An octopus in a fedora and dark glasses is looming over the streets.
Now in its 20th year, East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival is a surging, swinging cephalopod, a regional event with tentacles stretching in all directions.
Under the aegis of artistic director Rodney Whitaker, who is also director of jazz studies across the street at Michigan State University, the festival has reached out to absorb the unique jazz scenes of Detroit, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Chicago and beyond, with styles ranging from Sinatra-style big band swing to Latin, bebop and fire-breathing free jazz.
Formerly a middle-of-the-road, middle-of-the-state event, centered largely on the MSU Jazz Studies students and professors, the festival has dramatically expanded its geographic and stylistic reach.
In 2007, Whitaker's first year as artistic director of the festival, a comment from a listener stuck with him.
“Someone who wasn’t a musician and who didn’t have a background in the music said, ‘A lot of the music you have sounds the same,’” Whitaker said. “That made me think. She was right. The artists we had were all pretty similar, musically.”
Working with the Wharton Center, a festival partner, Whitaker recruited a series of still affordable but incandescent young artists, including bassist Esperanza Spalding, vocalists Cecile McLorin Salvant and Cyrille Aimee and trumpeter Bria Skonberg.
Staying within the festival’s limited budget, Whitaker has made every dollar count. In December 2015, Vanity Fair published a photo spread called "Jazz on the Loose," featuring 36 jazz artists under 33 who are riding in "the hottest live jazz scene since World War I.” (One of them was MSU’s own trumpeter Etienne Charles.)
“We had almost all of those artists at our festival,” Whitaker said, “Before they won Grammys and became famous.”
This year, a Friday evening vocal summit of young, up-and-coming singers Danielle Blanchard, Nashon Holloway, Beth Stalker, Nicole New and Evangeline will extend that tradition.
The most dramatic tent-expander this year is Saturday’s festival-within-the-festival, the Kozmic Picnik, beginning at noon in an aptly angular setting for avant-garde music, the sculpture garden of the Broad Art Museum. Last year’s gig by Chicago vibraphonist Jason Adaseiwicz turned out so well that Whitaker decided to triple the slate, hoping to draw on the regional audience that packs Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert Hall for the adventurous Edgefest each year.
To pick the musicians, Whitaker enlisted the aid of Deanna Relyea, artistic director of both Kerrytown and Edgefest. The result is a rare — as in, never — East Lansing appearance by three of the most engaging, creative artists in avant-garde jazz, headlined by trumpeter and reedman Joe McPhee, a free jazz icon lionized in Europe and the U.S.
Whitaker found that many of the same people who come to mainstream concerts dug the Kozmic Picnik last year. In the 21st century, musical styles ebb and flow with a fluidity of a random iPod playlist.
“Jazz has changed so much,” Whitaker said. “When you put labels on, you sometimes kill it by creating expectations. Mainstream jazz is sometimes free jazz.”
The festival proper is topped Saturday night by its biggest headliner ever, pianist Marcus Roberts, an international star and subject of a 2014 “60 Minutes” segment, “The Virtuoso.” Roberts has worked with Whitaker for over 20 years at the Savannah Music Festival.
“Marcus is very innovative,” Whitaker said. “He’s steeped in tradition back to Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, boogie-woogie and stride, and with a modern approach to McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. He has his own sound.”
This week, Roberts will do a two-day residency at MSU’s Big Band Symposium, tying the festival to Whitaker’s greatest passion, jazz education. MSU started the symposium in 2014, inviting top high school musicians from around the country to form a band that performs at the festival.
In addition to Roberts, Whitaker brought another keyboard great to this year’s festival: Jerry Motley, a virtuoso from Atlanta in the Oscar Peterson mold.
“A lot of people may not know him, but he’s a major gifted pianist,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker hopes that a swinging set from the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, with its “Sinatra at 100” tribute program Saturday night, will seduce a whole different crowd into the festival’s big tent.
“We wanted a big band, but one with national appeal,” Whitaker said. “These are top cats from Chicago. Oftentimes festivals put together a one-time band, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but this is a working big band that’s toured all over the world.”
The festival’s Detroit connection is represented this year by several artists. Two standouts are Marcus Elliot, a mesmerizing post-Coltrane saxophonist and mainstay of a resurgent Detroit jazz scene, and Lady Sunshine and the X Band, a brass-heavy soul/ blues/jazz machine in the Stax/Volt mold.
Coming from the other side of the map, the Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra, with singer Edye Evans Hyde, will be the festival’s first collaboration with the West Michigan Jazz Society.
MSU’s own stable of top artists is represented by trombonist Michael Dease and saxophonist Diego Rivera. There’s Latin music (Tumbao Bravo) jazz-blues (guitarist Bobby Murray and his band), New Orleans-style brass (Detroit’s Gabriel Brass Band, after the Kozmic Picnik Saturday) and more to discover, but there isn’t enough space to rhapsodize about it all here.
“We have 100 and some years’ history of the music, and you've got to try and present it," Whitaker said. "Every year tops the last one. That's my motto."
Summer Solstice Jazz Festival
4:30 p.m.-midnight Friday, June 17; noon-midnight Saturday, June 18 FREE Downtown East Lansing (517) 319-6980, eljazzfest.com