Detroit Jazz Festival Embraces Change With Go Digital

The weather in Detroit was perfect for a crowd of festival goers this Labor Day weekend. Unfortunately, the threat of the Delta variant and the ongoing construction at the festival’s regular home, Hart Plaza, has forced the Detroit Jazz Festival to go virtual for the second year in a row. Credit for extensive contingency planning or the experience gained from the 2020 edition, but the change – announced less than three weeks before the event kicked off on September 6 – went off in a big way party without a hitch.

Of course, that made the in-person presence a bit unnecessary, although it was instructive to take a look at the behind-the-scenes efforts that brought this four-day livestream to life. Taking place on three indoor stages inside the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, the performances felt isolated and often disheartened in front of a handful of silent spectators scattered behind cameras in dark ballrooms.

But on screen – whether seen in a hotel room 40 stories above, on a large outdoor stream in Campus Martius Park a few feet from what would have been the main stage, or wherever the we decided to tune in – paradoxically it seemed easier to get closer to the festival experience, especially given the many highlights offered over the long, busy weekend.

Some representations may even have been favored by the change of location – or at least adapted to the situation. It’s hard to imagine Kurt Elling’s “The Big Blind”, a live radio piece that combines jazz tradition and black tropes, playing well in front of a large outdoor crowd. The many dialogues and storylines, tracing the rise and fall of a young band singer, would likely have been swallowed up in this setting, but it was possible to follow every twist through more private viewing. Still, crowds would undoubtedly have been delighted with Dee Dee Bridgewater’s performance as Elling’s possessive, pill-stuffed manager; the singer never loses an opportunity to showcase it. It also saw the live noise artist create the sound effects for the show.

Bridgewater was this year’s artist in residence, appearing each night of the festival in a different context. But while she inevitably took advantage of her laps in the spotlight (“I know how to operate a camera,” she insisted of the streaming format), she took the opportunity to shed some light on a number. ups and downs. coming young women musicians.

The weekend opened with Bridgewater as emcee for a group from the inaugural class of the Woodshed Network, his mentorship program. Joined by singers Darynn Dean and Kennedy, the quintet focused on the original songs of its members, saxophonists Sarah Hanahan and Erinn Alexis, pianist Sequoia Snyder, bassist Amina Scott and drummer Shirazette Tinnin.

All returned Monday night as part of the DDB Big Band, a vigorous ensemble imbued with the raspy spirit of the mentor they called “Mama Dee Dee”. Kennedy sang a reimagined version of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” while Bridgewater led the group for a medley of “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone and “I Got You (I Feel Good) by James Brown,” with the three singers joining hands and voices for a skyrocketing start with “Lift Every Voice and Sing”.

Yet the highlight of the Bridgewater residency was inevitably his own most important performance, in this case a playful and varied duet with pianist Bill Charlap. Perhaps today’s greatest jazz accompanist, Charlap has encountered each of Bridgewater’s changes in mood and style, illustrating why the two are, as he once put it, “partners. perfect dance ”. After opening with “Caravan”, Bridgewater’s plunging voice melting into Charlap’s shattering touches, the singer turned on her kewpie doll sweetness for a bawdy “Love for Sale”, eventually dipping into a hoarse quiver that revealed cunning. behind shyness. A bluesy “Mood Indigo” seemed to bring in the night as the sun set over the Detroit River.

Singers Kurt Elling and Dee Dee Bridgewater perform at the 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival, which has moved to a virtual format this year. (Photo by Jeff Dunn / Detroit Jazz Festival)

Saturday night’s climactic performance came with the summit reunion between The Manhattan Transfer and Take 6, the two vocal groups joining forces for 10-part arrangements and parting ways to take their own and each other’s songs. At first, the choreography and performance also seemed well suited to the virtual realm, although the show’s climaxing moments, well rehearsed for crowd-pleasing effect, suffered from the lack of crowds to please.

The same could be said for Herbie Hancock’s appearance on the opening night cover. The keyboard legend band, with guitarist Lionel Loueke, flutist Elena Pinderhughes, bassist James Genus and drummer Justin Tyson, were stellar, diving into fusion era hits including “Cantaloupe Island”, “Actual Proof” and “Cameleon”. But Hancock thrives on a live audience; as his characteristic smile lit up the scene, he seemed at times distracted by the lack of feedback outside of the stage.

Kenny Garrett, on the other hand, went forward enthusiastically, addressing an audience he couldn’t see but insisted he could smell. After a fierce set centered on his latest album, The sounds of ancestors, he ended on his trademark closing number, “Sing a Song of Song,” intermittently stepping up to the microphone to exaggerate those distant viewers. And it worked (for this viewer at least), especially since the melody passed the nine-minute mark.

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold embraced the void, creating a particularly fascinating atmosphere for his Saturday afternoon set. Starring Georgia Anne Muldrow on vocals and keyboards, drummer Chris “Daddy” Dave and Detroit rapper Black Milk, the group explored the jazz roots of hip hop, performing full jazz versions of songs by bands like Slum Village. who had drawn on jazz influences in the first place. It turned out to be the most compelling ensemble of the weekend, anchored by Harrold’s fervent tone, a piercing straightforwardness with a heart fringed with a raw, corroded edge. Muldrow has transported that precision into space with his cosmic synths and striking voice tricks, from getting lost in a fun meditation on “A Love Supreme”, accompanied by Nir Felder’s Crazy Horse distortion, or sing the beautiful melody of Harrold’s “Wayfaring Traveler”. . “

Sean Jones explored similar territory with his project Dizzy Spellz, taking an Afro-futuristic twist on Dizzy Gillespie with the help of poet and tap dancer Brinae Ali and the percussive scratch of turntable player Wendell Patrick. Diz’s bebop compatriot Charlie Parker has been the subject of another awareness, via the Fly Higher project co-led by Rudresh Mahanthappa and Terri Lyne Carrington, intended to celebrate Bird’s centenary but arriving with one year old. late for reasons that hardly need mentioning.

Better late than never, however, as the group – pianist Kris Davis, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and bassist Matt Penman as well as the two leaders – engaged with Parker’s music in a more direct way than other post-modern homage projects, emerging with an ensemble that made this fundamental music quite modern and free from the haze of nostalgia. Played by musicians of this caliber and originality, Parker’s music bristles with the electricity and vigor it carried in its time, without the need for modernization.

Often times, music worked best when it was simpler, with artists just going ahead, audience or not. Kenny Barron’s trio with Kiyoshi Kitagawa and Johnathan Blake have established themselves as one of the best piano trios in existence with a timeless yet captivating selection of Barron standards and originals. Monk’s “Shuffle Boil” was propelled by an athletic bounce, Kitagawa stretching out time during his solo as Barron’s lines cascaded over Monk’s angles like rainwater pouring over raw concrete. The pianist’s exchanges with Blake found the musculature met with elegance, each man switching roles from moment to moment.

The star quartet AZIZA also chose to simply engage with each other on a non-stop hour-long set. Bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Eric Harland and guitarist Loueke navigated the intricate turns of their compositions moving forward with as much evident pleasure – profuse smiles all around – as a thought. deep and adventurous.

Musically, then, the 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival could be called an unqualified success, and credit goes to all of the team members who managed to put the event on stream under such less than ideal conditions. Hoping conditions improve by 2022, and we’re all back at Hart Plaza for next year’s festival.

Featured photo of Herbie Hancock by Jeff Dunn / Detroit Jazz Festival

Key words:
Amina Scott, Bill Charlap, Chris Potter, Darynn Dean, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Elena Pinderhughes, Eric Harland, Erinn Alexis, Georgia Ann Mulgrew, Herbie Hancock, James Genus, Justin Tyson, Kennedy, Keyon Harrold, Kris Davis, Kurt Elling, Lionel Loueke, Manhattan Transfer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Sarah Hanahan, Sean Jones, Sequoia Snyder, Shirazette Tinnin, Take 6, Terri Lyne Carrington

Willie J. Johnson

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