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Detroit jazz fest features Chick Corea, Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding and more

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News
Detroit Jazz Fest Artist-In-Residence Chick Corea will perform three times during the festival, which begins Friday.

The 39th annual Detroit Jazz Festival will serenade downtown with world-class jazz over Labor Day weekend, Friday-Monday,  on stages from the Detroit River to Campus Martius. And it’s free of charge.

“It’s one of the few jazz festivals now that actually has jazz musicians playing in it,” quipped 2018 Artist-in-Residence Chick Corea. That may be an exaggeration, but it’s true that some festivals around the country are jazz in name only. 

Aretha Franklin’s funeral falls on the first day of jazz fest, and there will be several musical homages to her by individual acts throughout the weekend. Straight Ahead’s 25th Reunion on Saturday will include a tribute to the Queen of Soul, as their percussionist, Gayelynn McKinney, played often with Franklin over the years. Bassist Ralphe Armstrong often backed her up, as well, and he will include a nod to his former boss on Sunday. Singer Joan Belgrave will pay tribute to her on Sunday, as well.

Despite the loss of a Detroit icon, jazz fest is about celebration, even — or especially — in times of sadness. And there definitely is something in the air during those lazy late summer days, under a sunset sky streaked with pink and purple, as music wafts over the crowd, and the river breezes stir. It’s a step outside reality, before moving into fall and its responsibilities.

“I’m so proud of our audience and their interest in the vast diversity of jazz, without going into pop,” said Jazzfest president and artistic director Chris Collins. “It’s three and a half days of jazz music for sure, but also this opportunity for discovery, feeling as if the world is with us here. It’s something beyond jazz, a reflection of the diversity in our region.

“Even when the music is not by somebody our audiences know, they seem to give it time to breathe and they allow themselves to be brought into it. Great jazz artists feed off of that, and there’s a camaraderie there.” 

The world can be with us in Detroit, thanks to the Detroit Jazz Fest LIVE! app for mobile devices, tablets and desktop computer. Far away fans, or those unable to get to the festival, can watch livestream performances from all stages for all four days via the $10 app, by going to 

Among the things Collins is proud of this year: The Resident Ensemble that Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding will lead over three nights, as well as the series concept of the last several years. 

“There’s the ongoing mentor/disciple series, and the legacy series,” Collins said. 

The trombone is a thread running through this year’s jazzfest. “We’ll be kicking off Friday night at the 11 p.m. jam session at the Marriott with a tribute to (Detroit-bred trombonist) Curtis Fuller, featuring a bunch of area trombonists. Fuller will be with us throughout the festival, joining us in different places.” 

Continuing the theme, trombonist Robin Eubanks appears Sunday, and on Monday, The Four Freshmen will recreate their 1956 album “The Four Freshmen and 5 Trombones,” with five noted local trombonists. 

And there’s the hometown series, including the Straight Ahead reunion, at 5:15 p.m. Saturday on the Carhartt stage, that will feature Regina Carter, Marion Hayden,  McKinney and Alina Morr. 

Collins also is excited to bring Ravi Coltrane’s “Universal Consciousness: Melodic Meditations of Alice Coltrane,” a program in honor of his mother, Detroiter Alice Coltrane to the festival. 

There are three acts to watch for at this year’s festival.

Chick Corea, 2018 Artist-in-Residence 

The culmination of Chick Corea’s year as jazz fest artist-in-residence will be three performances: 9 p.m. Friday  with his Akoustic band, including bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl; 9:15 p.m. Saturday,  when he wheels out his Yamaha Montage and Moog Voyager keyboards to perform with his Elektric Band; and at 7 p.m. Monday he plays a special set with the Detroit Jazz Festival Symphony Orchestra. 

In 50 years of music, the virtuoso has a diverse career. He’s been a member of Miles Davis’ band (in the late ’60s), but was also a pioneer of electric, fusion jazz with Return to Forever in 1972. Looking at his schedule, it’s hard to see when the 77-year-old has time to breathe, eat or do anything but play. 

 His packed schedule for the coming year includes a September album and tour with his “young trio,” Vigilette, which is the rhythm section from his group Vigil, and includes Carlitos del Puerto on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. 

Next year, around March or April, he starts touring with his trio Trilogy, which includes drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christian McBride.

“The tracks are from a gig we did at the Hawaii Blue Note last year,” said Corea during a phone from a hotel in Marseilles, France, where he was performing with his trio.

Next summer he is exploring what he calls his “Spanish heart” — his love for Spanish, Latino and flamenco music. “I put together a band, a great band, with a dancer. We’re going to make a recording of that, as well.” 

On his website, Corea posts video workshops aimed at younger musicians. But he doesn’t believe that creativity can be taught. 

“Music can’t be taught — that’s my opinion,” Corea said. “You can teach techniques and you can show a lot of different things, and you can share with one another how you do things. 

“You can always study theory, which I don’t discount at all, it can help. But to really get to do the thing you’re trying to do, you have to find a route to do it which is usually apprenticeship of some kind. That’s how a young musician finds his feet, by working with other musicians. You get a gig and you get another gig — you do it and you develop it.” 

Of special note to fans will be Corea’s Monday  evening performance with the Detroit Jazz Festival Symphony Orchestra.

“I put a program together with the first two movements of Joaquin Rodrigo’s guitar concerto, called ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’,” Corea said. “The second movement of that concerto is the one I learned from Gil Evans and Miles Davis on ‘Sketches of Spain,’ that beautiful recording they did. It was the inspiration for me writing the song ‘Spain.’ I learned the Guitar Concerto on the piano — it works really well, and it’s a lot of fun to play. So we’re going to do those first two movements and we’re going to end the set with an orchestral arrangement I wrote, “Spain” for a trio and three horns, for the sextet. John (bassist Patitucci) and Dave (drummer Weckl) will play in the rhythm section and Eric Marienthal (saxophone) will be one of the horns. 

“Two of the original horn players from the recording we did will come,” Corea added, “Steve Wilson will play sax and Steve Davis will play the trombone part. Also we’ll have the original conductor who conducted the London Philharmonic when we recorded it, Stephen Mercurio, so he’s very familiar with it.” 

Esperanza Spalding, left, and Terri Lyne Carrington performed at a media luncheon for the Detroit Jazz Festival in April at the Detroit Athletic Club.

Resident Ensemble: Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding

Drummer Carrington and singer/ex-bassist Spalding — she’s given up the instrument, but says she may play it in Detroit — will pay tribute to their collaborator and mentor, Detroit born and bred pianist Geri Allen. As the Resident Ensemble, they will perform three times over the course of the weekend. Allen died in 2017, at age 60, from complications of cancer. 

Was there a sense of having to fill Geri’s place in their sound musically, when they organized their sets? 

“We don’t try to fill it actually,” Carrington said. She still speaks of Allen in the present tense: “She is so specific and particular, stylistically, as a player. She has her own sound, so it’s very difficult, you can’t replace her. You move to another sound.” 

Spalding said she appreciates the jazz festival’s multifaceted homage this year to Allen, whom she and Carrington feel did not get the recognition she deserved. 

“I really feel like, this year the Detroit Jazz Festival is dedicated to Geri, because every night we’re doing these finale performances, unpackaging and presenting her work,” Spalding said. “This woman was and is such a profoundly impeccable, expansive artist. 

“Teri and I keep kicking ourselves for not asking Geri more. She’s going to be recognized as one of those titans, like a Monk or an Ellington or a Debussy. I really want to congratulate and celebrate the Detroit Jazz Festival, for making that call.” 

Carrington and Spalding will perform three tributes to Allen: on Friday, it’s titled “Open on All Sides,” and they will be accompanied by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, flautist Nicole Mitchell and pianist Kris Davis. “That will focus on Geri’s more open music,” Carrington said. “It’s a way to acknowledge her influences.” 

Their Sunday set, “Dream Time,” will be performed with the Detroit Jazz Festival orchestra and will include music from one of their CDs, “Twilight.” The third night’s program, on Monday, “Flying Toward the Sound,” “is focused on the desire to be involved with technology,” Carrington said. “Geri was a supporter of Internet 2 technology,” referring to the Ann Arbor-based computer network consortium. They were still working out the details, but the ensemble will include a musician from afar playing with them via Internet 2 — with its massive bandwidth, the network allows musical collaboration with no time lag. 

Reunited: Randy Brecker 

Like Corea, trumpeter Randy Brecker’s first love was bebop, but he was also an early jazz-rock enthusiast, forming the band Dreams with his brother, the acclaimed saxophonist Michael Brecker, in 1969. In 1975 the two launched the Brecker Brothers Band, incorporating elements of R&B and rock into a modern blend. 

Michael Brecker died in 2007, but older brother Randy reunited the band in recent years and brings the latest incarnation to the jazz festival on Monday. Brecker also will perform with several other star trumpeters as the “Hubtones,” in Sunday’s 80th birthday tribute to the late Freddie Hubbard.

The Philadelphia native’s musical narrative is a familiar one to Detroiters. Although he grew up playing jazz, he also did time in R&B bands in the ’60s. He’s also been the go-to trumpeter on rock tracks for artists such as Bruce Springsteen. 

“I’m a pretty staunch bebopper from the ’60s, that’s the way I play,” Brecker said. “But I also learned from Philly. All the people behind Cameo Parkway and Gamble and Huff were jazz musicians I idolized, and I used to hear them play all the time. Billy Paul, who had “Me and Mrs. Jones” — he was a straight bebop scat singer before he had that hit. (Gamble and Huff) were very successful at finding and marketing local jazz talent for a wider audience. So I kind of felt that vibe when I was real young.” 

The Brecker Brothers Band Reunion comes into the  festival having played a  cruise and several well-received dates since February, “so we have some wear and tear on us,” Brecker said. 

“My wife, Ada Rovatti, is in the hot seat, playing tenor and soprano — she has been in the band since we reformed it; also George Whitty on keyboards and Barry Finnerty on guitar. George played on all the ’90s records and co-produced them with us. Barry was with (the Brecker Brothers Band) back on “Heavy Metal Bebop” and “Straphangin’”; Will Lee on bass and vocals; my old buddy Rodney Holmes on drums, he was with us in the ’90s and is still playing with me all these years later.” 

39th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival 

Labor Day Weekend, Friday-Monday 

Free, on stages from the Detroit River to Campus Martius. 

For a complete lineup go to 

Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to the Detroit News. Contact her at