Jazz singer Milton Suggs performed Saturday evening with his quintet vibraphone player Justin Thomas, bass player Nathan Brown, drummer Samuel Jewell, and piano player Michael Malis. Near the end of the first set Suggs let on that he met Malis hours before the hit, which I found shocking because Malis fit in nicely with the others.
I heard Suggs for the first time last year when his publicist provided me with an advance copy of his second album as a leader “Things to Come”. The album coldcocked me. “Things to Come” made my best jazz album of 2010 list, and I thought seriously about driving to Suggs’ hometown, Chicago, to catch him live.
That never happened. But I connected with Suggs on facebook. I was tickled pink when Suggs invited me to his hit at Cliff Bell's in downtown Detroit. I cleared my schedule. Nothing was going to keep me from catching Suggs’ live. His performance exceeded my expectations.
I sat at the bar flanked by jazz singer Audrey Northington and jazz super fan Rebecca Hope. Suggs started the set at 9:30 sharp with a spiritual, followed by Cedar Walton’s “Fantasy for Two, and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”. Suggs wrote lyrics for both, proving he's also a gifted lyricist.
The first set Suggs turned the floor over to Justin Thomas and Michael Malis. Thomas worked the vibes like a masseur a tense neck, and Malis gave the out of town jazz musicians a taste of how it is to share the stage with a prime cut Detroit jazz piano player.
It wasn’t Malis plan to be a ball-hog, but he had the house piano testifying. Malis, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, he studied with the great jazz piano player Geri Allen. Suggs waited to the second set to take flight.
Suggs opened the second set with Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight”. Then he segued into Benny Golson’s “Along Came Betty”. By the time, Suggs got to the Civil Rights anthem “Lift There Voice and Sing”, he’d hit his stride. Rebecca Hope danced about, and I overheard Northington tell her date Suggs’ style was like Mel Torme's and Frank Sinatra’s. And he should be billed at the black Frank Sinatra.
I agreed with Northington in part. Suggs is definitely classy like those singers were, but Suggs has a more booming voice. It could fill up Comerica Park. Suggs reminded me of Joe Williams and Kevin Mahogany.
Suggs put on a great show. It's worth pointing out his only visible shortcoming is his lack of stagecraft. That will come as he gains more experience. He’s a pure jazz singer nonetheless, and unlike many of his peers Suggs doesn’t scat his way through songs.