Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Not Heat, Rain, Wind or Presidents! Nothing Really Stops Jazz in Detroit

© Andrea Canter

Yes. The Detroit Jazz Festival came to a thunderous halt on its second night, thanks to a torrential downpour and ferocious winds that forced cancellation of the final two rounds of music. And yes. This marked the first time in the festival’s 32-year history that Mother Nature pre-empted the schedule of North America’s largest free jazz festival. But it was a temporary setback. Kenny Werner and Toots Thielmans had to cut short their elegant duo as the Waterfront Stage became the Water Logged stage; Dave Holland took his octet into the jazz room of the nearby Marriott for an impromptu late night “rain date,” while Jason Moran (with Bandwagon and twin sons in tow) opted for a raincheck; and the Sun Ra Arkestra played unplugged til the official ax fell on the Carharrt Amphitheater.

But come Sunday, with much cooler temps, some errant sprinkles and a brief afternoon shower, there was no stopping the music. In the Talk Tent, Amina Figarova, Anat Cohen, and Yocouba Sissoko discussed jazz in the context of gender, culture and politics. (For Cohen, “music is about peace, music survives political oppression.”) On the Pyramid Stage, local favorites Hot Club of Detroit, boasting the most recent Thelonious Monk Sax Competition winner, Jon Irabagon, brought ultra modern edges to the gypsy jazz tradition, and featured special guest, French vocalist Cyrille Aimee, who went “solo” as she engaged in a four-part harmonic experiment with self-generated loops. (Was that Django turning in his grave?) Surely one of the most exiting sets of the weekend, Anat Cohen and her quartet turned raindrops into steam, turned the Pyramid Stage into a classy jazz club; Anat doesn’t just play clarinet and soprano sax, she literally dances with her instruments. Relatively more subdued but engaging in his own way, saxophonist Steve Wilson took us into the evening at the Pyramid with ample support from Orrin Evans, Ugonna Okwego and Clarence Penn.

One of a handful of vibes specialists on hand this weekend, Joe Locke elevated the famed Airmen of Note on the Carharrt Stage, where a bit later Artists in Residence Jeff “Tain” Watts rocked the amphitheater with Marcus Strickland, Lawrence Fields, and Christian McBride, followed by the much anticipated exhilaration of Joe Lovano’s Us Five. The Mack Avenue Waterfront Stage, the one shady spot along the Detroit River, was nearly ablaze Sunday, with Amina Figarova’s Sextet taking us on a global journey through soaring, original compositions; Detroit native Regina Carter melded African and American roots with her Reverse Thread project; virtuosic ham Paquito D’Rivera and inventive pianist Vijay Iyer continued a cross-cultural parade on the waterfront that moved to Chase Main Stage with the great Brazilian songwriter/singer Ivan Lins closing out the night.

Monday’s early sets were challenging—the weather was cool and generally a relief from the excesses of the weekend but, Labor Day in Detroit means a parade adjacent to the festival grounds, and for the second time in three years, a visit from President Obama that prompted road closures around the perimeter of downtown. (If you have been pondering the purchase of a GPS, this was a defining moment.) Thus Gary Burton’s New Quartet, playing on the Carhartt Stage (too) early in the afternoon, did not draw as well as it should have, but there were many rewards for those in the audience as Burton, Julian Lage, Scott Colley and Antonio Sanchez offered breath-taking tunes from their new Mack Ave release. One of the most exciting of the college bands to play at Carhartt, the Northern Illinois University ensemble not only romped through such tunes as “Cottontail” and “On Green Dolphin Street,” but ably supported Paquito D’Rivera and bounced back from a mid-tune drenching when a gust of wind turned the stage’s canvas roof into a sudden waterfall.

There was a lot more music throughout the weekend, from local students and local legends to an array of Midwest college big bands to such fast rising national talents as pianists Helen Sung and Aaron Diehl and vocalists Sachal Vasandani and Champian Fulton. If the weather and Secret Service barricades cut down attendance, there was no decline in the spirit of the Detroit Jazz Festival. The official merchandise tent was nearly sold out; there were long lines to purchase CDs and collect autographs at the CD tents; there were generally good crowds at every stage throughout the weekend; the army of orange-shirted festival volunteers kept everyone informed, safe, and orderly, and almost always with a smile.

There continue to be serious economic and social challenges to the well-being of Detroiters, but to paraphrase Anat Cohen, music survives challenging times. Once again, Detroit “brought us the world,” with jazz providing a blueprint for global harmony.

Photos: (top to bottom) The final two days of the Detroit Jazz Festival included Yocouba Sissoko (Regina Carter's Reverse Thread project); Joe Locke performing with the Airmen of Note; Amina Figarova; Anat Cohen; Gary Burton with Julian Lage (all photos by Andrea Canter, September 4-5)