Sunday, November 6, 2016

THE JOEY CALDERAZZO TRIO'S PERFORMANCE WAS THE ICING ON A BANNER SEASON FOR THE DETROIT GROOVE SOCIETY HOUSE CONCERTS SERIES

Pianist Joey Calderazzo

The founder of the Detroit Groove Society house concerts series, Andrew Rothman, gifted the supporters of the series with 100 minutes of high echelon jazz music courtesy of the Joey Calderazzo Trio. Saturday night, the trio closed the DGS’s 2016 season. Ranked by some series regular's as the DGS’s best season yet. Veteran jazz promoter Skip Norris—who’s co-produced some of the DGS’s concerts—commented before introducing Calderazzo’s trio that Rothman has figured out a new way for lovers of jazz to experience live jazz. The DGS’s 2016 season had memorable concerts by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, vibist Joe Locke, and pianist Dan Tepfer. The Joey Calderazzo Trio presentation was the icing on a banner season. The tips of Claderazzo’s fingers were still smoking from his sets Friday night at the Jazz Café in Detroit. Claderazzo’s had to same bandmates bassist Ben Wolfe, and drummer Donald Edwards. The entire concert the trio went back and forth from unadulterated burners to heart melting tunes such as “Hope,” an original Calderazzo wrote for the late great saxophonist Michael Brecker. Calderazzo made his name in Brecker’s band.  Now Calderazzo is best known as the heart of the Branford Marsalis Quartet. And as a session leader, Calderazzo has put out 13 albums as a bandleader. Calderazzo is a very physical and sometimes animated jazz pianist as he showed tune after tune Saturday night. Calderazzo played every popular branch of jazz under the sun. The house was shaking when the trio played the first two tunes. I overheard the guy seated in front of me tell his companion he believed the curtains were going to catch fire during Calderazzo’s soloing on “Cheek to Cheek,” and “To Wisdom The Prize. There was the requisite twenty-minute intermission not to, it seemed, to give the musicians a break, but rather to give the house piano a breather. If there was one downside to an otherwise terrific concert it was Wolfe and Edwards also globally respected bandleaders didn't get an equal share of the spotlight. Calderazzo was on fire and Wolfe, and Edwards had their hands full.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

PIANIST KRIS DAVIS ON NEW ALBUM 'DUOPOLY', MANAGING MOTHERHOOD AND A BUSY CAREER & VENTURING INTO THE BUSINESS SIDE OF MUSIC

Pianist  Kris Davis

The jazz pianist and composer Kris Davis is accustom to her style of playing being likened to avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Although Davis, 35, appreciates the comparison, she says her biggest influences are pianists Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. Davis grew up in Calgary, and at 13 she started playing jazz. Davis resides in New York now. Nationally, Davis has become a force of nature. Leading jazz publications such as DownBeat have praised Davis as the future of jazz, and many of her accomplished peers such as pianist Jason Moran are big fans.  To date, Davis has 12 albums available, ranging in scope from trio to large ensemble. Davis’s new album “Duopoly,” duets with talents such as Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, Bill Frisell, Billy Drummond and Angelica Sanchez could be seen as Davis’s most ambitious outing yet. The duets are remarkable, showing each musicians raw virtuosity, and offering further clarity into Davis’s subtle genius as a composer and a pianist. In early October, I Dig Jazz interviewed Davis via telephone two days after she returned to New York from touring Europe. Davis discussed the new album, balancing the responsibilities of motherhood with a growing music career, and getting more involved in the business side of her career by starting, Pyroclastic Records, her new record label.  
What was the impetus for making this duo album

In the past, I've focused on creating bands and developing a rapport, a vibe with the compositions that we're playing and between the musicians. I usually establish that through playing a few concerts and maybe a tour and then recording. I've put out almost ten records now, as a leader. I wanted to do something a little different where it was the opposite of that. We just sprinted into the studio and captured moments. It was an effort to try something a little different and experiment and take a different kind of risk.

You wrote in the liner notes the music on the recording wasn’t rehearsed.
Right.

What are the challenges you face with that approach?
I didn't bring in super hard music. If it was something that was hard to read or get together, that might not have been the best choice, for something like this. I tried to pick things that weren't super hard to read, and that fit the vibe of what I thought the other musicians would be comfortable with. Something like the “Prairie Eyes.”  That's a really old tune of mine, and I wanted to try it in a different format with Bill Frisell.

Some things were totally brand new, like the piece, with Julian Lage. That I hadn't played with anyone, so I was trying to figure out a way to play it, so there was a double task there. I'd never played with Julian either, so finding a way to play together and also how to shape the composition the way I wanted it to be. Some of the musicians had some comfort because I knew the tunes, like “Eronel,” with Billy Drummond. Some things were completely brand new, and it was a little more challenging to figure out how I should go about piecing them together.

Why did you pick Taborn, Lage, Drummond, Frisell, Gilmore, Byron, Berne, and Sanchez as collaborators?
I haven't recorded with any of these players. I do have a relationship with most of them where I played a couple of gigs with Billy Drummond. I did do a couple of gigs with Tim Berne, as a duo. I played in Don Byron's band a couple of times. I didn't completely pick someone that I was unsure if it would work or not. I had some sense that we'd find something pretty quickly, in the studio. That's how the project came about.

To put you on the spot, of the eight musicians who was your favorite?
Craig Taborn. We've never played together before. I'm a huge fan of his. In the recording, there was something special there that felt like, if we had more time, we could grow it even further. That's why we're touring together. That one, specifically, sticks out in my mind.

Are you and Craig's style of piano playing similar or dissimilar? If it's not similar, how do you make that work when you're doing a duo with another piano player and your styles are remote?
I think there's a shared sensibility of trying to be compositional when we're improvising. I think we share that basis. I don't think our styles are that different. We both have our influences. We're, obviously, different people. I think the harder challenge is trying to figure out how to make two pianos and two harmonic instruments work together in an improvised setting. That's the bigger challenge, I feel.

What's the key to making that work?
Having some composition, something to grab hold of. Something, where we're using some material or going in a specific direction that can help, shape the concert, the music that happens. Also, in the improvising, there's nothing planned. If it's completely open, just using our ears, trying to figure out what we're going for, range-wise. If someone is in the low register, are you trying to match that and create a specific sound with that? Maybe you should be in a different place on the keyboard, just to be out of that person's way, doing what they're doing, and create another texture or layer on top of what the other pianist is doing. It's intense behind what's going on and trying to give the other person space and also be in there, together, making decisions together. That's what I felt on the recording. Finding a push and pull with that.

Another challenge, too, it seems is making all that make sense for the audience.
Yeah, exactly. In some ways, I'm not so worried about that. I know that we can make good music together. I know that maybe some performances are better than others. I think the sincerity, and when you're trying, that comes across to an audience.

This project is also on your record label that you just started. Can you talk about why it was important for you to start a label?
I wanted to own my music. A lot of labels, they want to take a certain percentage of publishing and royalties. I've worked with a lot of different labels, and they're all great. They're all small labels, and they've been very supportive of me and my music. This project was funded by the Shift Foundation. It was paid for, and it felt like this was the time to try and release something and figure out, in 2016, how does music reach people? We don't have CD stores anymore, and everyone's downloading.

Do people buy CDs? How do people get the music? That's something that I've been removed from on purpose. I avoided that since I've been releasing things, just wanting to focus on the music. I felt like I wanted to be more connected. How does this reach my audience? Who is my audience? I wanted to learn more about that. That's what this is about.

Are you going to keep it just for your music, or are you planning to sign other jazz musicians?
I'm not sure yet. If I did release other people’s music, I'd want to be able to give them some support. I'm not really in a position to do that right now. You never know how things might change. Even for myself, I don't even know if I could release another album. If I did, I might just do a download and not print any CD's. I thought about doing that.

So far, Band Camp has been great. The proceeds are going to the artist. They take very little. I'm excited to see where that goes.

You have a lot on your plate. You record, you tour, you're a mom, and now you're building a record label. How do you make all that work? How do you manage, or balance, all of that?
It's a challenge, but I have people to help me. That makes a big difference. I have someone to run the label and keep track of everything and do the publicity. I have someone to book tours. I have some help. Otherwise, it would be impossible. Being a mom takes up a lot of my time. I'm pretty devoted to my son and being a mother. Even now, when I tour, I feel guilty and sad that I'm not with him. Sometimes I'm questioning, am I doing the right thing? I don't think I'll ever really know the answer. The nice thing is that when I am home and really with him, he gets my full attention, for the most part. He gets my attention more than most kids get to see their parents. That’s one nice thing about being a musician and working from home.

You've done large ensemble, trio, solo, and now duo projects. How do you make that transition from those different formats? Do you have a favorite format?
It's kind of a relief for me. I did this octet project in 2013. I was writing for six months for that project. I finished that and then it was like, I can write for duos, great. I'm so happy. So I'll do that for a while and then I'm so sick of duos. What's the next thing? It's like anything, you get involved in it, and then you're ready for a change. I'm happy for those shifts.

Do you consider your music avant-garde?
I don't think of it that way. To me, there're so many different kinds of music out there now. People are trying to push the envelope with things

Who’re some of your early influences?
My first early, early influences were Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. They were the two pianists that I absolutely fell in love with. That's what made me want to be a jazz piano player. I did a lot of transcribing of their music and studying. The thing I took away from that was Keith Jarrett's melodic sensibility and Herbie Hancock's sense of rhythm and time. Those made a big impact, and I still think they do.

A friend of mine came to a concert the other day, and he was like, I can tell you like Herbie Hancock. No one has ever said that to me before. I was a side person for someone else's gig. From my soloing and improvising, my friend caught onto something. Kind of cracked me up. People hear the cluster chords that I play, and they're like, you play like Cecil Taylor.
When I first heard you play, Cecil Taylor came to mind.
They just hear the clusters that I play. I love Cecil, but he's not the biggest influence on me, compared to some other pianists and composers.

You started out very young, playing classical piano. When did you switch to jazz? When did you know that you’d make your mark playing jazz?
It was pretty early, around thirteen. I joined the jazz band at school. I don't know why but after the first concert we played with the group, I was like, this is it. Jazz is what I want to do. This is awesome. That was the shift. I'd been playing classical music and playing by myself a lot, and I started realizing I could play music with other people and figuring that out was exciting. I kept going with that and got involved. There were some other students at the school that was also really into jazz. We'd get together every weekend in this guy’s basement and play standards and read tunes and listen to music together, as a group. They made a big impact on me.

Was there a jazz scene in Calgary at that time?
There was a good jazz scene there, at the time, and some people to study with. I'm not sure now, what's going on there. At the time, there were some really good musicians.

What do you have planned for your next project? Have you started thinking about that?
I'm looking to do a larger, orchestral project. That's in the back on my mind. I'm still composing music for an orchestra in Vancouver called, The Now Society. That's supposed to be premiered next fall. I have a year to work on it. They're improvisers, and I'm excited to try and write a song with some direction and shape for a large ensemble and figure out how I'm going to go about that.

You are constantly challenging yourself and pushing yourself to come up with different projects to do. I know we talked about it a little earlier, but it seems like that's big for you.
I think that's the spirit of jazz and improvised music. It's challenging yourself and trying different things and finding your way through the music. For me, it's exciting and fun to face those challenges and also learn from the mistakes. It's all from recording so many projects. Those things are there. They're all there, on the record. The successes and the failures. I look at it more as a documenting of that time and working towards the project.

That's my approach with it, versus trying to solidify that this is the one, it's got to be perfect. I try not to get too bogged down on that.
Are you saying that, when you go back to listen to an album after you've made it, that's when you analyze it or search for mistakes?

Yeah. I think when you're mixing and mastering the record, you're just listening to it so much. After you hear it the tenth, fifteenth time, you have a sense of what you're happy with and not happy with. That's the thing about this; it's all subjective. If there's something I don't like, it might actually be something that someone else likes. Going through the process of recording and playing music and then seeing their reactions. Sometimes I'm surprised because things that I thought were horrible, people loved and vice versa, things that I thought were great, people are like, okay. You don't want to be too precious about it. Do the work and try your best, experiment and push yourself. When the record is out, let the chips fall where they may. You really can't know how people are going to take it.

The Kris Davis Trio plays edgefest Friday October 28th  7:30pm at Kerrytown Concert House 415 North Fourth Avenue Ann Arbor, MI 48104 (734) 769-2999

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

SAXOPHONIST STEVE COLEMAN STARTS TWO-WEEK RUN AT THE CARR CENTER WITH A CONCERT STRADDLING THE FENCE OF BOP & FREE JAZZ

  
Steve Coleman

Oliver Ragsdale, the president of The Carr Center, an arts hub in downtown Detroit, stated Monday night that alto saxophonist Steve Coleman’s eleven-day residency is the longest for a jazz musician in the Carr Center’s history. Ragsdale was introducing Coleman to a near capacity audience eager to experience Coleman and his current band Five Elements. The residency is an ambitious endeavor for Coleman one of the most accomplished jazz modernist, having earned during his three decade plus career the MacArthur genius grant, Doris Duke Artist Award, and has recorded thirty-one jazz albums as a leader. Coleman will conduct a series of workshops, outreach music educational events, a jam session, and a second full-length concert with his quintet. Coleman, 60, is a native of Chicago. Stylistically he has one foot planted in bop and the other in free jazz. Monday night Coleman showed he possesses more raw stamina than the average red-blooded American jazz alto saxophonist.
At this middle-age leg of his career, Coleman’s boyhood hero’s fellow Chicagoans saxophonists Von Freeman and Bunky Green influences are still present in Coleman’s blood. Coleman started his two-week run at the Carr with a marathon set of jazz that straddled the fence of avant-garde jazz with his Five Elements band trumpeter Johnathan Finlayson,  drummer Sean Rickman, guitarist Miles Okazaki and bassist Anthony Tidd. Finlayson and Rickman are the linchpins. Neither has a drop of inhibition in their blood.
The band opened with a five-alarm barn burning tune, clocking in just under fifteen minutes. On it, Finlayson establishes his worth immediately with a lengthy and purposeful solo. He’s right at home in the middle register of the trumpet.  On the following selection, Coleman slowed things down, proving his band isn’t all piss and vinegar.
The band played the slow jam with a puppy-love sort of innocence you’d thing such a powerful jazz band would have little interest in. Immediately, after the slow jam concluded, the quintet dove into the deep in end of their set-list, not bothering to resurface for air until the concert ended. Coleman never addressed the audience or offered the titles of the songs the band performed.
The band was too busy swinging and taking the audience to never before experienced improvisational heights. Coleman didn’t talk to the audience until the end of the concert finally introducing his band-mates. No one cared that Coleman didn’t converse with the audience. The music was hot, colorful, and breathtakingly original.
The band performed for two straight hours, and neither member, as far as I could discern, broke a sweat. Coleman is the kind of creative force and leader who demands much from his band, and they made rising to his expectations look effortless.   


Saturday, October 15, 2016

2016-2017JAZZ SERIES AT THE CARR CENTER OPENS WITH THE MICIHGAN STATE JAZZ ORCHESTRA, FEATURING RUSSELL MALONE

Russell Malone

The 2016-2107 jazz series at The Carr Center officially launched Thursday evening with an exciting concert by the Michigan State University Orchestra that featured the jazz guitarist Russell Malone. Sadly, 2017 will be the last time the jazz series is held at The Carr Center's home of nearly a decade on E. Grand River in downtown Detroit. The folks at The Carr Center it seems plans to exit swinging given the excellent lineup on the books.  This season’s lineup has saxophonist Steve Coleman, the Geri Allen Trio with special guest Grammy-winning vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, bassist Rodney Whitaker’s Vocal Jazz Summit, and his band performing drummer Max Roach’s landmark “Freedom Now Suite,”. Then the Michigan State Jazz Orchestra has three more concerts featuring bassist Rufus Reid, saxophonist Anat Cohen, and trombonist Conrad Herwig. The past two years the MSU Jazz Orchestra nicknamed the Bebop Spartans, served a residency at The Carr Center.
The Bebop Spartans is a college orchestra with the professionalism and the sound of a seasoned orchestra. The Spartans showed their ability to swing like crazy during their Thursday night set with Russell Malone whose reputation as a star jazz guitarist is public knowledge.
Malone has 13 primo jazz albums out as a bandleader, and he’s built his chops and his name playing with global stars such as Ron Carter, Harry Connick Jr., and Diana Krall. 

The Bebop Spartans started the concert with a Thad Jones burner written way back when for the Count Basie Orchestra. The Spartans repurposed the number into a battle starring the saxophone section and the brass section. Listening to them go at it was an early indicator it was going to be a pleasure based evening.
After the song ended, Rodney Whitaker, the orchestra’s conductor and the director of jazz studies at MSU, asked the audience by a show of applauds which section had won the battle. The battle was a tie the audience agreed.
Next Whitaker called “Blues Back Stage”. On it, the Spartans truly demonstrated their stuff, and it was intriguing how adeptly the students handled Frank Foster’s blues. The Spartans had the audience going, and the stage hot as fish grease by the time Malone joined in. He didn’t go easy on the Spartans. He hit the stage with the same drive as if performing with his worldly and accomplished peers.  Never once did the Spartans bulk or appear the least bit intimidated.
On every number, the Spartans showed they own shitloads of self-confidence, and they understand the mechanics of swinging. The Spartans delivered many goose-bump inducing moments, but the surprise of the night came when Whitaker and Malone performed a duet on “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”.  Wonder if Whitaker was a little jealous of all the excitement the Bebop Spartans and Malone generated, and Whitaker wanted in on the fun.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

THE CHICK COREA TRIO OPENS 2016-2017 PARADISE JAZZ SERIES WITH A PERFORMANCE FULL OF CROWD-PLEASING MOMENTS

Chick Corea

June 12th of this year the jazz pianist Chick Corea turned seventy-five. In observance of that milestone, Corea staged a national tour, which ends in December after a two-month run at the Blue Note in New York. Corea’s residency will be largely a career retrospective with 80 shows booked, and Corea is reuniting with some former bandmates. For decades Corea has been one of the more decorated and accomplished musicians in jazz, leaving marks in post-bop, in free-jazz, in Latin jazz, and in jazz fusion. He’s earned a whopping 60 Grammy nominations winning 22 to date. You’d be correct to assume a musician Corea’s age would be satisfied with his accomplishments and contributions to music and would be ready to slow down. Not Corea.
Friday evening, for the opening concert of the 2016-2017 Paradise Jazz Series at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall Corea displayed the verve of a musician half his age still in the throes of proving himself. Corea’s trio drummer Brian Blade and bassist Eddie Gomez for two sets revealed to a packed house how a tightly in sync a jazz trio ought to sound. The first set started nearly 20 minutes late, a rarity for the Paradise Jazz Series. All the years I’ve attended the series the start time has been eight sharp without fail.
The crowd last evening wasn’t bothered one bit by the trio’s unexplained tardiness. Twenty minutes after eight, the trio walked onto the stage to an ovation. Corea was so delighted before he called the first number, he snapped a photo of the cheering audience with his Smartphone. Then the trio played “500 Miles High,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Anna’s Tango,” and “Humpty Dumpty”.
Gomez, a major talent in jazz four solid decades with a work history that includes a tenure with Bill Evans, was the focal point the first set. After listening to Gomez walk the bass, it was clear why for years he was Evans’s and Gerry Mulligan’s go-to bassist.
The second set the trio served back-to-back crowd-pleasers. Corea and Blade trading on “How Deep is the Ocean,” and Gomez awakening Bill Evans’s spirit soloing on “Waltz for Debby”. On the set closer, “Sicily” Corea and Blade had at it again. Their interplay near the end of the number brought many in the audience to their feet.
Surprisingly, the trio has only been playing together two weeks according to Corea. But he’s played with Blade and Gomez off and on respectively for years. Blade and Gomez had never played together before joining Corea. Even the most learned and discriminating jazz enthusiasts couldn’t tell that because Blade’s and Gomez's chops fit together seamlessly.
Throughout the concert, Blade showed the same sharpness and control all the years playing in the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Before the trio left the stage, Corea snapped another photo of the cheering audience. The cheering didn’t stop until the trio obliged the audience with an encore.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

KAMASI WASHINGTON & THE NEXT STEP OPENS THE UMS JAZZ SERIES WITH A PERFORMANCE HEAVY ON FUNK, SHOWBOATING, BUT LIGHT ON JAZZ

Kamasi Washington

For two good years now the jazz saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington, 34, has been all the rage, receiving high-profile write-ups in magazines such as GQ, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and DownBeat. Some of the write-ups implied the California native has put the jazz world on his shoulders and is carrying it into the future. Washington’s triple-disc debut “The Epic” was one of the best jazz albums of 2015. It was indeed a wonderful outing and a solid example the saxophonist deserved all the back patting he's received.
Friday evening, at the Michigan Theater, in the heart of Ann Arbor, MI, Washington and his group The Next Step opened the University Musical Society’s 2016-2017 series with a 90-minute set best described as neo-funk with some traces of jazz. It was the group’s first time playing The Ann Arbor Detroit area. If you attended the concert hoping to get a repeat of the spiritual experience that “The Epic” caused, chances were you left the concert a bit disappointed.
Washington & The Next Step performed some music from “The Epic”. Washington is talented and charismatic. He plays aggressively. All last night, he was blowing so forcefully, I feared his head was going to explode before the concert ended.  He cites the iconic saxophonist John Coltrane as a big influence. Listening, to Washington loud and rambunctious blowing, I wondered if saxophonist Maceo Parker was also a big influence.
As a bandleader, Washington isn’t a ball-hog. Some of the members of The Next Step are Washington’s childhood friends, and Washington shared with the capacity audience some humorous stories of growing up with them before featuring the members on select compositions.
The entire concert Washington divvied up the spotlight among the members saxophonist Rickey Washington (his father), trombonist Ryan Porter, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, bassist Miles Mosley, vocalist Patrice Quinn, and drummers Tony Austin and Robert Miller.
Save for Quinn, who has a lovely voice, and who stood stage left gyrating seductively most of the evening; the other musician's solos were heavy on showboating. Coleman was the most egregious showboater, toggling between the keyboard to the keytar. 
 A noteworthy point of the show occurred when the Washington’s, Quinn, Mosely and Porter left the stage so the drummers could engage in a fun “cutting contest”. The entire concert was over the top, but many of the attendees were in heaven listening to The Next Step’s funk-inspired brand of jazz. The 90-minute set felt like a jam session where aggressive playing and showboating was the order of the evening.

Friday, September 16, 2016

RODNEY WHITAKER: THE JAZZ BASSIST ON BEING ONE OF THE CATS, COMING OF AGE IN DETROIT & WHY JAZZIN' ON THE RIVER IS A MEANINGFUL MUSIC FEST

Rodney Whitaker
Rodney Whitaker has played jazz festivals big and small globally. Whitaker has built quite the reputation in Michigan, his home state, and internationally as a high-ranking jazz bassist and music educator. Whitaker, 48, held the bass chair in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra six years, made seven well-received albums as a bandleader, and has run the Jazz Studies program at  Michigan State University for over a decade now, building it brick by brick into one of the most respected music programs nationally.
 As a sideman, his work history includes stints with marquee bandleaders such as Bob James, Roy Hargrove, Dianne Reeves, Jimmy Cobb, Mulgrew Miller. Hell, an entire afternoon could be spent reciting all the bands he’s gifted with his boundless music acumen and knack for drawing the best from musicians who share the bandstand with him.

Whitaker is part of Jazzin” on the River, a compact and serious jazz festival in Detroit stacked with some of the city’s best jazz talent. Whitaker wants it on the record he’s proud of being a part of Jazzin' on the River. The festival takes place Saturday at Alfred Bush Ford Park on the Detroit River in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood.

There’s an after-party at Atwater in the Park. The festival has added meaning for Whitaker because it’s in the neighborhood where Whitaker grew up and dreamed of becoming an important jazz musician, or in his words, “I always wanted to be one of the cats”. Wednesday evening, Whitaker let I Dig Jazz pick his brain about his coming of age in that eastside Detroit neighborhood, his thoughts about the Grosse Pointe Park, Detroit controversy, and the occasion of the re-release of his first albums “Hidden Kingdom,” and “Children of the Light”.  
What was it like back then, growing up in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood? Was it vibrant musically? Were there other jazz musicians who were coming up at that time? I heard saxophonist JD Allen is from that neck of the woods.
Oh yeah. JD lived near the park. He lived on the eastside but over by Burns near that park where the kids play baseball. He lived in a different neighborhood. In my neighborhood, one of the first musicians I ever saw play live was the great Perry Hughes. He grew up a couple of blocks from me.
He was in the neighborhood, and there was a guy on my block who he had a funk band with. They were teenagers. I met Perry before he even became a jazz musician. I was a little kid back then. We go way back , so we're from the same neighborhood.
Also the group Bird-Trane-Sco-Now. I don't know if you're familiar with that group?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
That's where it started at Remus Robinson Middle School in that neighborhood. Donald Washington [saxophonist] was my middle school band director. What happened was that he got laid off, and then somebody new came in and became the music teacher. He kept the group Bird-Trane-Sco-Now together, and I got into the group when I was in ninth grade, we used to rehearse in Harris Park, in the recreation center.
That's where we rehearsed and then we started rehearsing later at his house. He was teaching on the west-side and then James Carter got into it when he was about thirteen. It started in that neighborhood.
Some great jazz musicians came through Bird-Trane-Sco-Now! such as Cassius Richmond, and James Carter.
Cassius and I grew up like three blocks from each other. We went through elementary, middle, and high school together. He was a couple of years older than me. A lot of the musicians from our middle school went to King High School, and I followed them there a couple of years into it.
You’ve played jazz festivals big and small nationally and internationally. With smaller jazz festivals such as Jazzin’ on the River, which you’re a major part of, what does playing a small festival mean to you?
I think historically when you think about jazz festivals all over they started after World War II. The Paris Jazz Festival started in 1948 or 1949. It was a way to bring tourism back to Paris. Traditionally jazz music has been used to revitalize economies all over the world, to help tourism, and it brings these hot musicians to those places, and then tourists will follow them. I think it's befitting that we use the music the same way in the urban communities, taking the music back to where it came from.
If it can bring awareness to a community, even if there's an issue of blight, or it needs to be revitalized, maybe people might come and see something and go home to their neighborhoods, and fall in love and want to buy and fix up a home, or do some renovation, or do some building. There's some building going on in parts of my old neighborhood where people are building houses. I think anything that you can do that creates a positive environment, you know, why not use the music?
You’re headlining the festival’s Jazzin’ after-party, which is also a big part of the festival. It seems as if the festival’s organizers are trying to mend the divide between Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit. I don't know if you're aware where Grosse Pointe borders Detroit was barricaded.
I saw it with my own eyes.
What're your thoughts about that situation? How they're trying to use the festival to bring Detroit and Grosse Pointe closer?
I have to keep my eyes on that because I'm a pretty forgiving person. If things are going to change, somebody's got to do it. One side of me, when I saw that barricade in the disguise of a fruit market or whatever it was, I was in shock. I was eating, and I wasn't aware of it. I just knew I was driving, and I had to go around it.
So, I drove around it.  I didn't know what it was at first. I was doing kids' concerts in Detroit, and I didn't want to go to a Coney Island for lunch because I wanted a salad. I went to a middle-eastern place right there in the beginning of Grosse Pointe. Then we realized what it was, and we went and took pictures of it. It was just reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa. That's one mindset that I struggle with, but at the same time, anything that we can do to bring people together is a positive thing.
We can be critical, but I think definitely in the mind of Dr. Martin Luther King, he had to humble himself a lot of times. I'm glad that people spoke up on it, but I'm also glad that people are trying to do something to bring change. I wasn't even aware that this performance had something to do with those politics, but at the same time, somebody's got to do something to bring change. If something like a jazz festival can make us be more aware of our shortcomings and try to fix it, I think it's a good thing.
When you were asked to participate, was there any initial reluctance given what you had witnessed?
For me, that didn't even feed into the equation. Again, I'm a musician, and I play gigs all over the planet. There have been official boycotts in places where I didn't necessarily go. There was a boycott in South Carolina at one point. There was a boycott in Arizona at one point years ago. A lot of the artists that I work with wouldn't go there to play. I definitely support that.
What are some of the projects you have in the works? Are you working on a new album?
Yeah, I'm in the process of putting together a new album. Hopefully, I'll be recording it in the next couple of months. If not, probably in the early part of the New Year. My goal is to put out another album in May or in June. My first recordings [“Hidden Kingdom” and “Children of the Light”] that I released twenty-something years ago just got re-released in Japan, which is quite a nice thing. They put them out on CD.  That was cool because I made folks aware of it on facebook and I had 3,500 people who wrote me and didn't know about the CD. Those two CDs that had Geri Allen, Nicholas Payton, and all those great cats.
What was the occasion for the reissue?
I was doing a tour. Carl Allen and I were playing last spring in Japan. We were doing a gig, we had my daughter [vocalist Rockelle Fortin], Xavier Davis, and myself, and we were over there playing at the Coffee Club in Tokyo.
The new producer, a young lady I can't think of her name at the moment, came out to the gig and expressed interest in wanting to put out the first two CDs. The second CD, I think it was that she wanted to put out. I started talking to her about the first one, and she wasn't aware of it. Then she got excited about it and went back to the vaults and checked it out and decided to put both of them out at a reasonable price.
Do you still keep a full teaching schedule?
I do a lot of teaching nationally, and I do a lot of touring, playing nationally. Whether it's with my group, or with Carl Allen, then I do a little freelance stuff. I'm playing with Lewis Nash a couple of times this fall with his crew. I'm keeping busy. I'm recording with a lot of people, so it's busy, and it's a challenge to try and juggle it all, but I have the support of my wife. I couldn't do it without her.
Going back to your formative years, growing up in Detroit, did you envision becoming as accomplished as you have become?
I always wanted to be one of the cats, since I was thirteen. That's when, as I always tell my students, the jazz bug bit me. Nothing else was going to do. I wanted to be one of the cats my whole life. I had no other plans
I would always have people say to me that I should be a lawyer, a doctor, and all that stuff. I studied music education and all that sort of stuff. I just wanted to be a musician. In a haphazard way, I eventually became a teacher. That was something my parents were more proud of me than me being a musician. Because to them, that represented stability. That's what I am until I die. I'm going to do this forever until I can't do it anymore.
That was my dream. That's always been what I wanted to be. I wanted to be one of the cats. And my old neighborhood man, to be honest, was encouraging. People would see me catching the bus with my bass. They would tell me to keep going man, do your thing. That they were proud of me, and there were a lot of great cats in that community who had great record collections that they would share.
I had a neighbor in that community named Charles Darling, and he got me listening. He saw me with an upright bass, and he'd say hey, come check this out, check out this record. He helped me to start my record collection.
Listening is everything when you play jazz. He used to turn me onto Lee Morgan, Miles Davis, you know. I was thirteen, and he had me listening to Ornette Coleman.
I remember the first Ornette record I got was “Love Call” with Jimmy Garrison. I was maybe fourteen when I bought that. You know how Detroit is all about the music. Everybody's got a collector's taste. If they weren't die-hard jazz cats, they would be listening to Roberta Flack and all those early records she did. Just something musical. People in that neighborhood always turned me onto something.
For me, it was always like a beautiful experience. Maybe until I was a teenager, the neighborhood was beautiful. It was a beautiful place with parks and a river. You've got three parks in a row in one neighborhood. People were keeping their houses nice. Then in the mid-eighties, crack came in, and just took the whole place down. People were still trying to live. They were still trying to keep their humanity and keep their property together. It's an interesting dynamic.
Jazzin’ on the River is Saturday September 17th at Alfred Brush Park 100 Lakewood St. Detroit, MI 48215 12:00 PM-8:00 PM/ 9:00 PM Jazzin after-party 1175 Lakepointe, Grosse Pointe Park 48230