Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Saxophonist Tony Lustig

The past three years, the baritone saxophone player Tony Lustig has put on a holiday show at the Cadieux Café on Detroit’s east side. The show is jammed every year. Lustig—a Detroiter who now lives in New York and who’s made a name there—knows how to entertain. He kept the crowd cheery for three sets with good swing music, and a handful of Christmas classics.

In 2009, Lustig moved to New York. He’s played with some decorated jazz big bands the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and the Christian McBride Big Band. Being hooked up with those big named bands may explain how Lustig has developed such a unique voice on the baritone sax so fast.

This year, for the annual show, Lustig hired three of Detroit’s top sidemen drummer Jesse Kramer, bass player Jeff Pedraz, and piano player Mike Jellick. Lustig’s sets included some familiar jazz gems such as “My Shining Hour,” “Strollin’,” “Swingin’ at the Haven” and “Hard Times”. Plus, Lustig called some new cuts from his debut album “Taking Flight” due out next year.

Lustig is a baritone player who climbed the ranks the old-fashion way. During his early years, Lustig studied with jazz bass player and educator Rodney Whitaker at Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz program. (I first met Lustig there. I was assigned to write about the program for the weekly newspaper the Metrotimes. Lustig was one of the students I was drawn to. He was a mature teen, and I felt Lustig would be a special player someday).

After his run with Civic Jazz, Lustig joined Whitaker at Michigan State University. Whitaker runs the jazz studies program there, and Lustig was a prize recruit. A big part of Lustig’s seasoning was studying the great baritone sax players Gerry Mulligan, and Pepper Adams.

Lustig can make the baritone sound like a tenor sax, which he told me after the first set he’s been trying to perfect for some time now. Well Sunday night’s show proved Lustig has it down pat.

Being backed by Kramer, Pedraz, and Jellick made it all the more real. Lustig blew every note with a keen sense of tailoring. His working in big bands has imbued the value of teamwork. Lustig is no ham. He shared the spotlight with his sidemen.

They showed their thanks playing outstanding solos, particularly Pedraz who style called to mind the great Cameron Brown. The first-call drummer Jesse Kramer isn’t big on being out front. But when Kramer took a few solos, they were well-developed like a pro bodybuilder's calf muscles..

Jellick, a bandleader who runs the Wednesday night session at the Northern Lights in mid-town Detroit, never showed any signs of battle fatigue. 

Friday, Jellick premiered his arrangement of the “The Nutcracker Suite” at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. Saturday, evening he played it again at Cliff Bell’s. Reasons enough to give his A game the night off. If Jellick was fatigued, somehow he found the resolve to recharge his A game. Jellick was by Lustig's side on every number. 

 Lustig has put in hard work, and this annual show, which felt like a community gathering, in three years has become a major happening.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Pianist Mike Jellick

Dear Mr. Tchaikovsky,
I am Charles L. Latimer. I'm a jazz reporter and jazz blogger. I want to take a minute of your time to tell you about an outstanding show I caught Friday night at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. The jazz piano player and arranger Mike Jellick put on the show. Jellick is, 32, and in the past two years has become the top jazz piano player in the state of Michigan.

Funny thing, Mr. Tchaikovsky, is five years ago Jellick couldn’t play worth a damn. He had a hard time making a living. Eventually, Jellick became frustrated because he couldn’t get steady work. So he moved to Chicago. Jellick always showed promise. Plus, he had a colorful and a fertile  imagination. But he lacked the chops to pull off all the slick musical ideas swimming in his head. Being in Chicago did him a world of good.

In Chicago, Jellick practiced for two years. He soaked up Chicago’s jazz scene. Then he returned to Detroit anew. It didn’t take long for him to become a first-call commodity. Friday night, Jellick and his quintet—drummer Jesse Kramer, bass player Miles Brown, saxophone player Marcus Elliot, and singer Kira Frabotta and special guest trumpeter Chris Johnson--presented an ambitious work that took Jellick two years to perfect.

Jellick reworked your yuletide masterpiece “The Nutcracker Suite”. Not that it needed reworking. Jellick wanted to put his spin on it, and boy did he ever. Given the positive response from the standing-room-only crowd Jellick’s reworking of the suite was a hit. What did Jellick do to your work you wonder.

Jellick took “The Nutcracker Suite” apart note by note, applied a few new coats of paint on some notes, and added a number of tempo and mood changes. He retooled the suite like an auto mechanic retools an engine of a priceless car. Jellick didn’t borrow from any of the other arrangers who rearranged “The Nutcracker Suite,” including the great Duke Ellington.

Borrowing from others wouldn’t have been a challenge for Jellick. Jellick’s take was solely the product of his imagination. Of course, the show wouldn’t have been a hit without the participation of Jellick’s world-class band.

Miles Brown was sweet. He walked the bass all night long like one of Santa’s reindeers. Kira Frabotta turned her voice into an instrument. Marcus Elliot proved he’s one of the leading tenor players of his generation. He’s a youngster who’s invested plenty man-hours studying the greats of the tenor sax. 

Jesse Kramer was a textbook example of how tasteful a drummer should be. He knows the chief task of a jazz drummer is powering a band, and Chris Johnson fit like candles on a kid’s birthday cake.

Jellick was the consummate leader. Mr. Tchaikovsky, I bet a month’s pay you would’ve loved his playing. And you might’ve been a tad jealous. Damn, I wish I had played the section of the suite that way you might’ve said to yourself.

The best part of the show was Jellick’s solo version of “A Christmas Song,” which received the first of three ovations. Mr. Tchaikovsky, I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of people I overheard say Jellick’s show was the best they attended this year. Jellick is performing the suite again tonight at Cliff Bell's in downtown Detroit. If you aren't doing anything you should check it out.

Best always,

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


1.)         Don Byron “Love, Peace, And Soul (Savoy Jazz)
Don Byron always thinks outside the box. On this album, Byron performed some deep research into the work of gospel legend Thomas A. Dorsey. Once Byron selected the cuts for this album he picked vocalist DK Dyson to pour her gorgeous voice over each cut. The result is the greatest gospel jazz album in recent memory.

2.)         Ravi Coltrane “Spirit Fiction” (Blue Note Records)
Coltrane’s dad saxophone God John Coltrane would be proud of Ravi’s latest album. Ravi has an impressive discography to date, but this album, his first for Blue Note, is Ravi’s opus. Every component works from hiring Joe Lovano to produce it to having pianist Geri Allen to bless it. Ravi is not a natural swinger. His hallmark is story telling.

3.)         Branford Marsalis “Four MF’s Playin Tunes (Marsalis Music)
If nothing else, Marsalis can come up with a catchy title for an album. In the past, there’s been titles such as “Crazy People Music” and “I Heard You Twice the First Time”. Marsalis is by all accounts the leading saxophonist of today, and since opening Marsalis Music, he’s put out one outstanding album after the next. “Four Motherfuckers Playing Tunes” is Marsalis’ finest album for the label thus far. Plus, the album is the proper outlet to showcase the newest member of Marsalis’ band drummer Justin Faulkner—who took Jeff “Tain” Watts’ spot. Faulkner proves to be a suitable replacement, and it’s fun listening to the other longstanding band-mates break in the youngster.

4.)         Eric Alexander & Vincent Herring “Friendly Fire” (High Note) This album recorded live and Smoke is the second blowing session for two of jazz’s upper tier saxophonists, and the high level of swing is on par with the classic blowing sessions Eddie “lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin made. Be careful with this album. It will burn up your ear drums.

5.)         Cyrus Chestnut “The Cyrus Chestnut Quartet” (WJ3) Chestnut is the kind of pianist who can let his inner swinger go at will. That’s particularly true when he’s leading his trio. When playing with his quartet, Cyrus likes to give his sidemen the lion share of the spotlight. On this album, Chestnut’s best in years, he ask saxophonist Stacy Dillard to shoulder most of the workload, and Dillard does so magnificently.

       6.) The Cookers “Believe” (Motema)
         Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, David Weiss, Craig Handy, George Cables, Cecil McBee, and Billy Hart. It's not difficult at all to make a smoking hot jazz album when those all-star jazz musicians are in the same band. Of course, this project could’ve turned into an ego fest. There’s some strong personalities in the band, but each swinger understood this all-star project wasn’t about individuality. The project worked on paper and it worked in reality.

7.)         JD Allen “The Matador and The Bull (Savant) Saxophonist JD Allen is a thinking man’s saxophonist as evident on all 12 cuts on his latest album. Like Branford Marsalis, there’s substance behind every note that Allen plays. He never swings for the sake of swinging.

8.)         Christian Scott “Christian Atunde Adjuah” (Concord Records) Early in his career it was obvious Christian Scott wasn’t going to be happy as a run-of-the-mill jazz trumpeter. So Scott—who recently changed his name to Atunde Adjuah—has been experimenting since day one, and finally all his hard work has come to fruition with this remarkable double album, a bulletproof representation that Scott has come up with a winning formula.

9.)         Orrin Evans “Flip the Script (Posi-tone) For years now, pianist Orrin Evans has been quietly making wonderful trio jazz albums, but Evans for whatever reason hasn’t garnered the press or praise given his peers. However, Evans carries on unfazed. Here Evan plays blues, pop, and a lot of bop beautifully.
        10.) Halie Loren “heart first” (Justin Time) She is not a household name yet, but who cares this woman can sing. The cut “Waiting in Vain” will make an attack dog cry. Loren loaded up this album with  14 songs, which is a good thing because the time you spend with her delicious voice never feels rushed.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Dianne Reeves
Guitarist/songwriter Raul Midon was billed as a special guest at the second concert of the University Music Society’s Jazz Series Saturday evening at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, MI. Midon was hired to heat up the stage for jazz singer Dianne Reeves. But Midon pimped the stage as if it was his bitch, and the audience ate it up. Midon, a native of New Mexico who’s been blind since birth has five albums on the market, and he’s been touring with Reeves.

 Midon was escorted on stage and put in front of a mic where he shocked the audience for twenty plus minutes, working out on cuts from his 2010 album “Synthesis”. Midon told the packed auditorium after the opening number there wasn’t any technology on the stage just human technology. Then Midon played the guitar and bongos at the same time, and made his voice sound like a  trumpet. Midon has a good voice, and he can switch from falsetto to baritone. 

I gathered it was the first time most of the audience had experienced Midon. He set the bar high for Reeves. Reeves, one of the top jazz singers around, is having a hall of fame career. But, her live shows are hit or miss. Reeves like to end her tours in her hometown. I’ve caught three, and sometimes she seemed bushed. She’s never really gone for broke. 

Saturday, Reeves’ gorgeous voice was in top condition, but her set didn't have any memorable highlights. Reeves played it safe singing mostly well-known songs such as “Stormy Weather,” and “Misty”. And there was a lot of scatting which Reeves is a pro at. In fact, no Dianne Reeves show would be complete without her scatting up a storm. 

Reeves has one of the toughest bands on earth piano player Peter Martin, guitarist Romero Lubambo, bass player Reginald Veal, and drummer Terreon Gully. And she got good use from them. When Martin and Reeves did a duet on “Misty,” I was reminded of the truism that a jazz singer is only as good as her piano player. 

Martin is a complete package, and I wondered if Reeves could get along without him. Reeves set wasn’t packed with highlights, and obviously she didn’t put a lot of thought into the set list. Honestly, people attend her shows to hear one of the top jazz voices around not to see a spectacle.

Friday, December 7, 2012


The Preservation Hall Jazz Band

At 8:00am sharp, the seven members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band walked onto the stage at Orchestra Hall in mid-town Detroit wearing pallbearer black suits. The band was founded in New Orleans in 1961 and has since become a landmark. The last five plus years the PHJB has experienced a second wind, and the band has been busy touring the world. 

Thursday evening the PHJB stopped in Detroit to play the second concert of the Paradise Jazz Series. The band gave the near capacity house a hearty dish of swing New Orleans style. The members were trumpeter Mark Braud, clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, trombonist Freddie Lonzo, pianist Rickie Monie, saxophonist Clint Maedgen, drummer Joseph Lastie Jr., and tuba and bassist Ben Jaffe.

The PHJB played two sets full of brace-yourself-moments. The first set was full of well-known blues classic such as “St. Louis Blues,” and “Basin Street Blues”. Trombonist Freddie “the Voice” Lonzo stacked up the most unforgettable moments. Lonzo is a character and a monstrous trombonist, and he was comical at times. He’s lauded as the last of what's known as “tailgate trombonists”.

As expected clarinet Charlie Gabriel, the elder of the band at, 80, was the crowd favorite. Gabriel was born in New Orleans, but he spent the majority of his professional life in Detroit. Gabriel had a ball on stage ribbing his band-mates and singing and dancing.

Gabriel isn’t the greatest singer in the world, nor is the other members of the PHJB, who sang during the concert, but Gabriel is one of the finest clarinetists around. No circus tricks. He shoots straight from the hip with the accuracy of a sharpshooter.

Gabriel first played Orchestra Hall back in 1948 when it was the Paradise Theater. Four songs into the set the band had the audience’s full participation. New Orleans musicians are masterful at working a crowd. The second set was better than the first. 

This go around, the band had a chance to show their virtuosity, each hogging the spotlight for a moment. It was cheesy, but the audience ate it up. It seemed as if the band downed some swing juice concoction during the intermission. 

The band returned charged. The set began with a delicious solo from trumpeter Mark Braud, firing away like an avid big game hunter. Braud’s playing was a reminder that New Orleans has blessed the music world with some of the best trumpeters. 

For the third number everybody cleared the stage but pianist Rickie Monie. The concert was billed as a Christmas special; during the opening set the band only performed one Christmas number. Monie played a medley of Christmas songs. Gabriel and Ben Jaffe followed with a clarinet and a tuba duet. Then the other members rejoined the party. 

If nothing else, New Orleans’ jazz bands and musicians know how to put on a party. They had the audience worked up and sweaty.  By the end of the concert there wasn’t a dry armpit in the building. You would’ve thought, given the audience's condition, they had completed a 10k run.

Monday, November 26, 2012


Walter White
The jazz trumpeter Walter White held the official album release show for “Breaking Good,” his big band’s new album, at the downtown Detroit jazz club Cliff Bell’s Sunday night. The album has been available for several months now, but that didn’t stop people from coming out to hear the most flammable jazz big band in Detroit. White built a name for himself outside of Detroit, his hometown, playing with the Dave Holland Big Band, the Mingus Dynasty, and the Maynard Ferguson Big Band. Last year, White returned to Detroit, and he has been about the business of winning over Detroit jazz fans.

Cliff Bell’s was packed. Surprisingly, the audience was attentive as the band played cuts from “Breaking Good” and a few new charts featured on White’s next album. Winning over Cliff Bell’s audience was a testament to what a downright killer big band White has. The club has been a serious hub for jazz, particularly for up-and-coming jazz musicians. Many of the club's patrons come to socialize. They talk during the set, and that's upsetting for the patrons who come for the music. The band had everybody’s attention on all the tunes the band played.

The band played  some vamps before tenor saxophonist Bobby Streng introduced White. White walked on stage with his trumpet and flugelhorn tucked under his arm. White is a big guy, and he was dressed like the fictional mob bass Tony Soprano in a made to measure sport jacket and a patterned sport shirt open at the collar. The first number White called “There Will Never Be Another You”. 

The band took off like the favored horse in the Kentucky Derby. In most big bands the emphasis is usually on the soloists. Clearly, White is the focal point of his big band, which is alright because he’s an enthusiastic trumpeter a la Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Freddie Hubbard. Plus, White is comfortable playing in the upper register of the trumpet. That’s where he pretty much stayed the entire set. 

In a local club, it’s rare for a local or a national act to get an ovation after the first set. That’s what White’s band got when the set ended. The audience roared like Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder of the Detroit Tigers hit back to back homers. The band's sound is high horse-powered swing. White's arrangement of  "Stella By Starlight" and "Nica's Dream" sounded as if he injected them with steroids. 

Obviously, White’s chops are perfectly suited for a big band environment. And his big band, which White named Small, Medium, @Large, reflecting how the band has grown since its started. The band is powered by some local sluggers, pianist Gary Schunk, who logged the most mileage Sunday night. White featured Schunk on every tune, and he played beautifully. White demanded a lot from drummer Jeff Trudell, too. 

Trudell was situated behind the brass section. So you couldn’t see him. But you could see sparks flying from his drum kit during his soloing. There’re some excellent solos from alto saxophonist Mark Kieme and tenor player Bobby Streng although you had to strain to hear them because their microphones weren’t as loud as White’s and Trudell’s microphones were.

Three tunes into the set, I wondered if, Paul, the owner of Cliff Bell’s had the Detroit Fire Department on standby. At any moment, it seemed the band was going to burn the club to the ground. The band was that flammable. It’s good to know there's a big band in town that's on par with the Dave Holland big band, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The challenge for White now is to find a club his band can work at regularly. Of course, given how explosive his big band is, the club has to be structurally sound.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


The jazz trumpeter Pharez Whitted took 14 years off from recording as a leader. Whitted used those years wisely, keeping his talent from molding working with greats such as Slide Hampton, Ari Brown, Von Freeman, and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. In 2010, Whitted returned to the studio and recorded the excellent comeback album “Transient Journey”. Last month, Whitted released the jewel “For The People” on Origin Records. The album could easily be mistaken for one of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s classic for Blue Note Records “For The People” isn't loaded with special guests. Whitted wrote all the tunes, and hired guitarist Bobby Broom—who dropped a wonderful album this year “Upper Westside Story”—to loan his genius to the album. There’re sappy ballads on the album such as “Sad Eye” and “Unbroken Promise”. The cuts likely to be fan favorites are “Watusi Boogaloo,” and  “Another Kinda of Blue”. Be warned, those cuts could burn a hole in your eardrums.

The ink wasn't even dry on jazz guitarist Randy Napoleon's diploma from the University of Michigan before his career took off. Shortly, after Napoleon graduated, drummer Jeff Hamilton, co-captain of the Clayton- Hamilton Orchestra, tracked Napoleon down to offer him a chair in the orchestra. When the run with that orchestra ended, pianist Benny Green snatched up Napoleon. Then Napoleon hooked up with jazz vocalist Freddie Cole. For the past five years, he’s recorded and toured with Cole. Somehow given Napoleon’s full schedule he found time to assemble a band—trumpeter Justin Walter, saxophonist Ben Jansson, trombonist Josh Brown, organist Duncan McMillan, and drummer Quincy Davis—to record his second album “The Jukebox Crowd”. Napoleon is a humble guitarist like Bobby Broom and Jim Hall. Improvisation isn’t necessarily the focal point of what Napoleon does. “The Jukebox Crowd” is a soft-bop (a close cousin of smooth jazz), and Napoleon put 14 cuts on listener’s plates, all of which are satisfying. Obviously, Napoleon wanted listeners to leave “The Jukebox Crowd” with a full belly.

There's not enough fingers and toes on a human body to count the number of bands and projects that jazz drummer RJ Spangler is involved with. The Planet D Nonet and the RJ Spangler Trio are two that gets a lot of press. The trio is comprised of guitarist Ralph Tope and organist Duncan McMillan. The trio is the shit around Detroit. Wednesday’s the trio can be experienced live at the jazz club Cliff Bells. The trio’s latest offering is “This Is What We Do”. What the trio has done since Spangler formed it is make smooth organ jazz music. That sounds contradictory when you think of organ jazz down-home hell-raising comes to mind. Spangler's trio is capable of hell-raising. If that claim needs to be backed up, check out the albums closer “Funky Mama”. On that cut, it appears McMillan is playing two Hammond B3 organs simultaneously. Every worthwhile organ jazz trio has a linchpin. In Spangler’s trio, it’s McMillan who has the most horsepower. “This Is What We Do” is an album you can wear every day. 

I wonder if there’s an official count of how many female jazz alto saxophonists are out there. I can come up with Tia Fuller, Anat Cohen, Lotte Anker, and Hailey Niswanger, alto saxophonist  making some good jazz music. A week ago, I came across a splendid new album by alto saxophonist titled “Live Work & Play” by Caroline Davis. There are traces of Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman in Davis' bloodstream. That’s clear on the cuts “Dionysus,” and “Cheryl”. Davis is a brain, too. She has a Ph.D. in Music Cognition from Northwestern University. On Chicago’s jazz scene, she’s been a mainstay, and she perfected her sound at saxophonist Von Freeman’s weekly gathering at the New Apartment Lounge. “Live Work & Play” is the kind of post-bop that straddles the lines of free-jazz..   

Monday, November 19, 2012


Jazz bassist Dave Holland

The Dave Holland Big Band launched the 2012-2013 University Music Society’s jazz series Saturday night at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. The Big Band has some sluggers—Steve Nelson, Antonio Hart, Mark Strickland, and Robin Eubank’s—walked on the stage anxious to swing, and that’s what they did from the first number Holland called to the encore the audience demanded after a lengthy ovation. 

Before the big band opened up a Costco size can of whoop-ass, Holland told the audience he’d give the names of each member at the end of the tune they’re featured on. Then Holland touched on how he enjoys playing in Ann Arbor, and that he has some fond memories of  the city, but he didn’t go into any details. The night wasn’t about a trip down memory lane. It was about a big band swinging  and Holland’s two time Grammy winning big band is expert at that. Holland's band played seven tunes, six from the band's 2002 album “What’s Goes Around”.

Holland opened with “Upswing”. The title says it all. Baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall was the first to solo, and he burned to the changes of “Upswing” like a warehouse fire. Vibraphonist Steve Nelson—one of the original members of the big band and Holland’s most trusted staffer—followed. Nelson was animated working out on the vibes like a mad scientist. Throughout the performance it appeared Nelson was in his own world.

Next Holland called “A Rio” followed by the showstopper “Triple Dance”. Alto saxophonist Antonio Hart was remarkable, which wasn’t surprising. Throughout his career Hart has been a ruthless improviser. All night, Hart behaved like the captain of a sports team, encouraging his band-mates, reacting enthusiastically as they soloed and swung through the set list. When trombonist Robin Eubanks soloed, for example, on “Triple Dance,” Hart was so hyped it appeared at any moment he’d spring from his chair and do the Dougie dance.

“Triple Dance” was the funkiest and the most urban tune Holland called. On most of the tunes the soloist soloed twice. Holland has achieved the oneness or the united sound good big bands strive for. For Holland that had to be challenging. Each member of his band has distinct character traits. The members are supportive of each other nevertheless, but some inner-band competition exists, especially between Hart and Gross. 

Gross has an old-school bebop tone. His alto has a sweet tooth and Gross ate the changes to “A Rio” like penny candy. Gross soloing seemed to embolden Hart. Their blowing could’ve been taken as competition or two journeymen horn-smith drawing the best from each other.

For the fifth tune, Holland called “First Snow,” a ballad. By then, the audience needed a breather. The band had them so worked up smoke billowed from their ears. Besides, slowing things down gave the musician’s horns a chance to cool off. After the ballad ended, the band returned to swinging.

Tenor saxophonist Mark Strickland got a late start. Once he got going on the cooker “Free For All” you couldn’t shut Strickland up. Drummer Donald Edwards didn’t get much love. He soloed on “Free For All”. His job was to motor the band and tend to the dirty work, which he did magnificently.

The audience roared for about five minutes when “Free For All” ended. That nearly made Holland tearful, knowing his band was appreciated for putting in a good night’s work. Holland placed his hand over his heart and he thanked the audience for sharing in the music.

For the encore, which the audience begged for like an overweight kid a second helping of dessert, Holland called “Blues for C.M.,” an ode to his hero jazz bassist Charles Mingus. Holland is thoughtful. He kept the audience hyped for 80 straight minutes of dervish swinging. Then he put a blues on them like a winter coat and sent them home. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012


The Clayton Brothers, bassist John and alto saxophonist Jeff, last two albums “Brother to Brother,” and “The New Song and Dance” were examples of the roaring swing that’s been their business model since opening shop in 1980 with “It’s All in the Family”. It didn't take the brothers long to cement a brand that's equal to the Addlerly's, the Heath's and the Jones' brothers. 

The 6th of November, the Clayton brothers released their eighth studio album “The Gathering,” and they have two of their friends--trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and vibraphonist Stefon Harris--over for drinks. To make Gordon and Harris feel at home, the Clayton’s custom built tunes for them such as “Stefon Fetchin’ It” and “Coupe De Cone”. On this album, the Clayton's have a mi casa, su casa mentality. And Gordon takes full advantage of  their hospitality.

Both Gordon and Harris are leading hell-raisers of their generation. But, on "The Gathering,” Gordon is lively, and Harris is a wallflower. It's not his fault. The Clayton's are the blame. On paper including Harris on the album is a good bet. Harris made some choice albums for Blue Note Records, and last year he teamed with saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott for the killer album “Ninety Miles”.

The Claytons are the blame because they fail to give Harris a meaty role on “The Gathering” despite their   best intentions. The core of the Clayton’s band pianist Gerald Clayton (John’s son), drummer Obed Calvaire and trumpeter Terell Stafford are solid throughout, particularly Stafford. His playing is lethal. Calvaire and Stafford aren’t blood but the Clayton brothers treat them like family.

The Clayton’s skills are in mint condition that's evident on the ballad “Don’t Explain,” which follows “This Ain’t Nothin’ But A Party,” the album’s best cut and the kind of high altitude swing the Claytons have a patent on. The cut  gets you high. Following it with a ballad is a buzz kill. "The Gathering" won't stick to your ribs like The Clayton Brother's last two albums.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Jazz pianist/educator Ellen Rowe
What would Detroit’s jazz scene be like without the involvement of female jazz musicians? That’s the question I pondered after leaving the Max M. Fisher Music Center Monday night. I caught the Celebrating Women in Jazz concert organized by the conductor of the Wayne State University Big Band and artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival Chris Collins. 

The concert featured drummer Gaylynn McKinney, piano player Ellen Rowe, bass player Marion Hayden, singers Joan Belgrave and Ursula Walker back my the outstanding WSU Big Band. The concert started with a short documentary film produced by trumpeter Sam Beaubien. For the film, he interviewed Ellen Rowe and Gaylynn McKinney about how they got their start in the music. 

McKinney talked about her dad piano player Harold McKinney, and the time she met iconic jazz drummer Max Roach when she was 10-years-old. Roach had a pair of red drumsticks she wanted, and Roach obliged. Years later when McKinney was a member of the jazz quintet Straight Ahead they opened for Roach at the State Theater (Its name has since been changed to the Fillmore). Surprisingly, Roached remembered McKinney. ”You’re the little girl who took my drumsticks,” Roach said.

The documentary ended with a clip of a live show by the all-female jazz band the Sweetheart’s of Rhythm. Then the house lights came on, and the WSU Big Band played jazz piano player Toshiko Akiyoshi’s “Yellow is Mellow,” after which Ellen Rowe, the evening’s first featured guest, breezed through “It Might as Well be Spring”. Joan Belgrave followed with “Excitable,” the title cut from her 2009 album.

Before Collins introduced Gaylynn McKinney, he said his band big were studying many compositions by female jazz composers as a gesture of sincere gratitude for their lasting contributions to the music. Collins never mentioned any war stories about the difficulties of making it as female musicians. I’m sure there’re plenty. Instead, Collins focused on how gifted the females were, and how important they were to the music.

McKinney stretched out on Neal Hefti's “Cute”. She’s a hellacious and a season drummer. Jazz is her cornerstone although she’s adept at smooth jazz and at funk music. Celebrating the Women of Jazz occasion  was the first time I witnessed McKinney flat out pimp her virtuosity, but she was a big part of a special occasion so showing off was OK.  

Marion Hayden performance was the standout. She showed two promising student bass players the sweet science of walking the bass on Paul Chamber’s “Tale of the Fingers”. Hayden didn’t take it easy on the students, and they surpassed her wildest expectations; especially Gwendolyn MacPhee who walked her bass like a cop walks a beat.

Ursula Walker sang John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s number “Norwegian” and Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now”. Walker has 50 plus years of performance experience, and her voice is still as nourishing as seasonal fruit.

The Celebrating Women in Jazz concert was a smash with only one questionable omission the inclusion of more tunes by female jazz composers, which I thought was odd. Anyway, the music was hotter than hell in August, and the WSU Big Band’s was serious as any university big band I’ve heard. The big band backed professionals, and they didn’t choke.   

If I had my way, Celebrating Women in Jazz would be an annual concert, still featuring Detroiters, but ultimately flying in internationally renowned female jazz musicians such as Maria Schneider, Toshiko Akiyoshi,  and Nancy Wilson.

There’re a lot of female jazz musicians particularly singers who’ve blessed the Detroit’s jazz scene, and they deserve the kind of hero worship Collins lavished on them. What shape would Detroit’s jazz scene be without McKinney, Rowe, Belgrave, Hayden and Walker's involvement? Surely, the scene wouldn’t be as hip.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


The late jazz pianist Kenn Cox

It’s been awhile since I last wrote you, Kenn. I know I promised to keep you updated on what's happening on the Detroit jazz scene. If you have the time, I’ll bring you up to speed. Then I want to tell you about a celebration Thursday night at the Jazz Café. During the Labor Day weekend, Chris Collins, the new artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival, put on the finest jazz fest in recent memory. 

I don’t have the space to explain how unbelievable special the fest was. This time around, there were more Detroit jazz musicians booked. Something you always pushed for. Under Collins it’s come to pass. In September the Societie for the Culturally Concerned honored Yusef Lateef.

Last month, jazz singer Cassandra Wilson opened the 2012-2013 Paradise Jazz Series. Last weekend, Edge Fest in Ann Arbor wrapped up. Jazz Singer Freddy Cole has a four night run at the Dirty Dog, and the Dave Holland Big Band is on deck to play at the Michigan Theatre next Saturday.

Detroiters Marion Hayden, Rodney Whitaker, Geri Allen and Shahida Nurullah are turning out some exciting up-and-coming jazz musicians. Tuesday night, I caught tenor sax player Marcus Elliot’s set at Cliff Bell’s. He’s one of Whitaker’s former students. Kenn, Donald Walden would love Elliot. Mark my word, Elliot is going to be big. Pianist Charles Boles plays Tuesday nights at the Dirty Dog. Detroit’s jazz scene is healthy.

Kenn, I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. A week ago, I bought “Kenn Cox and Donald Walden Duet at Kerrytown”.  I enjoyed every bit of it, but that’s not the real reason I’m writing you. I wanted to share with you some highlights from the tribute concert and birthday bash your wife, Barbara Cox, threw for you Thursday evening at the Jazz Café.

I overheard a woman say your spirit was present. I can’t vouch for that. The rumor mill has you busy up there in heaven giving God piano lessons, and schooling his angels—who’re jazz nuts—about Detroit’s vast jazz history.

Anyway, Kenn, the Jazz Cafe was jammed with many of your friends and fans of Melba Joyce Boyd’s poetry. Poet M.L. Liebler was the master of ceremony. Barbara invited Melba to participate by using the occasion to launch her new book of poetry “Death Dance of a Butterfly”. Barbara spoke twice. 

Barbara told the crowd what a do-it-yourself jazz genius and wonderful man you were. She talked some about you forming Strata Concert Gallery, which housed the record label the put out your band the Contemporary Jazz Quintet music. Barbara also touched on your other endeavors, which she was a big part of. She noted you left behind 1,000 unrecorded tunes, but she didn’t say what she plans to do with them.

Barbara tickled the crowd when she said: “Kenn and I never swam close to shore,” meaning you guys took chances. Barbara also read passages from your journal nothing too personal just some musings about your work.  

There was a misprint in the Detroit Free Press and the Metrotimes newspapers regarding the reason for the event. They incorrectly wrote your album “Clap Clap: A Joyful Noise” would be available. And I suppose many of the people at the bash was disappointed the album wasn’t there. I know for sure I was.

Barbara explained the album will be released by 180 Proof Records sometime next year. Then Barbara played a cut from the album, which readied the crowd’s ears for Vincent Bowen’s band with Mick Jellick on piano, Jaribu Shahid on bass, and Djallo Keita Djakate on drums. The band was tighter than a fitness trainer’s butt. The band played some of your tunes “Samba De Romance” and “Mandela’s Muse”. When the band played the latter the crowd was hyped. Mike take of the ballad “Emily” calmed them.

Vincent is unsung. His flute preached. His soprano sang, and his tenor wailed. For some crazy reason, the local press has ignored Vincent, but he appears unfazed by that. The local press has also ignored Djallo, an ego-free jazz drummer who has blessed every band he’s been a member of. 

Jaribu is such as a freakishly gifted bass player he could play the upright bass beautifully with his toes. Kenn, the band’s rending of your music would’ve made you blush.  After the live music ended, Barbara showed rare video footage that included still photos of you performing with the late Detroit great jazz musicians Donald Walden, Don Mayberry, Teddy Harris, and Bert Myrick. The footage was touching. Photographer Clyde Stringer produced the video. Melba’s took the stage after the video presentation.

Jazz bass player Marion Hayden accompanied Melba. She opened the reading with an ode to Marion followed by “Working It Out” inspired by you which segued nicely into “A Mingus Among Us and a Walden Within Us,” dedicated to Donald Walden. The poem’s title was a play on the title of Donald’s second album “A Monk and A Mingus Among Us”? 

Melba read a few poems inspired by some members of her family. The reading ended with a semi-militant poem titled “We Want Our City Back” that got the crowd worked up again. It took Melba a minute to find her rhythm. The stage lights were messing with her vision. But once she hit her stride it was on.

Kenn, the celebration was a full-night of reflections, music, and poetry, a fitting tribute from your lady-love, Barbara. Honestly, Kenn, I thought at some point Barbara was going to break down, talking about what a good man you were, but she was elated and humorous. I guess she’s confident you’re up there in heaven safe, happy and having a ball with your Detroit running-buddies.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Freddy Cole
Jazz singer Freddy Cole’s Wednesday night set at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in suburban Detroit started 30 minutes late with no explanation. The audience was forgiven once Cole and his band—drummer Curtis Boyd, bass player Elias Bailey and guitar player Randy Napoleon—began playing. 

Cole played a soul numbing set of love songs from the American songbook. So far, it was the greatest set of music I’ve experienced this year by a renowned headliner. It surpassed Charles Lloyd’s, Aaron Diehl’s, Cassandra Wilson’s, and Wynton Marsalis’ shows. All memorable shows I would pay to see again. Romantic and debonair jazz singers are hard to come by these days. 

At 81, Cole’s voice is still in good shape. After the fourth selection, I wondered if he was lip-syncing because his voice was that lucid and distinct. Cole is an old-school balladeer and a storyteller. When he sang “I Was Telling Her About You,” “Talk to Me,” and “My First Impression of You,” 

Cole came across as if reciting prominent  works of literature. And his piano playing was sensual as if his fingers made love to the piano keys. Cole didn’t rush through any of the songs he sang. Instead he wrapped his hand around their waist and escorted them around the club. 

Over the years, I’ve caught many jazz shows at the Dirty Dog. Cole’s show was the first I’ve attended where the audience gave the performers their undivided attention. Cole and Napoleon had the audience smitten. 

Napoleon dished out one elegant solo after the next. For five years, Napoleon has been Cole’s leading man. Throughout the set, Napoleon grinned as if he was the luckiest jazz guitar player on earth, lucky to be in Cole’s band. 

Cole’s other band-mates were on point. Coles relied on Bailey to keep the band on course. On ever number, Bailey kept the time and the melody in plain sight. Boyd’s drumming was a case study in tastefulness. 

Several of the classic love songs Cole played are on his album “Talk To Me,” released last year. After an hour of seducing the audience with love songs, Cole played an unsolicited encore Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day,” which may have been Cole's way of making up for starting the set late. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Saxophonist Marcus Elliot (Photo by Lukas Hagen)
I heard a promising jazz trio Tuesday evening at the jazz club Cliff Bell’s in downtown Detroit. The trio was run by 22-year-old tenor sax player Marcus Elliot. His given name was Marcus Miller. Because he was constantly mistaken for the famous smooth jazz guitar player Marcus Miller, Elliot changed his surname. Last year, he graduated from Michigan State University, and he released his first album “Looking Forward”. 

Elliot's dad, a lifelong jazz fan, turned him on to the music. When his dad caught a show at Bert’s Marketplace—one of Detroit’s well-known jazz club—Elliot accompanied him. As a pre-teen Elliot heard and met some top Detroit jazz musicians James Carter, Larry Smith and Marcus Belgrave. (Elliot has worked off and on with Belgrave since October.)

Elliots reputation as a tenor player is growing. When renowned bass player Robert Hurst returned to Michigan and assembled a new band, he hired Elliot. Since then, he has added performances with Jimmy Cobb and Bennie Maupin to his resume’.

Tuesday, evening was the first time I heard Elliot’s trio. In 2010, I saw him with Hurst at the Vigil Carr Center. Elliot was 18, and Hurst’s band played originals from his albums “Bob Ya Head,” and “Unrehurst Volume Two”. Elliot was comfortable on stage with vet jazz musicians twice his age.

For two months, Elliot has performed Tuesday’s with drummer Julian Allen and bass player Ben Rolston. They’ve played together for two years, and they’re serious up-and-comers. Each Tuesday the trio test drive new tunes. That’s how Elliot designed the trio.

The standout tunes were Elliot’s “Mister Allen,” and Rolston’s “Branches and Bark,” which had a variety of tempo and mood changes. There was a catchy reworking of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” and I rather lifeless take of Roberta Flack’s slow jam “Feel Like Makin’ Love”. Their music is modern, but not too way out, and the trio sound happier playing originals.

Elliot has a clean cut and grown up sound, and clearly he spent considerable man-hours examining tenor sax player Mark Turner’s style. Elliot isn’t into grandstanding. Someday the major focal point of his career is going to be composing. 

For now, Elliot is still in the chops-building-stage of his career. In a good three years, he will be ready to take on New York. Rolston’s is the most exciting, and his style resembles the late jazz bass wunderkind Scott LaFaro. While I listened to Rolston soloing, I wondered if the trio could survive if he wasn’t around to navigate. 

Allen is the trio’s workaholic perfectly content overseeing the manual chores. And he's not a drummer who's  unnecessarily bombastic, or who's prone to selfishness. The trio has it together. I wish they’d stay together for the years to come, but that’s unlikely. Better paying gigs and chances to work for big named jazz musicians are destine.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Saxophonist De'Sean Jones

I met the jazz saxophone player De’Sean Jones in 2004. Back then, Jones was 14, and a new member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic jazz program. I was assigned to interview the program's director bass player Rodney Whitaker for a story in the weekly newspaper the Metrotimes. Whitaker was running late for the interview. To kill time, I waited in a rehearsal room as his students prepared for their weekly session.

Jones struck up a conversation with me, talking excitedly about being a member of Civic Jazz, and listing all the jazz tenor sax players his dad had turned him on to. For a teen, Jones was scary smart. I liked him immediately. I laughed when Jones said if he has kids, he was going to make sure they're jazz musicians. I never seen a teen that idealistic and focused. After Whitaker finally arrived and the weekly session began, I was awed by how mature Jones sounded on the tenor.

Two years, after we met, I saw Jones at the Detroit Jazz Festival with his tenor in tow. Jones wasn’t scheduled to perform, but  that didn't deter him from playing. He walked through the crowd playing like he was a featured act at the festival. The following year, Jones was at the fest playing in the Gerald Wilson Big Band. Backstage minutes before Jones hit the stage, I pulled Jones aside. I assured him in the coming years he’d a big success. 

Jones is 25 now with a wife and a baby boy. He’s toured with Stevie Wonder, and he performed overseas with the jazz and techno group Underground Resistance. When Jones was on leave from that group, he toured and recorded with his septet.

It’s been a few years since I’ve heard Jones live. I attended the opening night of his four night engagement at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in suburban Detroit. I heard Jones was heavily into experimental forms of music. That didn’t surprise me. Many jazz musicians of Jones’ generation are experimenting.

The Dirty Dog caters to a conservative crowd. So, I wondered if Jones brand of jazz would appeal to  such  a crowd. It was the first time Jones led a band at the Dirty Dog. A few years ago, he played there in Marcus Belgrave’s band. 

Wednesday night, was the opening of Jones’ four night run, and the first televised game of World Series Tigers vs. the Giants, which could be a reason for the small turn out at the Dirty Dog. That didn't mess with Jones’ head. Jones treated the gig as though it was a blessing. Instead of his usual septet, Jones gave his regular’s guitar player Conrad Reeves, vibe player Chase Jackson, and piano player Shea Pierre some time off.

Mike Jellick, a first-call piano player and arranger in Detroit subbed for Pierre. Jones played his tunes and one standard “April in Paris”. His tunes “Invocation,” “Lost-N-You,” and “Solomon Da’Wise” was borderline free-jazz and danceable. 

Because of the small turn out, it’s unknown if the Dirty Dog regulars would've cottoned  to Jones' free-jazz friendly and boogie driven music. Nevertheless, his quintet was on point, especially trumpeter Aaron Janik  and drummer Zaire Darden. Janik's trumpeting was earthshaking, and Darden's drumming called to mind Detroiter Karriem Riggins. 

A lot of tenor players of Jones' generation influences are obvious. But it's nearly impossible to tell which tenor sax players Jones idolized, but if I had to make an educated guess I’d say James Carter and the late  Donald Walden were Jones' idols. 

Jones’ quintet was commanding, but sadly only a handful of people were there to experience it, but there's no need to fret. There's a silver lining. Jones’ quintet will perform again at the Dirty Dog Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.