Don't play so rough, baby

Smooth Jazz Fête brings new festival to Lansing’s east side

Smooth jazz is a hard thing to define, but most people — from Supreme Court justices on down — probably feel as if they know it when they hear it.

“It’s stuff we hear all the time in R&B and pop, but we’re taking our instruments and playing a simpler jazz on top of a pop-type chord progression,” alto saxophonist Phil Denny explained. “It has a backbeat, a ‘two’ and a ‘four’ that people can follow. It’s engaging. It can be sexy, cool, funky.”

If you’re still unclear on the concept, Lansing’s emerging impresario of smooth jazz is about to give a serious seminar in smooth. After years of journeyman work around the state and the U.S., making friends in high, smooth places along the way, he has assembled a nine-hour lineup of smooth jazz stars that will hold forth on the east lawn of the Marshall Street Armory Saturday.

Denny has worked hard to blend smooth jazz into the already rich Lansing mix in recent years, with a monthly Friday night concert series at La Fille Gallery downtown that has sold out for almost two years. This June, for the first time, he joined the nonsmooth (rough?) jazz artists at this year’s big-tent, East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival. He has already lined up his sixth annual Christmas extravaganza at Pattengill Middle School, an event that draws more than 500 people.

But smooth jazz is all about having a party, and Denny feels like throwing a big one.

He found the word “fête,” with its overtones of lavish fun, on Google, and that clinched it.

With artists from around the state and the U.S., the fête will tap into a passionate, well-connected web of smooth jazz devotees.

“There are a lot of fans who travel to support smooth jazz and R&B,” Denny said.

Over 600 people have already snapped up VIP and general admission tickets, many of them traveling from out of state.

“They go on cruise ships, take pictures with the artists,” Denny said. Unlike, say, Ornette Coleman, Denny is happy to sit on an audience member’s lap for a photo. “There’s a growing culture for it and that’s what we’re trying to create in Lansing,” he said.

Denny chose the Armory because it’s about halfway between downtown and East Lansing, tucked into the arty, garden-y East Side. The Fete also harks back to the Armory’s glory days as a neighborhood venue for weddings, bar mitzvahs, boxing matches and visiting circus troupes.

Denny, 40, was born and raised in Sarasota, Florida, and moved to Lansing at 10 years old in fall 1987. He started taking music as an elective at Gardner Middle School in sixth grade.

“It became an outlet for me,” he said. “My parents divorced when I was very young, and it was a regimen, a structure. It gave me purpose.”

A band instructor handed him an alto sax and told him, “Phil, you look like a saxophone player.”

In the summer before eighth grade, Denny’s brother, Shawn, brought home a fistful of promotional CDs from his gig at the late, lamented WhereHouse Records. Phil fell in love with the sound of smooth jazz icons like Grover Washington Jr., Dave Koz, George Howard and Kirk Whalum.

After his freshman year at Everett High School, Denny got a wake-up call while talking about musical influences with other students on a scholarship to Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp.

“I realized I knew nothing about jazz,” he said.

He dived into the music of canonical jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Lester Young and John Coltrane, but also realized it wasn’t for him.

“I like it, I enjoy it, but it’s not a sound that resonated with me. Smooth jazz just fit my personality.”

He loves the social, people-oriented side of the business.

“I get more fuel and energy from the relationship with listeners than I would from the camaraderie with other musicians and experimenting all the time,” he said.

He went to LCC and Olivet College, majoring in business administration and marketing, and his savvy shows in his early response to the Fete.

Unlike musicians who dread dealing with logistics and money, Denny finds the business side of music to be a fun challenge. He called a lot of friends to put together the Armory fête.

First on the roster is dynamic, crowd-pleasing vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Daryl Black, who was on the second season of “The Voice.” Denny met Black in Sacramento, California, last year at an annual cancer benefit, “Sax on the River.” Black will open with an acoustic set and join some of the other artists later in the day.

Funky trumpeter Farnell Newton follows Black. He is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory and educator, has worked with Bootsy Collins, Jill Scott and Earth Wind & Fire, and has a fashion and jewelry line on the side.

Then Denny himself will perform, followed by magnetic Detroit singer L’Renee, who clicked with Denny at one of his Lansing sets. The remaining headliners are well established musicians in several overlapping circles. Expansive Chicago-area bassist Michael Manson worked with piano icon George Duke for many years. Saxophonist Marcus Anderson toured with Prince and Dave Koz and many other top artists.

The evening’s closer, veteran guitarist Peter White, brings a lyrical, melodic voice and credentials a mile long. Denny will return to the stage to jam with White, who is one of his idols.

“He’s an old British rocker who lives in L.A.,” Denny said. “I grew up listening to him and it’s so cool I get to play with him.”

With such a high caliber of talent on board, Denny hopes that not only smooth jazz fans, but people who are curious about the genre and even hard-core jazz lovers will try something different.

“Purists say, ‘That’s not jazz,’ but let’s not forget that at the end of the day, we’re all playing music,” he said. “You pick up an instrument and you’re improvising. That’s jazz. You’re speaking a language and having a conversation.”

Phil Denny’s Armory Smooth Jazz Fête

Noon-9 p.m. Sat., Aug. 12, Marshall Street Armory east lawn 330 Marshall St., Lansing, Noon-9 p.m. $35 www.smoothjazzfete.com

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