen. Scott Colley is a New York hero whose shows I’ve missed in the Bay Area, so it’s a treat to see him with Joshua Redman’s Still Dreaming, the powerful sax/bass/trumpet/drums lineup inspired by his father Dewey Redman’s Old And New Dreams. I am so entranced watching the quartet that I miss the Heartland Trio with Hannah Marks on upright. Later, Colley blows my mind by sight-reading tricky Brazilian lines alongside Luciana Souza and guitarist Chico Pinheiro. The 77-year-old Cuban piano maestro Chucho Valdés bridges “earthy” and “classy” universes in a way that’s truly intoxicating, and Ramon Vasquez Martirena, who accompanies Valdés alongside a conguero and a batá drummer, is strong on upright and nimble on 6-string electric. Unfortunately, the crowd is thin: It’s the last evening of a long weekend, and Stanley Clarke is playing at the same time.
For his third and final performance of the festival, Stanley conducts the Detroit Jazz Festival String Orchestra as they play along to select scenes from Boyz n the Hood, the groundbreaking John Singleton classic that Clarke scored in 1991. Onstage, he moves from electric to upright to the conductor’s podium, and the orchestra conjures magic that makes the audience stay until the last frame. It’s a beautiful way to end Jazz Fest: a fine balance between dialogue and music, orchestration and improvisation, power and finesse — and a resounding salute to Detroit’s (and jazz’s) past, present, and future. –BM
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