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The 2013 Detroit International Jazz Festival

Alex Marianyi
Contributing Writer
alex.marianyi[at] / @alexmarianyi

We’ve heard of Detroit’s decline, of its bankruptcy debacle, and of those who are yet still optimistic. Even with all of those feature stories, photographs, and blog posts, there’s something that eludes you; it eludes you until the moment you set foot in the city. And then you feel it. It hits like a ton of bricks. And there’s really no better way to express whatever it is than through the music that put America on the international stage of art and culture, the music Detroit has so prolifically contributed to.

There’s quite a bit that the birthplace of the Model T has in common with jazz: the rise through the first half of last century, the fall through the second half, and that core group of people (old and new) who refuse to accept no for an answer. Detroit is also hipster chic right now, with college-educated young adults moving into the city at high rates. There’s even some debate about the role of education in its continued development.

With the looming GM complex in the background serving as a reminder of the city’s once omnipotent auto industry, the Detroit Jazz Festival erupted in the heart of downtown. Each awe inspiring and hair raising performance transported you to a thriving Detroit, a little hole in time that showed you what the city could be. That is what many of the residents of Detroit see. They don’t see the abandoned Ford factory, the crime, or the potholes; they see through to the very heart and soul of the city that is still there churning and pushing ahead.

Sure, the Detroit Jazz Festival was about the music, about Detroit’s own Mack Avenue Records, and about the artists and audience members who came from all over this past Labor Day Weekend. But what it was really about was something much larger. It was about showing the world (and Detroiters) just what the city can become. That was the overwhelming message that the festival conveyed.

All in all, it was a learning weekend for me. Here’s some of what I learned.

Macy Gray still exists
Musical relationships can be very powerful.
"Old" music can sound “new” again.
Mack Avenue Records has an impressive roster and will be hailed as a hallmark of a revitalized Detroit.
I still have a complicated relationship with my own jazz education.
Karriem Riggins’ freestyling was awesome and not out of place at a jazz festival.
The Detroit Jazz Fest had almost too many artists I wanted to see.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would sound like for Joshua Redman to play Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” with a great rhythm section and a full orchestra, let me tell you: it was awesome.
Detroit is a city I could totally move to.

Macy Gray still exists.

Yes, that Macy Gray, the one who choked, who stumbled, and who tried to hide how clear it was that her world crumbles when you’re not there. Her accompaniment, the David Murray Big Band, sounded like Fred Anderson fronting the Count Basie Orchestra until Gray took the stage, and then it was more like a big band version of one of Kenny Dorham’s last records. Macy Gray didn’t sound entirely out of her element, but she didn’t sound entirely comfortable with the setting, either. Big props to her for venturing outside of her comfort zone. Unfortunately, heavy rain ended my first night in Detroit prematurely.

Musical relationships can be very powerful.

On my second day, I had the chance to hear Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes play. The husband and wife duo have certainly made names for themselves apart from each other, and seeing them together on the same stage sans accompaniment was impressive. With their tremendous technical ability, they nodded to the classical ancestry of the piano without killing you with it, and they rollicked through standards such as “Senor Mouse” by Chick Corea, “Off Minor” by Thelonious Monk, and “Ana Maria” by Wayne Shorter. Charlap and Rosnes introduced me to something I would find throughout the festival, jazz musicians still sound the greatest when playing the blues, and these two were in rare form on Charlie Parker’s “Blues For Alice”.

Day two was also when I heard the Mack Avenue Records SuperBand and the first time I heard vibraphonist Warren Wolf and pianist Aaron Diehl play together. I got a chance to hear them together two more times throughout the festival, and each time, it became more and more apparent how deeply connected they were. Wolf said it best, “Aaron Diehl is my musical soulmate.” There were times during Diehl’s set as a leader that I could’ve sworn his fingers were physically connected somehow to Wolf’s mallets. During Wolf’s set as leader, the two of them played a duet together that had all the groove of a drummerless venture like Christian McBride’s album Fingerpainting.

Trumpet player Terell Stafford made a point of introducing his band as his closest friends. His best friend, saxophonist Tim Warfield, had his flight delayed; so, he got right out of a cab from the airport and walked straight on stage. And he sounded fantastic. You could tell that Stafford was telling the truth as each of these musicians heavily leaned on each other. Sometimes, it was Stafford stretching way out and relying on drummer Dana Hall to provide the necessary energy, and on another occasion, it was the rest of the band laying out and trusting Warfield and bassist Rodney Whitaker to carry the groove.

”Old” music can sound “new” again.

Speaking of Stafford, he had his pianist Bruce Barth revive a whole bunch of Billy Strayhorn tunes. “Rain Check” and “Lana Turner” were definite highlights, the latter of which was dug up off of an old German big band recording.

How many times have you heard a current day jazz group “recreate” an older extended work and make it sound tired and outdated? A lot. How many of those current day jazz groups were lead by Delfeayo Marsalis?

Marsalis and company really lit up the stage with Duke Ellington’s suite Such Sweet Thunder. As they were making final preparations to begin, the emcee for the Mack Avenue Waterfront Stage warned against audio and video recording. “We encourage you to record video,” Marsalis said jumping on the mic, “One caveat, you have to post it to YouTube.” He’s no fool; he understands that more teens discover music through YouTube than elsewhere and that younger people have not decreased their spending in the current economy. The trombonist’s Ben Webster-like ballad playing and trumpeter Marquis Hill’s Basie-esque solo fills perfectly contrasting the rest of the ensemble made me fall in love all over again with this much listened to work.

Mack Avenue Records has an impressive roster and will be hailed as a hallmark of a revitalized Detroit.

I have always been tangentially aware of Mack Avenue Records, mostly because of artists like Kevin Eubanks and the Yellowjackets. Over Labor Day weekend, however, I was slapped in the face with the awesomeness that is Mack Avenue Records. It started with the Mack Avenue SuperBand.

Anytime you put those two midwestern boys drummer Carl Allen and bassist Rodney Whitaker together, the epitome of stability and rock-solid foundation is bound to happen. They were like two lungs in the same rib cage. Filling out the rhythm section was guitarist Evan Perri from the gypsy jazz outfit Hot Club of Detroit and pianist Aaron Diehl who, unbeknownst to me, would end up being one of my favorite artists of the weekend. On the front line was vibraphonist Warren Wolf, Sean Jones on trumpet, and saxophonist Kirk Whalum-- a smooth jazz artist signed to Mack Avenue’s subsidiary Rendezvous Entertainment and uncle to saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III.

Each member of the group brought a piece to the collective, and each time, Allen and Whitaker made it sound like they’ve been playing the tune for years. Whether it was Django Reinhardt’s “Troublant Bolero” or “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me” in 5/4 time, they handled it with grace and flexibility. On “Speak to My Heart”, Whitaker shared the soloing spotlight with Perri, and the two met their distinct voices in the middle to create an unexpectedly pleasing correspondence. These two weren’t the only ones to share some solo time together.

Warren Wolf got to spend some one-on-one time with a fellow vibraphonist signed to Mack Avenue: Gary Burton. It proved to be a learning experience for both as they continued to push, challenge, and shock each other at every turn. Not to be outdone, Aaron Diehl had some fantastic improvisations to add, as he sounded at times like he was writing a jazz piano sonata on stage.

The next Mack Avenue Records installment in my weekend was the Warren Wolf Quartet. In this setting, Wolf’s playing really shined. I heard a lot of fast playing over the weekend, but his was somehow different, more melodic, more honest. He added a bit of variety to my weekend by only having one of his songs in the Western music standard 4/4 time, and he only paused his intelligently constructed lines to lay down a phat blues lick. It was very Lee Morgan.

His backing band was nothing to sneeze at either. Before he invited his “musical soulmate” Aaron Diehl to the piano, he had Benny Green at the keys. In addition to all of his swinging greatness during his solos, Green’s support of Wolf’s solos really stood out. You could tell that he never plays anything behind someone else that he wouldn’t want someone playing behind him. Bob Hurst laid it down on bass and provided the foundation for Carl Allen, once again, to show off his mastery of playing drums. Allen never seems out of his element and is the definition of control. Embracing his own rhythm section role, Wolf supported Green more with one repeated note than some piano players do with all 88.

Aaron Diehl lead his own group on the last day, and that’s when things really started to click. During this set, it became increasingly obvious that Diehl spends quite a bit of time composing and thinking about composition. Each of his songs were distinct but carried his voice. He also wrote one of my all-time favorite things: a bass melody. Of course, that is not to neglect his playing. His time feel sounds similar to Cannonball Adderley, comes off heavy but is surprisingly light as it skips along the beat. There were times that his improvisations sounded like he was composing a Benny Golson tune on the spot.

Old or young, rhythm section or horn player, gypsy jazz or gospel, Mack Avenue Records has been on an upward trajectory since being founded in 1999. They are a bright spot on the jazz scene and in Detroit, and may be a canary in the mine shaft for those naysayers of the revitalization of either.

I still have a complicated relationship with my own jazz education.

When Unlimited Perception began performing, I wish they would’ve left out the part about being students at Berklee College of Music. They played with enough skill and dynamic range for me to believe that they were a group of older, professional musicians. If I were to describe their sound in a song mashup, it would be Stevie Wonder’s “Contusion” and just about any track from Gretchen Parlato’s In A Dream. Their vocalist stood out with her use of wordless vocal, and the saxophonist was clearly well-versed in using his effects pedal.

But as someone who went through the ranks of a jazz studies program, I couldn’t help but listen for all of the things that made them music students. The evidence of seemingly endless hours of “I have to practice” and transcribing Charlie Parker solos was a dead giveaway. I know it’s not their fault, and I guess, at least I’m aware of my bias. Jazz education in colleges and universities is something that I go back and forth on a lot, and obviously, I’m still not totally sure how I feel about it.

Karriem Riggins’ freestyling was awesome and not out of place at a jazz festival.

Riggins’ group came out swinging for the fences… and swinging. Each person in this group functioned as a percussionist in some way, whether it was DJ Dummy on the turntables, Orrin Evans on keys, or the actual percussionist Mike Holden. This, along with the occasional track being played by DJ Dummy, allowed Riggins to play melodically, to be as busy or as sparse as he wanted to be in that moment.

Every aspect of this group’s performance could in some way be directly or indirectly linked to a strict definition of jazz. First and foremost, they never once lost the essence of communication and improvisation. At the points when the turntables were playing a well-known melody or drum groove, it was no different than playing a jazz standard. Early on in the evening, there was a section that broke down just like a Count Basie Orchestra shout section. Holden acted like a bass player by keeping straight time on his congas. Riggins along with his bass player functioned just like the horn section while Orrin Evans’ keyboard solo floated along the top just like Snooky Young. In the coolest twist on this section, DJ Dummy acted as the drummer by filling in the holes and setting up each of the ensemble figures with some well-placed scratching.

As Riggins continued to make these connections to jazz history, he allowed himself to take some greater risks. One of these risks may not seem like a risk anywhere else but a jazz festival; a DJ solo. However, DJ Dummy rose to the occasion and delivered in spectacular fashion. At one point, he broke his whole solo down to a sample. 1-2-3 get it loose now. Without dropping the beat, he remixes this to 3-2-1 get it loose now. Impressive. Then, he took it over the top by remixing it to 3-1-3 (Detroit’s area code) get it loose now. The crowd went wild.

Riggins even did a beautiful tribute to some of the fallen greats. Mulgrew Miller, George Duke, Cedar Walton, and J Dilla. And in true tribute to these great artists, he freestyled while the rest of his band supported him. He didn’t go on too long; his flow lasted just long enough for you to get the point. He’s not a jazz musician nor a hip-hop producer. He’s both.

The Detroit Jazz Fest had almost too many artists I wanted to see.

On day three, Terell Stafford played from 3:00 to 4:15pm, and I really wanted to see his group, especially my friend Dana Hall. They were really swinging and sounding great, but I knew Robert Glasper was due to play at 3:30. Finally, at 3:45, I mustered up the willpower required to leave Stafford and friends. After a seven-minute walk from one side of the festival grounds to the other, I found myself at the main stage for Glasper. Except he hadn’t started playing yet. In fact, he didn’t start playing until around 4:15, the time when Stafford would’ve just been finishing up his set.

This issue seemed like a disaster at the time but that perception was probably just the effects of the 90-degree heat. In actuality, I think it might be something that just can’t be avoided. Maybe some sort of demographic analysis of the different artists’ fans (here’s my day job talking) would help with some of these scheduling issues, and there’s a chance that they already do this in some capacity. Or maybe they could just not book people I want to see at the same time.

If you’ve ever wondered what it would sound like for Joshua Redman to play Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” with a great rhythm section and a full orchestra, let me tell you: it was awesome.

Redman himself said that it’s strange to close a festival with a performance of ballads, but “any gig for a jazz musician is pretty amazing these days”. He made sure that his first time hitting the stage at the Detroit Jazz Festival was not a disappointment. In true rock star form, he stood as a one-man power plant at the front of the stage perched precariously between his rhythm section of Aaron Goldberg on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Gregory Hutchinson on drums and a full orchestra under the baton of arranger Dan Coleman.

Of course, his traveling rhythm section was on point as always. Goldberg was playing with the sophisticated wit of Paul Desmond, and Rogers and Hutchinson struck a balance between their time-keeping duties for the orchestra and properly supporting all of the energy flowing from Redman. They dropped the orchestra for “Soul Dance”, a throwback to Redman’s 1993 album Wish, and they really let loose. One particularly effective moment came after he whispered “Easy Living” to its conclusion and then, joined by the quartet, played an all-out high energy free jazz solo for 30 seconds followed by an abrupt transition to the next song.

He played some of my favorites from his latest album Walking Shadows: “Lush Life”, “Adagio”, “Infant Eyes”, and “Let Me Down Easy”. He really captured the essence of the album, yet he injected a lot more risk and a lot more blues. I was a little disappointed that he didn’t play “Stop This Train”, but he more than made up for that. He played a song I never knew I wanted to hear him play in a setting I never knew I wanted to hear him play it in until he did. “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap. My life is complete now.

All in all, Redman stood center stage with that recognizable tone and his innate sense of melody. His taste was so spot on that night he made playing outside the tight harmonic foundation of the orchestra sound like he was playing well within it. Without a doubt, Joshua Redman’s first time performing at the Detroit International Jazz Festival closed out an already fantastic weekend in the Paris of the West.

Detroit is a city I could totally move to.

I know it sounds crazy, and it kind of is. But for someone like me who’s always looking for a way to meaningfully change the world, Detroit has a lot to offer. With 60% of its population leaving since 1950, it’s a city where each person really does count. Mack Avenue Records has quite the presence there, and the CEO of Quicken Loans has relocated its headquarters to downtown along with 2,000+ employees. This is not to say two companies and a 20-something punk are going to change an entire city. However, a few more companies and a few more 20-something punks, and you could really have something going. At least, that’s what I’m hoping.

Alex Marianyi is a member of the Chicago-based hip-hop group Bellum. You can follow him on Twitter, and he won’t even file a restraining order.