Chris Collins, artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival, says his task each year is to serve a broad musical audience and honor tradition, and yet maintain the soul of jazz, an art form that thrives on innovation.
“The challenge is to continue to infuse the programming with new directions and fresh approaches,” Collins says. “I think everyone will find the programming still contains plenty of our legendary artists, but mixes in new approaches that I think will appeal to a broad demographic.
“Jazz is something for everyone, it’s not about a single generation or genre.”
He’s excited about the Cuban-born artists featured in this year of warming relations between Cuba and the United States.
“Omar Sosa (8 p.m. Saturday), Harold Lopez-Nussa (1:15 p.m. Monday) and Alfredo Rodriguez (4:45 p.m. Saturday) are three important Cuban-born artists who are bringing the jazz world to a whole new place,” he says. “Cuba was so important during the slave years, it allowed Africans to practice their art and culture. The drumming, the rhythmic African influence on music flourished in Cuba when it was being stifled here.”
Here are a few more festival highlights, with comments by Collins:
■Artist-in-residence, Detroit bassist Ron Carter will perform several times throughout the festival. “On opening night, Ron Carter brings his Nonette with four cellos, a completely different approach to his style,” which should intrigue younger fans.
■New Orleans drum virtuoso Shannon Powell will lead a traditional New Orleans second line to kick off opening night, linking the cradle of American jazz with Detroit, accompanied by “Dr. Valade’s Brass Band,” named after Detroit Jazz Festival chairwoman Gretchen Valade. Valade received an honorary doctorate degree from Wayne State University earlier this year.
■Vocalist Freddy Cole will honor his late brother and niece with his set “The Cole Family Legacy, Remembering Nat and Natalie” at 9:30 p.m. Sunday at the Carhartt Amphitheater stage.
■At the 11 p.m. after-hours jam sessions Friday through Sunday in the Marriott Renaissance Ballroom, clips of Nat King Cole’s 1950s network TV show will be shown. The show, with Cole and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, featured musical guests such as Eartha Kitt and Billy Eckstine.
■Luciana Souza performs “Speaking in Tongues” at 5:15 p.m. Saturday on the Carhartt stage. “Vocalist Souza offers “a very moving, different approach to the jazz vocal.”
■Lisa Fischer, who was seen in the film ‘Twenty Feet from Stardom,” does a set with Grand Baton at 4 p.m. Saturday on the JPMorgan Chase stage. Fischer sang backup for the Rolling Stones and many other acts for years. Collins heard her shine as a solo, in a live performance. “She is a great example of how it doesn’t have to be someone just singing the American songbook, or trying to sing like Ella or Dinah Washington. She brings her own appeal, and she may do, dare I say, a Rolling Stones tune ... but she is interpreting it as a great piece of music that she brings her own soul and emotion to.”
■This year marks the 90th birthday of pianist Randy Weston and saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Weston performs at 3:15 p.m. Saturday on the Carhartt stage. “Jimmy Heath is going to join him, and we’ll have a birthday celebration for them.”
■Roberta Gambarini performs at 1:45 p.m. Monday with Jimmy Heath on the Chase stage. “She scats like an instrumentalist,” Collins notes. “It came from a lifetime of study, of being with the greats like Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath, and the cats from Dizzy’s band.”
■On Mondays, Collins likes to open with something special, since it’s a shorter day of performances. This year, the Chase stage 12:15 p.m. act, “East Meets West,” showcases musicians from Japan playing with some Detroit all-star players, in a special jam session “in celebration of a handshake that I’m hoping will turn into long-term connectivity between us.”
■The Rising Stars Alumni Band, performing at 2:15 p.m. Monday on the Absopure stage, features young veterans of the jazz festival’s yearlong outreach programs for jazz students. “You’ll get a sense of the kind of ongoing outreach and connectivity the festival does and will be doing throughout 2017.”