Thursday, January 21, 2016


Wynton Marsalis
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra put on its annual jazz concert for the University Musical Society Wednesday evening at Hill Auditorium. Instead of performing the music of iconic jazz musicians and composers such as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie, the JLCO played pop oldies-but-goodies from the 60's, 70's, and 80's. 

The two-hour concert was billed as Jazz in the Key of Life, and trombonist Vincent Gardner was the concert’s music director. Gardner picked the nine pop songs the orchestra played, and various members of the orchestra wrote arrangements.

Presenting pop music was a stretch for the JLCO whose comfort zone is largely swing, bop, and post-bop. It was thoughtful for the orchestra to offer its Michigan fan base something different.

Suffice it to say, pop isn’t what the JLCO does best. Gardner prefaced each song by giving the audience bits of its origins. The trombonist never said why the JLCO decided to explore pop music.

The orchestra opened with the Crusaders “Street Life,” followed by a number from the rock group Creams’ songbook. Then the orchestra tackled Stevie Wonders classic “All in Love is Fair”.

The orchestra’s take on those songs was underwhelming. The JLCO is one of the top jazz orchestras of all time, and this annual concert has always been a treat for jazz fans wanting to experience two-hours of red-blooded American swing.

There’re some cool solos by bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson on Donny Hathaway’s “Sugar Lee”. The orchestra’s leader, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, nearly blew the musicians in the trombone section out their chairs soloing on Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby”.

The orchestra seemed most comfortable with the Jackson’s “Blame it on the Boogie,” which Gardner arranged and played tuba on, and the audience was most pleased with. I’ve attended JLCO’s annual UMS concert for a decade. The Jazz in the Key of Life concert was the first time the orchestra seemed out of their league.  

Friday, January 1, 2016


Tenor saxophonist JD Allen
JD Allen Trio (Detroit Groove Society House Concert Series)
Tenor saxophonist and native Detroiter JD Allen closed the Detroit Groove Society concert series with two unforgettable sets of music. The concert took place in the series founder’s, Andrew Rothman’s, living room, and was produced by veteran jazz concert promoter Skip Norris, who could throw a memorable jazz concert in his sleep. Presently, Allen has ten albums on the market, and for the concert Allen, bassist Gregg August, and drummer Jonathan Barber – the concert’s MVP – burned through material from Allen’s albums “Grace,” “Victory!,” “Shine,” and “Graffiti”. The concert happened nearly a month ago, and I still wake up some nights in a cold sweat thinking about it.

Women In Jazz History Month (Kerry Town Concert House)
This concert was a celebration of Women In Jazz History Month; a poignant acknowledgement of women contributions to jazz. Pianist Ellen Rowe and bassist Marion Hayden co-led the female jazz ensemble that shifted Kerry Town Concert House off its foundation. The group delved into every happening branch of jazz such as bop, swing, modal jazz, and some blues for good measure. I left the concert wanting to organize a drive demanding this ensemble be featured at one of Detroit’s popular jazz venues regularly, and Women In Jazz Month be celebrated all year.

Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra (The 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival)
CHLMO was a set I wanted to hear more than any other at the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival. The orchestra’s performance was shocking, but I wasn’t disappointed. I was braced for the music the orchestra presented to be on the militant side and way angrier. Pianist and composer Carla Bley captained the ship and wrote the arrangements. The music the orchestra played was meaningful, and the soloing was passionate. I never dreamt I’d be in tears after the set ended. 

Regina Carter and Kenny Barron Duo (Paradise Jazz Series)
The violinist and pianist made a Grammy-nominated album in 1991 titled “Freefall”. For this duo concert, Carter and Barron revisited the music from that album. The show was flawless. Carter and Barron displayed their virtuosity on every composition. Midway through the first set, I lost count of the ovations Carter and Barron received.

Marcus Belgrave (Home Going Celebration)
The universe lost one of its most revered jazz musicians, jazz educators, mentor's, and beacon's of excellence when jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave died on May 24th. Belgrave’s funeral was an event, a nearly three-hour jazz festival befitting an extraordinary musician and human being. There’re breathtaking performances by many of the jazz musicians Belgrave influenced both, directly and indirectly, Robert Hurst, James Carter, Karriem Riggins, and Geri Allen had inspired moments. The music was so moving and inspired. I felt Belgrave was going to wake up and start blowing.
Brian Blade

Chucho Valdes (Michigan Theatre)
This concert by the reigning king of Afro-Cuban jazz was billed as a reunion of Irakere, a universally renowned ensemble Valdes co-founded forty years ago. The two-hour concert was a showcase for the rising young guns of Afro-Cuban jazz known as the Afro-Cuban Messengers. Apparently, Valdes drew considerable inspiration from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Valdes called many staples from Irakere’s repertoire, but the soloing by the young guns stuck to my ribs. The concert was a big block party. On the drive home, I wondered how many people would have to take a day off from work to recuperate from the show.

Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band (2015 Detroit Jazz Festival)
Jazz drummer Brian Blade for nearly two decades has been the heart of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, reputed as the tightest jazz band around. Blade is an animated and a quick-witted drummer who’s a joy to experience. For his Saturday afternoon set at the Detroit Jazz Festival Blade’s Fellowship Band pretty much played a more intensely hip version of the heady variety of swing unique to Shorter’s quartet. It took Blade a few tunes to get worked up. Surprisingly, the jazz fest security didn’t provide hart hats and safety goggles to be worn during Blade’s set. At one stretch, Blade was drumming so powerfully, I was sure his drum kit was going to blow up at any moment.

Michigan State University Jazz Orchestra, featuring Jimmy Cobb (Carr Center)
Honestly, I attended this concert to hear legendary jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb one of the remaining hard bop drummers who played on many landmark jazz albums most notably Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”. I doubted if the MSU Jazz Orchestra could hang with the veteran drummer. Two tunes into the concert the Bebop Spartans assuaged my doubt. The Spartans brought down the house, playing with such confidence it appeared Cobb had to prove he was worthy of sharing the stage with them. Cobb only played three tunes, and he was amazing on each, but the Spartans are who I bragged about when my friends wanted details about the concert.

Kenn Cox Tribute Concert (Carr Center)
In 2008, the jazz pianist Kenn Cox died of lung Cancer. The jazz hemisphere lost one of the most elegant bebop pianists. In his native Detroit Cox was regarded as a jazz intellectual, mentor, cultural warrior, and who people wanting the lowdown on anything concerning jazz flocked to. It’s a crying shame it took seven years to organize a tribute to Cox. The master of ceremony was one of Cox’s protégés jazz bassist Rodney Whitaker, and the two-plus hour tribute was befitting a jazz musician of Cox’s renown. Special guests were trumpeter Rayse Biggs, saxophonist Vincent Bowens, vocalists Shahida Nurullah, and Rockelle Fortin. The set list was a mix of Cox’s original compositions and staples he loved performing at his live concerts. The best part of the tribute was Whitaker’s Q& A with Cox’s wife, Barbara, about her life with the pianist.

The Oliver Lake Organ Quartet (2015 Jazz Festival)
I was familiar with alto saxophonist Oliver Lake’s reputation for having one foot in the avant-garde and the other one rooted in straight-ahead acoustic jazz, and I loved his playing as a key figure of the World Saxophone Quartet, but I never experienced Lake live. Man, did he put on a show. A blind person could see Lake designed this group around organist Jared Gold, who had his organ speaking in tongue, but the person who put some special sauce on the concert was trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, who solo after solo blew holes in the moon.