May 7 2014 12:00 AM

East Lansing Jazz Festival pushes the envelope


From the U.S. Air Force’s crack big band to the far-out signals of avant-garde spaceman Sun Ra, East Lansing´s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival has announced a stellar lineup that thrusts the 18-year-old event into new layers of the stratosphere.

In recent years, the event skyrocketed to national stature under the aegis of artistic director Rodney Whitaker and his stellar MSU jazz studies program. This year, it´s breaking another sound barrier or two.

Two of jazz´s top young artists, singer Cecile McLorin Salvant and trumpeter Benny Benack III, will headline a broad mix of straight-ahead, big band, blues, Latin and chamber jazz on two stages June 20-21 at East Lansing´s Parking Lot 1, 230 Albert Ave., and Ann Street Plaza.

This year´s event will take advantage of East Lansing’s newest cultural jewel, the Broad Art Museum: Kozmic Picnic, a tribute to Ra’s outer space jazz by Detroit´s Planet D Nonet, will be held in the museum´s sculpture garden on Saturday, June 21. It´s the first time avant-garde jazz has joined the festival lineup, but the advent of a major contemporary art museum in East Lansing put the planets into alignment.

In a masterstroke of logistics and multi-genre programming, Chicago’s raucous Lowdown Brass Band will lead a New Orleans-style second line march from the Broad Museum to the epicenter of action in downtown Lansing at the Ra tribute, complete with flashing strings of beads and spinning parasols.

Slightly closer to Earth, the 18-piece Airmen of Note, the top U.S. Air Force big band, will make its first visit to the festival this year. Formed in 1950 to pick up where Major Glenn Miller´s Army Air Corps dance band left off, the Airmen comprise one of the last touring big bands in existence.

For the past three years, a co-sponsorship with the Wharton Center helped the festival snag rising stars such as bassist Esperanza Spalding and vocalist Cyrille Aimee, both of whom returned to perform at Wharton. This year, the principal snagee is idiosyncratic vocalist Salvant, who combines the conversational coolness (and sexy-nerd glasses) of Blossom Dearie with the off-handed sultriness of Billie Holiday and the time-stretching command of Sarah Vaughan.

The other young catch is Benack, an ebullient trumpeter-singer and winner of just about every competition in existence, named by Wynton Marsalis as one of the next generation of jazz greats.

A new flavor at the festival this year is 10-piece Latin ensemble Aguankó, led by Mexican drummer-composer Alberto Nacif and Cuban percussionist Pepe Espinosa. To thicken the stew of styles, Detroit´s Thornetta Davis will represent for blues and R&B.

With combos small, medium and large, the roster of jazz musicians on the festival’s two stages this year runs into the hundreds. As usual, the cream of local jazz performers will be on hand, from the salsa sounds of Orquesta Ritmo to straight-ahead combos led by top saxophonist Diego Rivera and guitarist Neil Gordon. Vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, blues/funk specialists Root Doctor, the LCC Faculty Jazz Quartet and another big band, led by MSU trombone Professor Michael Dease, are also on the slate.

In addition to flexing his star drawing power, Whitaker is also making sure the festival digs deeper roots into the community. An education stage will showcase units such as the MSU Community Music School Jazz Orchestra (directed by Whitaker), the LCC Jazz Band, the East Lansing High School Jazz Band and an ad hoc combo made up of Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan (JAMM) scholarship recipients. If all that doesn´t fill up the longest days of the year, nothing will.

The East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival is presented by the City of East Lansing, MSU´s College of Music and the Wharton Center. For a full lineup, go to