Detroit Jazz Festival Embraces the Changes with Shift to Digital Format

The weather in Detroit was perfect for a festival crowd this Labor Day weekend. Unfortunately, the threat of the Delta variant and ongoing construction in the festival’s usual home of Hart Plaza forced the Detroit Jazz Festival to go virtual for the second year in a row. Credit thorough contingency planning or the experience garnered during the 2020 edition, but the switch – announced less than three weeks before the event’s September 6 kickoff – came off largely without a hitch.

Of course, it rendered being there in person a bit unnecessary, though it was enlightening to glance at the behind-the-scenes efforts that brought this four-day livestream to life. Taking place on three indoor stages inside the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, the performances felt isolated and often disheartened in front of a handful of silent onlookers scattered behind the cameras in darkened ballrooms.

But on screen – whether viewed in a hotel room 40 floors above, on a large outdoor stream in Campus Martius park a few feet away from what would have been the main stage, or wherever one decided to tune in – it felt paradoxically easier to approximate the festival experience, especially given the many highlights offered over the course of the packed long weekend.

Certain performances may even have been helped by the change in venue – or at least adapted to fit the situation. It’s hard to imagine Kurt Elling’s “The Big Blind,” a live radio play combining jazz lore and noir tropes, playing well in front of a large outdoor crowd. The ample dialogue and plotting, tracing the rise and fall of a young band singer, would likely have been swallowed in that setting, but it was possible to follow every twist via a more private viewing. Still, crowds would no doubt have delighted in Dee Dee Bridgewater’s performance as Elling’s possessive, pill-popping manager; the singer never wastes an opportunity to vamp it up. It also took away the opportunity of watching the live foley artist creating the show’s sound effects.

Bridgewater was this year’s artist-in-residence, appearing each night of the festival in a different context. But while she inevitably made the most of her turns in the spotlight (“I know how to work a camera,” she insisted in regards to the streaming format), she seized the opportunity to shine that light on a number of up-and-coming young women musicians.

The weekend opened with Bridgewater serving as emcee for a group culled from the inaugural class of the Woodshed Network, her mentoring program. Joined by singers Darynn Dean and Kennedy, the quintet focused on original songs by its members, saxophonists Sarah Hanahan and Erinn Alexis, pianist Sequoia Snyder, bassist Amina Scott and drummer Shirazette Tinnin.

All of them returned on Monday night as part of the DDB Big Band, a vigorous ensemble imbued with the raucous spirit of the mentor they referred to as “Mama Dee Dee.” Kennedy sang a reimagined version of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” while Bridgewater fronted the band for a medley of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” with all three singers joining hands and voices for a soaring send-off with “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Still, the highlight of Bridgewater’s residency was inevitably her own most prominent performance, in this case a playful and wide-ranging duo with pianist Bill Charlap. Perhaps the greatest accompanist in jazz today, Charlap met every one of Bridgewater’s shifts in mood and style, exemplifying why the two are, as he said at one point, “perfect dance partners.” After opening with “Caravan,” Bridgewater’s swooping voice melding into Charlap’s crashing keys, the singer turned on her kewpie doll sweetness for a bawdy “Love for Sale,” ultimately plunging into a throaty quiver that revealed the cunning behind the coyness. A bluesy “Mood Indigo” seemed to bring on the night as the sun set over the Detroit River.

Vocalists Kurt Elling and Dee Dee Bridgewater perform at the 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival, which switched to a virtual format this year. (Photo by Jeff Dunn/Detroit Jazz Festival)

Saturday night’s climactic performance came with the summit meeting between The Manhattan Transfer and Take 6, the two vocal groups joining forces for 10-part arrangements and splitting up for takes on their own and each other’s signature songs. In the early going the choreography and spectacle also seemed well suited to the virtual realm, though the show’s climactic moments, well rehearsed for crowd-pleasing effect, suffered from the lack of a crowd to please.

The same could be said for Herbie Hancock’s opening night headline stint. The keyboard legend’s group, with guitarist Lionel Loueke, flutist Elena Pinderhughes, bassist James Genus and drummer Justin Tyson, was stellar, delving into fusion-era hits including “Cantaloupe Island,” “Actual Proof” and “Chameleon.” But Hancock thrives on a live audience; while his trademark smile lit the stage, he seemed at times distracted by the lack of feedback from off stage.

Kenny Garrett, on the other hand, forged ahead with gusto, addressing an audience he couldn’t see but insisted he could feel. After a ferocious set focused on his latest album, Sounds From the Ancestors, he ended on his trademark closing number, “Sing a Song of Song,” stepping intermittently to the microphone to hype up those far-off viewers. And it worked (for this viewer at least), especially as the tune roared past the nine-minute mark.

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold embraced the emptiness, creating a distinctively mesmerizing atmosphere for his Saturday afternoon set. Featuring platform-booted Georgia Anne Muldrow on vocals and keyboards, drummer Chris “Daddy” Dave and Detroit rapper Black Milk, the band explored the jazz roots of hip hop, performing full-circle jazz versions of songs by bands like Slum Village that had drawn on jazz influences in the first place. It proved the weekend’s most compelling set, anchored by Harrold’s fervent tone, a piercing directness at the core fringed by a raw, corroded edge. Muldrow took that precision into outer space with her cosmic synths and gripping vocal turns, whether getting lost inside a funked-up meditation on “A Love Supreme,” accompanied by Nir Felder’s Crazy Horse distortion, or intoning the gorgeous melody of Harrold’s “Wayfaring Traveler.”

Sean Jones explored similar territory with his Dizzy Spellz project, taking an Afrofuturist spin on Dizzy Gillespie with the aid of poet and tap dancer Brinae Ali and the percussive scratching of turntablist Wendell Patrick. Diz’s bebop compatriot Charlie Parker was the subject of another transformative take, via the Fly Higher project co-led by Rudresh Mahanthappa and Terri Lyne Carrington, meant to celebrate Bird’s centennial but arriving a year late for reasons that hardly need mentioning.

Better late than never, however, as the band – pianist Kris Davis, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, and bassist Matt Penman along with the two leaders – engaged with Parker’s music in a more direct fashion than other post-modern tribute projects, emerging with a set that made this foundational music feel utterly modern and free of the haze of nostalgia. Played by musicians of this caliber and originality, Parker’s music bristles with the electricity and vigor that it carried in its own day, without the need for contemporizing.

Often the music worked best when at its most no-nonsense, with artists who simply forged ahead, audience or not. Kenny Barron’s trio with Kiyoshi Kitagawa and Johnathan Blake asserted itself as one of the finest piano trios in existence with a timeless yet gripping selection of standards and Barron originals. Monk’s “Shuffle Boil” was propelled by an athletic bounce, Kitagawa stretching time during his solo as Barron’s lines cascaded over Monk’s angles like rainwater coursing over rough concrete. The pianist’s trading with Blake found muscularity met with elegance, each man swapping roles from one moment to the next.

The all-star AZIZA quartet also chose simply to engage with one another over a non-stop hour-long set. Bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Eric Harland and guitarist Loueke navigated the intricate turns of their forward-stretching compositions with as much obvious pleasure – abundant smiles all around – as deep, adventurous thought.

Musically, then, the 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival could be termed an unqualified success, and credit goes to all of the crew that managed to pull together the streaming event under such less-than-ideal conditions. Here’s hoping the conditions improve by 2022, and we’re all back in Hart Plaza for next year’s fest.

Feature photo of Herbie Hancock by Jeff Dunn/Detroit Jazz Festival

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