In 2016, lovers of classical and jazz music in Greater Lansing were again dazzled by dozens of superb local musicians who are also national names — or could be, if they cared to live in a city where you can’t park anywhere — as well as many visiting, nationally known artists unlucky enough not to hail from Mid-Michigan.
An ambitious mash-up of both categories hit Michigan State University’s Fairchild Theatre early in the year, Jan. 17, with the world premiere of a new suite of music, “Do You Know My Name?,” commissioned from composer Billy Childs for MSU’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. tribute concert. Vocalist Alicia Olatuja and MSU’s Jazz Orchestra I fused emotional expressiveness with superb musicianship to premiere a moody, poly-stylistic score that gave voice the plight of victims of human trafficking.
The Wharton Center can’t offer a concert series as generous with genius as, say, Ann Arbor’s University Music Society, but the jazz and classical artists they do invite are often the among the greatest in the world, snagged in fresh phases of their evolving careers, before they harden to museum-piece “icon” status. Tap dancer supreme Savion Glover and a still-searching jazz icon, drummer Jack DeJohnette, continued their series of cosmic conversations at Wharton Center Feb. 18. The unique concert — almost a ritual cleansing — went well into overtime, so engrossed were both musicians. At the other end of 2016, newly minted jazz supergroup, Aziza, led by bassist Dave Holland, crackled with the fertile fusions of adventurous guitarist Lionel Loueke Oct. 20. Both concerts embodied the mix of tradition and adventure so crucial to jazz: DeJohnette and Holland are both legends who played with Miles Davis, but, in the spirit of Davis, neither of them are interested in settling down.
The Lansing Symphony and music director Timothy Muffitt gave us several memorable nights this year, including guest appearances by violinist Rachel Barton Pine Nov. 23 and one of the brainiest and most engaging classical pianists in the world, Jeremy Denk, Sept. 9. Pine gave a great folk-fiddle spin to Max Bruch’s violin concerto and Denk crushed the Beethoven “Emperor” concerto. But a sublime, no-guest-star March 5 Mozart concert featured the local team, especially the woodwinds, to best advantage. The concert was scaled down, in part, to keep stars like Pine and Denk from busting Lansing Symphony’s minuscule budget, but the result was a rare and lovely performance of the “Gran Partita,” twining like vines and flowers around everyone’s ears, instead of the usual symphonic bombast (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
The ongoing Jazz Tuesdays series at Moriarty’s rolled on all year, giving local artists, including classroom-cramped professors and students from MSU, a vital link to the streets and clubs synonymous with the life of jazz. It’s a fool's errand to single out one night, but a loose, adventurous trio led by trombonist Michael Dease on May 10 was extra special. Most of the time, Dease is hemmed in, not only by his fellow Professors of Jazz but also by his own arrangements. At Mort’s he unfurled limitless chops while drummer Jeff Shoup, also the organizer of the series, channeled straddlers of the avant-garde and mainstream such as Billy Higgins and Elvin Jones. Nimble bassist Aneesa Strings sailed with the trio on a free floating odyssey that gradually coalesced into a groove, relaxed into a mood and bubbled back into a boil, leaving the Mort’s crowd to close their eyes and enjoy the perfect illusion that they were in Manhattan and hadn’t parked only a few yards away.
East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, burgeoning under the artistic direction of MSU Jazz Studies director Rodney Whitaker, served up a threestage Kozmic Picnic of avant-garde musicians June 18, curated by Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert Hall. The afternoon concert saw cellist Tomeka Reid and free jazz legend Joe McPhee launching the summer crowd off the lawn into interstellar regions. The festival proper was overstuffed with fantastic jazz, most notably from MSU alumnus and bassist Ben Williams, who brought a passionate, steely set of post-Coltrane stretchers to the main stage June 17.
The end of 2016 was packed with strange and wonderful music, including the funny, charming and sneakily masterful Breaking Winds Bassoon Quartet Nov. 7, who played everything from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (yes, on four bassoons) to adaptations of Common and Adele. New York sent over a double dose of artistry in the first week of December, beginning with the fierce and engaging Brooklyn Rider quartet’s dark and mesmerizing concert at MSU Dec. 1. A new composition by one of the quartet’s members mixed jaw-dropping change-ups and odd effects with old-fashioned, gripping musicianship. A week later, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center went on a blissful rampage through all of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos in one night, bringing a New York tradition to Lansing for the first time.
MSU’s Professors of Jazz worked miracles all year, most notably with a night of Billy Strayhorn tunes Sept. 9 and an inspired and rich holiday concert Dec. 19. Separately, the professors’ varied doings are always worth following, but there’s something special about these regular gatherings of the Round Table of Jazz, with director Rodney Whitaker in the glorious summer of his Arthurian reign.
Put simply, the flagon of music runneth over in Greater Lansing. We were only able to blot up a few of the juiciest drops with this napkin of newsprint, in hopes of inspiring you to get out more in 2017 and drink straight from the overflowing cup.