Rollins, Shorter Dazzle in Detroit
Posted 9/25/2012

Powerhouse performances by Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter were highlights of this year’s Detroit Jazz Festival, with each saxophonist delivering a set that added to the luster of his legendary career. These two icons supplied some of the many memorable moments in the event—the largest free jazz festival in the world—which ran Aug. 31–Sept. 3 and included 66 acts playing on four stages.

The 33rd version of the annual fest was well attended, with huge crowds turning out to see stars such as Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano with Dave Douglas, Kenny Garrett, Lew Tabackin with Randy Brecker, David Binney, Brian Lynch, Charles McPherson with Tom Harrell, Arturo O’Farrill, Fred Hersch, Jerry Bergonzi, Grégoire Maret and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who was the festival’s artist in residence.

Blanchard’s quintet kicked off the fest on Aug. 31 with a set that showcased the leader’s penchant for developing young talent. In his onstage introduction of reliable bassist Joshua Crumbly, 20, Blanchard joked about his bandmate’s age: “That’s why they gave us the 7 o’clock slot—he’s got to go to bed and do homework.” Pianist Fabian Almazan, 28, sparkled with his variations on the majestic melody of “Ashé”—an Aaron Parks composition that Blanchard, a New Orleans native, recorded on his 2007 Blue Note album, A Tale Of God’s Will (A Requiem For Katrina). The set ended with a forward-looking Almazan composition (as yet unrecorded) on which he alternated between the keys of his piano and laptop, weaving tape loops and sound effects into the mix of live instrumentation to create a spellbinding collage.

Rollins opened his set with “St. Thomas,” the calypso-inspired lead track on his classic 1956 album Saxophone Colossus. More than half a century after recording it, Rollins can still find plenty of fun melodic twists and launching points for improvisation in this frequently covered jazz standard. Next up was the frenetic, intoxicating, supercharged “Patanjali,” a bold example of how this tenor master can appeal to the listener’s intellect and hips simultaneously (and in equal degree).

Rollins, 82, may not walk swiftly nowadays, but his stamina on the horn is still impressive. The first two songs accounted for a half-hour of his 83-minute set. Leading a band that included trombonist Clifton Anderson and bassist Bob Cranshaw, Rollins’ playing was mischievous and humorous during “Don’t Stop The Carnival.” Rather than rest on his laurels (which include a 2011 Kennedy Center Honor), Rollins continues to search for new musical avenues when he steps onstage.

Marsalis’ set on Sept. 1 was a great reminder of what he’s capable of accomplishing in a sextet, removed from the more structured, ornate setting of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The majority of the songs were original compositions, both old and recent, including “Knozz-Moe-King” and “First Time.” It was refreshing to experience the world’s most famous living jazz musician not as an arts administrator, cultural commentator or big band leader, but as a revved-up trumpeter blowing fire on a Saturday afternoon.

There are two things fans can count on when they see Marsalis, and this performance was no exception: He wore a killer suit, and he was outspoken. “This is an actual jazz festival—and that’s rare in the world, so please take pride in it,” he told the crowd, apparently commenting on the fact that Detroit (unlike other major jazz fests) does not book pop and rock acts in order to fill the seats.

Enjoying a prime-time, 8 p.m. slot was a flexible, groove-centric ensemble—consisting of drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, keyboardist Reuben Wilson, guitarist Grant Green Jr., alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and bassist Kevin Scott—that was billed as the band “formerly known as The Godfathers of Groove.” Purdie’s performance was a master class in authoritative, fat-free drumming. During a crowd-pleasing rendition of the title track to Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 album What’s Going On, Harrison respectfully nodded to Eli Fountain’s alto sax solo on the original arrangement. Wilson injected a raucous, soul-jazz flavor to this song, and he certainly knows the material well, having championed it for decades; he recorded “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” another track on What’s Going On, for his 1971 leader project on Blue Note, Set Us Free.

Pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton, who first collaborated onstage 40 years ago, played songs from their new album Hot House (Concord). Performing in the artfully sunken Amphitheatre Stage in Hart Plaza, the musicians encountered an attentive, overflowing audience that not only occupied all the seats in front of the stage but also filled the surrounding balcony and backstage area, giving the scene an “in the round” feeling, with 360 degrees of fans. The crowd was rewarded with a masterful display of Burton’s four-mallet technique and intricate arrangements of Corea’s “Love Castle” and Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade,” as well as a reharmonization of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” The Harlem String Quartet only appears on one track on Hot House—the Corea composition “Mozart Goes Dancing”—so it was thrilling to hear the quartet sit in for several songs in Detroit, including an extended take on Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight.”

Corea and Burton’s playing on the song “Bud Powell” blended perfectly. In the recording studio and onstage, these two sympathetic virtuosos bring out something unique in each other, as Burton can make the vibes sound like a piano, and Corea’s percussive attack can generate piano notes that resemble those of a vibraphone.

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Saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Danilo Pérez in Detroit (Photo: Len Katz/Detroit Jazz Festival)

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