Ants swarmed on a discarded crust of pizza in a tuft of grass, just 10 feet away from a stage set in a shady pine grove. Cellist Tomeka Reid, grounded and focused, absently kicked off her shoes in concentration. Bowing her cello, she sent silvery tremors into the music of her quartet and the life pulsing in the grass.
Varied were the vibrations at Saturday afternoon’s Kozmic Picnik, a three-hour eruption of collective aural art in the wooded nook just east of the Broad Art Museum.
There were people in the grass, too, drawn like ants by the windfall of spiritual nourishment: hardcore jazz fans, curious passers-by, moms and dads and babies on blankets, and, for a while, a dancing, bearded hipster with a cigarette perched at a 70 degree angle.
The mini-festival near the Broad, with three avant-garde jazz bands making their East Lansing debuts, was only a part of a larger event. The Summer Solstice Jazz Festival celebrated its 20th year last Friday and Saturday.
The music was so diverse — from big-band Frank Sinatra swagger to the quantum displacements of free jazz icon Ornette Coleman — you’d think it would be impossible to sum it all up.
Not so. It was a gift, pure and simple. Jazz is always a collective outburst of American sanity, even more so in the midst of a strange, violent summer, when rancid politics and mass murder seem to be pushing the nation back into the Stone Age.
The music yanked people away from the news crawl and showed them other things that are being done in the world. Dozens of musicians, both pros and students, showed how humans can evolve into something better.
Scientists who study ants talk a lot about “emergent behavior.” Somehow, big things get done by little creatures, even though nobody seems to be calling the shots. Pull together, and a pizza crust many times bigger than you are will disappear.
Admittedly, this festival had a lot of guidance from artistic director Rodney Whitaker and the City of East Lansing’s coordinator Benjamin Hall, but they were only facilitators for round after round of spontaneous, collective action.
Pianist Marcus Roberts, the festival headliner, took his own evolutionary path Saturday night. Roberts is an emergent phenomenon all by himself. With an air of elegance, a supreme rhythm section and a shimmering white suit, Roberts serenaded, poked and pivoted through several decades of jazz history.
Any festival that encompasses Roberts’ level of classy erudition and barefoot avant-garde energy is doing something right. In addition to cellist Reid, the Kozmic Picnik featured another barefoot firebrand, saxophonist John Dikeman, rearing back and trading fire with free jazz legend Joe McPhee at the Broad Art Museum stage earlier that afternoon.
Dikeman, 33, is less than half McPhee’s age (75), but they merged like two heads of one dragon. A third avantgarde group, led by Ann Arbor multithreat player Ken Kozora, put out the earthiest grooves of the day, with electronics and horns bubbling over a pebbly bed of sticks, gourds, conch shells and other nature-inspired sounds.
The big tent philosophy paid off. People looking for familiar music stopped to hear the new sounds. People looking for new sounds were reminded of the glory of jazz tradition.
Established artists like Roberts showed that the old standards are very much alive — and still subject to endless variation. He dedicated a spiky romp through Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” to the 2016 presidential race. But tried and true tunes were very nearly outnumbered by original compositions over the course of the weekend.
It wasn’t only avant-garde musicians that pushed the envelope. Two graduates of MSU’s jazz studies program brought intensely personal music that transcended genre. Bassist Ben Williams opened up a set of stories in sound, driven by churning grooves but held open to cosmic possibilities. He closed his set with “Toy Soldiers,” a polyrhythmic epic evoking the effects of war on a returned soldier’s psyche.
Detroit saxophonist Marcus Elliot, also an MSU graduate, played a completely fresh set. Elliot has assimilated his mentors and influences so fully he deserves his own square on the periodic table of jazz. The highlight was a bright, twisting diadem of a tune so new Elliot hasn’t even named it yet, fusing the hypnotic minimalism of Philip Glass with the emotional fire of John Coltrane.
This festival had a lot of layers, from entertainment to community-building to education. All weekend, the grounds were swarmed by hundreds of high school jazz students, lugging heavy instruments in 90-degree heat, criss-crossing from venue to venue, listening to the pros and playing their own gigs as part of an MSU-sponsored band camp.
One student band after another rocked the Ann Street Plaza stage Saturday. At the height of the tumult, MSU trumpet professor and camp leader Etienne Charles jump-conducted a James Brown-style funk tune as toddlers danced and gray heads swayed in the sun. Where were these students getting their energy? A few yards away stood a towering stack of pizza boxes, collectively devoured and converted into emergent behavior.