Pianist Mulgrew Miller
GOSPEL CUTTING CONTEST
The a cappella gospel sextet Take 6 took a huge risk Friday, the opening night of the 31st Detroit International Jazz Festival. Accompanied by the Mulgrew Miller trio, Take 6 started their hour long set unearthing several tunes the late jazz trumpeter and rock star Miles Davis immortalized "Seven Steps to Heaven", "Flamenco Sketches" and "Freddie Freeloader". The a cappella sextet seemed out of their league although they performed the same tunes with Miller awhile ago at Jazz at the Lincoln Center. The sextet seemed unpolished. Alvin Chea almost made a mockery of himself making his voice sound like an acoustic bass then attempting to match wits with Miller's clever young bassist Ivan Taylor. It was obvious to any audience member with jazz savvy ears that neither member was completely facile in the fine art of jazz scatting. They did a decent job considering, but I wonder if it would have been a complete disaster if Miller were not on hand to help them navigate the jazz tunes. Miller was brilliant from start to finish, which those familiar with his music expected. Midway through the set, Take 6 switched the focus from Miles Davis's jazz favorites to spirituals. They were more at home and creative performing the spirituals. On the first number, they switched tempos a few times dubbing it the Detroit remix. The audience ate it up. Toward the end of "Mary Don't You Weep" Mark Kibble and Cedric Dent became in embroiled in sort of a gospel-cutting contest. That was definitely the highlight of the set and got the audience all fired up for the closing act Tower of Power.
During the Tower of Power set, the man seated to my immediate right tapped me on the shoulder. Then he whispered in my ear Tower of Power was not playing jazz but they were definitely super bad. That statement pretty much summarizes the funk ensemble's performance, which almost had every able body in attendance dancing. The bands over the top performance will make the festival highlight reel. The ensemble has been around for four decades. Larry Braggs is a wonderful funk vocalist and a skilled showman. He knows how to get the females all steamed up. On one tune, Braggs gyrated and thrust his hips as if he was auditioning for a porno. The five women seated in front of me went wild. One unhooked her store bought ponytail and twirled it in the air. That really did not happen, but she was worked up. Braggs is the lead singer, but he understands that the ensemble is the star. People do not come out to experience only one member. They come to experience the whole. They performed many of their greatest hits and new material from their latest album "The Great American Soul Book". The best part of the ensemble's set was the medley of James Brown's song they performed. Of course, some of the member did their best Godfather of Soul impersonation.