During a video montage that was shown Friday night at the Detroit International Jazz Festival, trombonist Steve Turre commented that many festivals around the world call themselves "jazz festivals," but the Detroit jazz fest is the real deal. The man should be lauded for not being apprehensive about speaking the truth. And this weekend, the festival served up the best of international and regional jazz musicians and bands on this hemisphere.
The only disappointing aspect is it was impossible to catch every single act. All weekend, I had to make some tough choices on what concerts to attend and. unfortunately, what performances to miss. But no matter how stressful making those choices may have been, I absolutely did not see a bad performance the entire weekend. Before the Scott Gwinnell Orchestra and the Clayton Brothers -- the closing acts -- performed on Monday, a friend asked what were my five favorite festival moments. For whatever reasons, I couldn't answer him. But after giving the question careful consideration during my drive home. I was able come up with a list:
1) The Wayne Shorter Quartet
Last year, I attended Shorter's concert in Ann Arbor, and I must be honest: I hated it. But the saxophonist's set Sunday evening with bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade and pianist Danilo Perez was the polar opposite of the train wreck endured a year ago. Yesterday, the most frequently asked question at the fest seemed to be: “Did you catch Wayne Shorter's set last night?”I still find it difficult to convey the level of creativity, surprise, magic and beauty the quartet created on the stage.
2) The John Clayton Quintet with the Scott Gwinnell Orchestra
At this point, it's save to assert that the Scott Gwinnell Orchestra is one of the best big bands working in jazz today. And it was finally time for the orchestra to get some national exposure. And Gwinnell was under immense pressure, closing out the festival and sharing the spotlight with the Clayton family as he was required to do on Monday. In addition, it all involved performing a three-part suite titled "T.H.E. Family" that John Clayton wrote.
But the Gwinnell Orchestra swung so hard and beautifully that Duke Ellington and Count Basie would have undoubtedly been dancing in the street if those masters had been present. Gwinnell handled the pressure like a seasoned pro. I counted six standing ovations during the set, and John Clayton was so hipped after the performance that he gave out this cell-phone number to the audience, commenting that if they enjoyed his music text him.
3) Stefon Harris & Blackout
The charismatic vibraphonist and bandleader was bouncing about the bandstand like a superhero, performing music from his new Urbanus album. Harris was fantastic -- but his alto saxophonist, Casey Benjamin, stole the show. He was dressed almost like a former member of KISS, but his playing was rooted in the hard bop tradition of, say, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly. Yes, Benjamin looked outlandish. Nevertheless, he could swing.
4) Sheila Jordan
She's my favorite vocalist of all time. She's 80 years old now but she still sounded just as amazing as she did 50 years ago on her first recording, Portrait of Sheila. Five years ago, I had the chance to interview her. I was writing a story about Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. I talked to her for two hours. And Monday afternoon, I did not mind sitting in the rain, listening to her sing. And Jordan tells great stories when she sing, exposing the audience to chunks of her autobiography.
5) Dee Dee Bridgewater
Bridgewater has something most jazz vocalists don’t: She can make you feel as if you’re the only person in he audience and she's singing to you alone. The vocalist also doesn’t mind toning herself down when playing with musicians not on her level. That’s not a knock against the Michigan State University Orchestra. They did a fine job. But Bridgewater is a legend. And she can transform her voice into a saxophone, a trumpet and a trombone at the drop of a hat. The lady knows how to win over an audience.
Those were the five performances from this year's Labor Day fest that I will be thinking about for months to come. What were your favorites?