Jan. 18 2017 01:35 PM

MSU’s Michael Dease takes a tour through the cradles and colors of jazz

Trombonist Michael Dease celebrates the release of his latest album, “All These Hands,” at the Robin Theatre Sunday.
Courtesy photo

Michael Dease almost lost control of the steering wheel the first time he heard one of his idols, Detroit trombone legend Curtis Fuller.

Getting Dease, 34, to talk about Fuller is a good way to trick him into describing his own sound.

“It’s round and warm, but there’s passion and articulation and it’s really swinging and the harmony is so clear and it feels so good,” he rhapsodized, turning the word “and” into a string of devotional beads with the same breath control Dease uses on trombone.

A faculty member in Michigan State University’s Jazz Studies program, Dease marks the release of his latest album, “All These Hands,” with a release party Sunday at the Robin Theatre in Lansing. But before we get there, the Fuller story is worth telling in full.

When Dease was 17, a friend popped John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” into the car’s CD player. Dease wasn’t sure what to make of Coltrane, but when Fuller started to play, Dease put the hazard flashers on and pulled over to the side of the road.

“What instrument is that?” he gasped. “Trombone,” his friend said.

“No, it’s not. To me, a trombone is like this.” He made a cliché, oafish trombone sound: “VROORT.”

Dease started the CD over again, fastforwarding past Coltrane and trumpeter Lee Morgan — which, to some jazz lovers, is like pushing your steak and lobster to the floor to get to the mashed potatoes.

But Dease’s rippling, mellifluous, ductile sound, like his hero Fuller’s, is no side dish.

“I never heard an instrument sound like that,” Dease recalled. “It matured me 10 years. I was a know-it-all, jerky, scared 17-year-old kid. I heard Curtis Fuller’s solo, and I’m like 40 years old with a glass of Chianti, looking at watches and stuff.”

Fuller’s initials — along with those of Fuller’s fellow Detroit trombonist J.J. Johnson and Dease’s mentor, former MSU professor Wycliffe Gordon — are enshrined on Dease’s license plate: “JJCFWG.”

Back in his home town of Augusta, Ga., Dease played saxophone in high school, under the spell of bebop icon Charlie Parker. When he was 15, his favorite bass player was Rodney Whitaker, now his boss at MSU’s Jazz Studies program. At the time, Whitaker played in Wynton Marsalis’ Septet, which also featured Gordon.

“Something about the way Rodney was playing attracted me in the same way Charlie Parker did,” Dease said. “Imagine my surprise when I realized that Rodney was from Detroit, which is the home of all my favorite bebop musicians.”

After Dease’s roadside Curtis Fuller epiphany, he asked a friend with two trombones to lend him one. He told Dease to meet him at 2 a.m. so his mother wouldn’t find out.

“I snuck out of the house and drove 30 minutes to my buddy’s house,” Dease said. “He met me outside and snuck his trombone through the window. It was romantic.”

Dease taught himself to play in a month and a half. He made first chair in all-state auditions.

“Probably two months,” he corrected himself. “Let’s be realistic.”

Sine then, Dease has rocketed to jazz fame, garnering critical acclaim for a series of finely crafted albums and snagging Rising Star recognition from Downbeat Magazine in 2014.

He’s honored to be part of Whitaker’s star studded Jazz Studies faculty, but the biggest thing in his life is his intense classical-jazz marriage with MSU percussion Professor Gwen Dease, who also plays for the Lansing Symphony. He called their romance “some otherworldly shit.” They have a 1-yearold girl, Brooklyn Parker Dease.

In between teaching, recording dates and composing, Dease is exploring intriguing ways to work with his wife to merge the worlds of classical music and jazz. Michael Dease and Rodney Whitaker play on Gwen Dease’s 2016 album “Beguiled.” The couple also did a concert in Tampa in 2015 of tango master Astor Piazzolla’s music.

“We do rub off on each other but it’s very cool,” he said.

But he doesn’t swagger into the mix and improvise. “Everything’s written,” he said. “I’m taking liberties, but within the context of the music.”

With titles like “Father Figure” and “Decisions,” Dease’s discography tells his life story, as well as the story of jazz. He’s thought hard about how to spin his own thread into jazz’s tangled skein of styles.

You can dig deep into the intersecting themes of his new CD, “All These Hands,” or just bounce along and enjoy the ride. Like Dease himself, the CD comes at you in a gentlemanly, soft-spoken way but packs in many layers of structure and thought.

The concept is a slick exercise in jazz trigonometry. Along the x-axis, Dease takes the listener to the geographic and historic points where a diverse range of styles of jazz came into being, from the melting pot of New Orleans to Kansas City-style territorial bands to the unique sounds of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Along the y-axis, Dease contrasts the sophistication of the city to the twang of the country. Odd-numbered tracks, with pianist Renee Rosnes, trumpeter Etienne Charles and reedman Steve Wilson, sparkle with urbanity. Even-numbered tracks, with guitarist Randy Napoleon and bassist Rodney Whitaker, have a stripped-down, bluesy grit but go down as smoothly as Appalachian spring water.

Despite Dease’s unparalleled chops on trombone, he is generous with his colleagues. His interplay with Charles and Nelson is joyous and sublime. To close the disc, he cedes the spotlight to Whitaker, who outdoes himself with a shattering, semi-dissonant solo tune, “Up South Reverie.”

The effort is hidden by all the talent and camaraderie evident in the disc, but Dease must have worked long and hard to dig such a crystal clear wellspring into jazz history. Mini-tributes and references to dozens of styles and jazz legends are embedded into every spontaneous bubble.

“The thing that’s special about jazz music to me is that it’s living history,” Dease said. “Without the connection to the roots of American music, the roots of Africa and Europe, it’s hard to feel the jazz music in it. However, in order for it to have the spirit of jazz, to me it has to feel like it can only be created right now.”


Michael Dease “All These Hands” Album Release Party

7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22
$15
The Robin Theatre
1105 S. Washington Ave., Lansing

therobintheatre.com