Just shut up and blow!
Okay, so I admit that I was excited when I heard alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson was performing at 27th Detroit International Jazz Festival. I've always loved Donaldson's bluesy, gritty and soulful alto work, and I thought his set would rekindle some of that funky alto swagger he employed such classic Blue Note sides as "Alligator Boogaloo," "The Midnight Creeper," and "Everything I Play Is Funky." Unfortunately, the 80-year-old native of North Carolina was a big disappointment. First of all, Donaldson didn’t show up for his Meet the Artist interview with jazz historian Jim Gallert. Donaldson's airplane landed late. I was bummed out, but still anticipating his set with organ guru Dr. Lonnie Smith. However, instead of giving a memorable performance, Donaldson gave an annoying comedy routine. He prefaced each tune with a joke, which was cute at first, but after about the fourth tune his comedy shtick became annoying. It got to the point where I just wanted the him to just hush and blow some of those sweet, funky, and churchy tunes that had solidified him as a household name among true jazz aficionados. Too bad.
Change is good
I could not believe my ears. Ann Arbor-based jazz quintet Urban Transport, one of the most inventive jazz ensembles in the state and one which has made its mark by playing original material exclusively, has actually started to include classic jazz compositions in its repertoire. During its set at the Absopure Waterfront Stage, the quintet pulled off a very competent rendering of late tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" as well as semi-retired pianist Horace Silver's hard bop staple "Tokyo Blues." (Note to Jazz Fest’s organizers: for three years now Urban Transport has been a crowd favorite; next year it should really be given a prime spot on the Amphitheatre Stage.) Pianist and new member Mark McGruder used his solo on "Inner Urge" as a showcase — he might resemble a university professor, but McGruder’s playing embodied all the technical wizardry of Herbie Hancock and the verve and power of late pianist Gene Harris. Meanwhile, fellow newbie Thaddeus Dixon had some huge shoes to fill behind the drums, replacing the acrobatic, animated playing of Sean Dobbins, who quit the group sometime last year to front his own jazz trio. But the new members proved a comfortable fit, and Urban Transport demonstrated that it can handle the classics, too.
Play it safe
Alto saxophonist Phil Lasley has put on a little weight around his midsection, and his hair has a lot more gray strands. The man has certainly aged some. What's the big deal? The big deal is that the supple timbre which flows from the man's horn hasn’t aged one bit, still as lean and limber as ever. Saturday afternoon, inside the Jazz Talk Tent, Lasley performed for only the second time this year, which is unfortunate because, as far as I’m concerned, Lasley should have a regular gig at a local jazz venue. People should drink regular doses of this guy's music. Anyway, in the tent, Lasley and the Detroit Jazz Griots meshed wonderfully. Pianist Johnny Allen’s 88-year old hands are as strong as a unionized ironworker, his fingers still sprinting across the piano keys, and accompanist John Dana walked his bass like it was a prom date. The Griots and Lasley played it safe, only playing standards such as "All The Things You Are," "Take The A Train," and "What Is This Thing Called Love,” but I could tell when the music started running through Lasley's veins. He placed his left hand on Allen's piano, shut his eyes, and swayed back and forth like each note that flowed from the piano was a gentle breeze. The only (slight) weak spot was drummer George Davidson, who was subbing for Bert Myrick, the quartet’s regular drummer. No matter who Davidson is performing with, he always plays too loud. When he soloed, I wanted to jump on the bandstand and snatch the drumsticks from his hands. So Davidson was a bit overzealous, but overall the Detroit Jazz Griots played a tight set, Lasley’s horn out front like a trusted friend.
Tenor saxophonist Donald Walden’s new band Free Radicals aren’t really new at all; rather, they represent a downsized version The Detroit Jazz Orchestra, his larger ensemble. Having said that, what is truly new about Free Radicals is the combo’s freewheeling sound — not quite avant-garde, but skillfully swinging down avenues still different from the bebop and hard bop avenues these players are known for. Sunday afternoon on the Amphitheatre Stage, the group did some truly radical stuff by presenting a set that was a delicious amalgamation of original compositions such as Richmond's "Soulful Diana" along with obscure ditties like pianist McCoy Tyner's "Blues on the Corner" and Coltrane's "Straight Street.” Let’s look at the individual performances. It’s a crime that trumpeter Dwight Adams isn’t signed to a major jazz label — his solo on "Blues on the Corner" damn near blew up the stage — and pianist Rick Roe played like the spirit of Bud Powell had invaded his hands. Last summer I’d see Cassius Richmond downtown during lunch hour playing in front of a Thai restaurant on Woodward Ave. Back then I thought the gifted alto saxophonist, arranger and composer was just killing time, but listening to him Sunday, it’s clear he wasn’t wasn't killing time at all, but was actually getting his chops together. On the original "Fantasy," bassist Marion Hayden was a delight, and drummer Randy Gelispie cracked and banged on the drums. Lastly, Walden could have laid in the cut and let the others shoulder the burden of engaging the audience. But he was right in the mix, matching his bandmates note for note, lick for lick. His playing was as aromatic and satisfying as an aged wine. Along with pianist Kirk Lightsey's Detroit Four+One (his ensemble of native Detroit jazz men Bennie Maupin, George Bohanon, Bert Myrick, and Cecil McBee), Walden and his Free Radicals gave one of the standout performances at this year’s Jazz Fest.