Sunday, September 11, 2011

The last day of the Festival

Playing right now: St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (arrived yesterday in the mail. I pre-ordered it because it was only $13 from the label, plus shipping. White vinyl too!)

After I got back from the Festival, I was back into the world of deadlines for articles, the day job, the family life, and how-am-I-going-to-get-this-done-and-sleep-too? My condensed, overarching piece for JazzTimes is on their website now right here. I also wrote a preview for the Olivia Tremor Control show that's happening at the Hazlett on Thursday. So I never got to blog about the last day of the Detroit Jazz Festival until now.

Before I talk about the acts on Labor Day, I need to go back to Saturday. Before all the chaos of the rain and the wildness of the performance by the Dave Holland Octet, I saw the Sean Jones Quintet play in the afternoon and they were truly one of the best acts of the whole event. I sincerely hope that their set is one that most people will talk about when rattling off their favorite moments from the weekend. And believe me, this isn't local bias for a Pittsburgh artist coming through. (He's from Youngstown, but he lives here, or at least he did until recently.) The band was amazingly tight in a way that happens when you've played together for a long time and get to know each other and trust the music.

When I got to the Carharrt stage, they were into the first tune, "Look and See," and Brian Hogans was flying through an alto solo. When Jones took his solo, he did that thing I always notice that he does when I've heard him at the Ava jam sessions: The band pulls back and gets quiet and reserved and he starts that way too. As time goes on, he slowly ratchets up the mood until he's finally wailing and screaming. It's not a formula. It works every time. When I asked him about it, he compared it to a preacher doing a sermon.

Jones spoke after every song, explaining the idea behind the songs, since they all came from his No Need for Words album, which all deal with some dynamic involving love. His mood was relaxed as the band joked with him and audience members casually yelled back at the stage. At one point he stopped in his introduction and said, "Y'all don't wanna hear me talk!" But he kept going anyway. The whole band was great. Obed Calvaire used his whole kit constantly. Luques Curtis' bass was like a rock. And Orrin Evans show a whole range of styles and feelings throughout the set, banging piano keys with his forearm if the mood called for it, getting funky or playing off of the rhythm section. Boy, were they good.

I got to their set late because I was checking out Curtis Fuller across the way. He has a really unique trombone tone, which avoids the classic bright, brassy sound you might expect for something a little darker. He's still very fast with his slide, blowing fast lines on his own "The Clan" and Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring." The young looking tenor playing with his band was pretty astounding. Then they announced that it was Eric Alexander, and I thought, well no wonder. That guy's hot.

Speaking of hot, oy was it bad at that time of day. I have that written on my notebook somewhere between those two sets. That wouldn't last.

On to Monday. There's something about the last day of the festival that makes me feel a little melancholy. The feeling that there's just a few hours left before we go back to reality. The chill in the air didn't help much. Then after going back and forth, I decided to skip trying to stop by People's Records. I had talked to the owner the day before and he said he might be open that day. But it was too far of a walk and I would've spent the whole time wondering if I'd be back in time for music.

The New Gary Burton Quartet played that afternoon and while I've never really kept up with the vibist, I want to check out more of his stuff now. His new album The Common Ground has some really great blend of his four-mallet approach and Julian Lage's guitar, so I wanted to hear it live. Lage plays a hollow-body which was both amped and miked, giving it a sound that was very clean but also very bassy.

Back Downtown, Karriem Riggins played a show that got out the younger, not-necessarily-jazz-crowd because the rapper Common was with him. Maybe it was the wild wind getting to me as I waited for them to start, but the set was kind of disappointing. Before Common came out, Riggins' group played a couple tunes, the opener being a piece that Gene Perla played with Elvin Jones. What I thought might have been something from wild Blue Note albums that Jones did, actually turned out to be more like '70s soul fusion, with no trace of Jones until Riggins took a solo to segue into the next tune. Guitarist Perry Hughes sounded good, doing the Wes Montgomery style of finger picking, but the band couldn't seem to really cut loose from the grooves. Common sounded great, bringing some good energy to the set, although the dj's sampled overpowered the band in the mix.

Back over at Mack Avenue stage, pianist Helen Sung was wailing the hell out of some boppish tune when I got there. Turns out it was "In Walked Bud," and though her trio missed some of the subtleties of the theme as played the closing head, it was still a good time. Then she invited vocalist Carolyn Leonhardt to join them for the "Helen Sung with Words" portion of the set. This began with a version of "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," which was everything bad about modern jazz vocals, with all the goofy note bends and interval leaps. They got better next with a poem by former NEA chairman Dana Gioia. The music was thoughful and the lyrics had a sense of optimism that didn't get saccharine. The closing Wayne Shorter piece, "When You Dream," had Leonhardt asking the audience to "la la la" along with her, and it made me think it was time to go home.

Walking back across the park, Terri Pontremoli was on the Carharrt stage giving an impassioned thank you to the audience, preparing to bring on the final performance of the festival, the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra. Sitting down with a lamb gyro, I checked this set out and was glad I did because it was pretty triumphant. First they played a series of arrangements that Christian McBride wrote of his pieces, on which they all wailed. Then vocalist Ernie Andrews came out and proved that you can still slay a crowd with an Ellington medley at age 83. A guy sitting in front of me, who saw my notebook, said, "He wants you to believe that it's still 1945," and he was right. While I get bothered by younger cats who get caught up in paying tribute to the older material, there's something about seeing someone from that era singing that does take you back there. Ernie is a treasure.

For the very last piece, "Detroit Chanson," violinist Regina Carter and clarinetist Anat Cohen joined the group, McBride and Rodney Whitaker traded bass solos and in the most triumphant moment, the University of Michigan Trombone Ensemble played from the back of the amphitheatre with the orchestra, finally joining them in front of the stage. That's the way to send us home.

That, and a cup of coffee (which I finally found at one of the vending booths that afternoon!) blew away my end-of-the-festival blues.

Well, that and the party at the hotel bar that night.

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