Lunch With The Freedom Band
Words By Zach Zeidner
Edited By Ben Wilkerson
Photos By Greg Molitor
Simultaneously studying and procrastinating on Facebook, a glance at my live news feed revealed Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea had started a new musical project: The Freedom Band, featuring bassist Christian McBride, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, legendary drummer Roy Haynes, as well as Chick Corea.
I got terrified for a minute because this lineup seems ungodly. Before I dive into specifics about the show and the events that follow, allow me to give a primer for each of these fine musicians.
Chick Corea is a 16-time Grammy winning jazz keyboardist that was discovered by Miles Davis, and ended up playing on many of his albums as well as extensively touring together. Chick has limited himself exclusively to jazz throughout his career, touching bases with many genres including straight jazz standards, hard-bop, avant-garde, bebop, fusion, children’s songs, and symphonic works.
Christian McBride is a Philadelphia native and master of the acoustic and electric bass. As a star of the contemporary jazz scene, Christian has also played with various legends and virtuosos ranging from Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Hank Jones, John McLaughlin, Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Ray Brown, Pat Metheny, and hip-hop, soul, and classical musicians including The Roots, Kathleen Battle, Sting, Bruce Hornsby, Carly Simon, and James Brown. He is a skilled player with remarkable showmanship.
Kenny Garrett, a native of Detroit, is considered to be one of the best contemporary alto saxophonists on the scene right now. He is an alumnus of Miles Davis’ later projects and was predominately featured in his band until Miles’ death in 1991. Kenny started his career in the Duke Ellington Orchestra and later went on to play with Dannie Richmond, the longtime drummer of Charlie Mingus, in his quartet. He also explores the popular music setting, playing with musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Sting, and “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen.
Roy Haynes is a jazz drumming all-star. As a Detroit Symphony Orchestra program explained:
“For over 50 years, Roy Haynes has influenced and innovated, shaping some of the greatest recordings in jazz while altering the very fabric and direction of jazz improvisation with his mercurial, intelligent, joyous drumming.”
At 85 years of age, Roy Haynes has played with a repertoire of musicians most could only dream of including the likes of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Gets, Pat Metheny, Dave Holland, Roy Hargrove; pretty much everyone in the jazz scene. Roy Haynes is jazz drumming.
We scored tickets in the second row for The Freedom Band’s Detroit show, and I was enthralled to be present for a sure-to-be destructive show. The crowd gave a standing ovation for the mixture of both legendary and contemporary masters as they walked on.
They all positioned themselves behind their instruments and Chick remarked, “Please bear with us while we tune and do whatever it is we do.” Then, Chick began playing these outer-worldly scales and progressions to warm up on the grand piano. McBride tuned his bass slightly, Kenny followed suit, and Haynes tapped around the drums for a bit before they went right into their first tune, which I swear was “Hackensack” by Thelonious Monk. None of the selections were announced on stage, so I only have my intuition. As the chorus rang, you could tell they were gearing up for the first solos. Kenny Garrett took the lead and demonstrated his ability to mimic the tone of Charlie Rouse, the choice saxophone player of Thelonious Monk during his years at Atlantic Records. Kenny explored the space provided for him by the rhythm section, with Haynes chiming in with intense snare pops that kept me up and riveted. Haynes and Chick played some phenomenal call and response rhythm parts before McBride took a solo. His deep exploration of every note on the double bass demonstrated right away that he was going to be on his A game, per usual. Finally, the drum solo came but Haynes seemed to do a very simple drum solo, not too impressive for the first song. Is he too old to keep up with these young cats and Chick Corea?
As we all clapped, I couldn’t help but wonder how much tempo Roy would have in him for the duration. The next number was a hard-bop tune that I couldn’t quite place my finger on. McBride’s speed and accuracy on the upright bass are absolutely astonishing; it seems so automatic for the guy as he was filling the spot well. Chick played and seemed to reminisce with a McCoy Tyner tone, a rather standard jazz tone. It was sure to be a non-experimental night for Chick, especially being limited to just a grand piano. As the tune raged, Kenny produced a timbre similar to Charlie Parker like he was on the hard-bop rage, race-to-the-finish-line kind of stuff. The spectrums he explored on the saxophone during this tune were boundless. He was hitting lower register notes next to higher register notes, all over the meter as far as chord progressions go. Absolutely mind-blowing. As they all played the melody of the tune Roy Haynes would tastefully add these hard snare bops that would act to keep you attentive to what he was doing all while laying down that standard, driving, jazz drum line. As McBride soloed, he seemed to demonstrate not only his accuracy but his speed as well. His bass lines were absolutely insane, again proving the fluidity of his abilities. It was then Chick’s turn, and he laid down some standard lines, but his virtuosic playing style allows him to enrich any composition he graces. To the untrained ear, it may have seemed like he wasn’t doing anything too special, but to those familiar with the standards and how they are normally played, it’s apparent his renditions are beyond what most pianists can do. Roy Haynes was next, and it was time to see if he was going to bring it or let us down. As soon as the solo started, you could tell he stepped up his game. This drum solo was a redemption for the last one and Roy Haynes knew it. He developed a polyrhythm that blew my mind, and he was continually adding those snare pops that he seems to love so much and that keep me on the edge of my seat. Roy slowed the beat down and brought it up again to return to the melody, and they all raged the ending together.
The next one was a slower number. I believe it was “Someday My Prince Will Come” by Frank Churchill, but it was popularized as a jazz standard by Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Oscar Peterson. The relaxed tempo allowed for every musician to delicately explore. Chick ran the range of his piano responding to the slow and subtle bass lines of McBride and as Kenny Garrett began to come in, he employed a Coleman Hawkins-like tone; very paced and melodic with a lot of soul. The expressive bars Kenny churned out of his instrument flowed through the air of the rhythm section perfectly. This is when the band was truly demonstrating their abilities. Many may not appreciate the slower jazz tunes, but the ingenious compositions produced in this cool jazz style were innovative for their time and remain some of the hardest songs to play today. I watched Roy in the zone riding the high hat, a classic jazz drumming style, and tune demonstrated the years he has behind the music. His fills were innovative, yet standard, and his capability to take the tune were it needed to go for the other musicians showcased his gentle agility in steering the jam, even when it’s not at a fast pace. As Kenny finished his solo the rhythm section brought it back around and it finished beautifully.
As everyone cheered, the band seemed to give each other looks expressing their contentment with each other’s playing and Roy Haynes starts them up with, “A one, a two, a three!” and begins drumming. No one else was prepared to start, so he just stops and cracks up and then they talk a bit and decide what tune to play.
Chick started off with these irregular progressive chords and I could tell right away it was a Monk tune, and it’s for his songs that Chick Corea shines the most. He can get the spacial requirements down for the lead parts of a Monk piece, while at the same time exploring his own ideas within those sections. These songs don’t often require many notes during the composed portions, however, while the others were soloing, Chick elaborated the piano pieces to a unprecedented degree. It was like he was remaining a level above while playing the rhythm, but at the same time was adding his own unique sound and musical personality. Again, Kenny Garrett notably resembled the tone of Charlie Rouse. Kenny’s ability to mimic any of the standard jazz saxophone players and add his own expressive lines is utterly remarkable and demonstrates why he was chosen for this project.
The final tune came and I couldn’t put my finger on it; but judging by the tone and familiar outer-worldly lines that Kenny Garrett was spitting out on the alto sax, I knew it had to be Coltrane. This was the stick-out song of the evening and you could tell they were putting all their energy into it. Kenny is very conscientious player, so when there was no need for a saxophone he would step to the side and listen to feel where the other musicians were going and where they wanted to take the jam, focusing and adding small tonal blows off the saxophone to raise textural undertones and mildly influence the improvisations. When Kenny eventually came back in fully after Chick, McBride and Haynes each traded solos and Kenny was relentlessly spitting out Coltrane lines. Chick and McBride were eating up everything Kenny was playing, and Chick would hit these same progressive chords that Kenny was hitting when he would finish up a line with McBride right there with them as well. As Haynes continually drove the piece where it needed to be, the rest of the band just played with each other’s lines. At one point I could have sworn there were two saxophonists on stage as Kenny ripped it apart. This was his turn to shine, and after, the crowd all jumped up gave another standing ovation as they departed the stage.
Every in the audience was going wild, and the only relief would be from more music. The Freedom Band returned to kill another short standard, but it was another tune that I just couldn’t put a name on. The band finished up, bowed again and left the stage, but then, Kenny came out as the audience was roaring, and started raising his hands in the air calling for more cheers. We all poured our hearts out, full from a phenomenal show, and they came back out for a second encore! McBride picks up the bass and starts with the completely recognizable Motown bass line to the tune “My Girl” as the audience gasped, and McBride put down the bass, laughing. The crowd buckled too and the Freedom Band starting their real final song with everyone smiling. For the last time this evening, they showed off their talents, and it occurred to me the show belonged to the two contemporaries more than the legends; it seemed as if Kenny and McBride were the soloing stars. It was during each of their leads that the crowd would seem to freak out the most. I always enjoy the remarks from the jazz fans in Detroit; nothing short of amazing. Everything from “Wow... wow... WOW!” and “Oh My Lord!”, to people just muttering incoherently to themselves, and there were plenty of “psssssssssssssssssshhhhh” sounds when McBride would explore every practical dimension of his instrument in a clever and tasteful way, while at the same time never losing the groove beneath. Christian McBride is by far my favorite contemporary bassist and it’s when I witness shows like these that my love for his musicianship, technique, and style is always reinforced.
Kenny Garrett stole the show. He demonstrated his virtuosity on the saxophone, his soulful lines drove the jams to places that none of the other musicians could, and his ability to recreate any saxophonist’s tone he wanted was incredible. It sounded as if a new saxophone player had come on stage for each song in a display of mind-bending musicianship. His technical prowess and ability to be all over the register while still skillfully adding to the overall jam is what makes him in my opinion the best contemporary alto saxophonists out there. People freaked out during his jams as well, screaming “Get it G-man!”, “Come on!”, and simply “Jesus!”
As for Roy Haynes, all I can really say is still that this man is jazz drumming. Every lick, every fill, every pop, and every progression. His technique was remarkable, and for his age he completely destroyed. The innovative textures he kicked out really made it energetic, especially those snare pops that seemed to keep you paying attention to him more than not. His years of experience shone through and you could tell he just was in a trance mid-song while moving around on the kit. Resonated tenure, his demonstration of decades upon decades of experience was a beautiful sight to behold.
To abbreviate: for a standard jazz show it was phenomenal. However, improvisationally it went above and beyond my expectations, and I was surprised that Chick just laid down a more standard jazz part rather than experimental. His flawless skill proved why he can put together projects like this and truly give proper tributes to the greats of jazz, and exploring the standards with a synthesis of the best in contemporaries and legendary musicians. The Freedom Band blew my mind, and I recommend it completely, but the surreal events that followed would leave me shocked, ecstatic for days to follow.
The next morning I received a message from Christian McBride.
“Zachary, If you'd like, meet me and the guys for lunch at the Marriott at the Renaissance Center at 11:30am. Meet me in the 3rd floor lobby. I don't know what you look like, so keep an eye out for me and come and stop me. Take care, Christian”
I was shaking at this point. I had only briefly conversed with McBride before via Facebook so I assumed this was going be a meet & greet lunch for a bunch of people, but regardless, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. I called my mom, grabbed some vinyls to get signed, and was out the door.
My mom is a jazz fan too. We got to the Marriott lobby about ten minutes late and couldn’t spot Christian anywhere. I walked into the restaurant to find Roy Haynes and Kenny Garrett, so naturally, I walk right up. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but great show last night, phenomenal! I’m a big fan of both of yours and just wanted to say thank you for coming to Detroit.” They reciprocated the gratitude. At the table was the two of them, their sound engineers, and two of the chairs from the Detroit Jazz Fest. This wasn’t a meet and greet, it was just a lunch! I chimed in again, “I’m sorry, I can’t just sit there and watch you two just eat, you mind if I sit and chit chat with you guys for a bit?”
Roy said “No problem man, no problem”, and he took a sip off his late morning beer. Kenny approved as well and I sat down. He started by asking me if I played any instruments and I told him I play alto as well, oboe, and sitar, and he was really interested in the sitar so we ended up having a long conversation about it and how to play, Indian music as opposed to western music, and eventually about saxophone playing and some artists that fused those sounds. Then I turned to acknowledge Roy Haynes.“I’m sorry man, but I have nothing to say to you… you’re a god.”He laughed and said “Its all good man, don’t worry”.“Listen man,” I said, “I have an album with you, Bud Powell, and Charlie Mingus. You mind signing it?” I pulled the record out to Roy saying, “Whoa, where'd you get this?”
The album cover is a painting of Bud Powell with his face peeled off, exposing the inner workings of a mechanical mind. He told me he had never seen the re-issued album cover before and flipped it to look on the back. While he was looking on the back, someone asked if that was him on the front.“Naw man, that’s Bud Powell!” Roy said, and his eyes lit up. A look of nostalgia overtook him and you could tell from the look in his eyes he was thinking back like “Yeah man, I played with these cats…” It was a beautiful sight to behold.
I see the six-foot-plus Christian McBride comes in so I walk over to introduce myself and he goes, “Zach! My man! What’s up brother!” I was thrown by his response, and he adds, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”“Are you fucking kidding me, it’s a pleasure to meet you!” I said, and we go on chatting a bit, and he tells me he loves my comments on his page and my enthusiasm for jazz and that he really wanted to meet me before they left Detroit. I was in utter shock and awe. My favorite bassist wanted to meet me. We ended up chit-chatting for 20 minutes, and he signed my vinyl “To My Buddy Zachary, Christian McBride”. Wow!
Then I see Chick Corea, and he is in the middle of a conversation with someone, but I feel the need to meet and talk to the guy.“Sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to say ‘amazing show last night!’ Thank you for coming to Detroit!” and he looked at me and said, “Good Morning! What’s your name?” “Hi, my name’s Zach, I’m a big fan of yours. You’re one of my favorite musicians of all time, No Mystery is one of my favorite albums of all time.”“Thank You! Do you play any instruments?”I said yes and listed them. He seemed to be really interested in me playing oboe and inquired about if I’ve ever played the oboe in a jazz sense, and asked me about technique. I was almost speechless, and hardly remember what I said, I mean I was standing there next to one of my favorite keyboardist of all time and he’s talking with me about my techniques in music. I was thinking, “Don’t talk to me… tell me about yourself”. It was surreal. I had him sign a couple Return To Forever albums, and waved the guys off before they headed to the airport for a flight to Washington D.C.
What stuck with me was how modest and humble these musicians were and was quite throwing that musicians of their caliber treated me as an equal. Even Chick Corea, whom I thought for sure was going to be pretentious, was so far from it. He was having a conversation with me, legitimately interested in what I was saying, and the same with Kenny Garrett. I have met many musicians and those in popular jam bands can’t hold their own next to these guys, and are a million times more pretentious than these jazz greats who respect you for listening and loving their music and don’t just treat you like some fan. It was an unforgettable experience that put a lot of the world into perspective for me.
Roy had to check out so I go down and out with him, and there I am, walking around the lobby of the Marriott in Detroit with a goddamn legend. Is this a dream? I’m walking next to and chatting with a guy that has played with every single jazz musician that I adore. I ended up asking him, “Man, I know you probably hear this a lot, but what was it like playing with all those jazz cats?” and he looked at me and he said, “You know man, you see them come and you see them go.” And that was it.