A generation of young Detroit jazz musicians is on the go
Published: January 9, 2013
"At the time I started working with Paul, I wasn't the most qualified drummer out there, but Paul took me in. After a show, he would pull me aside and let me know everything I was doing wrong, and sometimes he would yell at me," Kramer recalls.
Kramer didn't leave U-M with any delusions about his chops. He knew he wasn't ready to start his own band right away. That was years away, he figured.
The same held true for pianist Michael Malis, another U-M grad and currently a first-call player with ties to the great Geri Allen. Right now, Malis holds the piano chair in the Planet D Nonet, and he's a regular in Dennis Coffey's band along with the up-and-coming bassist Damon Warmack. Playing in the bands is an extension of his musical education, Malis says. To him, the Detroit jazz scene is a nurturing environment and an ideal place for young jazz musicians trying to make a name.
"The Detroit jazz community has been wonderful and very open in terms of the older generation, such as guys like RJ Spangler, John Douglas and Dennis Coffey giving me opportunities to play and to grow.
"Here in Detroit, it's less of a jazz scene and more of a jazz community. The musicians are the kind of people who will visit you in the hospital, or ask you how your wife is doing and genuinely mean it," Malis says.
Unlike Kramer and Malis, some of their peers felt they were ready to start bands and hit the recording studio immediately after graduating college. And they went about the business of creating recording and employment opportunities for themselves.
Tenor saxophonist Marcus Elliot has been hot since he graduated from Michigan State University in 2011. When bassist Robert Hurst left the Tonight Show Band, he returned to Detroit and formed a band. He hired Elliot right away on the recommendation of several key jazz figures in Detroit familiar with Elliot's skills. This year, Elliot dropped an outstanding debut album, Looking Forward, and he leads a trio every Tuesday at Cliff Bell's, blowing post-bop mixed with elements of free jazz much like tenor saxophonist Mark Turner.
Elliot says he wants to be like his idol saxophonist Wayne Shorter, recognized foremost for his composing. All the cuts on Looking Forward are Elliot originals.
Bassist Ben Rolston, who's a member of Elliot's trio, made a free-jazz-friendly album this year, Fables. Rolston is a young jazz bassist who's intimately hip to the lineage of great jazz bassists from Detroit and otherwise. Rolston's touch is like the late bassist Scott LaFaro's, and like Elliot, Rolston cut all originals. He believes in due time the focal point of his career will also be his composing.
Rafael Statin is the up-and-coming hellraiser who seems to have received the most praise. Statin's tenor acumen has been likened to James Carter's by many Detroit jazz faithful who caught Statin at weekly jam sessions around town and leading at Cliff Bell's. But some veteran jazz musicians such as Belgrave feels Statin is still in the formative leg of his development, so comparing him to Carter is a bit much. But the youngster is serious and he can blow. He's already worked in New York with drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts and Robert Hurst, and Statin is rumored to be taking private lessons from saxophonist Kenny Garrett.
Players in the new generation of Detroit jazz musicians take their careers seriously. When you go to clubs to hear them, they project a high level of self-assurance and professionalism unusual for their ages. Belgrave says they're old souls in young musician's bodies. That they understand the value of Detroit's rich jazz history, and they seem determined to contribute to that jazz history. Right now, they're on course, and keeping Detroit's jazz scene going. Watching Finkelstein and his peers develop is exciting. Clubs owners feel the youngsters are good enough to represent their club, and jazz veterans consider them to be of first-call caliber.
"These young guys amaze me," Belgrave says. "Detroit has always had that special thing and this new breed of young jazz musicians absorbs so much. Anytime I get an opportunity to use them I'm going to."
Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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