I don’t envy the artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival Chris Collins one bit. Collins, a working jazz saxophonist and an educator, put together one of the most awe-inspiring Detroit jazz fests in recent memory. What the hell, I’ll go one better. Collins put on the best jazz fest ever. Few, if any, longtime Detroit jazz fest goers would disagree with that assertion.
This was Collins’ first shot at the helm. At the height of the festival’s popularity Collins stepped in. Under former director Terri Pontremoli's leadership, the festival became an international hit. So, Collins had a lot to live up to, and he didn’t choke. Sonny Rollins, Terence Blanchard, Joe Lovano, Wayne Shorter, Pat Charles McPherson, Metheny, Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Garrett and Louis Hayes were headliners. Plus, Collins did some of Detroit’s leading jazz musicians a major solid. He made them a major fixture of the festival, vowing to continue that as long as he’s running the show. For years, many Detroit jazz musicians have bitched and moaned that the former directors shorted them, that getting on the bill was virtually impossible. Well, Collins fixed that by booking more Detroit acts.
Marcus Belgrave, Charlie Gabriel, George “Sax” Benson, Ursula Walker and Buddy Budson, Noah Jackson and Spencer Barefield were some of the Detroiters Collins booked. Not that Detroit musicians were ever absent from the festival stages. But this year they were there in abundance, and the Belgrave and Gabriel hits were major, "homecoming" tributes.
For the first time, in years the Detroit jazz fest felt real. Midway through, his Saturday afternoon set, Wynton Marsalis acknowledged that, pointing out the Detroit Jazz Festival was truly an authentic jazz event. Who better to make such a claim than Marsalis, the ambassador of jazz, who played at every noteworthy national and international jazz festival on the planet? Collins served the festival straight with no chaser. There was no tribute to Motown, no crossover roots acts such as the Blind Boys of Alabama, and no jazz acts featuring hip-hop MCs. In street parlance, Collins kept it one hundred.
So, why don’t I envy Collins? Simple: He now has the immense task of upping the ante next year. Collins set the bar really high his first time out. The question must be asked: Did Collins peak prematurely? Time will tell. But, I bet future Detroit Jazz Festivals will be even more awesome.
Top jazz fest picks
The Wynton Marsalis’ Quintet:
The trumpeter is a right-wing jazz conservative. Love or hate him, Marsalis always delivers a great show. Detroiter Ali Jackson, Marsalis’ go-to drummer, had a good game and so did saxophonist Walter Blanding. Fundamentally, Jackson is solid, and he built a high-swing sensibility piece by piece.
The Mack Avenue Super Band:
This could’ve been an epic miscalculation with Tia Fuller, Sean Jones, Rodney Whitaker Kevin Eubanks, Aaron Diehl, Gary Burton and others crammed on the stage (in various combinations), trying to prove who’s the darling of Mack Avenue Records. But this Super Band never turned into a battle of egos. It was one of my favorite main stage performances. Besides, it proved that Tia Fuller is indeed a formidable voice on alto saxophone, and Aaron Diehl has an aggressive streak under those hand tailored conservative suits he sports.
That’s the title of native Detroiter drummer Gerald Cleavers latest album, and he dedicated it and his Sunday afternoon show to his parents. For this project, Cleaver put together an ensemble with a few of his longtime running buddies like pianist Craig Taborn and saxophonist Andrew Bishop. The highlight of the hou- plus set was the suite “Fence and Post,” which was part storytelling, part free-jazz and part swing. Unfortunately, the crowd for this start-the-day main stage performance was light. Sometimes, Cleaver can be way out there and deeply experimental. I was totally into his music, but I did wonder if it would’ve worked better later in the day and/or at the Pyramid stage where free-jazz acts have historically performed.