Preview for Detroit Jazz Festival hits the high notes

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

While New Orleans' Jazz Heritage Festival has been assaulted by rain this week, for the Detroit Jazz Festival's preview luncheon Tuesday, the sun was shining over the Detroit Athletic Club as guitarist Pat Metheny played a blues in A minor with Detroit's own Kenny Garrett and Rodney Whitaker.

Metheny is the Artist in Residence at the Detroit Jazz Festival, the free four-day Labor Day festival in downtown Detroit.

As sponsors, patrons and press ate lunch, the slate of performers was unveiled, with jazz fest artistic director Chris Collins noting some highlights.

Those playing include: James "Blood" Ulmer & the Black Music Experience featuring Queen Esther; Steve Turre and Detroit saxophonist James Carter in a Rahsaan Roland Kirk Birthday Celebration (a film about Kirk will be screened at the Marriott one night); Arturo Sandoval; the Maria Schneider Orchestra; Danilo Perez, playing the world premiere of his "Detroit World Suite" with a group of local university students; the John Scofield and Joe Lovano Quartet; Israeli-African singer Ester Radu; Ron Carter Trio; Eddie Daniels, doing a jazz version of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," "an urban, Detroit approach that serves as a powerful message about the rebirth of our great city," Collins said.

Metheny has four major appearances scheduled at the jazz festival: he'll kick it off with his trio, playing with Antonio Sanchez and Scott Colley, joined by a special guest, alto sax player Kenny Garrett.

He'll also do an acoustic set with bassist Ron Carter, and a reunion appearance with the Gary Burton Quartet, with whom he first came to major fame in the mid-1970s.

Metheny will finish off his jazz festival stint playing new works, including the premiere of his multi-movement tribute to German bassist Eberhard Weber. He'll perform that with Colley, Sanchez, Danny Gottlieb and the Detroit Jazz Festival Big Band and String Orchestra.

The complete schedule is at Local acts will be announced soon.

Commenting before he played, Metheny was as enthusiastic about Detroit as a Kansas City native can get, citing his Detroit idols, guitarist Kenny Burrell and bassist Paul Chambers and Pontiac's Jones brothers, talking about his trips to the city in the early '60s with his father, who operated the "smallest Dodge dealership in the country — no, really, it was! He would sell six cars a month."

When he visited with his parents in 1964, at age 10, Metheny owned a transistor radio and knew Motown was nearby, and in full roar with the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations racking up hits. "Where is it?" he said, laughing. "Where can I see that?"

But there was no question of seeing any of the Detroit music he loved; his parents were "not really that hip," and, well — he was 10.

The Detroit Jazz Festival was "maybe the most important North American jazz festival," said Metheny, who also praised the Detroit audience's enthusiasm and "looseness," witnessed at the many gigs he's done over the past 40 years at venues as varied as Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit and Meadow Brook Music Festival in Rochester.

After his preview luncheon performance, Metheny sat down to talk about Detroit, and the "j" word. Yes, he's known as a jazz guitarist, but if someone sitting next to him on a plane asks him what kind of music he plays, he sort of leaves that out.

"I can find ways of answering it where I don't say that word, so that person will come to a gig and maybe become a huge fan," Metheny said. "Which maybe they wouldn't have, if they had to carry all of their own personal baggage as to how they grew up and what that word means to them."

It irks him that it's come to this, and he has a few entities to blame.

"The 'PBS-ization' of this kind of music has been the worst thing," Metheny said. "That Ken Burns thing (his PBS documentary 'Jazz') did more damage than anything has ever done to this music. It made it boring. Made it sad and boring and that brown-ish, beige-ish, mall-ish thing that makes your eyes glaze over. Jazz was not a weak version of classical music, it was the strongest tributary of pop music. This is street music, this is folk music."

Metheny counts himself lucky to have grown up in the pre-jazz education era, when playing live was essential for all musicians.

"I may be the last generation where it was pretty sweaty, it was not a cool, collected thing. It was pretty hardcore. It's something you always have to achieve, whether playing something soft and simple or something intense. That kind of vibrancy has to be there."

Detroit Jazz Festival

Each Detroit Jazz Festival Artist in Residence does community outreach in the months before the festival; Pat Metheny has "gone above and beyond" in taking on such educational projects, said artistic director Chris Collins.

Here is a schedule of Metheny's pre-jazz festival community work and appearances in Detroit.

■April 29 – Rehearsals with Detroit area musicians for his festival weekend performance that includes DJF Big Band and DJF String Orchestra as part of the Eberhard Weber tribute.

■April 30 – Master Class with university students. Pat will interact, coach and mentor three guitar trios from three universities, at Wayne State University.

■June 2 – Performance at the Dirty Dog with a Detroit-based rhythm section. Tickets for this event were offered first to festival supporters, including Guardian members, and it sold out quickly.

■June 3 -- Workshop with the Detroit All-City Band (a Detroit Jazz Festival/Detroit Public Schools collaboration representing jazz students from various DPS schools). Pat will listen, interact, educate and coach students.

■June 3 -- Rehearsals with Detroit area musicians for his festival weekend performance that includes DJF Big Band and DJF String Orchestra as part of the tribute to German bassist Eberhard Weber.