It's been nearly five years since avant-garde jazz has been featured predominantly at the Detroit International Jazz Festival. The festival organizers have never explained why they suddenly stopped booking the top players of this genre, replacing them in years past with non-jazz acts such as Dr. John, John Mayer and the Blind Boys of Alabama. These changes all began when the festival appeared to be in bad shape. This year, however, avant-garde jazz was again part of the mix, and the festival organizers couldn’t have chosen a better free jazz ensemble than saxophonist Faruq Z. Bey and the Northwood Improvisers. Their Saturday afternoon set at the Mack Avenue Records Pyramid Stage was fantastic. Their music isn’t so far out that the novice can’t understand it. They play a straight-ahead, controlled brand of avant-garde music that swings at every turn. This is Bey’s band, for sure, but fellow saxophonists Skeeter Shelton stole the show. The sax man is an exceptional improviser with a deep bag of tricks. The audience was really into the music from start to finish, giving the ensemble a lengthy ovation at the conclusion of the set. This positive reaction should be a sign that a large contingent of festival attendees still want and appreciate this form of jazz.

Never too old to swing

At 87, pianist Dave Brubeck is a still strong and charismatic pianist. When he set down to play on the Carhartt Amphitheatre Stage Saturday afternoon, it was almost as though Brubeck turned back time the clock 40 years. He played an hour-and-a-half straight set without once coming up for air. The old guy sounded just as amazing and polished as he did on such classic albums as Jazz at Oberlin and Jazz Red Hot and Cool.

Almost perfect

Every year that trumpeter Marcus Belgrave plays the Jazz Fest, he conjures a lot of excitement. Three years ago, the musician presented a trumpet ensemble that was my most memorable jazz experience ever next to saxophonist Sonny Rollins' performance two years ago at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. This time around, Belgrave showcased a new ensemble called Marcus Belgrave & the Detroit Experience, which included three percussionists, two saxophonist and two pianists. And the performance was close to flawless. Belgrave built the ensemble with a mixture of young and seasoned Detroit jazz players, escewing a bunch of familiar be-bop numbers for a wider assortment of musical styles. He mixed things up, playing a free jazz tune called “Space Odyssey” and several obscure gems by late pianist Harold McKinney. The set ran smoothly until Belgrave invited his wife, vocalist Joan Belgrave, to join the ensemble to sing a few Ray Charles songs. Ms. Belgrave has a lovely voice but it just didn’t fit the dynamic that the trumpeter and the ensemble had previously established. I guess he felt obligated (for marital reasons) to include his wife in all the fun the group was having. Nevertheless, this was a really bad judgment decision that sullied an otherwise flawless set of music

The greatest

Native Detroiter Kenny Garrett is arguably jazz music's greatest living alto saxophonist. Anybody crazy enough to doubt that should have spent time Saturday evening at the Absopure Waterfront Stage listening to Garrett perform selections from his new album Beyond the Wall missed one helluva performance. Garrett was swaying back and forth in his trademark fashion, looking as if he was going to rocket off the stage at any time. He was playing with so much raw force, in fact, it almost seemed as though he could have shot small missiles from his horn.! Detroit Free Press jazz critic Mark Stryker summarized Garrett’s playing perfectly. At the end of the performance Stryker said to me that if Garret had been facing the Renaissance Center , he could have blown the buidling down. with the power of his playing.

Mr. Brubeck: a legend in his own time.

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