DETROIT -- You can't go wrong with Motown in Motown, which allowed the 2008 Detroit International Jazz Festival to get off to a crowd-pleasing, if safe, start on Friday night (Aug. 29).
The Philly/Detroit Tribute to Marvin Gaye, one of the four-day festival's signature concerts, certainly was an inspired idea, and the inspiration of Gaye's music certainly allowed artist-in-residence Christian McBride to lure a formidable crew, including a sharp 22-piece "orchestra" supporting guest singers Lalah Hathaway, Rahsaan Patterson and Jose James on the Chase Main Stage. It also benefited from some warm remembrances by long-winded but sincere emcee Lem Barney, the former Detroit Lion who was a friend of Gaye's and appeared on his landmark "What's Going On" album.
But the 75-minute performance -- which followed a superlative, soulful set by singer Dianne Reeves -- was ultimately something less than the sum of its parts, a stylish but too reverent recitation of some of Gaye's biggest hits that never really rose above the jukebox level. The singers certainly put some of their own touches on the material, particularly James' playful vocalics on "How Sweet it is (To Be Loved by You)" and Patterson's equally loose touch on "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" -- after nailing the falsetto demands of "Trouble Man."
Hathaway, meanwhile, lived up to her star billing on a brassy take of "I Want You" and a passionate rendering of "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," though "Got to Give it Up" lacked the kind of swing it needed to be the hip-shaker.
But in true Motown fashion the instrumentalists were largely eclipsed by the singers except for occasional brief solos, and the tribute wanted for that kind of musical firepower to bring a fresh kind of perspective to Gaye's music. Gaye, who also played drums in the early days of his Motown career, was among the label's most interesting composers, and it would have been nice to hear McBride and company expand some of those ideas into the arrangements, twist up a few of the tunes and maybe even delve into some of the more obscure areas of Gaye's catalog to give the homage the feel of a real festival gig.
The standing ovation the performance received after a finale of "What's Going On" was certainly deserved, but it was ultimately more for Gaye and his music than for the way it was treated on Friday.
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