Staff sergeant, song stylist
Light doesn’t always travel at the speed of light, no matter what Einstein said. Follow a shadow at dusk in mid-June.
The same goes for sound. Alexis Cole’s voice comes at you in voluptuous slow motion, like melting chocolate. When she sings “Someday My Prince Will Come” (captured in 2009 on CD with the great jazz pianist Fred Hersch) you get the feeling she’s well-equipped to wait, with a dirty martini and a good novel. She’s not suffering much.
Saturday’s headliner at the East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival has one of the more interesting regular jazz gigs around. Three years ago, she finished basic training in Ft. Leonard Wood, Miss. Now Staff Sgt. Cole is the lead singer with the West Point Jazz Knights Big Band, a high-level, high-energy strike force you wouldn’t bring to a nursing home.
“It’s not crazy — the music is accessible — but we’re on the vanguard of the bands working in New York right now,” she said.
The gig let Cole settle down after extended stints in the Far East and on cruise ships, in between critically acclaimed recordings and performances at places like Lincoln Center. Despite the travel, life has not been a winding road for Cole. One afternoon about 30 years ago, her mother came to pick up Cole at day care and found her standing on a tree stump, singing to the group.
“Not much has changed,” she declared. Back then, she bonded with a friend who was just a certain she wanted to be a doctor (and became one).
“We had a third guy, a best friend, who never knew what he wanted, and we always felt bad for him.”
Vulnerability, never a plus in the military, is not Cole’s thing. Among her vocal assets is impeccable diction, for which she credits her grandmother, a jazz pianist and singer “in the classic style.”
“Whenever I mumbled, she said, ‘Don’t you want the people to understand what you’re saying?’”
As a youngster, she admired folk singer Judy Collins. Recently, she has gotten to know Collins, hanging out at her Christmas party and even helping engineer one of her recent recordings.
Jazz came into the picture when Cole was 18. She answered a bulletin board notice about a gig in South Beach hotel with a vibist and sax player.
“As soon as I started checking the music out, I thought, ‘Wow, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’”
After studying voice and piano at the University of Miami, she ended up with a master’s degree at Queens College. Along the way, she found time to study Indian classical singing in Mumbai.
Cole had effusive praise for the musicians she will bring to East Lansing.
Her pianist, John di Martino, left her at a rare loss for words. “When I play with him I feel like I’m, I don’t know, ah …” She hesitated as if to cool down a hot metaphor. “Well, he lays down a bed of amazing harmony.”
She put her drummer, Ian Froman, in the same ménage: “He sits back there and whispers beautiful rhythms,” she said.
Cole is most excited at her latest band member, veteran bassist James Cammack, who played with piano legend Ahmad Jamal for 30 years. (Cole was surprised to find that Cammack also played in the West Point Knights back in the day.)
“He keeps the time, but his concept is so different from anyone else,” she said. “His solos are off the charts and he loves being on stage. We only started playing together but he’s the bass player of my dreams.”
Saturday marks the first time all four will play together.
Cole is already immersed in her next project, devoted to the compositions of Detroit baritone sax legend Pepper Adams, who died in 1986. Jazz-friendly, beat-ish poet Barry Wallenstein wrote the lyrics in tandem with Cole, who sings on the CD, due out in September.
‘Cone’ is back, and he’s not alone
Some cats don’t fit categories. Friday’s headliners, Wycliffe Gordon and Niki Haris, reduce the distinction between instrumental and vocal jazz to a technicality.
Haris is a singer with a mellow, joyful, triumphant “instrument,” as the pros like to call their resonating carbon-based pipes. Gordon is a trombonist who just happens to send his pleading, strutting, whispering voice through a metal tube.
As a teacher, Gordon’s mantra is “sing it first.” (He has even published a pedagogical book under that title.) He urges his students to sing a melody, at least mentally, before working the valves. Haris massages a melody like a horn player, trading licks with her bandmates the same way a consummate horn or sax player would.
Gordon heard Haris sing at a brewery in the singer’s home town, Benton Harbor, a few years ago. “She just kind of knocked me out,” Gordon said.
Haris is the daughter of jazz-soul piano legend Gene Harris. Besides singing pop, R&B, soul, jazz and blues, she’s a choreographer and actress with an impressive resume. She has worked with a slew of legends, from Ray Charles to Mick Jagger, but got her widest exposure as one of Madonna’s backup singers from 1987 to 2001 (she is prominently featured in the “Truth or Dare” documentary). Her work with Gordon takes her back into her father’s jazz-soul territory.
Georgia-born Gordon was a stalwart of Wynton Marsalis’ great septet in the 1990s, where he acquired the nickname “Cone,” short for “Pinecone” (a tweak at his rural Georgia roots). Since then, he has flourished as a player, winning Trombonist of the Year from the Jazz Journalists’ Association five times, triumphing in large-scale composition and branching out into other instruments, including trumpet and didgeridoo.
Telling stories, short or long, is a specialty for Gordon. In March, he premiered his epic 90-minute dance and song production, “Beyond the Blackberry Patch,” chronicling the history of an African-American enclave in the King Lincoln district of Columbus, Ohio — a thriving neighborhood before they built the interstate. Kids from eight neighborhood schools helped him research the story.
“I love doing stories like this (because) they could be told anywhere, from Benton Harbor to Paris,” he said. “It’s the development of a community.”
Although Gordon plays gigs around the world and teaches at the Manhattan School of Music, East Lansing holds a special interest for him. In his three years at Michigan State University, first as artist in residence and then as a professor of jazz, he gave the area some memorable moments, crowned by the 2001 Wharton Center premiere of his jazzy score for the Oscar Micheaux silent film, “Body and Soul.”
Last August, he premiered “Within Our Gates,” another Oscar Micheaux film score.
“I’m not rich by any stretch, but I do stay busy,” he said.
In 2004, the Brass Band of Battle Creek premiered Gordon’s tribute to Muhammad Ali, “I Saw the Light.”
“The best times were the rough times, getting the jazz program off the ground and working out the curriculum,” he said. On a visit last year, he dubbed the MSU program’s progress “amazing.”
“You have two jazz bands, they both sound good,” he said. “I remember when we were struggling to get the instrumentation for one band.”
East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival
Friday, June 22
4:30 p.m. Detroit Tenors
6 p.m. Community Music School Jazz Orchestra
7:30 p.m. Wycliffe Gordon & Niki Haris
9:15 p.m. Ritmo
Interlude Peter Nelson Quartet
10:45 p.m. Afterglow with Diego Rivera Quartet (at Beggars Banquet, 218 Abbot Road)
Saturday, June 23
4:30 p.m. Neil Gordon Trio
6 p.m. Modern Jazz Messengers
7:30 p.m. Alexis Cole
9:15 p.m. East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Orchestra
Interlude Anthony Stanco Quartet
10:45 p.m. Afterglow with the Lansing Community College Faculty Quartet (at Beggars Banquet)