Casting For Gravity

The 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival was packed with great lineups on every stage this year. I did not go every day, being somewhat busy, but I was able to go see some of two days. The first day, the notable performance that I saw was the David Binney Quartet playing at the Pyramid stage.

For those of you who are not familiar with Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit, it is a city park that is adjacent to the Detroit River, just south of the highly visible GM Renaissance Center building complex. The plaza has a large amphitheater stage, and a smaller stage, the Pyramid stage, so-called because of a block pyramid structure that extends the seating above ground level by about 5 feet. There was also a small mobile stage set up in a small clump of trees called the Waterfront Stage, and another, large mobile stage set up next to Campus Martius Park a couple of blocks up Woodward Avenue from Hart Plaza, called the Main Stage. David Binney presented a great show on the Pyramid stage, and had Chris Potter sit in on a tune as well. The group communication was superb, they played with technical brilliance, and they presented some great jazz tunes with engaging, interesting dramatic forms.

Now, I am a bit picky when it comes to sound engineers. And, for some reason, the Detroit Jazz Fest, every time I’ve been down there, seems to feature sound engineers who are in charge of each stage who specifically abuse one of my primary pet peeves: having sound levels be too loud. This year was unfortunately no exception. The stage next to Campus Martius Park was absolutely the worst in this regard – way too loud, and unbalanced to boot. It was extremely hard to tell what music was going on. After seeing part of a show there, I quickly decided to go elsewhere. The small Waterfront Stage was just as bad, and absolutely unneeded, because a clump of trees presents the simplest possible acoustic environment for a sound engineer to work with. The Amphitheater Stage was less bad, and I give that one room for error, because it presents an extremely complex acoustic environment because of it’s multitude of shapes. The Pyramid Stage probably is the second-simplest acoustic environment, and by far was the best sounding stage at the entire festival. It wasn’t too loud, things were relatively balanced, the performers could hear each other. All together, it looked like a competent sound engineer worked there.

So, come the next day, I went there first. Both, because I knew that it would sound good, and because I wanted to first see the Scott Gwinnell Dectet perform there. They sounded great (of course) and the next group was one that I had never heard of: the Donny McCaslin Group. Which brings me to the focus of this little essay.

Casting For Gravity is track 8 and the album title of the Donny McCaslin Group’s most recent musical album release. It is overall a highly excellent listening experience, filled with intensity and depth, so that multiple listenings return continually heightened interest. Donny plays great, and for some reason has a keen interest on this album with seventh and ninth intervals. Jason Lindner is not a keyboardist so much as is a virtual orchestra of interesting and distorted sound samples. Tim Lefebvre is a groove master who contributes his own take on adding distortions and other pedal effects. And Mark Guiliana is a freak of nature on drumset, somehow mixing extreme aggressiveness with extreme nuance, while effortlessly negotiating some quite rhythmically complex lines that the group navigates. Producing the album is no one else than David Binney, the alto saxophonist who had delivered such a great show the day before. Obviously, this little musical mecca is dealing with some really good ideas over in New York, where they are from.

My favorite song (at least right now; every one has great things to listen for) is the third: Losing Track Of Daytime. It’s melodic, it’s rhythmically intense, it has an interesting dramatic form as the song progresses, and there are a couple of crazily intense climaxes that the group hits with unabandoned gusto. It’s also a wealth of transcribing for some enterprising musician wanting to extend their own jazz language.

When I saw them at the jazz festival, I knew nothing of this. But, I decided to check out a couple of their tunes. At first, their style threw me off a bit, because they defied expectations: playing a form of jazz fusion that was completely unlike the sound of Scott Gwinnell’s Dectet before them. After a couple of minutes of listening, I determined that I did indeed like what they were doing, and left to check out the Amphitheater stage, which was nearby, on which Kenny Garrett was doing a performance. Honestly, I think that my brain was working things out behind the scenes pretty quickly, because I listened to Kenny for about 5 minutes and then decided to go back to the Pyramid Stage and see the rest of Donny’s set. What I described above about the album, was even better in live performance. It was, to my ears, the best set of the entire festival, and I think that the other audience members would agree with me. They had us on the edge of out seats, clapping hands, and cheering after particularly potent climaxes. All in all, a show that I think will stick with me for a long, long time.

Later in the day, I meandered over next to the sound booth of the Pyramid Stage, and was uncomfortably surprised that right there, the sound levels were loud as hell. Where the rest of the audience area sounded good, right next to the sound booth sounded awful. Maybe the good sound at that stage was a mistake?

Maybe, maybe not. But I’m glad how it turned out anyway.

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