During drummer Carl Allen’s Monday afternoon set with his new ensemble, the Carl Allen & Rodney Whitaker Project, at the 2007 Detroit International Jazz Festival, Allen told the audience that Detroit's jazz festival is the hippest in the world. I took Allen’s pronouncement to heart. Who better than a world-class jazz musician to determine how our jazz fest measures up to others? I can’t make that claim as expertly as Allen can, but as a jazz journalist who has covered this event for 10 years now, I can safely state that this year’s fest was the best I ever attended.
In all fairness, I’ve attended some unforgettable past festivals here, but it will probably take me even longer to get over this year’s event. The festival organizers covered all bases. For the first time in nearly five years, there were avant-garde acts. There was straight-ahead acoustic jazz for those jazz fans who don’t like their music too far on the wild side. There was an entire day's worth of big band music. There was even -- for the first time that I can recall -- a smooth jazz act. And the festival forced me to make hard choices over and over again. I had to decide whether to attend the Classic Jazz Quartet’s set (including such esteemed members as bassist Ron Carter, pianist Kenny Barron, vibe player Stefon Harris, and drummer Lewis Nash), or drink in a set of music from the legendary saxophonist Yusef Lateef. I ended up attending Lateef’s performance, and I don’t regret it. The 87-year-old saxophonist played a perfect set, and I damn near wet my pants when he played a blues number. I felt as if I was sitting at Peps in Philly back in 1964 where Lateef recorded live at that club. No one could have written a better ending to a weekend of great jazz music.
I nearly ran myself in the ground running from stage to stage on Monday. I started out listening to a free-jazz set from hometown sax man Wendell Harrison, which was followed by a respectable tribute performance by another local saxophone great, Steve Woods. Interestingly, Woods played the music of the aforementioned Yusef Lateef. I then rushed over to the Absopure Waterfront Stage where I caught the tail end of a blazing set from saxophonist Ron Blake’s band, fueled by the high grade drumming of Gregory Hutchinson. Then there was an amazing set of original compositions and classic material of Motown records by the Carl Allen & Rodney Whitaker Project. And the much-publicized Bettye LaVette's performance was all sass and attitude. LaVette is the quintessential soul singer. When she performed “Looking for My Joy,” my heart dropped to the bottom of my feet. At one point, during her booming set, her voice became so powerful and loud that near the end of one song, she simply stopped using her microphone!
This year’s festival was a huge improvement compared to last year. In 2006, there was a lot of overkill. I felt as if two different festivals were occurring in the same space. It seemed as if the festival organizers were trying to satisfy everybody’s taste but actually pleasing no one. It seemed that achieving high attendance numbers took precedence over presenting a balanced festival. From the opening night this time around, however, I felt that I was part of an authentic jazz event. Honestly, save for that Herbie Hancock funk jazz farce on opening night, I did not experience one bad performance.
However, there was one downside worth mentioning: The writers and photographers covering the festival were hassled throughout the festival by the hired security staff, despite the fact that the media folks had all-access credentials. On certain days, security did not want us backstage. On other days, we could get backstage unchecked. One day, I’d feel welcomed ... and the next I felt like I was going through airport security. I know the security staff has a job to do ... but we also did also. And at times, the security just made our job unnecessarily difficult to do.
I wish I could be like drummer Carl Allen and state, emphatically, that the Detroit International Jazz Festival is the best and the hippest in the world. That would be a stretch for me, but I will state this was absolutely a terrific weekend of jazz music. The organizers of the festival set the bar high and reached it. I just wonder it they'll be able to top themselves next year.
Carl Allen: "the hippest jazz festival in the world!"