June 15 2011 12:00 AM

East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival puts the accent on youth this time around


At 19, Grace Kelly has left the jazz prodigy bit behind
her. But Kelly, who brings her quintet to the East Lansing Jazz Festival
Friday, has aged in a selective way. Her alto sax sound has quickly
matured into Black Label scotch, but her bubbly enthusiasm and stage
moves are still Juicy Juice.

“Sometimes I watch videos of myself and I just laugh,” she said. “It looks like I’m doing a chicken dance.”

Kelly leaves it to others to take her seriously — and they
do. She’s already spent serious time in the heavyweight ring with jazz
legends who are also devoted fans, including fellow alto players and
Phil Woods and Lee Konitz.

At Barack Obama’s inauguration, Kelly jammed with Dave
Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis and an all-star big band. Having conquered the
scene in her native Boston, she has taken her own band to the Montreal
Jazz Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and
tours throughout Europe. 

She swings the young-hope-of-jazz burden like adolescent King Arthur casually hefted Excalibur. What’s the big deal?

“I don’t think of it as being under pressure, because I
know that in the end I’m going to create the music that makes me happy,”
she said.

Kelly’s torch-passing tours with Woods have been especially significant to both musicians.

“He’s a warm person,” Kelly said Woods, “but he’ll tell you when you’re messing up — onstage, in front of people.”

“She’s 14 years old — and I’m going to break her fingers,”
75-year-old Woods said when he introduced her on stage for the first
time in 2005.

Check it out on YouTube: As Kelly soars into bebop heaven,
Woods settles on his stool and his gruff mug relaxes into a deep-set
grin — the face of a man who is satisfied his estate won’t have to go
through probate.

Last year, Kelly and Woods got together to record a CD of originals, “The Man With the Hat,” with Kelly taking top billing.

“It’s been surreal,” Kelly said. “He’s been one of my biggest idols since I started.”

“I sleep a little better knowing there’s people like Grace
Kelly playing the alto saxophone,” Woods said after the “Man With the
Hat” session.

On a typical Kelly/Woods summit, a fleet and sweet solo
will earn Kelly the jazz equivalent of Excalibur — Woods’ hat, delivered
by the owner from his head to hers.

“She’s the first person to get that hat,” Woods said.

When Kelly was a larva in single digits, she listened to
the bossa-flavored jazz of Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto and walked
around the house, singing the solos. “I didn’t think about it. They
subconsciously seeped in.”

As a youngster, she was enthralled by a street musician in New York who played “The Pink Panther.”

“I wanted to be able to do that on saxophone,” she said.

She was scalded by the joy of jazz at a Boston gig by trumpeter Clark Terry, a veteran of Duke Ellington’s band and many others. 

“He was older, and having a hard time playing trumpet, but
you could see how happy he was to be there,” Kelly said. “His spirit
really came through and I realized how powerful that is.”

Kelly’s alto style flows from the bebop mainline, straight
from Charlie Parker, filtered through the cooling coils of latter-day
Bird disciples like Woods and Konitz.

Kelly has been careful to acknowledge her inspirations and
mentors, but she’s also moved on to write and sing pop, folk and gospel

“A lot of people play what fits the giants, but there will
never be another Charlie Parker, another Coltrane,” she said. “In order
for music to grow and things to keep changing, there’s got to be a meld
of today’s genres.”

She already has a scrapbook of heady memories.

A recent gig in a public square in Warsaw, Poland, stunned her by drawing thousands.

“I could hear a pin drop,” Kelly said. It sounded like we were in a concert hall. They were so hungry for the music.”

On tour with Woods, Kelly learned that European audiences are still rabid for jazz.

“They’ll bring these out-of-print records Phil signs that
Phil doesn’t even know about yet,” she said. “The listening is
different. I’ve noticed the attention span. It really seems like they’re
with us for the whole journey.”

She’s gotten generous praise from a lot of jazz greats and
likes to return the love. Brubeck, she said, “still plays his butt
off.” Wynton Marsalis is full of hard-earned, heartfelt advice. (He told
her not to let critics change her music.) And then there was that
blazing gig in Mexico with powerhouse drummer Jack DeJohnette.

“Playing with him is like a surge, a whirlwind,” Kelly
said. “The power that comes from him. The notes just flew out of me — I
wasn’t thinking about it, just channelling energy.”

Kelly is a calculating performer when she’s singing, but
hand her the alto sax, lay down a deep groove and soon she’ll be in a
crouch, eyes closed, lost to the world.

“I love it when it’s 100 percent raw,”
she said. “I’d rather hear somebody go for something they didn’t
necessarily know was going to work than something that’s perfect.”

Taylor Eigsti Quartet

New York-based pianist Taylor Eigsti is only 26, but he
yearns for the days when the Earth’s continents were part of a single
land mass. Great times. He’d like them back — musically, if not

“Maybe it’s too Utopian to hope for a world that has a
Pangaea of music,” he said. “I don’t think there has to be so much
separation and classification.”

Eigsti might adapt an alt-rock anthem by Coldplay, a sad
song from Nick Drake or a romantic piano sonata from early 20th century
Catalan composer Federico Mompou.

The formula informs much of today’s piano jazz: curious young person with wide-ranging iPod plus prodigious chops.

“You could say it reflects being born in 1984 and being a professional jazz musician,” Eigsti said.

Eigsti brings his quartet to the East Lansing Summer
Solstice Jazz Festival Saturday, with the promise that no two of his
performances are ever the same.

“You’ll hear jazz, because we don’t want to abandon what
got us to that position, but you’re going to hear a lot of other things
too,” he said.

As a kid, Eigsti was fired up by jazz virtuoso Art Tatum,
but now his outlook is inspired by citizens of musical Pangaea like
Dirty Projectors and Bjork. He’s a fan, and friend of jazz pianist
Robert Glasper, who is blending jazz and hip hop.

Gone are the days when one form of jazz, whether
avant-garde or old-school, was considered legit. When the Robert Glasper
Experiment teamed with Mos Def at the Blue Note a few weeks ago, Kanye
West sat in for a sizzling round of freestyle.

“We live in an era when we see Kanye West sitting in at the Blue Note,” Eigsti marveled.

“A lot of things that are in my roots — enjoying rock
music, enjoying R&B, enjoying classical, all those things are coming
back into the music. But now I have a perspective on how to assimilate
then in a way that feels like myself.”

Last September, Eigsti closed a strange loop of his life by sitting in with the Doobie Brothers.

In 1987, the Doobies played at a hospital where Eigsti’s
sister, Shannon, was being treated for cancer. Shannon, a jazz and rock
pianist, ended up playing with the crooner-rockers on a few gigs before
she died that year. The Doobies’ 1989 album, "Cycles," is dedicated to

Eigsti’s gig with the Doobies last September was a mix of melancholy and elation.

“That was a big moment, getting to jam with them,” Eigsti said. “I bought a new leather jacket for the occasion.”

Eigsti’s label, Concord, packages him as a young hunk with
an edge (read: two days’ beard growth), but there’s a melancholy
undertow in his music. It can hardly be otherwise if you’re playing
music by the likes of Mompou and Nick Drake.

“A lot of bad things that have happened in my life that
I’d have traded anything for them not to have happened,” Eigsti said.
“But I feel lucky. I’m getting a lot of opportunities to play music I’ve
always wanted to play. This is the best time of my life, musically.”

Summer Solstice Jazz Festival
4:30 p.m.  Metro Jazz Voices
6 p.m.  Etienne Charles & Folklore
7:30 p.m.  Grace Kelly Quintet
9:15 p.m.  Tumbao Bravo
Afterglow  Arlene McDaniel Quintet (at Mumbai)

4:30 p.m.  Randy Gelispie & Friends
6 p.m.  Billie Holiday Project featuring Mardra Thomas
7:30 p.m.  Taylor Eigsti Quartet
9:15 p.m.  Grupo-Aye
Afterglow  Rodney Whitaker Quartet (at Mumbai)

The performances are staged under a large tent in downtown East Lansing’s Parking Lot 1 (230 Albert Ave.), on the corner of Albert Avenue and Abbot Road. Afterglow performances will be held at Mumbai, 340 Albert Ave. All performances are free. Visit www.eljazzfest.com for updates.