The Detroit International Jazz Festival may be in the home of Motown and the Funk Brothers, but another funky troupe has offered its own spin on a Motor City classic.
Inspired by the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina in their home town, New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band — which plays 6:45 p.m. Monday on the Ford Spirit of Detroit Stage — has just released a version of Marvin Gaye’s politically charged 1971 classic “What’s Going On,” fi nding in its nine songs some of the same questions raised by all that happened in Katrina’s wake.
“When Katrina hit the city, the government was so slow to respond, and people started trying to figure out what was going on, just like Marvin Gaye,” explains saxophonist Roger Lewis, who remains in New Orleans along with trumpet player Gregory Davis, while the six band members have relocated to other cities. DDBB will be one of nine Louisiana acts playing the 27th edition of the festival.
“Everyone’s got their own horror story to tell,” says Lewis, 64, who fled with his family to Vicksburg, Miss., during the storm and fl ood. “But everybody felt the same way — ‘What’s going on? What is happening, brother?’ It’s all there on the album, even if Marvin Gaye sang it 35 years ago.”
Recreating “What’s Going On,” universally considered one of the best albums of all time, was “quite an undertaking,” Lewis says with a laugh. Raised in the New Orleans tradition of improvisation and invention, the DDBB had no desire to make what he calls “a carbon copy of what (Gaye) did. Why would you want to record somebody’s music the same way he did it? We play it with the twist of what we do. We want to take the music and maybe take it to another level.”
The sophistication of Gaye’s arrangements and sonics made that challenging, and Lewis says the key was figuring out how to cover the tricky bass lines that populate the album — which were ultimately covered by sousaphonist Kirk Joseph. Once that was locked in, Lewis says, “all the other horns had to do was come in and add some colors.”
The did more than that, of course, with brassy instrumental versions of “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky),” “Save the Children,” “Right On” and “Wholy Holy.” The DDBB also used guest vocalists, including rappers Chuck D (“What’s Going On”) and Guru (“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”), former Detroiter Bettye LaVette (“What’s Happening Brother”), G. Love (“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”) and fellow New Orleans artist Ivan Neville (“God is Love”).
But if recording “What’s Going On” was tough, Lewis says performing it live will be no stoned soul picnic, either.
“We’ve got to fi gure that out,” he says. “We don’t have a singer in this band, or a rapper. We’re all instrumentalists. And a lot of those arrangements have overdubbed parts; you might hear two trombones or three trombones on a track.
“So we’ve got to fi gure out how we’re gonna make it work for us, but we will. We just like to appeal to all; our audience runs from 2 to 82, and beyond. We’ve got something for everybody — mind, body and soul.”
SIX TO SEE
With nearly 100 acts playing on six stages Friday (September 1st) through Monday (September 4th), the 27th Detroit International Jazz Festival has an overwhelming array of beats — as well as its own arts and eats — to fi ll the Labor Day weekend. As is fitting to the festival, a little improvising can lead you to some exceptional music. But here’s a half-dozen performances you should make it your business to check out:
*Sergio Mendes Brasil 2006 — Call it what you want, but it’ll always sound like ’66 to us, even at 9:30 p.m. Saturday on the Amphitheatre Stage.
*Ahmad Jamal — A rare performance by the piano great, who plays at 9:30 p.m. Sunday on the Amphitheatre Stage, is always worth catching.
*Will Lee — OK, we fibbed a bit. The “Late Show with David Letterman” bassist will be part of two acts, playing with Hiram Bullock at 5 p.m. Saturday on the Chase Campus Martius Stage and with the Jaco Pastorius Word of Mouth Big Band at 8 p.m. Sunday on the Absopure Waterfront Stage.
*The Detroit Jazz All Stars — Sure, they all gig around town, but this crew’s performance — Barry Harris, Curtis Fuller, Louis Hayes, Marcus Belgrave, Rodney Whitaker and Charles McPherson — together is a must-see event.
*Ed Palmero Tribute to Frank Zappa, featuring Napoleon Murphy Brock — Anyone attending a jazz festival needs to hear something that’s a little bit avant-garde, and Zappa, who will be feted at 7:30 p.m. Monday on the Absopure Waterfront Stage, knew how to take it out there with the best of ’em.
*The Marriott Renaissance Center will be the place to be after-hours Saturday and Sunday nights, with jam sessions in the third floor lobby starting at 11 p.m. Ernie Rodgers and Rapa House will host festival performers each night, and there’s no telling who will make that scene.
The Detroit International Jazz Festival runs today through Monday at Hart Plaza and along Woodward Avenue to Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit. All performances are free. A full schedule and other festival information can be found at
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