Sunday, September 6, 2009

JAZZ VIRTUOSITY

Posted on Sun, Sep 6, 2009 at 10:46 AM

It can be stressful covering a music fest the size of the Detroit International Jazz Festival. There is so much wonderful music to experience and I find myself stressing over what acts to see and what performances to miss.

I wish I had the technology to clone myself -- or at least the salesmanship to convince my editor to assign me an assistant so I can experience every scheduled performance.Nevertheless, I felt I made some solid choices.

I began the day at the Carhartt Amphitheatre in complete awe of vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. She put on a show I am certain I will be dreaming about forever. Bridgewater balanced about the stage with the energy of a personal trainer.

She's a flirtatious vocalist with the ability to make it appear as if she arranged each selection for you and you alone. When she scats, the woman literally makes her voice sound like a trombone, a trumpet and a saxophone. Her scatting is so perfect and engaging that it might make the great jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald envious.

Bridgewater shared the bandstand with the Michigan State University Jazz Orchestra conducted by Detroit native, bassist Rodney Whitaker. The orchestra did a competent job. What impressed me most, though, was the way Bridgewater treated the orchestra. She never talked down to them. When they soloed, she gave them the unconditional support of a soccer mom. I only planned to catch half of her set, but once she got going, I couldn’t leave!

After Bridgewater’s set, I shot over to the Mack Avenue Records Pyramid Stage to hear up-and-coming singer Jose James, who jazz critics have been comparing to Kurt Elling. During the opening night of the festival last year, James gave a great performance during his tribute to Motown legend Marvin Gaye.

James has a strong booming voice akin to the late jazz vocalist Johnny Hartman, and the swagger of hip-hop megastar Jay-Z. I was anxious to she how James would fare leading his own band. Honestly, although he won over the capacity crowd, I was still a bit disappointed because I couldn’t understand a word he sang. I’m not sure if there were some audio issues because throughout his set, James mumbled the lyrics instead of enunciating them.

Drummer Karriem Riggins set started 20 minutes late. From what I read about his band, Karriem Riggins Virtuoso Experience -- which included the renowned hip-hop DJ and producer Pete Rock -- it promised to be one of the most adventurous performances of the festival. I always love to listen to Riggins play, but I was a bit worried that his involvement with hip-hop would get in the way of him becoming a great jazz drummer in the tradition of Tony Williams, Max Roach and Art Blakey.

Surprisingly, Riggins' set was my absolute favorite. Pianist Gerri Allen and vibe player Warren Wolf stole the spotlight. Then Riggins surprised the crowd by inviting hip-hop duo Slum Village on the bandstand to perform. What I admired about Riggins set was he did not attempt to show some kind of lineage between jazz music and hip-hop. The drummer works inside both worlds and he simply wanted to show he’s a virtuoso at each form.

Riggins performed material by Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Gary Bartz. He played five tunes before Pete Rock performed a drum and turntable duet with Riggins, which was wildly creative and simply breathtaking. It proved that Riggins has developed into one muscular drummer.

There were other noteworthy performances. The tribute to the late Lyman Woodard -- organized by his friend, drummer Leonard King -- was packed with A-list Detroit swingers, including guitarist Ron English, trumpeter Rayse Briggs and organist Chris Codish.

When Codish soloed on the tune, "Dont Stop the Grove," I thought Woodard's spirit had gotten inside Codish's fingers.The tribute was impeccably organized, and before the show commenced, Woodard’s son thanked the audience for attending and for supporting his dad's music.

Bassist Christian McBride -- late year’s Artist in Residence --returned with his new band, Inside Straight. He played selections from his latest album, Kind of Brown, which I thoroughly disliked. But I still enjoyed listening to the band live.

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