A great day of music


I kept wondering as I listened to the various acts Sunday at the Detroit International Jazz Festival if it were possible for the music get any better that it already was. I started the day at the Absopure Waterfront Stage, enjoying a fine duet between pianist Kenny Barron and violinist Regina Carter. They then performed selections from their album Free Fall -- and the duo sounded as if they were sending  love letters to each other.  On the ballad “Alone Together,” Carter was playing as though someone had just broke her heart.  After listening to them for an hour, I walked over to the Here and Now Stage to catch jazz chanteuse Jesse Palter’s set. She’s a rising star on the Detroit scene, and one of my current favorite jazz vocalists. I have to admit that I listened to her debut album,  I’m Beginning to See the Light, damn near every day for an entire year.


This was Palter's first year at the jazz fest, and she didn’t disappoint, showcasing her considerable talent to a larger audience. Her set was made up of new tunes that she wrote with her pianist and musical director Mike Jellick. At 22 years old, Palter is now all grown-up, and for a young vocalist who has only been on the scene for three years, she sounds and comports herself like a seasoned pro. At times during her set, her voice was muffled by the roar of the People Mover (the Here and Now Stage was situated right under the People Mover! Grrrr ...) But Palter didn’t allow that problem to faze her. She kept  singing away. Then at the end of the tune, she made light of the distraction.  And Palter has a brilliant knack for writing songs, as she demonstrated with “Spinning Around” and “My Sweetie and I,” two originals that completely won over the crowd.  Although Palter served up a fine debut, there is one area that she needs to improve on: Her scatting sounded forced and unnatural. 


Kenn Cox and Drum was a performance that I was also looking forward to hearing, as this was the pianist's first gig at the festival in more than 10 years. He gave the audience a taste of his new percussion ensemble, which also included two of the most underrated saxophonists in Detroit -- namely, Vincent Bowen and Anthony Holland. On the opening “Afro Blue,” Holland was tilting forward while playing. It looked like he was trying to pour the music out his horn. The pianist is normally very talkative during performances but on Sunday, he was all business, banging away on the piano like it was a conga drum. Kenn Cox and Drum is just one of many outstanding ensembles that Cox has fronted over the course of his career, and this one surely satisfied via a solid performance.


Charles Tolliver’s Big Band was playing at the Carhartt Amphitheatre Stage at the same time, so  I raced over to catch some of his music.  Tolliver heads one of top big bands in jazz right now, and the tunes that I heard during his set were just as engaging as the celebrated works of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford


My fuel level was running low by the end of the set, though, so I decided to take a break before saxophonist Don Byron’s set at the Mack Avenue Records Pyramid Stage. I didn’t want to stand in line to purchase tickets to buy the greasy food at the festival., so I strolled over to Sweet Lorraine’s for bite. I had a $9.50 vegetarian burger that was dry (like baking powder!) and sweet potato fries that were undercooked. To add insult to injury, my server accused me of not giving her my credit card to pay my bill, later finding  it after combing through the pockets of her apron.  I was just glad that the music that I have heard the last three days wasn’t as lousy as my meal, which set at the bottom of my belly like a discarded car engine in a junkyard. The meal made me so sleepy that I wanted go to my jeep and climb in the backseat to take a quick nap.  Fortunately, I decided to go hear Don Bryon play the music of Detroit's Motown soul legend, the late Junior Walker. And I’m thankful that I did because I would've otherwise missed the best performance of the jazz festival so far.


Byron must have been nervous about his performance. Here’s an outsider coming to the hometown of one of Detroit’s must revered musical heroes to play the classic soul music that he made internationally famous. Byron didn’t choke, however. He just gave a jazzy and funky face-lift to such songs as “Shotgun” “Ain’t That the Truth” and “Pucker Up, Buttercup.” Byron transformed the Pyramid Stage into a block party. People were singing along with each number, and doing old dance steps like the Jerk and the Mashed Potato in front of the stage. When Byron played the soul ballad “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” I wanted to grab a lovely lady from the audience and slow dance with her! Byron’s set was just as amazing as Kenny Garrett’s the previous night.


After Byron’s encore, I was ready to call it a night, but vocalist Patti Austin was scheduled to perform with the Gerald Wilson Big Band, and I couldn’t in good conscience consider myself a true music aficionado without experiencing at least some of Austin’s set.


Austin went old school for the fest, performing material from her latest recording Avant Gershwin, featuring, of course, music from the George Gershwin songbook. She took songs with tricky arrangements, such as “Fascinating Rhythm,” and delivered them effortlessly. Austin’s classy performance was the icing on the cake of a devilishly wonderful day of jazz musicianship.



Jesse Palter: all grown up...


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