East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival is a tale of two cities, Lansing and Detroit. That’s how Rodney Whitaker, artistic director of the festival and MSU Jazz Studies director, divvied up Friday’s and Saturday’s overflowing jazz slates.
The festival moves to a new spot this year — the municipal parking lot at Bailey Street and Albert Avenue, because of construction at the former site.
Nobody embodies the I-96 connection more than Whitaker himself, who grew up and made his name in Detroit and moved to the capital area to start one of the world’s top jazz programs at MSU.
“Friday night, we celebrate our community with a Lansing night,” Whitaker said, and he wasn’t just whistling the Spartan fight song. The packed slate features nearly every flavor of Lansing-bred jazz, from the soul-blues machine Root Doctor to smooth jazz saxophonist Phil Denny, the Lansing Symphony Big Band with blazing trumpeter Benny Banack III, and Lansing’s own “Boogie Bob” Baldori and his latest partner in crime, New York pianist Arthur Migliazza.
Another Lansing treasure, Sunny Wilkinson, will pop the cork at the festival kickoff 6 p.m. Friday.
Wilkinson is soaring into an ebullient, astonishing new phase of her art.
“She has a fantastic new record out, and I wanted to feature her,” Whitaker said.
The only break in the two-cities formula is the Latin jazz of Orquesta Ritmo, representing for Lansing Saturday night.
Otherwise, Whitaker is right to call Saturday “Detroit night,” with a slate that includes blues icon Thornetta Davis and jazz vocalist Barbara Ware, two mainstays of the Detroit music scene, and Detroit smooth jazz man Deon Yates.
Whitaker started the Gathering Orchestra, a big part of Saturday’s headline attraction, at Detroit’s Carr Center as a way to give professional development for young jazz musicians, aged 18 to 28.
The 19-piece big band is a crack outfit of young guns from Wayne State, University of Michigan and MSU, funded by a Carr Centr fellowship. The players are called “Allen fellows” after beloved Detroit pianist Geri Allen, who died last year.
Whitaker said the group was Allen’s idea. “The old system of mentorships is not what it was,” Whitaker said. “We wanted to give young musicians a place to hone their art.” The orchestra assembles five times a year for one-week residencies.
“It’s hot,” Whitaker said. “There’s people like Marcus Elliott and Ian Finkelstein, who anchor the scene in Detroit , and the up-and-coming players from MSU and Wayne State.” Elliott alone, a post-Coltrane firebrand with a lyrical soul and muscular roar, is worth the price of admission.
The downside this year is that grappling with the logistics of moving to a new site meant that organizers had to scale back the festival, taking a temporary pass on the Kozmic Picnic and the Second Line parade that usually follows it. The Kozmic Picnic is a festival-within-the-festival that has brought some of the world’s top avant-garde jazz musicians into a tent next to the Broad Museum for the past three years.
“That was kind of a downer for me, because it expanded our audience and brought people from out of town,” Whitaker said. “But we just couldn’t manage two sites. We’ll be able to bring it back, hopefully next year.”
Whitaker is considering mainstreaming some avant-garde acts next year, or even headlining one of the Kozmic Picnic artists such as legendary saxophonist David Murray, who expressed an interest in coming back to East Lansing some day with his pile-driving big band.
The main event Saturday is a three-way summit meeting of Whitaker’s Gathering Orchestra, with star saxophonist Steve Wilson and powerful Virginia-based vocalist René Marie.
Wilson, one of the top saxophonists in jazz, had a busy residency at MSU in March and loved the experience.
“We’re big on people coming back,” Whitaker said. “People come back to hear a player they liked. You have a relationship. Maybe because it’s a small town.”
Whitaker modestly left out of the more likely draw — the stellar quality of MSU’s Jazz Studies program, and his own reputation.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, including Juilliard or anywhere else,” Wilson said after playing a gig with the Professors of Jazz in March.
Wilson has played with everyone from Lionel Hampton to Joe Henderson and Chick Corea, but playing with the MSU professors, he said, is the “real deal.”
“It’s rooted,” Wilson said. “They take all of that history with them. Every one of those cats on the bandstand takes you to another level, make you want to reach higher.”
Whitaker was impressed by vocalist Rene Marie when they crossed paths at a festival a few years ago. Marie is a warm, healing singer with a sharp social consciousness and a repertoire ranging far beyond jazz.
Whitaker compared Marie to legendary jazz singer Shirley Horn.
“She’s a storyteller,” Whitaker said.
“She’s got the Southern thing, she can sing the blues. She’s been a sensation at all the festivals for the past five years.”
Marie’s second album, “Vertigo,” is one of only 85 recordings in jazz history to get a “coronet” designation in the Penguin Guide to Jazz.
When Whitaker played a gig with Marie a year ago, he found out that the charts for her big band record were written by one of his fellow MSU professors of jazz —MSU trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles.
“Now I’ve gotta learn ‘em,” he said.
East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival
June 22-23 Corner of Bailey Street and Albert Avenue For a complete schedule see: www.eljazzfest.com