Edgefest 25 Celebration

Edgefest has reached the quarter century mark and celebrated with an all-star lineup largely from New York City. Each day of the three-day event opened with a solo piano performance, which was a great idea: the piano as a gateway to more complex performances.

Detroit’s own Mike Malis led off on Thursday October 28 with a minimalist approach, grounded in his “Imperfect Interval” which he calls a “jump-off for improvisation.” He eventually moved to heavier and darker chords with whole cascades of notes flowing over us. Sometimes Malis’ approach to solo piano reminds me of the legendary Lennie Tristano. Thankfully, Malis interjected several playful runs between the heavy chords. He was followed by the trio of tenorist Ingrid Laubrock, bassist Stephen Crump, and pianist Cory Smith. Crump contributed some wonderful, resonant, deep notes to support Laubrock’s excursions on the tenor. The highlight of the first day was Fay Victor’s SoundNoiseFunk (right). Victor’s commanding voice and presence was the focal point of the tight group as they opened with “What’s Gone Wrong with the World,” throwing me back to Bessie Smith and Abbey Lincoln. Just like Smith and Lincoln could not be separated from Louis Armstrong and Max Roach, so Victor was totally in touch with her instrumentalists. The interplay with Sam Newsome’s soprano sax and Joe Morris’ guitar bordered on the organic. Newsome wove around the Victor’s exhortations on “What’s Gone Wrong” and “Let the Breeze In” (Feel it on your own skin) while Morris’ chords were a solid wall paired with Reggie Nicholson’s expert drumming.

Friday opened with some wonderful piano by Angelica Sanchez, who has explored solo piano for some time at the New School in New York. She had a somewhat heavier touch than Malis, but the big chords did give way to some astonishing and facile lines with her right hand. She was followed by our own Ken Kozora and his Electrosphere with Rafael Leafar on reeds and synthesizers and the ever-eclectic Djallo Djakate on drums and electronics. The group opened with all electronics, but eventually Kozora picked up his horn and at some point accompanied himself on his tablet with a tabla-like sound. Leafar provided some tenor sax in the Albert Ayler mode, and Djakate was a percussion section all his own. Andrew Bishop’s Vast Landscapes followed with fellow woodwind craftsman Peter Formanek, his father Michael on bass who has delighted Edgefesters for years. The Formaneks were simply formidable! Angelica Sanchez returned on piano, and rounding out this impressive quintet was the marvelous Jon Taylor on drums with his magic touch. Tenorist Joe McPhee has been one of my favorites at Edgefest for many years and he did not disappoint with his Blue Reality Quartet. McPhee’s tenor was as soulful as ever and this time he had competition in the soul department from Michael Marcus who played soprano most of the time. Jay Rosen has been McPhee’s drummer for years and he was very effective swinging at any tempo. Warren Smith (right) worked the gongs just right. Overall, this was a relatively contemplative session — what else to expect from a group called Blue Reality? There were some unexpected and delightful vocal tidbits during the session. McPhee treated us to some chanting and Warren Smith sang a few verses of “Lush Life” after his solo on the vibes.

Saturday started with a joyous parade (top) around Ann Arbor’s Farmers’ Market, this time under the expert leadership of Jason Kao Hwang. He took the time to rehearse some of the Scarlett Middle School students in “A Love Supreme” which was sung and played by students as well as second liners. The afternoon program was held back at Kerrytown Concert House and featured Matthew Shipp’s solo piano, Alex Harding (above) and his Agape trio with Joel Peterson on bass and Dave Hurley on drums, and Andrea Wolper’s Cento Project. Harding excelled at his hard-hitting best on his baritone sax. We are so lucky to have him in Metro Detroit pleasing audiences whether he is playing inside or outside conventional norms. Andrea Wolper (right, center) is not only a singer, poet, composer and bandleader, she is also a performer with theatrical talent who can dramatize any text. “I Saw Jesus Today at Rush Hour in Union Square Station” was one such text that was given life by her reading, the brushwork of drummer Michael TA Thompson, the bass and voice of Ken Filiano, and the guitar of Dave Ross.

The finale was held at Bethlehem United Church of Christ, as has become customary. It also has become customary to involve students and faculty from the University of Michigan School of Music, this year from the Center for World Performance Studies, under the direction of percussionist Michael Gould. Two faculty members, trumpeter Mark Kirschenmann and pianist Steve Rush, also played important roles as performers and arrangers. The Three Rivers trio with saxophonist Lee Mixashawn Rosie, bassist William Parker, and Cuban born drummer Francisco Mela put on a very powerful performance. Rosie played tenor in a Coltrane fashion, while Mela was as dominant as Elvin Jones once was in Coltrane’s groups. Mela is a remarkable drummer who sounded like drum choir all by himself, with added vocalizations in Spanish.

The centerpiece of the evening turned out to be Steve Swell’s composition “If Trains Could Speak,” which was inspired by his visit to Auschwitz. Swell put the Holocaust in the context of recent disasters like Cambodia, Tulsa, Olahoma, and Charleston, South Carolina, asking (via the voice of Deanna Relyea) How Could This Happen and advices us to Wake Up! His composition was played by an ensemble (above) with the composer on trombone, Hwang, Piotr Michalowski on reeds, Rush, Filiano and Thompson. I am looking forward to someone recording this piece sometime in the near future.

Edgefest has survived so long since it has a small but dedicated base of supporters who are willing to come out to support it under the leadership of Deanna Relyea. You can enjoy the music from this year’s festival on the KCH website.