Sunday, August 31, 2014


Cyrus Chestnut
Saturday, marked the first full day of concerts at the 35th Detroit Jazz Festival. Although I got an early start, I didn’t catch all the concerts I planned to. I started the day at the Absopure Pyramid Stage. I caught Hallady/Schunk Latin Experience set. The group of Detroiters played from Doug Halladay’s latest album “Celebrando!”.

I bumped into Halladay’s wife opening night of the festival. She implored me to check out the set, promising it would be smoking. She was right although there was some overkill. The soloing was too long. I wondered if the first two numbers would ever end. Hallady is a fine composer and he put together a solid group of Detroiters to play his music. If this band stays together, it will be one of the best in Michigan.

After Hallady’s set, I shot over to catch alto saxophonist Phil Woods’ set at the JP Morgan Chase Main Stage. Woods is one of a handful of remaining players from the bop era, and although he had to me wheeled onto the stage and he carries an oxygen tank to help him breathe, he still sounds wonderful. His chops hasn’t aged one bit.

His band trumpeter Brian Lynch, pianist Bill Mays, bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin sprinted through a number of goodies from the American Songbook. Woods had to take a break after a couple of meaty solos. Emphysema has slowed him down some. Woods made light of his medical condition, joking that when a saxophonist is hit with emphysema it’s a sure sign he plays too many notes.

I stayed at the Chase Stage. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut followed Woods. Chestnut had a young band with him who looked like high school music students, but they swung like veteran players. Chestnut set was a tribute to the late great jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. 

Chestnut did an excellent job remaking many of Brubeck’s signature tunes. The crowd had a collective orgasm when Chestnut broke into the hippest take of “Take Five” I ever heard, a classic written by Brubeck’s band-mate Paul Desmond.

Before the set started, Chestnut warned the crowd he did not intend to play Brubeck’s music as originally written. It was Chestnut's first stop at the Detroit Jazz Festival since 1992. 

Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders was the musician I wanted to see the most. I wondered if Sanders was still deep into his free-jazz bag. Sanders played a straight-ahead set with little of the antics on the sax he’s known for. 

Sanders didn’t announce the tunes his band played. The crowd was so wrapped up into the performance they really didn’t give a damn. Sanders gave them what they wanted undiluted jazz and brilliant soloing from his staff drummer Joe Farnsworth, pianist Will Henderson and bassist Nat Reeves.  So far, my favorite set of the festival

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Bad Plus & Joshua Redman
After 25 minutes of backslapping by the big sponsors of the Detroit Jazz Festival, the 35th installment of the nation’s largest free music festival opened with a brilliant set from the jazz trio Bad Plus. Drummer David King, bassist Reid Anderson and pianist Ethan Iverson make up the trio, and their special guest was saxophonist Joshua Redman, the DJF’s artist-in-residence. Honestly, the Bad Plus’s set would’ve been badass without Redman, but his being there was a bonus.

The Bad Plus is a tough band to label. One minute they played what appeared to be rock fusion. The next they stretched out on a free-jazz piece. Then they slipped in a ballad played so lovingly it would've made a stingy bastard donate his life-savings to charity.

Bad Plus kept changing the game plan, playing a bunch of multi-layered original compositions the conservative DJF crowd ate up. Redman was terrific throughout. You could follow the logic of his playing whether he played mellowly as he did on the set opener “Love is the Answer,” or played wildly as he did on the set closer. Anderson wasn't being cocky when he said the band's performance set the tone of the festival.

The second set was billed A Night at the Apollo starring Ted Louis, Margot B, Kevin Mahogany, the Wonder Twins and David Berger’s NYC Big Band. It was a big project design for the DJF. On paper, the project seemed easy to pull off. But the result was a cluster fuck.

Berger’s Big Band was on point playing swing, bebop, and the blues with heart, energy and efficiency. The other acts were flat. Ted Louis is a competent tap dancer and singer. But his impression of Sammy Davis Jr. and Cab Calloway were lame. The Wonder Twins dance routine was puzzling. Kevin Mahogany is a great jazz singer, one of the best in jazz. But his booming voice couldn’t rescue the set.

Mahogany did get a brief rise from the crowd when he belted a blues, his best punch. If Berger’s big band had played the set alone, it would’ve been good enough to maintain the spirited tone Bad Plus had established. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Randy Weston and Billy Harper
July was a good month. I received a bunch of excellent jazz albums, and I picked up writing drive-by album reviews. The kind of reviews that come in under 100 words. A former music editor at the Metrotimes--a weekly newspaper in Detroit where I covered jazz for 17 years--coined the name years ago. I continued using it because it fits the short reviews I enjoy writing. 

Anyway, I spent the better part of July listening to new music. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins' and pianist Cyrus Chestnut's albums were the best followed by bassist Rodney Whitaker and pianists Eric Reed and Orrin Evans.

In August, things have slowed down, which is OK. The Detroit Jazz Festival is around the corner. My friend jazz historian Jim Gallert asked me to interview pianist Randy Weston and saxophonist Billy Harper at the Jazz Talk Tent.

At first, I turned Jim down because I’m uncomfortable talking to crowds. I’ve interviewed many jazz musicians mostly one on one or via telephone. Jim is a salesman at heart, and he convinced me I’m the right man to conduct the interview. 

The past three weeks, I’ve been researching Weston and Harper. I’ve talked to jazz legends before. In fact, I’m an old pro at it, having picked the brains of Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Richard Davis and many others.

I bought Weston’s autobiography “African Rhythms”. It’s taken me a week to get through it. Weston led an upstanding life and that doesn’t make for riveting reading as Hampton Hawes’, Miles Davis’ and Art Pepper’s autobiographies was. They led troubled lives.

Anyway, I got some useful information from Weston’s book, particularly his musical partnership with trombonist Melba Liston which Weston likened to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's partnership.

I couldn’t find a lot of information about Harper. I checked All Music, All About Jazz, Harper’s official website and a few more online sources. All had the same basic biographical stuff so I won’t have a ton of questions for him. 

Weston and Harper put out a wonderful album in 2013 titled “Roots of the Blues”. I plan to make it the thrust of the interview. I want to know about their musical friendship and how it’s grown over the years. They’ve been collaborating for decades. I’ll warm up with that. Then I’ll question them about memorable chunks of their musical history. That should eat up most of the 45 minutes I have to interview them.