Saxophonist Faruq Z. Bey In two years, the Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music has become a major music event. The two day music fest is held at the Bohemian National House in Detroit, Mi, was founded by bassist Joel Peterson and has become a welcomed addition to the many music events that happen in the city yearly. What’s particularly appetizing about this annual music fest is it’s structured where you get to experience each band. Whereas at other festivals you are forced to pick and chose which bands you want to experience.
The second annual FJIM began Friday evening with an incendiary performance by The Raw Truth led by multi-saxophonist Skeeter Shelton. At first, the band seemed to be at war with each other with solos that were disjointed, but the band meshed when they played a composition titled “Ancient Egypt”. Sheldon blew with reckless abandon. The Raw Truth’s set established the groundwork for the high octane performances that followed.
Pianist Thollem McDonas solo piano set touched on virtually every genre of music. Dressed in a t-shirt, cargo slacks, and old work boots, McDonas didn’t have the disposition or attitude of a music virtuoso. He looked more like a skilled laborer. But he constructed a set of improvised music that had all the creativity and energy of Thelonious Monk and Igor Stravinsky playing at a neighborhood jam session.
From there the momentum increased. Saxophonist Faruq Z. Bey Quintet took the stage next. Bey the godfather of avant-garde jazz in Detroit suffers from a medical condition requiring him to tote around a portable oxygen tank to help him breathe. But when the music started Bey’s solos were lengthy and daring. He devoured the chord changes on the tune “Opposition” like they were chunks of candy, while pianist Kenny Green scaled up and down the piano like a mountain climber. The quintet’s performance segued nicely into the headlining act.
The Sun Ra Arkestra had the most animated performance, which alto saxophonist Marshall Allen conducted. Dressed in their traditional intergalactic garb, the ensemble ran through familiar gems from the arkestra’s songbook. Their energy level was high but they didn’t gel right way. Allen spent the first few numbers getting the guys in sync. Allen surprised the audience when he announced the ensemble would do a bonus set.
During the intermission, Allen must have chastised the band like a football coach does a first place team trailing a lesser opponent at half-time because the guys came out smoking. They had worked out the kinks and they sounded like the band on the classics albums “Jazz in Silhouette” and “We Travel the Spaceways/ Bad and Beautiful”. As for Allen, he has aged but his playing is still youthful and aggressive.
The Saturday show wasn’t crowded which was unfortunate because the music was even better. There was a superb performance by tenor saxophonist Salim Washington and bassist Hakim Jami that feature a fantastic drummer named Sean Dobbins. His playing is so good it makes the hairs on your neck dance. And the trio Engine played with such collective velocity you thought their instruments were going to catch fire. The trio called Wrack combined classical music with elements of funk. Sax man Skeeter Sheldon performed a duet with drummer Ali Colding which was near perfect until Sheldon started singing, which is not his strong point.
The most memorable set was the trio of saxophonist Lotte Akers, drummer Gerald Cleaver and pianist Craig Taborn. They took improvisational music to another level. Taborn played every inch and crevice of the piano. During a burst of absolute musical genius his hands moved across the piano keys faster than the blades in an industrial fan. The trio’s performance received a well deserved standing ovation.
What was truly remarkable about the 2nd annual Jazz and Improvised Music Festival was just when you thought the music couldn’t get any better another great band stole the show. Don’t be surprised if in the coming years the festival will have achieved all the prestige and cultural impact of the Vision Festival.