The the Detoit Jazz Fest headliners are among some of the biggest names in jazz, blues and R&B, staring off opening night Friday with headliners Take 6 (featuring pianist Mulgrew Miller) and Tower of Power (at the Chase Main Stage, at Cadillac Square, starting at 6). Subsequent days deliver the likes of the Yellowjackets (one of the most durable pop-fusion outfits of the last three decades), Branford Marsalis (as close to a household name as anyone in his jazz generation other than his brother Wynton), the Manhattan Transfer (so popular that they had their own TV variety show — pre-cable, even) and Allen Toussaint (the R&B powerhouse involved with hits from "Working in a Coal Mine" to "Lady Marmalade" to his recent post-Katrina collaboration with Elvis Costello).
Here are some top picks among the others for whom some explication may be in order. Locations are abbreviated with Carhartt Amphitheatre as CA, Absopure Waterfront Stage as AWS, Mack Avenue Pyramid as MAP, Chase Main Stage as CMS, Meijer Education Stage as MES and Pepsi Jazz Talk Tent as PJTT:
Maria Schneider Orchestra
Such titles as "Hang Gliding," "Sky Blue," "Cerulean Skies," "Nimbus" get at the up-in-the-air, suspended feeling that this bandleader-composer-arranger creates with her orchestra. And that's not to say that the Schneider skies don't include daring aerial acrobatics and Coltranesque updrafts. She's today's leading heir to the Gil Evans style (she studied with Evans and also with the similarly inclined Bob Brookmeyer) of big band impressionism, but the excitement is in hearing what this two-time Grammy winner is doing with the inheritance. (Sunday, 2 p.m., CA)
"Hypervirotuosic," which was the way Chicago critic Howard Reich described pianist Myra Melford, might very well be applied to cooperative group in which she teams up with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson. Dresser is probably best known for his long tenure with Anthony Braxton. Wilson's work with his own Arts and Crafts group suggests the most populist bent here. They're one of the few festival highlights in the avant-garde category. (Sunday, 6 p.m., MAP)
His lack of renown beyond jazz circles is a sad mismatch for his prodigious talent and standing among the cognesceti, ... but as festival artist-in-residence, audiences have numerous opportunities to hear him in multiple roles, from backing Take 6 during Friday's opening concert to performing with the William Patterson University Septet (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., MAP) to the MSU Jazz Orchestra along with baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan (Saturday, 3:45 p.m., CA), as well as in a reunion of his group Wingspan (including saxophonist Steve Wilson and vibraphonist Steve Nelson, Saturday, 9:45 p.m., AWS), in a "blindfold test" listening session (Sunday, 3:30 p.m., PJTT) and in piano duets with Kenny Barron (Sunday, 5:45 p.m., CA). A devotee of Oscar Peterson, he was integral to groups led by Art Blakey, Tony Williams and Woody Shaw before his solo career began in earnest.
Mambo Legends Orchestra
Tito Puente is gone a decade this year, but this mambo king is hardly forgotten, with reissues (his 1958 classics Dance Mania got a major 50th anniversary treatment) and his timbales on display at the Smithsonian. Ditto this group of his orchestra mainstays: on timbalero Jose Madera; on bongosero Johnny Rodriguez; and saxophonist-flutist, Mitch Froman. (Sunday, 9:45 p.m., CMS).
Salim Washington & the Harlem Arts Ensemble
A growing force on the New York scene, the former Detroiter, by way of Harvard, returns to Detroit to put together a hybrid group of his regular New York collaborators (notably the trombonist-trumpeter KuUmba Frank Lacy) and such Detroiters as pianist Pam Wise and guitarist (and former MT columnist) Keith Owens (Saturday, 4:45 p.m., MAP). The set follows some eminently earworthy talent on the same stage, including U-M faculty member Ellen Rowe's Ensemble (2 p.m.) and Brad Felt's NuQuartet Plus (3:30 p.m.), the latter built around Felt's bracing lead euphonium.
Freddy Cole, Ernie Andrews and Tierney Sutton
Stars like Manhattan Transfer, Kurt Elling and Take 6 aren't the only jazz vocal offerings. Consider Sunday's offerings. There's Freddy Cole, a younger brother to the late Nat; the vocal similarities are unmistakable, but hardly the whole story (4:45 p.m., AWS). Ernie Andrews, a '50s star whose career revived in the '80s is with the likes of trombonist Steve Turre and guitarist Melvin Sparks with the MF Productions Defenders of the Groove (8 p.m., CA). Unfortunately the Defenders start at the same time as the Tierney Sutton Band, whose records sequence standards (sometimes with curveball interpretations) into thoughtful suites (8 p.m., MAP).
The energetic alto saxophonist hails from the city of Charlie Parker (Kansas City), and, while hardly a bebop police-type, he struts his Parkerania proudly. He's also keenly appreciative of the soulful and deceptively simple, having once titled an album Motown Bop. He performs as a special guest (what other kind is there?) of the Western Michigan Jazz Orchestra (Sunday, 2:30 p.m., AWS) and reunites his belated group Horizon (the Motown Bop outfit), including drummer Victor Lewis and the trumpeter Terrell Stafford (Monday, 4:15 p.m., MAP).
W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
Complete schedule at detroitjazzfest.com.