June 17 2009 12:00 AM

East Lansing jazz fest hits its stride


Like jazz fans everywhere, Lansing music lovers doffed their berets in mourning when New York’s JVC Jazz Festival folded this year, leaving the Big Apple without a major jazz festival. Still, we couldn’t help noticing something interesting.

Greater Lansing has two annual jazz festivals, and they’re only getting bigger.

This year, East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Festival really hits its stride, pulling even with August’s Old Town JazzFest in its two-day scope and high-profile talent.

This weekend’s festival boasts three national headliners, topped by hotter-thanhot bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding.
Two more of the festival’s top bands happen to be based here, but also have a national chart-topping presence: the Carl Allen/ Rodney Whitaker Project and the evererupting organ trio organissimo (with gigs in Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y., this Wed). Add Detroit vocal legend Shahida Nurullah and a panoply of Michigancentered talent, and you get a solstice with soul to spare.

The growth is natural. It’s not as if we have to fly jazz legends in from the north Atlantic like sea bass or jumbo shrimp. Organissimo has been making jazz history from its mid-Michigan hideout for a decade. Whitaker, the former Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra bassist and MSU Jazz Studies chief, is in the prime of his fruitful musical partnership with drummer Allen.

A key to the East Lansing festival’s growth is its partnerships with local treasures like these, along with the MSU School of Music and the Wharton Center. The Wharton Center’s executive director, Michael Brand, brought Spalding to the festival in advance of her Jan. 20, 2010, Wharton gig, much as vocalist Sophie Milman was introduced last year.

And so it goes, all the way down to the huge pool of faculty and student talent which visiting artists can dip into as needed, for sidemen and sidewomen. MSU sax prof Diego Rivera, for example, will match melodies with vocalist Nurullah Saturday night. Recent MSU piano grad Ross Margitza will play with Nurullah and join a student combo for between-act interludes.

The combinations and flavors of jazz are endless, like ice cream, but just as fleeting — so lick up these licks while you can.

Esperanza Spalding: Hope and hype

Imagine that you’re a very smart and passionate 25-year-old jazz musician with deep respect for the music’s traditions and its many great artists. You have something new to say and the talent to say it.

Suddenly, an overheated press touts you as proof there is still “hope for jazz.” (“Esperanza” means “hope” in Spanish.) You vault over dozens of jazz greats to gobble up column inches and top festival slots. You can’t know for sure how much of the attention has come your way because you are young, beautiful, charismatic and fashionably multi-racial, as well as intelligent and talented, but it’s not hard to guess. When the hype spins out of control, fed by the larger culture’s accelerating hunger for the next thing, you just hang on and play your music.

No wonder Spalding didn’t do interviews in advance of her East Lansing apperance. Her people say she’s very busy, and that’s no lie — few jazz musicians are more in demand right now — but why would anyone as smart as Spalding want to field another airhead question about her sudden celebrity and how heavy that double bass must be to carry?

Make no mistake. Spalding is the real thing — a deep-grooving bassist with many moods and shades and a relaxed, confident singer who can put you on a cumulus cloud with her languid voice. Check out her dark, oceanic version of the classic tune “Body and Soul” on YouTube if you doubt she can make the music her own.

Originally from Portland, Ore., and now living in New Jersey, Spalding has already worked in a small combo with saxophonist supreme Joe Lovano and counts two of the most sophisticated and accomplished of jazz bassists, Dave Holland and Ron Carter, as prime influences. When Spalding was a student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, no less a fan than guitarist Pat Metheny talked her out of quitting music to major in political science. In 2005, she became one of the youngest professors ever at Berklee. If morning-show hosts say her music is “jazz, but it’s fun” and David Letterman calls her his “coolest guest ever,” what’s the harm?

“She’s a tremendous talent and a great stage presence,” Whitaker said. “It will be interesting to see how she develops.”

Whitaker knows jazz doesn’t need saving, from Spalding or anyone else, but any performer that makes people feel as good as she does is worth nurturing. Here’s hoping she makes it through the gauntlet of flavor-of-the-day fame without running off to a monastery.

Shahida Nurullah: Songs and stories

Some jazz vocalists tease, twist and torture a tune until it gives a false confession: “I give up — I was never a ballad.” “OK, my lyrics are silly.”

Shahida Nurullah does not torture.

With a crystal voice, diamond-cut diction and deep inner warmth, Nurullah lets a song pass through her like sunlight through stained glass. Melody and lyrics are not merely clarified; they’re illuminated.

Nurullah asks no less of other singers, including her favorite, Sarah Vaughan, with whom she is most often compared. “I have to understand what you’re saying,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Detroit. “I have to listen to the story, listen to the song.”

Nurullah has been a treasure of the Detroit
scene for decades, but she’ll make her first appearance at the Summer
Solstice JazzFest this year.

“I’ve been completely obsessed with music
since I was a child,” she said. “Nothing else ever entered my mind.”

When Nurullah was in fourth grade, students were invited to bring in
their favorite records on the last day of school. She brought “The
Emancipation of Hugh Masekela.” On the album cover, the South African
trumpeter wears a Lincoln-esque stovepipe hat, a fake beard, no shirt
and a mischievous grin. “I still remember the look on the teacher’s
face,” Nurullah said.

Besides jazz, Nurullah grew up listening to
everything from Beethoven to Motown, and her hunger for culture still
knows no bounds.

a Renaissance woman,” Whitaker said. “Her house is full of art, and
she’ll cook you an amazing dinner.”

In the 1980s, when Whitaker was a
journeyman Detroit bassist, Nurullah was his landlady for a year. They
played and sang together almost every day.

“She’s my mentor, my big
sister,” Whitaker said.

“Yeah, I guess I’m a little bit older,” Nurullah allowed.

vocal skills reflect her generosity of spirit. She sings jazz
standards, samba, bossa nova and blues with consummate skill and soul.

Deflecting talk about herself, Nurullah, 52, said she was lucky to grow
up in the 1970s, when the club scene in Detroit was off the hook.

favorite memory is sneaking off to the old Strata club at 14 to hear
the fatback “Mwandishi” sextet Herbie Hancock had just put together.

boyfriend had a car,” she said.

The next year, Nurullah taught herself
to drive. “I was going to those places way before I was supposed to be
in there,” she said. “I didn’t drink and still don’t. I went for the

She reeled off a head-spinning list of names, from McCoy Tyner to
Sonny Stitt to Oscar Peterson, all of whom blew through Detroit,
jacking up the already rich, homegrown jazz scene. “There are things
going on the stage you just can’t learn,” she said. “You have to check
that stuff out.”

Nurullah studied music at Cass Tech, where many
Detroit jazz greats got their start. Before long she was singing in a
wide variety of venues. She toured with pianist Geri Allen, getting
superlatives from the New York Times and a cult following in Finland.

enjoying Nurullah for the first time will not guess that for the past
20 years she has worked hard to come back from a devastating accident. While
waiting for a bus, a car slammed into her and threw her on her head. It
took years to come back from the resulting body and brain damage.

had to learn how to sing again,” Whitaker said. Far from putting an end
to her career, Whitaker thinks the intensive, post-accident training
put a fine finish on the lessons she got from high school and hanging
in clubs. “She always was great, but after the accident I
think her singing got better,” he said.

A top-drawer mix of Lansing and
Detroit musicians will back Nurullah Saturday, with Ross Margitza on
piano, Sean Dobbins on drums, Diego Rivera on tenor sax and another
Detroit musical titan, Marion Hayden, on bass.

North Star Saxophone Quartet: Super Variety

In the candy store of jazz, saxophones are the chocolate. (Vocalists are nuts, guitars are licorice and trumpets are butterscotch. Hmm,
this is fun.)

Most combos mix flavors, of course, but the North Star
Saxophone Quartet is a rich truffle that sticks to one ingredient.
There’s a sweet core of white chocolate (Cafagna’s soprano sax) wrapped
in milk (James Hughes of Berkley, Mich., on alto) with undertones of
dark (Len Temelin of Windsor, Ontario, on tenor) and extra dark
(Shannon Ford of Toledo, Ohio, booming away on baritone.)

The resulting
sound is big, supple and not at all monotonous. “Together, we
have the tonal range of a grand piano,” North Star leader Cafagna said.
“Even string quartets and brass quartets can’t match that.”

quartets feel exotic, yet somehow Cafagna has found a way to gravitate
toward them since his days at East Lansing High School in the late

Cafagna, now a professional musician based in Rochester, Mich.,
has always wanted to put a working sax quartet together, but didn’t
find the right mix of musicians until last year. The North Star group
has been together a year, anchored by a regular gig at Gus O’Connor’s
Irish Pub in Rochester and dozens of other one-off dates.

quartets, already a specialty genre, love to specialize even further.
New York’s 29th Street Saxophone Quartet plays modern jazz. The San Francisco Saxophone Quartet is known for inventive classical arrangements. The
New York Saxophone Quartet romps through poppy, Vegas-type materials.

Cafagna uses tunes from all three group’s books and quite a bit more.
“We’ll follow a movement from one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with
the theme from ‘The Simpsons,’ then a jazz standard like ‘All the
Things You Are,’ ‘When I’m 64’ by the Beatles and a Scott Joplin rag,
all in 20 minutes,” he said.

No band Cafagna has ever had, including
his regular jazz sextet, has been able to scratch so many of his
musical itches. “We’re the super variety quartet,” Cafagna said. “I’ve
got nothing against the other groups playing the festival, but I think
ours is the most fun.”

Miles Mullin: Interlude with Miles

If jazz didn’t exist when Miles Mullin was a baby, his parents would have had to pickle him and put him on a cool shelf until it did.

It’s impossible to imagine the gifted young MSU bassist as anything but a jazzman. He says he has two namesakes: Miles Davis and “the first kid who ever broke my dad’s nose.” At age 5, he managed to bend hip blue notes into “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the family piano.

Last week (about 20 years later), Mullin leaned against the MSU Music Building, rolling a cigarette and some big talk about the upcoming Summer Solstice Jazz Festival. “I’m just trying to make the headliners play well, or we’ll cut ‘em,” he deadpanned.

With a newly minted master’s degree in jazz studies at MSU, Mullin isn’t intimidated by the festival’s biggest lineup yet. He will lead a crack combo of recent grads and students, including piano man Ross Margitza, between major acts Saturday, just to dispel any creeping complacency among the festival stars.

As a youngster, Mullin fell in love with Duke Ellington’s lotus-lovely piano intro on “In a Sentimental Mood,” from the classic album Ellington made with John Coltrane.

He has devoted his school years to jazz ever since, studying first at San Francisco State with former MSU Jazz Studies chief Andrew Speight.

His favorite gig was working behind a steering wheel, not a double bass. He worked the Stanford Jazz Workshop at age 23, driving VIPs around.

There, Mullin got priceless face time with jazz legends like Kenny Barron, Lee Konitz, Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess and Jimmy Cobb. “It’s nice to play music, but that was one of the best jobs ever,” Mullin said.

One day he was driving Heath somewhere when a song called “Mona’s Mood” wafted from the car radio. “I wrote that for Mona,” Heath told Mullin. Mona, Heath’s wife, was sitting next to him in the back seat.

Mullin, a gregarious creature, made friends with many of these legends. He recalls hanging in a bar with Charles McPherson and Barry Harris, who played with Rodney Whitaker last year at the Detroit Jazz Festival.
“They were saying that no one has a sound, a beat, like Rodney anymore,” Mullin said.

Mullin gave up the West Coast and braved his first snowy winter to follow Whitaker to East Lansing. Mullin was attracted to Whitaker’s love of Motown and R&B, and he loved Whitaker’s work with trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
 You hear all the influences of life in his music,” Mullin said.

One lesson with Whitaker hooked him. “He has a scalpel-like accuracy in telling you what you need to work on,” Mullin said. “’Straighten your pinky.’ He finds that tiny detail that will change your whole life.”

Festival-goers Saturday will find that Mullin shares his teacher’s feel for deep rhythmic grooves. “Technical facility is cool, and I work on that, but the most important part is the beat,” he said.

Summer Solstice Jazz Festival

June 19

4:30-5:30 p.m. North Star Saxophone Quartet

6-7 p.m. Denise

7:30-8:45 p.m. Esperanza Spalding

9:15-10:30 Los Gatos

With the
MSU Community Music School Jazz Orchestra and Rockelle Whitaker Project
on Interlude Stage between main acts

Saturday, June 20

3-4 p.m. Arlene
McDaniel Trio

4:30-5:30 p.m. Linda Abar and the Neil Gordon Trio

p.m. Shahida Nurullah and Good Company

7:30-8:45 p.m. Carl Allen/Rodney
Whitaker Project

9:15-10:30 organissimo With the Miles Mullin Quartet
on Interlude Stage between main acts

Parking Lot 1, corner of Albert
Avenue and Abbot Road, East Lansing.FREE (517) 319-6927 www.eljazzfest.com