Jammin' for Donald

Sunday, at the Carhartt Amphitheatre Stage, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett's highly anticipated performance sucked. At the very least, it didn’t measure up to his stellar performance from 2007. Last year, the Detroit native damn near blew up the Absopure Waterfront Stage. Garrett had me so hyped up, in fact, that after his set ended, I wanted to rush the stage and beg him to continue blowing.

Thus, I was anxious to hear Garrett again. Last month, I received an advance copy of his new album, Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium featuring Pharoah Sanders. I loved the album and hoped Garrett would play some of the material. He did, actually, but it wasn’t the same octane fueled playing that one can hear on that new album. Garrett simply played what sounde like a bunch of fusion music. This time, instead of rushing the stage, I just left.

Hours before Garrett's performance, I attended tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane’s tribute to his mom -- harpist and pianist Alice Coltrane. The saxophonist opened the set with two compositions from his late mother’s last album, Translinear Light. I wanted to hear the entire set, but the music was just too spooky and mysterious for my taste.

When I got to the Mack Avenue Pyramid Stage, bassist Marion Hayden, pianist Barry Harris, alto saxophonist Charles McPherson and drummer Randy Gillespie had just started a Detroit-style jam session honoring the late tenor saxophonist Donald Walden.

Backstage, pianist Ken Cox told me that listening to the musicians on the bandstand reminded him of "the old days." Cox and Walden developed their chops together as teens, gigging at the Urban League and the YMCA. “Donald and I thought we’re rich just because we were making money doing what we loved,” Cox recalled.

And speaking of loving, the Walden tribute was my favorite concert on Sunday. Walden’s buddies from the old days played. The students he taught at the University of Michigan played. And the members of his last band, Free Radicals, played like Walden was there, challenging and chastising them.

Bassist Hayden arranged the music for the Walden tribute. She organized it chronologically, charting the saxophonist's musical evolution. The musicians played mostly songs from Walden’s albums, Portrait of You and A Monk and A Mingus Among Us, As a result, all the musicians that participated in the tribute played like pieces of Walden’s spirit was inside their instruments.

Detroit drummer Gerald Cleaver’s set followed the Walden tribute. The drummer performed music from his sophomore album, Gerald Cleaver’s Detroit, which is sort of a love letter to his hometown. For years, the drummer has been associated with some of the leading avant-garde musicians, including saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill and Lottie Anker. But for Cleaver’s sophomore release and his performance Sunday evening, he reached back to his Detroit roots. The music he showcased was a mixture of free-jazz and bop. His music could be branded "Detroit free-bop."

Cleaver is obviously an unselfish bandleader. Sunday, he had every opportunity to show off his considerable skills, but the drummer delegated most of the workload to saxophonists J. D. Allen and Andrew Bishop. Bishop did some amazing tricks on the soprano sax. When Cleaver finally took a solo, it was straight to the point.

Meanwhile, at the Absopure Waterfront Stage, trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s Quintet was swinging harder than sharecroppers. I got to the stage just in time to hear the Quintet play the title cut from Hargrove’s latest album, Ear Food. He invited Detroit trombonist Vincent Chandler to sit in. Chandler, the co-foundered of the Ann Arbor-based ensemble Urban Transport has lived and worked in New York for the past year. In Manhatten, he played in Hargrove’s big band. Working in New York did Chandler a world of good. His playing is more grown up as a result.

Save for Kenny Garrett’s jumbled fusion set and the weird and eerie tribute to Alice Coltrane, the concerts I attended on Sunday were the most engaging of the fest thus far.

Donald Walden: Paying tribute to the late great.

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