Monday, September 5, 2011

NOTES FROM THE 2011 DETROIT JAZZ FEST

Piano player Aaron Diel
I soaked up a lot of music today at the Detroit Jazz Festival. I started the day at the Carhartt Amphitheater. The Michigan State University Jazz Orchestra performed. Bass player Rodney Whitaker was the conductor, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts was the special quest. On the MSU campus, the orchestra is known as the Be bop Spartans. For a collegiate band thery are pretty good. The orchestra jump-started their set with bop piano player Duke Pearson’s New Girl. Then the orchestra showed they have range by playing an uber-hip verse of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. That got the crowd goosed up. 

 Before Watts joined in, Whitaker daughter, Raquel, sang a blues by Chicago Pete. Raquel has a fairly decent voice, but she needs to work on her stagecraft. The best part of the set came when the Be bop Spartan’s played Oliver Nelson’s arrangement of Down by the Riverside. Whitaker alter part of the arrangement. Instead of letting the saxophone section battle, Whitaker let the trumpet section duke it out. 

A cutting contest is more of a saxophone player thing, but Whitaker likes to buck convention from time to time, so he thought it be novel to let his trumpeter players have at it. Whitaker raised some wonderful jazz musicians De’Sean Jones, Thaddeus Dixon, Noah Jackson, and Ben Williams. All have promising careers. I heard Williams’s first album for Concord Records State of Art is currently the hottest jazz album on the market. Watts joining the Be bop Spartan didn’t enhance their set any. Watts played a handful of aggressive solos. 

J.C. and E Dog's celebration 
I shot over to the Mack Avenue Waterfront Stage to take in some of Regina Carter’s performance. Carter is always a big draw whenever she plays the festival. When I arrived at the stage, Carter was hand feeding the standing room only crowd tunes from her latest album Reverse Thread

I didn’t stick around. I headed back to the Carhartt stage to catch the J.C. Heard Tribute Band under the direction of trumpet player and arranger Walt Szymanski, Heard’s point-man for many years. Szymanski also dedicated the set to the recently departed tenor sax player Scott “E Dog” Peterson. Szymanski did something that damn near had me weep. 

He had Peterson’s tenor sax on the stage.Then Szymanski told the crowd Peterson would be playing with the band in spirit. Today five big bands played at the Carhartt Stage. The J.C. Heard Tribute Band smoked them all. 

Anat Cohen
 Her inner swinger 
My next move was to check out Anat Cohen at the Absopure Pyramid Stage. It was the third time I’ve seen Cohen in person. The first was at the Detroit Groove Society’s concert series. Anat played two killer sets with guitar player Howard Alden. I fell for Cohen after the first set. Not too long ago, I saw her at Orchestra Hall. She played a double bill with the Hot Club of Detroit. Her set was rush and she didn’t open up like she did at the Detroit Groove Society hit, and at the Pyramid Stage yesterday afternoon. Cohen can swing her butt off, and she has an abundance of stagecraft, and she knows a thing or two about getting her audience involved in her performance. 

 The Riel deal 
At the Mack Avenue Waterfront Stage Aaron Diehl Quintet, set began 20 minutes late. Before Diel, Wessell “Warm Daddy” Anderson, Lawrence Leather, and Dominick Farinacci took the stage, an executive from Mack Avenue Records announced Diel is the newest member of the Mack Avenue clan. I enjoyed Diehl’s set, particularly his take on Nat Adderly's tune Little Boy with the Sad Eyes. Hands down, Anderson was the crowd’s favorite. Diel playing is a mix of Duke Ellington and Kenny Barron

If I had my way, the young Detroit jazz musicians I’ve come down hard on recently, would’ve been required to attend Diehl’s set. They could have picked up some pointers from Diel about being professional, and presenting a complete package to an audience. Diel’s staff was dressed impeccably. They were rehearsed, and they had strong game plan. 

 Wilsonian grain 
Last year, Maria Schneider’s Orchestra tore up the Carhartt Stage. Alto sax player Steve Wilson was Schneider’s right hand man. This time around, Wilson was the boss. At the Absopure Stage, Wilson showed off his band Steve Wilson and Wilsonian Grain. It’s a fierce band. Wilson and, bass player Ugonna Okegwo are the brains of the quartet, and drummer Clarence Penn and piano player Orrin Evans are the muscle. Wilson cut down the changes to Thelonious Monk’s Well You Needn’t like a weed whacker. The entire set Evans put a hurting on the piano. 

Joe Lovano
 Lovano hating 
I closed the night back at the Carhartt Stage. Joe Lovano band Us Five played. Lovano called tunes from his albums Bird Songs, US Five and Symphonica. Some of my jazz buddies hated Lovano’s show. They could not understand why he used two drummers. And they said his chops are average at best. I didn’t have a problem with Lovano’s set. Neither did the crowd. They gave him two standing ovations. On the third number, Lovano almost blew a hole in the moon. Deep down Lovano wants to be a free jazz saxophone player. I saw that during his solo on Yardbird Suite.
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