Sweet Notes On Detroit Jazz Fest 2021



JAZZistry board member, broadcaster and jazz scholar, Linda Yohn attended the 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival as a member of the press and worked on the livestream hosting team for WRCJ-FM in Detroit.  She shares thoughts and appreciation of the magnificent musicianship and professional production efforts for the virtual Detroit Jazz Festival.  She shares her photos and describes the unusual festival experience on Detroit’s annual Labor Day Weekend tradition.

When it was announced that the 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival would go to virtual presentation, Detroit jazz fans shed a collective tear.  With COVID cases rising and Detroit Hart Plaza renovation behind schedule, there was no way that festival producers could guarantee safe viewing given social distancing requirements.  Fortunately, the festival team had experience from 2020 and was prepared to improve on last year’s performances and production. 

Numbers don’t lie and the results are out:  The 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival doubled stream coverage from 2020.  More than 2 million viewers from every continent except Antarctica took in the concerts which could run over 12 hours continuously in a day. 

I tried to take in as much as I could but when you’re hosting the anchor desk or engineering in the radio studio, you’re working on thoughts for the next transition and cannot lose yourself in the music. So, here are highlights when I could concentrate on the magic music and the musicians.

Saturday evening, tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi demonstrated why he deserved a spot of his own separate from the Dave Brubeck Centennial presentation.  He is a highly respected teacher at the New England Conservatory.  He practices what he teaches, using unique rhythmic effects to set up his wide range and intervals.  Veteran bassist Harvie S provided a firm foundation for harmonic chemistry between trumpeter Phil Grenadier, fleet pianist Leo Genovese and colorful percussion from drummer Jason Tiemann.

A little after 10 p.m. on Saturday, one of the festival highlights ensued:  The Summit between Manhattan Transfer and Take Six.  It was pure pleasure to experience these two experienced ensembles understanding the give-and-take of jazz covering standards from each repertoire but inviting the surprise that a member of another group could provide. 

Saturday came to a close with the David Binney and his Angeleno Group on the Absopure Soundstage.  Binney’s alto saxophone weaved in and out of the pulsing contrapuntal harmony of two acoustic bassists:  Logan Kane and Ethan Moffitt.  Visually, to see the two bassists improvise and move together or separately was spell-binding.  Binney added to the aural painting with electronics while pianist Luca Mendoza offered flourishes to counter Binney’s ideas and drummer Justin Brown’s adept and alternative rhythm in the drummer’s chair.

On Sunday, I couldn’t miss the appearance of home-town hero, guitarist Randy Napoleon who studied with the late Louis Smith in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.  After years touring with Michael Bublé and Freddie Cole, Randy has settled in Michigan on the faculty at Michigan State University.  Two of his MSU colleagues: pianist Xavier Davis and bassist Rodney Whitaker joined him while Keith Hall, on faculty at Western Michigan University completed the quartet on drums.  A personal highlight – the group’s precision and passion on great Grant Green tunes:  “Sunday Morning”, Jean De Fleur” and “Grant’s Tune”. Like Grant Green, one can pay Randy Napoleon the highest compliment:  no unnecessary motion or notes.  Randy’s swing and groove has grace, ease, elegance and loads of soul.

I caught most of the Brubeck Brothers Quintet tribute for Dave Brubeck’s centennial birthday.  This presentation had been scheduled to tour in 2020, but due to the COVID pandemic, bassist Chris and drummer Danny Brubeck curtailed the appearances until 2021.  The brothers merged the music with classic film clips of their father and mother Iola Brubeck discussing social issues and musical milestones for the gifted family.  The virtual nature of the 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival complemented the warm visuals from Dave and Iola Brubeck.  With pianist Chuck Lamb and guitarist Mike DeMicco, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet has become an incredibly tight ensemble over years, however saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi had no trouble assimilating his sound into the group for a spectacular tribute to a great human being and musician.

Not surprisingly, Kenny Garrett’s homecoming set on the Carhartt Soundstage was a high-energy display of top-flight artistry, originality, passion and physical prowess.  His perennial set-closer “Happy People” with multiple closing choruses surely got viewers off the sofa and on their feet.  The act to follow – a sweet, intimate meeting in the Absopure Soundstage between Artist-In-Residence Dee Dee Bridgewater and pianist Bill Charlap – offered perfect balance to the festive Kenny Garrett set.  The two tenderly interpreted jazz and great American popular song classics with fresh ideas and improvisation.  Some of my favorite moments:  “Here’s That Rainy Day” when they found extra space between the notes – illustrating the poignant lyric; “Caravan” which began with a hypnotic vocalese intro followed by bouncing piano punctuation; “In The Still Of the Night” which was mysterious, sensual and spine-tingling; “Love For Sale” finding the all the blues possibilities in the Cole Porter standard and “Honeysuckle Rose” which brought the wit and charm of earlier singers Adelaide Hall and Josephine Baker into the 22nd century.  Delightful!

Another warm and intimate vocal performance followed:  Gregory Porter on the JP Morgan Chase Soundstage.  Rather than reprising his most recent recording, Porter offered a recital of the songs which have endeared him to listeners.  I was especially moved by the song “Musical Genocide”.  It is a strong statement of integrity, individualism and determination.   I was pleased to see long-time band members accompanying Gregory Porter including a saxophonist deserving wider recognition, Tivon Pennicott.

The quartet Aziza brought us back to the Absopure stage.  Bassist Dave Holland, guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Eric Harland led us through a nearly seamless expression of originality.  The first piece felt like an audio representation of a Georges Seurat pointillist painting.  Song two was bass-driven, loping and funky with a fragile edge.  Chris Potter switched effortlessly from soprano to tenor saxophone – each instrument illustrating his brilliant full range and rhythmic punctuation.  The fifth selection was a showcase for Lionel Loueke’s vocals harkening a whirling dervish of ecstasy.  Throughout the Aziza set, the foursome illustrated key elements of jazz:  counterpoint, balance, structure and freedom.  Aziza was soulful and satisfying.

Monday brought more musical rapture.  The first set I attended was bassist Dave Sharp’s Worlds Quartet at the Absopure Stage.  Accuse me of bias if you wish as Dave Sharp is a former SEMJA board member and musical director of Ann Arbor’s Blue LLama Jazz Club, but I thought their concert was one of the festival highlights.  The sonority of electric oud from Igor Houwat, ringing and singing violin by Dr. Henrick Karapetyan, and middle-eastern percussion including doumbek, tabla, djembe and darbuka from Mike List was a welcome change from standard jazz instrumentation.

In addition to electric bass, Dave Sharp created layers of sound with a synthesizer and qatar often resembling the harmonium drone of Indian music.  This was a panoply of often blazing speed with complete clarity and perfect intonation.  Eyes and ears worked man to man and hand to hand.  Magical music.

I couldn’t miss “Celebrating Bird at 100” featuring saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington on the Carhartt stage.  Like the Brubeck tribute, this ensemble planned a 2020 tour, but the pandemic scotched it.  According to Rudresh, this appearance at the Detroit Jazz Festival was the only concert this ensemble would present.  All had moved on to other projects. We, however, are grateful that they reunited to share their unique approach to the visionary music of Charlie Parker.  By creating contrafacts of Charlie Parker’s contrafacts this quintet propelled the Bird’s music into the next century and beyond. Bird unbound.  Not only did they free the bird in flight, they found unusual bop vehicles for improvisation:  “Dewey Square”, “Segment”, “Constellation” and “Blues For Alice”.  Pianist and keyboard player Kris Davis was phenomenal.  Her intuition of the right note and when to play it kept her out of the realm of bombast yielding dynamic prowess in crystalline clusters.  As ever, Terri Lyne was dynamic – especially on “Blues For Alice”.  Her backbeat was unrelenting like a team of ten white horses in perfect stratospheric sync.  Rudresh Mahanthappa captured the bird in flight essence of Charlie Parker’s genius and spirit.  This was a once in a lifetime treat.

The next treat was pianist Pamela Wise and her Ensemble.  Her husband and musical companion of decades, Wendell Harrison brought saxophones and his clarinet for flights of fancy and funk.  Kevin Bujo Jones lightened and brightened the sound with percussion.  Drummer Sean Perlmutter kept rock-steady time complemented by the legendary bassist Jaribu Shahid.  This was a welcome homecoming session for Jaribu.  Pamela was right at home as she shared stories of her musical mentors and inspirations:  Mary Lou Williams, McCoy Tyner, Ali Muhammad,  Teddy Harris and Harold McKinney.  I’m grateful that Pamela called out the ancestors in her set to inform world-wide viewers of Detroit’s rich jazz legacy.  Pamela’s performance was rich with jazz piano dexterity including block chords, montuno figures and rumbling cascades.  I hope there are more opportunities for Ms. Wise and her team to inspire us.

DeeDee Bridgewater

Dee Dee Bridgewater’s “Piece de Resistance” was her all-woman band showcasing fresh jazz genius.  Not your usual suspects!  Dee Dee let the band shine for all the world to see and hear.  Ms. Bridgewater wasn’t the only vocal soloist – two new talents sang original compositions.  To close the spectacular, all three singers joined the band in every chorus of the hymn “Lift Every Voice And Sing”.  I had to find a tissue afterwards.  And yet afterwards, I had to rush to another soundstage.  Pianist Bob James with clarinetist and saxophonist Eddie Daniels were commanding attention on the Absopure stage.

Daniels was a warm and loquacious host, reflecting on a musical life well-lived.  He told a great story about meeting Duke Ellington when he was the newest member of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra.  Feeling elated after his encounter with the maestro, he appeared with the band only to be let known that there were still more musical dues to pay – hence the title of the tune “Duke and the Lowdown”.  Throughout their set Bob James surprised with legato sections, ascending and descending stride piano polish, and impish bop improvisation.  From flute, to clarinet and tenor saxophone, Eddie Daniels was a magnificent foil for Bob James’ witty and sensitive brilliance.  This foursome should record.

Thankfully Monty Alexander has recorded for years.  The JP Morgan Chase Stage was the setting for his Harlem – Kingston Express band for jazz with a Jamaican flair.  Percussion, guitar from Yotam Silberstein, saxophone from Wayne Escoffery, bass from Lorin Cohen and both vibes and drums from veteran Chuck Redd were a great complement to Monty’s melodic, rhythmic piano.  He started in a strong, island groove and bursts of energy.  Then he let many of the band members go for a short tribute to Detroiter Milt Jackson.  His Pablo recordings with Milt Jackson cemented Monty Alexander’s straight-ahead jazz credentials.  Chuck Redd moved over to the vibes for “Django”, “Bossa Nova Do Marillo” and “Isn’t She Lovely?”.  Then the full ensemble returned for a return to the Caribbean and some fun on “Day-O”, “Kingston Market”, “Summertime” and “Rawhide”.  May Monty Alexander continue long and strong with his upbeat, spirit and music.

Even though time was getting on, saxophonist Jimmy Greene’s band never let on that it

Jimmy Greene

was late Monday evening.  Jimmy was resplendent in a white linen suit.  He celebrated his most recent Mack Avenue recording “While Looking Up”.  Pianist Aaron Goldberg,  guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Kendrick Scott supported Greene’s steadfast strength while often coping with challenging unison lines and unusual time signatures.  Greene presented poise, grace, elegance, composure and music with people in mind.  His spirit of positive emotion and energy to more forward resonated throughout his concert. 

My review would not be complete without mention of another saxophonist who presented grace under fire, composure, humor, positive emotion, concern for people and their music and endless energy – Detroit Jazz Festival Artistic Director and President of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation, Chris Collins.  Chris is a role model for all presenters, producers and performers.  His closing remarks at the end of Zen Zadravec’s set were truly from the heart for all the world to hear.  May the world continue the jazz heartbeat from Detroit and the Detroit Jazz Festival.  May we hear appreciative live applause in 2022.  Until then, we can remember our online jazz celebration.

—  Linda Yohn  © 2021