Dec. 21 2016 11:36 AM

MSU Professors of Jazz skip the trimmings, go straight for the goods

Saxophonist Diego Rivera brought his brainy, athletic solos to the Professors of Jazz’s eclectic collection of holiday tunes.
Photo by Jessica D. Cowles/JDC Photography
There were no festive add-ons, no guest vocalists, not even a stocking or candy cane in sight, but the MSU Professors of Jazz opened up a bottomless, Santa-sized sack of swing for a packed and delighted Fairchild Theatre Saturday night.

This time of year, jazz musicians face the choice of licking the same old tunes like a dutiful dog or playing with them in cold blood, like a condescending cat.

How do you please both the traditionalists and the hardcore jazzheads?

Sticking to a no-frills, all-instrumental recital format, this year’s “Jazzy Little Christmas” struck the perfect balance of tradition and demolition. The Professors’ approach was to pour the sweetness and sentiment of perennial holiday favorites into a steel blender of hard bop, add some stronger spirits (such as Art Blakey and John Coltrane) and serve up an adult beverage that gave comfort and joy but refused to cloy.

The professors have gone through several lineup changes over the years, but the current backfield is so deep it was nearly impossible to take all the artistry in, even without ebullient trumpeter Etienne Charles, who was not on hand.

“O Christmas Tree,” a solo gem by guitarist Randy Napoleon, was a concert all by itself. Napoleon took gentle hold of the simple, hymn-like tune and hung a luminous string of emotion, shifting from free-floating twinkles to a gently rocking rhythm to the edge of hard blues before reverting back to delicate diffusion.

Napoleon can hang the lights on my tree any time. Taking a typically multilayered solo on “Blue Christmas,” of all things, he knew just when to give the lights a retrograde yank, a sudden plunge or ascent, without crimping the curvature in his garland of variations.

Subtle as Napoleon can be, with his sweet smile and calm demeanor, it’s easy to think of him as the group’s secret weapon. The problem is, these days, the professors are all stealth weapons, subordinating their star power to the benefit of the whole. Pianist Xavier Davis reached into a bag that went much deeper than Santa’s, from lyricism to playfulness to magisterial left-hand “bombs” à la McCoy Tyner. Taking the lead on Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown-y “Christmas Time is Here,” Davis eschewed Guaraldi’s transparent simplicity and dug into a richer subsoil, layering pattern on pattern to weave a mesmerizing tapestry of tones.

Ironically, the only tune of the night that didn’t radiate comfort and joy was Davis’ propulsive, film-noir arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The song usually evokes a ruddy-cheeked brass band on a street corner, but the urgent pulse of Davis’s version conjured the image of a thief making off with the brass band’s hat full of money and running into the alley, with cops giving chase.

The closest thing to a candied cherry in this exquisitely blended and brandied fruit cake was trombonist Michael Dease. In the spirit of Santa, Dease freed the fattest sound on the stage from any duty to gravity.

In “Blue Christmas,” Dease built his solo from two or three notes, taking a jolly, raucous roll to the bottom of the chimney and levitating back up like a sprite. He pulled off the acrobatics so deftly he drew a huge grin from Napoleon, to his right, who seemed to be thinking, “So that’s how Santa does it.”

“Blue Christmas” was a stealth stunner all around, starting with a straightup, unison reading of the melody in almost draggy mid-tempo, then refracting into 40 shades of blue. Bassist Rodney Whitaker dug further into the song’s lonely frustration than Elvis Presley ever did, slipping in a quote from “Bye Bye Blackbird” and bursting into a flurry of high-register agitation so raw it made a man in the audience cry “Look out!”

Drummer Randy Gelispie kept the hard bop rolling from decked hall to decked hall, adding subtle, song-specific touches — like the hint of a parade in “Frosty the Snowman” and the popping of chestnuts in “The Christmas Song” — without letting things get corny. Gelispie can adjust his power the same way Superman can range from tearing a freighter in half to rescuing a puppy. For “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” he stoked up a boiler-room “boom-boom” pulse worthy of John Coltrane’s “Africa Brass.” Then he picked up the brushes and wove wisps of reverence around Whitaker’s soulful arco reading of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” in a beautiful trio spotlight with Davis.

Saxophonist Diego Rivera is so strong and eloquent a player, it’s hard to think of him as a secret weapon. But Rivera builds his muscular statements into disciplined columns that hold up the entire edifice. Rivera’s solos were athletic and brainy as ever, and his coda on “The Christmas Song” was a silver droplet of pure, classic beauty.

In such company, a simple hook of a tune like “Jingle Bells” turned into a blistering, blustering sleigh ride in a cloud of crystal flakes, shifting harmonies refracting like colors in prisms of ice. The tune even in medias res — the “dashing through the snow” part — and just kept on dashing.