Expansion takes Jazz Fest into a joyful groove - 09/03/05



Saturday, September 3, 2005

Steve Perez / The Detroit News

With its concert of Motown hits from the '60s, the Funk Brothers had the crowd dancing in the street at the Campus Martius stage on Woodward Avenue.

Expansion takes Jazz Fest into a joyful groove

Campus Martius proves ideal setting as traditional jazz meets Motown

On a perfect late summer evening, the newly expanded Detroit International Jazz Fest made its first tentative excursion up Woodward Avenue, kicking off this year's four day extravaganza with a pair of concerts at Campus Martius Park. A crowd that spilled from the park in every direction left no doubt that festival director Frank Malfitano had made the right move.

As the stage rocked with old Motown hits revisited by the Funk Brothers and plumes of water shot up from an illuminated fountain, the happy throng was literally dancing in the street. Jazz - put on brilliant display earlier by a group fronted by saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave - had converged with hitsville in heady, exhilarating union.

"If this was my last night in the music business, I'd be going out completely satisfied," declared Malfitano as jazz gave way to that energetic Motown show on Campus Martius' intimate stage. "This is what I've been talking about. This was an experiment, and it's a total success on the very first night."

In every way, the jazz festival's twofold expansion - spreading beyond its traditional setting on Hart Plaza and embracing Detroit "roots" music ranging from Motown and gospel to blues and funk - had made a ringing debut. Festivalgoers filled the closed-off, northbound lanes of Woodward from Jefferson Avenue to Campus Martius, browsing through souvenir shops or buying a supper that could be enjoyed at one of the large white tables scattered along the grassy median.

And the Campus Martius stage proved to be a splendid showcase for a series of classy acts. Besides a first-rate sound system, the stage also benefits from the sound-focusing effect of the high, concave glass entrance to the CompuWare building directly behind it. What's more, hundreds of fans who could find neither seats nor standing room in front of the stage were able to see the artists on a giant screen and still savor the fine sound.

Fittingly, the band that actually christened the festival's Campus Martius venture was from the ravaged cradle of jazz, the Regal Brass Band of New Orleans. Actually, just three of its usual six members made it to Detroit; the others had been variously affected by Hurricane Katrina. But stand-in musicians brought the band to full strength for a lively set that drew warm response.

What followed was a jazz exhibition that set the crowd whooping: "Fathead" Newman, Belgrave and stellar supporting group in a tribute to Ray Charles. Familiar hits like "Unchain My Heart" and "Georgia on My Mind" saw Newman's broad, swooping, wistful statements of the tune answered by biting, glittering rhapsodies fashioned by Belgrave from harmonic outlines. And when the band swung into "Hit the Road, Jack," an appreciative audience instantly took up the ultra-familiar chorus.

Jazz fan Sridhar Lakshmanan of Belleville, a veteran of the last 12 Detroit festivals, came to this first venture at Campus Martius with his wife and 4-year-old daughter because he wanted to hear Newman and Belgrave together. "I've been to jazz clubs festivals all over the world," he said, "and I'm still amazed by this one. Even after coming here for 12 years, I still can't believe it's free."

Belgrave, a festival regular, lavished praise on the Campus Martius stage, the sound and the setting altogether. "This is beautiful," he said. "I almost prefer this to the main stage at Hart Plaza. The sound is great and you feel the closeness of the audience."

The audience couldn't get much closer, but it did seem to grow larger when the Funk Brothers came on. These were the guys, first-class jazz musicians, who played recording sessions for all those Motown hits 40 years ago. Only three of them remain with the group: guitarist Eddie Willis, drummer Uriel Jones and bassist Bob Babbitt. But with some horns - and a stylish vocal contingent - added, the old gang lit a fire under a crowd ready to cook.

Songs like "Heat Wave," "Dancing in the Street" and "My Girl" had the whole throng throbbing in one happy groove. That's the kind of night it was. And the festival doesn't even officially begin until Saturday. If that Friday vibe flows back to Hart Plaza, this year's event could set a record for pure joy.

You can reach Lawrence B. Johnson at (313) 222-2394 or ljohnson@detnews.com.

Steve Perez / The Detroit News

The high, concave glass entrance to the CompuWare building, behind the stage at Campus Martius, helps to focus sound that's also well served by the sound system.
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