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Concert Reviews
Detroit International Jazz Fest 2009
'America’s Largest Free Jazz Festival'

For 30 years, the Detroit International Jazz Festival (DJF) has attracted visitors and locals to an end-of-summer ritual on Labor Day Weekend that celebrates one of America’s most important art forms. The festival boasts five stages and 100 acts over four days in a city with a rich musical legacy. Sprawling over several city blocks in downtown Detroit – from Hart Plaza to Campus Martius – the festival also offers educational activities, giant puppets, fireworks, rare opportunities to meet the artists and much more. And it’s all FREE!

My favorite Weekend of the Year also happens to mark the end of Summer. The Detroit International Jazz Festival, which is held over the Labor Day Weekend.

This years festival lived up to my expectations, and provided great entertainment from all the different genres of Jazz Music.

The festival opened on Friday night with performances from the Legendary Hank Jones, and the Fusion Masters Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White.

At 91yrs of age, Pontiac born, Hank Jones is still touring and brought his trio to the Chase Main Stage.

With this years festival being billed as a tribute to the Jones brothers and other family legacy’s, it was very fitting that Jones also appeared at the inaugural Montreux-Detroit festival in 1980.

Maintaining a nimbleness to his playing, Mr. Jones kept the audience enthralled if not in awe of being able to see and hear a true Jazz legend. Local family members were also in the audience to watch their famous cousin and uncle perform the opening set of this years Jazz Festival.

The crowed continued to grow, and anxiously waited for the next act to take the stage. It was none other than the Jazz Super Group, Return to Forever, minus the guitar of Al Dimeola.

Billed as Corea, Clarke & White, they did not disappoint the crowd and graciously played songs from that group and individual favorites. There was even call and response from the audience during the performance of Spain. The night ended too soon, but the DJF was off to a great start!

My Saturday began at the Carhartt Amphitheatre (which used to be the Main stage until 3yrs ago), with the North Carolina Central University Big Band. These talented performers had to persevere being stranded on the side of the road for four hours when their bus broke down the previous day on the way to Detroit. Just like in a movie, they had to sit on the side of the road with instruments, until another Charter Bus arrived from their point of origin.

These young musicians, although still in college are professionals in their own right.

I had an opportunity to speak with several of the band members, and learned that twin horn players, Jonah and Joshua Vincent have a side project called Beatnam Vets, with a new album entitled King Amongst Kings. Most interesting of the duo, is that they perform the soundtrack music to Aaron McGruder’s popular cartoon The Boondocks.

At the Absopure Waterfront Stage, Trumpeter, Sean Jones, made a warm afternoon a few degrees warmer with his band. This amazing talent showed why he is also the first trumpet for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Covering an array of music from quite melodies, to fierce riffs, his music kept the audience nodding their heads, or raising their hands in praise of his talent.

His band consisted of strong talents also, Brian Hogans on Saxophone took several opportunities to showcase his technical prowess on a couple solos. The pianist Orrin Evans, was reminiscent of Thelonious Monk in look and style. And his rhythm section of Vicente Archer and Josh Davis, rounded out this top notch act.

Back over at the Amphitheatre was another Legend, Dave Brubeck, and his quartet. At 88yrs of age, he still swings, and hasn’t lost any “time”. The Amphitheatre was packed to capacity, with people spilling onto Hart Plaza, and watching the performance on the Jumbo Monitors. He of course played standards and the songs which made him famous, “Blue Rondo a la Turk”, and “Take Five”, from the 1959 album Time Out. I must mention that as part of this years legacy tribute, The Brubeck Brothers Quartet played earlier in the day, featuring son’s Dan on drums, and Chris on Bass/Trombone.

I must admit that I knew little about crossover Jazz/Hip Hop Drummer Karriem Riggins, before the week leading up to the DJF. As an Jazz artist he has played with the likes of Betty Carter and Oscar Peterson, as a Hip Hop producer he has worked with Common, The Roots and Kanye West.

I was very curious to see what he would bring to the stage, with a band consisting of Geri Allen on piano, Robert Hurst on Bass, vibraphonist Warren Wolfe, and DJ Pete Rock on turntables. I was expecting to hear something similar to a “HeadHunters” set, but what I got was a cornucopia of Jazz and Hip Hop, with neither of it really taking off for me.

As a tribute to Detroit Hip Hop, he brought on stage T3 and Elzhi, the surviving members of Slum Village. They performed a couple of songs with the band, in tribute to Baatin and Jay Dilla, former members of Slum Village, both now deceased. Besides an improvised break between Karriem and DJ Pete Rock, it seems as if the DJ served no real purpose on stage. All the players on stage during the set are individually great talents, but as a group offered no real substance.

Saturday night ended on a high note at the Mack Avenue Pyramid Stage with the Lyman Woodard Tribute directed by Drummer Leonard King, and guitarist Ron English. Jazz/Funk/ R&B organist Lyman Woodard died this past February, but his music lives on in Detroit and with anyone that loves the sound of the Hammond B3.

The set consisted of previous performers with Lyman including: JuJu Johnson (saxophone), Steve Hunter (trombone), Rayse Biggs (trumpet), and sitting in on the B3, Chris Codish (who never performed with Lyman, but a formidable player, and Brothers Groove member). An interesting side note from Leonard King, that answered a question that many have asked over the years was “what race was Lyman?”, Leonard answered that he was “White……but it didn’t matter”, and that he didn’t learn of this until 1996, and that he met him in 1973.

Unfortunately, due to a late start that was no fault of the band, the group was cut short and was unable to do an encore to the disdain of both the audience and Leonard King. This was definitely a great set, and left all in attendance wanting more.

I made it to only one performance on Sunday, but what a performance it was! Pete Escovedo’s Latin Jazz Orchestra featuring Juan Escovedo. For more than 50yrs Mr. E, has been playing Latin Jazz and Salsa with the likes of Tito Puente, Herbie Hancock, and even Prince, among others. He brought a stellar band which included his son Juan (congos), and Justo Almario (saxophone). It didn’t take long before couples were dancing at the front of the stage.

Truly a highlight of the day for me, being a fan of Latin Jazz and percussion. Another thing that impressed me about the group was their stage presentation, they were all dressed to kill! So many bands currently fail to present themselves as performers and artist, but not this group. The group I was with kept fingers crossed that Sheila E would surprise the audience and join her dad and brother for a song, that never happened. Maybe next year!

Monday began for me at the Waterfront Stage with McKinfolks, a reunion of Detroit’s famed McKinney family and tribute to pianist Harold McKinney. This group formed by Daughter and Drummer Gayelynn Mckinney, brought onstage vocalist Michelle Mckinney, Carlos Mckinney (Piano), and Kiane Zawadi (Trombone).

When I spoke with Gayelynn about her motivation to put together the tribute to her fathers music, she told me that when she found out that the DJF was doing a “family thing”, she said that Wendell Harrison suggested “Why don’t you do something for your pops?” She told him “You know what, that’s exactly what I’m going to do” So she put a proposal together and submitted it to the DJF. They called her up and told her that they would like for her to do that.

She said that it felt like her dads spirit was all around, and that he also had a street named after him over the weekend in the Harmonie Park area of Detroit. When asked about picking who would play in the McKinfolks band, she said it worked out fairly easily. And because she was given plenty of notice of the scheduled date, she was able to notify her cousin Carlos Mckinney in enough time that allowed him to put it in his calendar, now that he lives in Atlanta and is a “busy man”.

Yes I am a fan of Latin Jazz, and I remember the days of Latin Jazz Fridays at the Montreaux Detroit Jazz Festival. Well fortunately for me, Monday at the Pyramid stage had the Chuchito Valdes Quartet. The energetic son of Chucho, and grandson of Bebo Valdes, each an allstar pianist of their generation. I must give much respect to the entire band, Emilio Valdes (drums, and no relation), Frankie Ocasio (Congas), and Jonathan Paul (bass).

As the rain came down during the performance, the audience simply opened their umbrella’s, and never lost their groove. During one of the songs, Chuchito stood up and began to dance to the music and as if by magic the rain stopped, the sun came out, he sat back down and continued jamming! I could have listened to the band play long past the encore performance.

The final group for me was Stefon Harris and Blackout, at the Amphitheatre. This 30yr old master of the Vibraphone and Marimba mixes Jazz, Soul and Hip Hop in his music, in a manner that others have attempted, but not to the degree and style that he has accomplished. Stefon has a very warm stage presence and informed the audience that he is a new dad, and introduced his lovely wife, who was sitting up front watching the set.

It was nice to watch him move seamlessly from the soft tones of the Marimba, to the harsher more aggressive Vibraphone. Stefon Harris and his young band Blackout have recently released their second CD entitled URBANUS, and I recommend you pick up a copy. When I asked if the baby was allowing him to get any sleep yet? He replied, “You gotta love Grandparents!”


Review & Photos (4,5,7) by Jim Esnault

Remaining Photos Courtesy of Detroit International Jazz Fesitival