Edgefest 2023

This year’s Edgefest was a celebration of the avant garde in jazz with artists and audiences coming from all corners of the U.S. — but particularly from New York, Chicago and Detroit. The festival marked its 27th year in grand style with the help of a large stable of supporters, and holding it all together was Deanna Relyea, who worked at all aspects of the festival from grant writing to programming, performing, and presentation assisted by Kerrytown Concert House staff and many volunteers. After almost 30 years of practice, the festival has become firmly established in the jazz life of Southeastern Michigan. SEMJA is proud to be one its sponsors.

The festival kicked off with a tribute to Barbara Kramer, who passed away on January 8. Kramer was a jazz activist who played a role in SEMJA and the Kerrytown Concert House for several years. Music for the occasion was provided by her son drummer Jesse Kramer and tenorist Tim Haldeman. It was an impromptu and intense set well suited for the occasion. Next set was another dedication, this one by bassist James Ilgenfritz and his six-piece ensemble. Ilgenfritz, a Monroe native, dedicated his set to Barry Harris and the Detroit jazz tradition that inspired him in his formative years in metro-Detroit. Fellow bassist Marion Hayden was an important part of the sextet which also included keyboardist Steve Rush and two percussionists.

Cellist Tomeka Reid (right) was a central figure in several groups that performed, starting with the Rempis/Reid/Abrams trio from Chicago on Thursday night. This trio gave an electrifying performance with Rempis’s soaring alto cascading over Reid’s cello and solid bass tones from Josh Abrams. A baptism of fire was at hand when Reid joined sax monster Joe McPhee and pianist Alexander Hawkins, who made his sensational Edgefest debut last year after his apprenticeship in Oxford, England. The trio was one of the absolute highlights at this year’s festival. McPhee has established himself as the soul of Edgefest after some notable live recordings in 2002 and 2012.

A more tempered version of the avant garde was offered by Teiku, an Ann Arbor/Detroit group with drummer Jon Taylor, reed men Rafael Leafar Statin and Peter Formanek, and Detroit veteran avant gardist, bassist Jaribu Shahid. In contrast, the Chicago Reedmen Ken Vandermark and Ed Wilkerson made up the hard-blowing frontline of Luke Stewart’s Exposure Quintet, backed by the killer drumming of Avreeayl Ra. Vandermark was paired with baritonist Kaleigh Wilder in a quartet that included the percussionist Ben Hall and his two floor drums (above). A different dimension was provided by the Hemphill Stringtet with Tomeka Reid, plus two violins and viola. I was particularly fond of their interpretations of the work of the World Saxophone Quartet (with Julius Hemphill) who gave memorable concerts in Detroit and Ann Arbor some years ago.

The grand finale of this year’s Edgefest was held on Saturday at Bethlehem United Church of Christ down the street from Kerrytown. The sizeable stage could accommodate a ten-piece ensemble that performed a new work by Michael Malis called “In Search of Softer Selves.” Malis’ piece was interesting and featured a long line of soloists: his frequent companion Marcus Elliot on reeds, Vincent Chandler and Zekkereya El-magharbel on trombone, and Allen Dennard on trumpet. The two bass players, Marion Hayden and Ben Willis, worked wonderfully together and created a soft cushion for the orchestra to lean on. Drummer Jon Taylor rounded out this inspiring event.