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Detroit Jazz Festival Preview 2011

Here’s my preview of this year’s Detroit Jazz Festival. It was published and distributed to members of the Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan. Since writing this article I’ve learned that I’ll be Emceeing several of the acts again this year. I’m researching ways to download my interview with festival director, Terri Pontremoli (so I hope to be able to share that with you in the near future).

Preview: Detroit Jazz Festival 2011

The Detroit Jazz Festival will be celebrated on Hart Plaza and a few blocks of Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit on Labor Day Weekend, September 2-5, 2011.

Art has always been a reflection of culture. And jazz has been the story of different peoples interacting and adapting to one another. Primarily reflecting the experience of African Americans, jazz has been called a gumbo, a veritable goulash of various elements.
This year the Detroit Jazz Festival has gathered a group of international artists who will exhibit a tapestry of the world’s take on jazz. New flavors will enter the goulash.
Famous for a series of thematically organized weekends, Terri Pontremoli conceptualized that for this year, “We Bring You The World.” So your tour for this experience might be organized by genre or by geography. Go listen to old favorites, or make a point to try something completely new. You can’t lose.
Friday, September 2nd, opens in the evening with the Soul Rebels Brass Band, out of New Orleans, second lining and testifying their way down the streets of Detroit. This year’s Artist in Residence is drummer fantastic Jeff “Tain” Watts, famous for his work in the Branford Marsalis Quartet. “Tain” will lead an original aggregation of musicians that he’s titled Drum Club: vibist Joe Locke, the experimental percussionist Susie Ibarra, a pair of cuban drummers (Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez & Pedro Martinez), the legendary Nigerian drummer who powered Fela Kuti’s sound (Tony Allen) and bassist Robert Hurst.
The evening will top off with Sing The Truth: three vocalists who will pay homage to the legacies of Mariam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln and Odetta. The singers, Angelique Kidjo, the West African Grammy winner, Dianne Reeves (another Grammy winner), and Lizz Wright. Backed by the international crew of Geri Allen, Terri Lyne Carrinton, James Genus, Munyungo Jackson and Romero Lubambo, expect a magical night that will explore new flavors.

Saturday, September 3rd, gives us an amazing lineup gracing seven stages that dot Hart Plaza and down Woodward Street in downtown Detroit. All stages are within easy walking distance of each other, and it’s entirely possible to catch more than one or two acts that are playing opposite of each other. And it’s a good thing, because there are some very tough choices.
Here’s what I’m planning to do on Saturday: start the day by being part of the live audience at the Jazz Planet Stage at 10 a.m. (Even if you can’t attend the Detroit Jazz Festival in person, you can follow the happenings, hear interviews with the artists, and even catch some of the performances by checking out Jazz Planet on line.) Then I’ll head over to the Waterfront Stage to catch the hot trumpeter, Derrick Gardner & The Jazz Prophets. His performance is opposite the University of Michigan Jazz Ensemble with guests Robert Hurst and Geri Allen at the Ampitheatre Stage, the Russ Miller Quartet at the Pyramid Stage, and Jeff “Tain” Watts giving a talk on the role of the drum at the Jazz Talk Tent.
Vibist Warren Wolf (of Christian McBride’s Inside Straight band) has a new release on Mack Avenue records, and he follows Derrick on the same Waterfront Stage. I’ll want to hear some of that set, beginning at 1:30 p.m., but then I’ve just got to slide over to the Pyramid Stage for my current favorite Brazilian vocalist, Luciana Souza, performing in duet with guitarist Romero Lubambo.
I may stick around to catch the first part of the Soul Rebels Brass Band, but I’d be a fool to miss the veteran trombonist Curtis Fuller, who played in a classic lineup of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers that had featured Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard. Fuller will also feature tenor man Eric Alexander and drummer Carl Allen in a good sextet.
By now it’s late afternoon. The dilemmas become harder to reconcile: where to be in the early evening? Going to listen to trumpeter Sean Jones’ Quintet at the Ampitheatre? Or the harmonica/piano duo of Toots Thielemans and Kenny Werner on the Waterfront? How about some Latin spice by visiting the Pyramid again for Dayramir & Habana enTRANCE? Or take a break from the music, go to the Jazz Talk Tent, to meet Jason Moran and Dave Holland? Maybe I’ll try to do it all?
If you have a taste for funky organ jazz, park yourself in the Pyramid Stage for the night to hear Gerard Gibbs & (the return of) ORGANized Crime, followed by the Tony Monaco Trio. On the other hand, I’m going to be challenged by bouncing between Sun Ra Arkestra at the Ampitheatre, Downbeat Critic’s Award winner for jazz artist of the year, Jason Moran & the Bandwagon, performing at the Waterfront Stage, and then listening to the very dynamic Dave Holland Octet, again at the Ampitheatre. It will break my heart to miss the funk soul sounds of Mandrill on the Main stage up Woodward, but sacrifices must be made.
In fact, you could have a very fulfilling day sitting yourself down at that Main stage, hearing Detroit’s Kimmie Horne, the Japanese jazz of Vertical Engine, the Motown crooner Chuck Jackson, followed by the Deacon Jones Blues Revue, finishing with Mandrill. That’s the thing about this festival. Four or five different people could each have a great festival and never cross paths. The veritable embarrassment of riches.
Saturday night ends with fireworks on Hart Plaza at 11 p.m., as though the musical fireworks during the day weren’t enough.

I’m missing the usual sanctified gospel choir on Sunday morning. However, there is a great lineup of some superb big bands on the Ampitheatre stage, each one featuring a special guest: Wayne State Big Band with guest Joe Lovano, the US Airforce Airmen of Note with Joe Locke, MSU’s Jazz Orchestra with Jeff “Tain” Watts, a J.C. Heard Tribute led by Walt Szymanski and the EMU Jazz Ensemble with Christian McBride. Great to see so many youngsters get a chance on the big stage. However, linger here too long and you’ll miss Regina Carter & Reverse Thread, her sweet violin playing music from her most recent African homage on the Waterfront stage; or Anat Cohen, the hot clarinetist from Tel-Aviv, playing at the Pyramid. There’s great Latin jazz up Woodward at the Main stage, first Los Gatos (who just burned down the stage at the recent Lansing Oldtown Jazz Festival), then Sammy Figueroa & the Latin Jazz Explosion. It’s just not fair. Just in case you aren’t already exhausted, you can head over to the Jazz Talk tent, meet Joe Lovano at 4:15, and get yourself over to Jazz Planet for a chance to witness “Tain’s” Downbeat Blindfold Test. But you really need to get back to the Ampitheatre, where you can hear Jeff “Tain” Watts 4 play the sun down, followed by Joe Lovano’s Us Five on that same stage. And, see if you can slip over to the Pyramid to catch at least some of Vijay Iyer trio. This is my hardest choice of the weekend: on the one hand you have Lovano, a terrific sax player, with a tone out of the tradition of Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster. His band, Us 5, features duo drummers and bassist Esperanza Spalding, and it’s a fountain of invention. On the other hand, Vijay (the son of Indian immigrants) is a master of deconstruction on the piano. He’s got a unique and firmly original approach that he uses on not only his own compositions, but also interprets everyone from Thelonious Monk to John Lennon.
Have I mentioned that you should have a schedule? You can download one on line at It will show you what you’re missing. Which, again, is the biggest frustration of the festival. You have to clone yourself to see everything. On the other hand, if you’re not digging whatever concert you are attending, there’s more music right around the corner.
Now, on to Monday. Oh, here’s the gospel choirs! Larry Callahan SOG & Second Ebenezer Majestic Voices at noon on the Main stage. Catch a few minutes of memories with the owner of the VIllage Vanguard (Maxine Gordon, speaking with Tad Herschorn) at the Jazz Talk Tent before you find your way back to the Ampitheatre stage to hear Gary Burton’s New Quartet. You can either go back to the Jazz Talk Tent to listen to Norman Granz or reserve your seat at the Ampitheatre to hear the Northern Illinois University Jazz Orchestra with special guest Paquito D’Rivera. Because after that, hip hop poet and movie star Common with have a special performance with Detroit drummer Karriem Riggins. Common was a recent invitee to the White House, and raised some controversy by haters who misinterpreted his message. I’m told that we might expect some special guests during this set.
The festival will end at the Ampitheatre, where an all star Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra will play the music of Christian McBride. Last time I interviewed Terri Pontremoli, Creative Director of the festival, she related she’d just gotten off the phone with Christian. She relat that he loves the Detroit Jazz Festival and wants to find a way to be there every year. I feel the same way.
Check out my interview with Terri Pontremoli on Sunday night, August 21st, on The Vinyl Side of Midnight. Following that interview I’ll be playing highlights from the 2010 Detroit Jazz Festival. The next week, August 28th, I’ll devote the evening to featuring artists that will be playing the festival this year.

(Mike Stratton is the author of the novel Everybody Dreams. As a jazz DJ he hosts The Vinyl Side of Midnight on 89.7FM WLNZ. He’ll report on the Detroit Jazz Fest for MLive with Meegan Holland and photographer Cathie Blumer.)

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