‘Jazz from Detroit’: A Primer

‘Jazz from Detroit’: A Primer

Although she passed away in 2017, pianist, composer and educator Geri Allen was a headliner of last year’s Detroit Jazz Festival in spirit. Helmed by two of her most dedicated disciples and collaborators, the bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, a series of tributes underscored Allen’s all-embracing genius over that Labor Day weekend.

One featured the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane in a fiery acoustic band; another interpreted Allen’s music on an ambitious orchestral scale with guests like the trumpeter Nicholas Payton; yet another highlighted Allen’s postmodernism, incorporating leading-edge technology and inspired verse from the emcee (and top-ranking jazz drummer) Kassa Overall. At each performance, and after each shout-out, the hometown crowd responded with reverent applause that seemed to indicate how Allen was both one component of a vast lineage and wholly irreplaceable.

The admission-free Detroit Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this Labor Day weekend with artist-in-residence Stanley Clarke, is a fantastic place to take measure of the broader mainstream jazz landscape and the Motor City’s robust and still-thriving jazz history. But it isn’t the only place.

In his recently released book, Jazz from Detroit, the critic and journalist Mark Stryker makes an irresistible argument for his town’s place among the world’s most invaluable and influential scenes. Traveling from thrilling midcentury to the hopeful present, he details how intensive public music education, family support, ever-present informal mentorship and cultural bustle have coalesced to produce generations of nonpareil musicians.

“We have big-city competitiveness and high standards,” Stryker tells TIDAL, “but we also have small-town nurturing and warmth. That’s a very powerful combination that connects all the musicians, and connects the musicians with the audiences. So there’s a recognition that we are one community.”

The artists he covers — from still-underrated heroes like Allen, Gerald Wilson and Sheila Jordan to such certified jazz celebrities as Ron Carter and Kenny Garrett — were or are comprehensive masters in the city’s image: hard-swinging and blues-strong yet also whip-smart and progressive.

A similar balance informs Stryker’s writerly gifts, refined over his 21 years at the Detroit Free Press. Consisting mostly of manageable profiles, Jazz from Detroit flows with memorable in-person color, deep research and musical descriptions that feel at once technically adept and elegant — evidence, no doubt, of the author’s own saxophone training and a lifetime of thoughtful listening.

“People have asked me, ‘Well, how long did it take you to write the book?’” Stryker says, starting to chuckle. “And I usually say, ‘Well, I’m 55 years old.’”

To put it another way, he engenders trust as a narrator, and his enthusiasm for his city is contagious. “Detroit has taken it on the chin in so many ways,” Stryker says, “and [the music] is something we’ve given to the world that more people should know about.”

Here are 10 tracks by artists covered in-depth in Jazz from Detroit.

Yusef Lateef “Love Theme from Spartacus” (1962)

A restlessly probing woodwinds master, Lateef was one of the, if not the, earliest explorers of the space shared among blues-rooted jazz, spiritualism and global musical dialects. He also saw his work as a composer and improviser as one point along a continuum of creative pursuits like literature, visual art, education and more.

“Love Theme from Spartacus,” off his prescient album Eastern Sounds, contains elements of both his soulful hard-bop identity and the worldly mysticism he’d immerse himself in later.

Kenny Burrell “Chitlins Con Carne” (1963)

Few musicians have managed to balance jazz’s stately aspirations and bluesy base desires like the guitarist Kenny Burrell. His list of credits reads like a compendium of 20th century genius; he plays with the utmost grace in harmonically daunting situations; and his solo arrangements can be heartrending.

He can also play a blues that all but demands a twilit joint with red booths, stiff cocktails and precarious games of pool. “Chitlins Con Carne,” from his most famous album, Midnight Blue, is one such exercise.

John Coltrane (with Elvin Jones) “One Down, One Up” (rec. 1965)

Elvin Jones was arguably the greatest jazz drummer who ever lived, and one third of the Jones brothers — along with pianist Hank and trumpeter-bandleader Thad — arguably the greatest jazz family of all time.

He worked successfully before and after his tenure in John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet, but his sweat-soaked, four-limbed wizardry on albums like A Love Supreme is what forever altered jazz’s rhythmic vernacular. This version of “One Down, One Up” is prime Elvin, replete with marathon sax-and-drums sparring.

Geri Allen “Tears of a Clown” (2013)

The influential pianist, composer and educator Geri Allen, whose unexpected death in 2017 is still felt deeply within the jazz community, seemingly had the entire history of the music in her recall.

But her artistry was more than versatility or good research, it was, rather, seamless proof of how early jazz, R&B, bop-rooted styles and the avant-garde were of the same essence. Her music could be fiercely cerebral, but she also found the passion in everything — including Motown hits.

Marcus Belgrave “Space Odyssey” (1974)

Some of Stryker’s most entertaining writing focuses on crucial mentor figures like the pianist Barry Harris, a one-man bebop conservatory, and Marcus Belgrave, a trumpeter with a legendary spirit.

Without Belgrave’s luminous tutelage, the city’s scene and, by extension, the last several decades of jazz would’ve sounded very different. As a performing and recording musician he embodied his hometown’s wide range: he was an unpretentious ace in straight-ahead settings, and as a bedrock of Detroit’s perpetually hip Tribe label, a short-lived but vital artist-run enterprise, he crafted groove voyages like “Space Odyssey.”

James Carter “FreeReggaeHiBop” (1996)

By the polite standards of contemporary postbop, the saxophone-family destroyer James Carter overplays. But that’s the wrong way to hear such a far-reaching musician, whose expertise looks beyond “modern jazz” to traditional jazz, swing, honking R&B and their kissing cousin, the Afrocentric avant-garde.

Written by trumpeter Lester Bowie, “FreeReggaeHiBop,” from Carter’s heritage-minded album Conversin’ with the Elders, feels like a plainspoken imperative to connect various corners of the diaspora, and it features a singularly wicked sax solo. Most rock guitarists aren’t so sonically audacious.

Regina Carter “I Moaned and I Moaned” (2014)

The violinist Regina Carter, as Stryker points out, has mined her own ancestry through her music and, in that process, uncovered greater truths about culture and folklore.

One such project, Southern Comfort, could serve as a potent olive branch from jazz to fans of current roots and rock. You might define this take on the gospel song “I Moaned and I Moaned” as blues-post-rock, with its darkly energizing atmosphere conjured by guitarists Adam Rogers and Marvin Sewell.

Joe Henderson “Inner Urge” (1965)

Like many jazz greats who made indelible contributions during the 1960s, the tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson twisted hard-bop conventions to suit his exceptional identity. His sound was effortless and fluid but also innately human-sounding; other tenor giants might be accurately compared to locomotives or muscle cars, but Henderson owned a beautifully conversational style that was at once wispy and craggy.

In his original music, he again married reliable jazz materials like bop and the blues to formal and harmonic adventure. “Inner Urge” is a standard that will most certainly be called at more than a few jam sessions this evening. As with most tunes musicians return to again and again, it fits a memorable melody atop a set of chord changes capable of providing players with endless hours of practice.

Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet “Mystique” (1968)

If you’re the type of music nerd who’s prone to one-upmanship in conversation, have the name “Kenny Cox” at the ready the next time the topic turns to jazz. The pianist and composer was equally brilliant and obscure, rightfully lauded in Detroit but often left to aficionados outside city limits.

Still, extraordinary artifacts remain: Cox’s original Contemporary Jazz Quintet — Cox, trumpeter Charles Moore, tenor saxophonist (and Joe’s brother) Leon Henderson, bassist Ron Brooks and drummer Danny Spencer — recorded two choice LPs for the post-Alfred Lion-era Blue Note label in the late 1960s.

The first of these, Introducing…, stands strong with the company’s more recognized postbop records from earlier in the decade. The conventional wisdom about this group is that they were profoundly inspired by Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, though they didn’t mime that group so much as borrow some of its more compelling strategies. (Everyone did, and continues to do so.) Cox’s “Mystique” is both ensconced in the period and startlingly fresh.

Karriem Riggins “J Dilla the Greatest” (2012)

Stryker smartly points out the church-and-state quality present in the career of Karriem Riggins, a first-rate jazz drummer and a renowned hip-hop producer. More than a few musicians have made careers out of conjoining the two idioms, but to manage his trick of parallel accomplishment is exceedingly rare.

From Diana Krall to Kanye West, from Ray Brown to Common and from Mulgrew Miller to Slum Village, he’s continually served the music at hand with the necessary precision. But the lines have also been purposefully blurred, with excellent results.

On 2012’s Alone Together, for instance, synthetic and organic rhythm-making guide Riggins’ production, which bears an unmistakable kinship with that of J Dilla, his dear late friend and collaborator.

Years earlier, Riggins had brought The Shining, Dilla’s posthumously released triumph, to completion at the dying visionary’s request. In many ways, Dilla’s game-changing artistry can be considered another tradition Riggins carries on.

(Photo Credit: Rob Davidson)

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