Rollins, Shorter and big ideas in Jazz Fest 2012

April 17, 2012
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As the first Detroit jazz artist to head-up the Detroit International Jazz Festival, Chris Collins unveiled his vision for the festival in the annual preview luncheon, bringing together civic dignitaries (even Detroit Deputy Mayor Kirk Lewis left the City Hall crisis center to deliver a few words), business folks, arts and music community leaders, the media, musicians, etc.

Sonny Rollins, aka the Saxophone Colossus.

With names having leaked out in recent weeks, it was no surprise that the roster was star-studded, crowned with an appearance by Sonny Rollins (no one can touch him for general name recognition and artistic depth) along with such luminaries as the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, the Wayne Shorter Quartet, Chick Corea and Gary Burton (plus the Harlem String Quartet), Pat Metheny and Chris Potter (their Unity Band) and an all-star Art Blakey tribute. That’s just a portion of the list.

But Collins, professor and director of jazz studies at Wayne State University, also presented a larger vision that includes trying to express the depth and range of artists in interesting ways. Notably, the appearance by Shorter, one of the most important jazz composers since the 1950s, will be augmented by presentations of (and reflections on) his music in the Dave Douglas-Joe Lovano Sound Prints group, and in a Detroit big band playing Shorter arrangements and featuring as soloists both Detroiters and visiting festival musicians (such as Potter, Steve Wilson and Donny McCaslin).

Collins also emphasized presentations of Detroit and former Detroit musicians, in the festival lineup, many of them to appear in multiple settings. Included among those are reedman Charlie Gabriel (now of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, also on the bill), trumpeter Marcus Belgrave (who’ll head up a Homecoming Band), trombonist Curtis Fuller (as part of the Blakey tribute and more), saxophonist Charles McPherson (partnering with trumpeter Tom Harrell), not to mention billings for Kenny Garrett, Louis Hayes, Harvey Thompson, Marion Hayden, Walter White and Rick Margitza.

Some other notable announcements include:

• A Mack Avenue supergroup, including Kevin Eubanks, Sean Jones, Tia Fuller and Alfredo Rodriguez.

• A repeat of a program of the sacred music of Duke Ellington (100 voices plus big band) put on by the festival earlier this year.

• National competitions to discover young saxophonists and arrangers — to be featured at the festival. (Collins talked about presenting and supporting musicians through the span of their careers, from student apprenticeships through mid-careers and on to their mastery as elders.)

• A number of programs featuring this year’s artist in residence, Terence Blanchard, including an opening night spot for his quintet.

• A June collaboration with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra featuring musicians from Detroit and Torino, Italy. That’s just part of a vision that Collins espoused for collaborations with other clubs and institutions presenting jazz in the community, including during the festival.

• A taste of the avant garde with former Detroit Gerald Cleaver’s group Uncle June and with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin ’s take on the organ trio tradition. (The Godfathers off Groove and Larry Goldings also work the organ-jazz territory.)

• The Latin jazz tradition with spots for Poncho Sanchez, Papo Vazquez, Jerry Gonzalez and Arturo Gonzalez.

Collins, who was a student when the festival began in 1980, recalled the excitement and importance of being able to see his heroes live. Live music has been an integral part of the festival from the beginning, and fairly early on, the festival recreated itself as an all-free festival, now one of its central strengths, billing itself as the largest free jazz festival in North America (if not the world).

Blanchard, the award-winning film score composer and bandleader, is hardly a neutral observer, given his festival artist in residence gig. But his summation of the festival roster seemed sincere: “The only word I can think of is … damn.

See more festival and lineup info at detroitjazzfest.com.