Detroit tenor saxophone master
by Piotr Michalowski
From the May, 2016 issue
Detroit has long been a bebop jazz town. During the 1950s, the high schools, street academies, and jazz clubs nurtured musicians such as pianists Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan, trombonist Curtis Fuller, bassists Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers, saxophonist Yusef Lateef, and many more who would eventually move to New York and develop international careers. The rhythmic and harmonic qualities of this music built on the radical developments of bebop but were somewhat more subtle and refined, which may have led to their broader public interest.
The city contributed mightily to the ranks of the second and third generations of modern jazz, and this kind of mainstream modernism has continued to thrive and dominate much of the local scene to this day. But the music began to change and develop various experimental directions in the Sixties, and those new trends influenced some young Detroiters as well. The pivotal moment in the development of Motor City avant-garde jazz was the founding of the group Griot Galaxy, led by saxophonist Faruq Z. Bey, in 1972. It lasted for seventeen years and provided a magnet and focal point for young musicians who were interested in exploring more experimental directions.
One of the most dynamic players who grew up in that era is saxophonist Skeeter Shelton. His father was a professional drummer who played with Gene Ammons and other mainstream players, mostly in Chicago. The younger Shelton grew up playing different kinds of music and used his time in the armed forces--he was drafted in 1970--to further develop his musical skills. He eventually came back home and got a good job touring with a soul singer for a few years and then made his way back to Detroit, where he hooked up with former members of Griot Galaxy to pursue more adventuresome music.
Shelton's main horn is the tenor saxophone, although he can play many other reed instruments, from clarinets to the tarogato, Hungarian version of a wooden saxophone. On the tenor, he
exhibits a rough-and-tumble tone with a powerful voice that can dominate an ensemble, but he can take it down to a mere whisper when necessary. He also has an enviable command of the highest altissimo registers of the instrument.
Shelton's approach to improvisation is highly extroverted: he favors long expressive lines and takes his time with his solos, which can be quite lengthy when given the chance, developing complex patterns with recurring themes. Thus, although his playing can be typecast as "free improvisation," it is essentially compositional in scope, with larger structures in mind. But for all his abstract spontaneity, Shelton is an emotional player, and his blues background comes through; he sometimes treats his instrument as an extension of his voice or spontaneously picks up a small rhythm instrument or blows into an animal horn.
Skeeter Shelton will bring his trio to the Kerrytown Concert House on May 17.
[Originally published in May, 2016.]
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