Sometimes it starts out hot; sometimes it starts out cool. And sometimes both modes of expression come into play on opening night. After all, this is a jazz festival.
The 31st annual Detroit International Jazz Festival began Friday evening downtown at Cadillac Square with a wide-ranging double bill that found pianist Mulgrew Miller's sleek and sophisticated mainstream trio teaming up with the a cappella male vocal ensemble Take 6, followed by Tower of Power, an Oakland soul band that's been belting out some of the hippest party grooves in the known universe since 1968. Some of the music simmered Friday night, some of it fizzled and the best of it left a trail of scorched earth in its wake.
Miller, the festival's artist-in-residence, leapt quickly into a briskly swinging version of "If I Should Lose You." Paced by bassist Ivan Taylor's sturdy foundation and drummer Rodney Green's charging cymbal beat, Miller's right hand darted smoothly and confidently through the tune's attractive harmony without really getting under the skin of the song. But the trio shifted into a higher gear of inspiration on a walking, bluesy composition by Miller called "When I Get There" and then reached a peak on Charlie Parker's swift blues "Relaxin' at Camarillo." Miller improvised fluid melodies that kept turning summersaults across the bar lines and sneaking in and out of odd harmonic corners.
Take 6, a sextet of silken male voices, has an impressive track record in a neo-gospel and contemporary doo-wop idiom, but straight-ahead jazz is not its forte. The Miles Davis compositions the group tackled with the support of Miller's trio -- "Seven Steps to Heaven" (co-written by Victor Feldman), "Freddie Freeloader," "Flamenco Sketches" and "All Blues" -- were undermined by lumpy, rhythmically awkward phrasing, especially during the uniformly regrettable scat solos by the singers. The instrument impersonations were sometimes welcome (Alvin Chea's dynamic bass lines) and sometimes not (Joey Kibble's nasally muted trumpet effects). Still, when Miller's trio exited the stage, and Take 6 returned to its home turf, including a souped-up version of the spiritual "Mary Don't You Weep," its nifty harmonies and preaching expression reached a fever pitch.
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