Monday, February 17, 2014


Jason Moran
The last time jazz pianist Jason Moran’s trio, The Bandwagon, hit Detroit was 2011. The trio was set to headline a Saturday afternoon concert at the Detroit Jazz Festival. The show was rained out, and no makeup date was promised. Many festivalgoers were pissed because Moran doesn’t perform in Detroit often with The Bandwagon. In recent years, he’s come through Detroit with Joe Lovano, Charles Lloyd and Greg Osby.

At the Fillmore Detroit Sunday afternoon, Moran, a native of Houston and a Blue Note Records recording artist returned to Detroit as the centerpiece of the project Jazz Speaks for Life sponsored by the Detroit Jazz Festival Community Series. The concert was presented in two-parts.

The Bandwagon played the first half, sort of an opening act for an ambitious reworking of the late jazz pianist Dave Brubeck's spiritual work The Gates of Justice. Moran opened the project with a unique take of the hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing, known as the African-American national anthem. Moran, drummer Eric McPherson and bassist Tarus Mateen blued up the hymn, taking it through a smorgasbord of tempo changes.

The Bandwagon followed the hymn with Moran’s original RFK In The Land Of Apartheid. Then the trio dovetailed into pianist Jaki Byard’s Out Front. Moran likes using special effects. On one of his albums, he improvised to two women talking on the telephone, and on another cut, he tickled the ivories while someone scribbled on a notepad.

To close the first half of the concert, Moran played a cut of Billie Holiday singing. The Bandwagon played along as if a part of Holiday’s band. Moran warmed the audience up for the second half of the concert, which included Detroit the Brass and Percussion Ensemble, the Wayne State University Concert Choral Choir, the Detroit Choral Society, and the Bandwagon. Norah Duncan IV was the conductor, and Cantor Alberto Mizrahi and Emery Stephens were featured soloists.

That’s a lot of action on one stage. I was concerned if all the parts would mesh. The music Gods were smiling down because this reworking of Gates of Justice was exciting as if three mini-concerts were going on at once. Moran was the right hire to pull off this project. He isn’t afraid to take risk.

Like Brubeck had, Moran has a unique way of playing the piano. When Moran soloed on Lord, Lord and How Glorious is Thy Name, it seemed as if Brubeck's spirit was sitting next to Moran whispering instructions into his ear. And Moran obliged. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014


The Cookers
Jazz at the Centre is three concerts into its first season. The series has quickly become the top jazz concert series in Detroit. That’s a big deal because of the stiff competition in town. There’re outstanding jazz concerts at Orchestra Hall, the Jazz Café’, and the Virgil Carr Center. The JAC’s audience has increased. The other jazz series have been operating for years and has a loyal following.

Saturday evening the JAC, inside the Northwest Activities Center, put on its best concert so far. The dream band the Cookers – David Weiss, Eddie Henderson, Billy Hart, Cecil McBee, George Cables, and Donald Harrison – played a two-hour set that featured some music from the band’s albums Cast the First Stone and Warriors. Plus, the band tried out three new tunes slated for an upcoming release.

The Cookers have the heaviest frontline in jazz trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss and saxophonists Billy Harper and Donald Harrison. Harrison is a new member. He replaced saxophonist Craig Handy.

Harrison is an alto saxophonist with much curb appeal. The New Orleans native and alums of the Jazz Messengers has a stellar body of recordings that includes This Is Jazz, Indian Blues, Nouveau Swing, and For Art’s Sake.

During the concert, Harrison had several arresting solos. On Peacemaker, he nearly blew the clothes off the people in the front-row. That solo was ample proof Harrison is a good fit.

Dave Weiss, the band’s founder, almost caused a riot when he called Croquet Ballet, one of the band’s signature numbers. A man in the audience familiar with the number yelled an ambulance should be called, which implied the band would swing so hard on that number someone being injured was possible. The JAC audience is into crowd participation. So much so, you feel, at times, you’re at a comedy show.

Croquet Ballet was one of several showstoppers. The others were Slippin’ and Slidin,’ a McBee blues hot off the press that had a handful of tempo changes, and Farewell Mulgrew,  George Cables’ nod to the late pianist Mulgrew Miller. Farewell Mulgrew was the loveliest number of the evening.

The drummer Billy Hart performed all the band’s dirty work and only soloed on Freddie Hubbard’s The Core. Hart is an old school ham who likes playing long solos. He was all over the drum kit like dirt on work boots. The organizers of the JAC promised a jazz series unlike the others in Detroit. So far, the series is living up to its billing.    

Friday, February 7, 2014


Miles Davis and Gil Evans
Miles Davis and Gil Evans created three classic jazz albums Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Porgy And Bess. Thursday evening at the Paradise Valley Jazz Series, trumpeter Terence Blanchard with an all-star band -- drummer Peter Erskine, bassist Christian McBride, and Trumpeter Sean Jones -- performed music from those albums backed by musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. 

Before Blanchard started the concert, he gave some background of the Davis-Evans relationship, and the importance of the music they created together. Blanchard rushed through that bit of jazz history. It seemed he was anxious to play. 

It didn’t take long for Blanchard to excite the audience, opening with selections from Miles Ahead. The two-hour concert was billed as Miles Davis & Gil Evans: Still Ahead. At times, it felt overwrought though Blanchard and Sean Jones were brilliant.

Jones is a force on trumpet. Perhaps the top trumpeter of a generation that includes Terell Stafford, Jeremy Pelt, Corey Wilkes and Dominick Farinacci. Jones records for Mack Avenue Records, and he’s put out an outstanding body of recordings. Roots and No Need for Words are his best albums. In concert, Jones is consistently awesome.   

At the start of the opening set, Jones gave the audience a taste of how lovely he can play on New Rhumba and My Ship.  He didn’t play again until the second set.

During that set, Jones performed the music from Sketches of Spain. Jones didn’t copy Miles’s style. Neither did Blanchard. Jones reworked Saeta and Solea. It would’ve made Gil Evans proud of Jones’s handling of the music.

The only questionable part of the concert was the lack of soloing from McBride and Erskine. They were a big part of promoting the concert. Surely, their names helped ticket sells. But they didn't see a lot of action. On The Buzzard Song from Porgy and Bess, Erskine had a crowd-pleasing exchange with Blanchard. That was it.  McBride never soloed.

Jones and Blanchard carried the concert. That was good enough. It was clever featuring Blanchard during the first set and Jones the second. Blanchard was the crowd favorite. 

On the music from Porgy And Bess, he blew the polar vortex out of town. During his soloing, people yelled encouragements like at a racetrack. A man was so worked up, he demanded Blanchard replay Bess, You is my Woman Now. Blanchard blushed. Then slid into the next number.