Saturday was another fantastically successful day at the Detroit Jazz Festival. The crowds seem bigger to me than they have in years. The music was top shelf, and the weather was sunny and warm. I should have become a weatherman, because I don’t know another job where I could be wrong all the time and still be successful. The weather forecast had called for a greater than fifty percent chance of storms and rain. Instead I am nursing a bit of a sunburn that I received while sitting at the Pyramid stage. We have a saying in Michigan about the weather. If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes, as it will probably change.
Because the Labor Day Weekend weather gods smiled on our outdoor music festival, I was able to hear music all afternoon and into the evening. The first set I attended was by one of my favorite musicians of all time, the guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan. He played a solo set on the Wayne State University Pyramid Stage in Hart Plaza. Experienced DJF veterans know that the Pyramid Stage is a wonderfully intimate setting with some of the best acoustics of the entire festival. It was a perfect setting to hold a solo performance by Jordan, who uses his unique approach to the guitar to sound like three musicians at once. He plays with a “touch” technique, a two-handed tapping approach with the strings set very close to the fretboard. Notes sound when he taps or hammers a finger down on the fretboard, rather than having to pluck or strum a string. This technique allows him to play notes with each hand separately, and play multiple parts at the same time on one guitar. It is truly magic to see, and certainly not a gimmick, Stanley Jordan is an artist of the highest musicianship. I have witnessed him play live three times now, and each time I am moved by the experience. His latest recording is an album entitled “Duets”, with another amazing guitar artist, Kevin Eubanks.
The second set I caught was by a saxophonist I have never heard before, Rudresh Mahanthappa. Yes, I had to look up his name to spell it correctly. His parents are from India, and his birth took place in Italy during their travels for their academic career. He was raised during his early life in Boulder, Colorado, which I only know from the old Mork and Mindy television show. Somehow, this cat plays jazz on the alto saxophone, and currently lives in New York city. Not just plays jazz, but is an award winning saxophonist who is respected at the highest levels of the jazz community. I heard most of his set at the Absopure Waterfront Stage, and was very impressed. His playing is full of fire and energy, harmonically advanced and rhythmically complex. He has an individual, personal musical voice on his instrument, which is about the highest compliment one can pay a jazz musician. His latest album is “Bird Calls”, and if you haven’t heard it yet, it is well worth checking out.
Moving on towards the big Carhartt Amphitheater Stage, I got a prime seat for the Paquito D’Rivera Quintet. There aren’t enough good things in my vocabulary to say about the music of Paquito D’Rivera. He is entertaining, intelligent and funny, warmly inviting the audience into his world in the manner of Dizzy Gillespie, one of his mentors. You feel like you are a personal friend of the master musician. His set was full of virtuosity, driving rhythm, swing and FUN, as he effortlessly showed us the musical possibilities of both his alto saxophone and the clarinet. His group played a number of tunes from his latest album, “Jazz Meets the Classics”, which is an absolute gem. My favorite portion of the performance was when he brought out Anat Cohen as a special guest to join his group. The genuine affection and respect the two jazz clarinet masters have for each other was immediately apparent, and the pairing was a true collaboration and interplay of two musical voices. That kind of exchange is so much more satisfying than the technical fireworks of a cutting contest, with players trying to outdo each other. The entire audience was moving their feet and feeling the rhythm deep inside. If you weren’t moving your body to this music, you were probably dead, and even then your leg was probably twitching in time.
I stayed at the Amphitheater Stage, because once you give up your seat, you may not get it back. I rounded out the evening with a performance by the Maria Schneider Orchestra, another group I am sad to admit I have not heard before. Schneider is an award-winning composer and arranger who leads a top quality large ensemble. Her compositions are beautiful, full of lush harmonies and richly scored sonorities. The conception is truly orchestral, and her music is atmospheric and impressionistic at times. The musicians in the group are top quality, and each soloist was masterful. The most recent recording by the Orchestra is entitled “The Thompson Fields”, and is full of evocative pieces inspired by imagery from a farm near her hometown of Windom in southwest Minnesota. It is no surprise to me upon reading more about Ms. Schneider, that she has collaborated with Gil Evans and studied with Bob Brookmeyer. She has taken whatever lessons she learned with those two legends and expanded them, adding her personal voice and artistry, creating a magical musical experience in the process. It kept me out at Hart Plaza later in the night than I have been in years.
I can’t imagine how Sunday and Monday at the Jazz Fest are going to top all of that!