This year’s Lansing JazzFest is a big banana split of textures and flavors, from fruity to nutty to creamy. But there’s no mistaking the cherry on top: the return of an old friend, a formidable musician and two-time stroke survivor Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson.
The strokes slowed him a bit, but who wants to wolf down a maraschino cherry anyway?
“The spirit of music is not how many notes you can play before you explode,” Anderson said. “It’s how delightful you can make the horn sound.”
In the 1990s, Anderson was a key member of one of the greatest small groups in jazz, the Wynton Marsalis Septet. They became a mainstay of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
He came to join the MSU Jazz Studies program in 2006, but left he the faculty after suffering a severe stroke in July 2007.
He inched his way back to health with physical therapy and by waiting tables and counting change at Gumbo & Jazz restaurant in East Lansing, owned by his wife Desi.
He had a second stroke in December 2012, after moving to Baton Rouge, but he was performing again by the following spring.
“My hands started waking up, my mouth started latching on and I said, ‘OK, here we go again!’” Anderson recalled.
MSU Jazz Studies director Rodney Whitaker isn’t surprised.
“As long as he’s got blood flowing through his veins and a breath, he’s going to be swinging,” Whitaker said. “He loves playing music more than anybody I’ve ever met in my life.”
Anderson’s new CD, “Natural History,” has the air of a man who has tuned out life’s b.s. and given himself over completely to gratitude.
“I can’t play as fast as I used to, but I have more time now to take more liberties at a slower pace,” he said. “I still have all the ideas in my head.”
Lansing audiences are about to rediscover Anderson’s sweet-tart take on jazz in cherry-red tunes like “Rosie Posie,” dedicated to his 2-year-old granddaughter.
“It’s like Thelonious Monk’s music, so simple but hard as heck to play it,” Anderson said.
“It’s full of joy.”
The deceptive simplicity of another new tune, “Just Swinging,” could only spring from a soul who is deeply in tune with life.
“It’s about walking at your own pace and observing what’s going on — nothing fancy,” he said.
On alto sax, Anderson’s synthesis of swampy Sidney Bechet, the cool school of Miles Davis, hard bop, Coltrane and even the avant-garde forms a circular and seamless bubble of pure music.
“You hear one or two notes and you know it’s Wes,” Whitaker said. “More than most folks in our generation, he has an identity and a way of improvising that’s all his own.”
The Andersons now live in New Orleans, where Anderson became a full-time music professor at Loyola University last year.
“It’s such a joy teaching young people,” Anderson said. Another source of joy is their son, Wessell Anderson IV or “Quad,” who recently earned a prestigious trombone gig with the fabled Dukes of Dixieland.
“It’s a very important thing in New Orleans,” Anderson said proudly. “They play on the same boat Louis Armstrong played on years ago with that group.”
Most recently, Anderson took his granddaughter to hear Quad play.
“We thought she might go off running around, but she was like a little lady, checking out her daddy playing trombone,” Anderson said. “Music doesn’t move too far from the tree. It’s a great thing.”
Wessell Anderson 8:15 Saturday, Aug. 5
Lansing Jazz Fest, North Stage