Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Take five

Posted on Tue, Sep 2, 2008 at 9:42 AM

Before I delve into my final commentary on the 29th Detroit International Jazz Festival, I want to acknowledge some of the improvement the fest organizers made in 2008. Last year, the security staff treated the journalists and photojournalist assigned to cover the festival like crap.

We had to fight to get backstage, and when we’re finally allowed entry, the security staff corralled us to one corner like cattle. I don’t have enough fingers to count how many spats I had with some of the overzealous and ill-informed volunteers over why I needed to be backstage last summer.

One day, they’d let us through without checking our media credentials. The next day, they scrutinized us like we’re trying to sneak contraband through airport security. They made it difficult for us to do our jobs.

This year, however, the volunteers and security staffers were cordial and courteous. I don’t know if the festival organizers required the volunteers to take a media sensitivity class. Last year, I felt their conduct was worth addressing. Now it’s important that I to acknowledge the security staff and volunteers for doing a great job this year...and especially for not hassling the journalists and photojournalist. The volunteers made it easy for us to do our jobs. That said, then, I thought I'd conclude with my top five favorite performances of the 29th Detroit International Jazz Festival.

1. Dee Dee Sharp

This veteran diva delivered a fantastic set. At 63 years young, the vocalist bounced around the bandstand like a fitness instructor. Her background singers and band members were half Sharp’s age but they had a tough time keeping up with her.

2. Tribute to Donald Walden

To my knowledge, bassist Marion Hayden organized this jam session dedicated to the late tenor saxophonist Donald Walden who passed away this year. Hayden organized the session chronologically, charting the saxophonist's musical evolution, from his apprenticeship under pianist Barry Harris to his last band, the Free Radicals. The musicians who participated in the tribute played like pieces of Walden spirit were inside their instruments.

3. The James Carter Septet

This is how you know when saxophonist James Carter is about do some nifty tricks with his horns: he closes his eyes and wiggles his left foot like he’s mashing out a cigarette. Drummer Leonard King's drum work was impressive, and for most of the set, pianist Gerard Gibbs, who I’ve accused on plenty of occasions of being a showoff, wasn’t trying to play like Craig Taborn and DD Jackson, demonstrative pianists who can do the same circus trick on the piano that Carter does on the saxophone.

4. The Dizzy Gillespie Reunion Orchestra

I can’t think of a better way to close out a four-day jazz festival than with a big band loaded with A-list jazz vets, such as trombonist Slide Hampton, saxophonists James Moody and Jimmie Heath playing classic be-bop compositions. This was an unforgettable performance that I’m certain will stick to my ribs for months.

5. Gerald Cleaver

I’m certain drummer Gerald Cleaver’s new album, Gerald’s Detroit, will be on my top ten favorite albums of 2008. Sunday evening, Cleaver played music from that album. The music was a straight-ahead Detroit bop, seasoned with bits and pieces of free jazz. Cleaver isn’t a ball-hog. He shares the spotlight with his band-mates. I especially loved saxophonist Andrew Bishop's solos.

There were plenty of great individual performances during the fest: Saxophonist Ron Blake damn near blew the sun out the sky. Pianist Gerald Clayton did everything humanly possible on piano, save for taking it apart, and resembling it piece by piece. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove's powerful blowing could’ve rerouted a hurricane. And he festival’s official artist-in-residence, bassist Christian McBride, logged in a lot of hours throughout the long weekend. I could go on and on. Honestly, I doubted this year’s festival could live up to the one in 2007. But this year’s rivaled it and was just as much fun.

Christian McBride: The artist-in-residence of the fest...

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