On paper, legendary pianist Hank Jones, a jazz traditionalist with over seven decades of jazz experience, sharing the bill with mercurial musicians such as pianist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White seemed like a odd pairing to kick off the opening night of the 30th Detroit International Jazz Festival. Surprisingly, both concerts were big hits, though.
Before Jones played, the audience had to set through an award ceremony and a video retrospective of the history of the annual Detroit jazz fest. The video was touching, with such jazz musicians as Herbie Hancock, Bootsie Barnes and Regina Carter talking about how great the fest is compared to the ones in other cities.
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing gave the best quote of the night.
While presenting an award of appreciation to Gretchen Valade -- the woman who saved the festival by giving it a $10 million endowment a few years ago -- Bing said he wished Valade would give the city an endowment to help it overcome its current financial woe. The audience had a good laugh, but I thought the mayor was dead serious
The 91-year-old pianist Hank Jones then played an engaging set heavy of jazz standards. Despite his advanced age, Jones displayed the endurance of a champion tri-athlete. The man played over an hour without coming up for air, and as far as I could tell, he never worked up a sweat. He did not want to stop playing, and I thought at some point, security would have to drag him off stage.
I couldn’t fully enjoy Jones’ lengthy set, however. You see, the woman seated behind me talked non-stop, and when Jones was chewing through the marrow of Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Minor,” she bantered with some dork next to her. I wanted to scold them, expressing how important it was to give a musician of Jones' stature their undivided attention. Or just out of common respect for other festivalgoers, they should allow us to bask in Jones' music uninterrupted.
Jones was fantastic nevertheless, behaving like a man in his prime. The audience rewarded him with a standing ovation and they begged harder than a panhandler for an encore. He graciously obliged with a flawless rendition of another Monk classic, “’Round Midnight”. As Jones glided through the song, I saw Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke standing in the back of the stage, watching Jones and seemingly in awe of his effortless command of the piano.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect for Corea. In Ann Arbor, earlier this year, he gave one of the best performances I witnessed in my career as a jazz journalist. This evening, however, Corea was performing with musicians who had smooth jazz reputations. I figured they’d be on the bandstand showboating and trying to outplay each other. I was dead wrong, though.
Corea, Clarke and White played a straight ahead acoustic set that was even more engaging than Jones' set had been. They played original compositions and a few familiar gems from their landmark album, Echoes of An Era. And Clarke was the most colorful of the three, handling the upright bass like a guitar. He had the audience spellbound throughout.
This opening night could have a train wreck -- but Jones swung...and Corea swung even harder. The audience left with a taste of what’s in store for the rest of the festival.