by Harry Onickel

Let’s talk about jazz.

Jazz is the lowest selling musical genre in the United States – which causes me to inquire – what’s wrong with you people? Why aren’t you buying more jazz? Why aren’t you going to see more live jazz? Do you know how many jazz greats have come from the Detroit area? And how many are living and playing regularly around town?

Sure, Labor Day weekend, everyone is a jazz fan. It’s promoted. It’s celebrated. It’s free. But what about the rest of the year?

Recently, Edgefest, an annual celebration of mostly not quite mainstream jazz ran at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor. As tiny as the mainstream jazz audience is, the Edgefest audience is a tiny niche within that niche. If jazz is the children’s table of music, Edgefest performers aren’t even invited to the party, so that guests can talk, in a disproving manner, about how weird they are.

Kerrytown Concert House, Ann Arbor, by Sassy

But for those four weekday nights and one huge Saturday, fans came from around the country to revel in music “on the edge.” This year’s theme was, “Drums Along the Edge.” On the edge of what exactly? That depends on the performers. You will never hear most of these musicians on the radio. Outside of a few, they will never be invited to Detroit’s Labor Day Jazz Fest, or Arts, Beats, and Eats, or any big-time venue where there are impressionable children and adults. 

As I am condemned like so many others to working for a living, I have only been able to attend the Saturday concerts. Last year I had to miss pianist, Craig Taborn because he played on Friday.

There were five concerts this year on Saturday, two at Kerrytown in the afternoon followed by a dinner break, followed by a concert at Bethlehem United Church of Christ, followed by two nighttime performances back at Kerrytown.

The Kerrytown concerts always feature small groups, as it’s a small space. The church concert is always a large commissioned composition played by a much larger ensemble supplemented by U of M music students.

*The church concert was a good one this year. This was the first time it’s been at Bethlehem United, but I think it’s an improvement over the previous church. The composer (and drummer), Andrew Drury, made good use of the space, making it part of his composition. The piece was dedicated to Dizzy Gillespie, this being what would have been Dizzy’s 100th birthday. In honor of Diz, there was a lengthy quote from his composition, Manteca.

The final two bands gave the finest Edgefest performances I’ve ever attended. I’m never sure if I’m going to enjoy any of the bands. Only occasionally have I heard of the musicians, and even then I’ve rarely seen them perform. Notable exceptions include Reggie Workman, Oliver Lake, and Andrew Cyrille, who performed together last year. Local notables like Marion Hayden have also treated us to Saturday performances. Earlier in the afternoon, drummer Gayelynn McKinny played as one half of an outstanding duet with Ken Kozora.

Edgefest musicians may or may not play in established song forms. You may or may not hear musical essentials like a beat, melody, harmonies, chords, or even notes. Sometimes an underlying rhythm is used as a support for seemingly random individual or group improvisation. Sometimes there is only improvisation. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. On the way to Ann Arbor, Dennis, Scott, and I were discussing this aspect of “free jazz” and the difference between random cacophony and improvisations that move, breathe, and live as we assessed previous Edgefests.

Getting back to Saturday night, the first tune from Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures with Hamid Drake began, surprisingly (for me), with a funk beat right out of (as Scott pointed out) electric Miles Davis. Hamid Drake on drums and percussionist Alexis Marcelo steered the band through a pounding, exciting set that lifted me out of the work-a-day sluggishness that had been dogging me all week. The music was at the edge of mainstream, the soloists eschewing chord changes, instead showering the audience in raw power. Baby, it just wouldn’t quit. It was the best Edgefest performance I’d ever heard – until the next and final band of the night.

fujiwara triple double by nicki chavoya

Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple Double featured Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver on drums, Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook on guitars, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, and Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet. It sounds like an odd combination, but man, it worked. My one continuous thought during their performance was, this is f***ing great!

The compositions they played were in meters that aren’t frequently used, sometimes forcing the listener to question their musical balance. I can’t speak for everyone, but they took my brain on a musical joy ride.

Dave Brubeck is celebrated for his 1959 composition, Take Five, which instead of the expected four beats per measure has five. It still remains wildly popular. Assuming I was correctly attuned to the time, one of Fujiwara’s pieces had a count of 15 arranged as 5 groups of three.

On top of these rhythms, players soloed and played duets. The horn players, Alessi and Bynum seared the air together. The electric guitar duet beautifully fit together contrasting styles in playing and demeanor. Seabrook stood, his body in constant motion, Halvorson sat, only her fingers moving. Seabrook’s playing seemed more frenetic, while Halvorson’s felt more calculated. Playing their disparate styles together, not just trading licks, but as a duet, created something almost Ellingtonian. And how can a concert be complete without guitar – drum duets, again – not trading licks, but duets – living, moving duets?

Part of the thrill for me was going in not knowing what to expect but getting way more than I expected. Would you have liked it as much? I don’t know. Years ago when I first heard Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell playing together, I was horrified. Then I shut up and listened. After a while it all made sense – to me.

Until next time, take a night out and pay the cover to listen to some of our local jazz greats.


*I apologize for any mistakes or misstatements I may have made in this piece. I didn’t take notes. I didn’t take pictures. I just sat, enjoying the music. I hadn’t planned on writing this, but you need to know what you missed and how f***ing great it was.