Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Bassist Marion Hayden organized tribute to jazz promoter James  Ruffner

Sunday afternoon at the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church in Detroit, MI. family, friends, and Detroit jazz musicians bade goodbye to a royal figure in Detroit’s jazz community concert promoter James Ruffner. Last week, Ruffner, 73, died of prostate cancer.

Ruffner was a tireless advocate of Detroit jazz. Through his annual concert series the Jazz Forum held at the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church, he showcased the genius of many Detroit jazz musicians. He began the series in 1990 and over the years, it became popular. 

A few years after he began the series, Ruffner opened a mom-and-pop record label Alembic Records. Detroiters Don Mayberry, Ange Smith, Steve Woods, Kate Patterson and Shahida Nurrullah were signed.

Bassist Marion Hayden organized the tribute and saxophonist Steve Woods was the master of ceremony. Many Detroit jazz musicians who benefited from Ruffner selfless advocacy performed and shared their personal recollections of Ruffner. 

When the musicians spoke about how Ruffner impacted their careers, they painted him as a jazz humanitarian  comfortable operating behind the scene, making sure they always had an outlet for their music. Ruffner largess extended to the musician’s family members. Pianist Gary Schunk's and Hayden's sons worked at Ruffner's production company.

The musical part of the memorial ran two hours and felt like one of Ruffner’s Jazz Forum concerts. Vocalists Barbara Ware, Kate Patterson and Shahida Nurullah voices gave the attendees goose bumps. Saxophonists Vincent Bowen, Russ Miller, and George Benson rocked the church.

A native of Grosse Pointe, MI, Ruffner grew up in a musical family, but he never aspired to be a musician. He developed an interest in jazz as a teen. At Ohio State University, he promoted jazz concerts. He served in the Air Force and attended graduate school.  

Ruffner believed jazz would fit anyplace. He even convinced the pastor of Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church to start a jazz series. As a bigwig at the Greystone Jazz Museum, he helped raise funds to put on jazz concerts in schools, libraries, senior living centers and Hart Plaza. . 

Toward the end of the tribute, Schunk summed up Ruffner's impact on Detroit’s jazz community. Schunk said jazz musicians aren’t good at promotion so they needed a man like Ruffner.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Gerald Clayton is a talented under 30 jazz pianist with a growing body of work as a sideman and as a session leader. On albums co-led by his dad and uncle bassist John and saxophonist Jeff Clayton, the young Clayton has proven he can stomp with the big boys. No one familiar with his work would dispute he's undeserving of the accolades and press he’s received at this leg of his development. 

As a session leader, Clayton is laid-back and he likes to cook original music. And he's comfortable playing at a cruise-control tempo, which is fine and works. Clayton plays beautifully, and stylistically he’s indebted to the jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. The downside to being infatuated over one player or one particular style is it’s hard to break. Clayton is stuck in this Mehldau phase. 

Clayton’s albums “two-shades” and “Bond the Paris sessions” were excellent but not breakthroughs. Last month, Concord Records released Clayton’s debut for the label “Life Forum,” which many who had their eye on Clayton for a while hoped would be that breakthrough. 

Sadly, “Life Forum” is a letdown. Clayton borrowed from the pages of the pianist Robert Glasper's and the bassist Esperanza Spalding's playbook. Two players of Clayton's class restless with pure jazz. They are into deluding jazz with other genres. “Life Forum” is all over the place, or an experiment gone awry. 

It’s within Clayton’s rights to stretch out or to challenge himself by experimenting with bigger groups. Honestly, Clayton was coming along swimmingly with his trio bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown. It's  hard these days to fine a good down to earth jazz trio album. Clayton had the right mix. 

“Life Forum” has some special guests. There’s several cuts with vocalists Gretchen Parlato and Sachal Vasandani. Both are wonderful and have impressive works as leaders. Unfortunately, Clayton didn’t give them anything exciting to do. 

Both are a bore on this album. On “Dusk Baby,” Vasandani sounds like smooth jazz vocalist Michael Franks, a career bore. And Clayton teaming Parlato and Sachal on “Like Water” seemed sensible on paper but the result would make a caffeine junky drowsy. On other cuts, Clayton relegated them to nothing more than background vocalists.