June 19 2013 12:00 AM

Summer Solstice Jazz Festival balloons with its biggest lineup yet

Courtesy photo
Homegrown talent and world-class artists (often one and the same thing), rare visitors from New Orleans, an organ trio, a Latin group, a big band, a guitar summit and a vocalist summit pack the strongest bill yet for this weekend’s East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival.

The festival is a three-way alliance among the City of East Lansing, the Wharton Center and the Michigan State University College of Music. MSU jazz studies chief and bassist Rodney Whitaker, the festival’s artistic director, went for variety and reaped a whirlwind of styles. 

“We can go a lot of places musically and everybody walks away satisfied,” he said. 

Friday’s headliner, vocalist Cyrille Aimée, will also be featured at the Wharton Center in the coming season, a tradition established in 2009 with bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding. (Aimée will return to sing at Wharton Center April 24.)

When the festival board asked Whitaker to bring in a guest artist from New Orleans, Whitaker snagged two: vocalist Germaine Bazzle and pianist Fredrick Sanders. (See related story.)

Another featured artist, veteran organist Bill Heid, made a deep impression at last February’s tribute to MSU drummer Randy Gelispie. Reviving their classic organ-drums-guitar trio sound going back to the 1950s, Heid and Gelispie struck sparks with a round robin of guitarists, all students of MSU guitar prof Perry Hughes.

“I wanted to keep that going,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker also put together a wild vocalists’ summit featuring Toledo-based vocalist Ramona Collins, who grew up in Lansing. Joining her will be Betty Baxter, Mardra Thomas and Betty Joplin, whom Whitaker called “Michigan’s first lady of song.”

Nothing was left to routine. A set by the MSU Professors of Jazz will be beefed up — as if they needed it — by the expansive sound of powerful Philly tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield. “Tim is probably the terror of our generation,” Whitaker said. “He is one of the most adventurous and energetic saxophone players I know.”

The Lansing Symphony Big Band is pulling out the stops, with guest soloists Diego Rivera and Andrew Bishop and the unusual infiltration of guest pianist Ellen Rowe, director of the University of Michigan Jazz Studies Department.

For the first time in its 17 years, the festival will open a second stage Saturday to showcase student groups. The Education Stage was the brainchild of East Lansing festival liaison Ben Hall. Whitaker worried that a second stage might distract from the first, but Hall was persuasive.

“He convinced us,” Whitaker said. “It’s a festival, after all.”

Dancing on the bedsprings
Cyrille Aimée

7:30 p.m. Friday

The bright, whippy voice of 28-year-old vocal star Cyrille Aimée comes at you like July ripples on the Cote d’Azur: Now slower, now faster, always curling toward the light. (To pronounce her name correctly, imagine an advanced degree in the art of Salvador Dali: “Surreal M.A.”)

Aimée’s ebullience and musicality invites frequent comparison with her vocal hero, Ella Fitzgerald. She admits she’s not interested in plumbing the world weariness of standards like “Love For Sale” in the style of her other vocal hero, Billie Holiday.

“I am more close to Ella because of her joy,” Aimée said. 

When Holiday sang “Love For Sale,” the mix of eroticism and tragedy made you queasy about feeling turned on. Aimée’s version, like Fitzgerald’s or trumpeter Miles Davis’s, dances on the bedsprings. 

“For me, the lyrics of ‘Love for Sale’ aren’t the best part of the song,” she said. “It’s not a happy song when you think about it. Sometimes I just like to have fun, as if I were an instrumentalist. I like to think of the harmony, the rhythm, and just improvise.”

Happy, if not happy-go-lucky, is a fine way to describe Aimée’s performing persona. Now based in Brooklyn, she grew up in the small town of Samois-sur-Seine, not far from Paris, where Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt lived. Every year the town hosts a festival in Reinhardt’s honor, with Gypsy caravans converging from all over Europe.

“I was obsessed with their way of life,” she said. “The way they see each day — every day is like their last. Music is important as food.”

She started climbing out of the window and singing with the Gypsies when she was 14, especially with one young man.

“He would teach me how to play guitar and in exchange, I would teach him how to read,” Aimée said.

Her first public performance was singing the old standard “Sweet Sue” for her Gypsy friend’s family at a campfire.

“The feeling I got when I sang, and the reactions, the way it made people happy — that changed my life,” she said. The Gypsies called her Sweet Sue.

She kept on singing, not thinking where it would lead her.

“I didn’t think that I wanted it to be my job,” she said. “I just wanted to do it forever.”

By the time Aimée came to America, she had every note of Reinhardt’s solos memorized and was ready for more input. Her first assignment from a jazz instructor at Purchase (N.Y.) College was to buy Davis’ classic album “Kind of Blue.”

“I couldn’t believe all these new sounds I had never heard,” she said. Following the path of many a jazz addict, she branched into serial obsessions Davis and each of the legendary “sidemen” on that album, saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and pianist Bill Evans.

For the average jazz lover, that slippery slope inevitably leads to a lighter bank account, but for Aimée, each lesson brought a new dividend, adding bebop and post-bop jazz to her bag.

Friday, she’ll sing “mostly standards, but really changed up.” The band will be a mix of familiar and wildcard elements.

Usually, Aimée includes a sax player in her combo, but for the East Lansing gig, she’s bringing young Australian trombonist Shannon Barnett. (Catch Barnett on YouTube playing a cheeky solo tune about her “hatred for sun-dried tomatoes.”) The combo also includes trumpeter/arranger Wayne Tucker, Israel-born pianist/arranger Assaf Glizner and the rhythm team of Rajiv Jayaweera drums and Sam Anning on bass, a tandem so tight, Aimée considers them “one person.”

After the gig, Aimée will record a new CD with a different band, but she has no concrete plans beyond that. 

Once upon a time, she wanted to be an astronaut. Then it was Indiana Jones. She still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up.

“I’m very Gypsy in that way,” she said. “I like to let life come as it goes. Right now, my plan is just to be happy.”

New Orleans connection
Fredrick Sanders Trio featuring Germaine Bazzle

7:30 p.m. Saturday

Two New Orleans treasures who are new to these parts — pianist Fredrick Sanders and vocalist Germaine Bazzle — bring more than a big songbook to the East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival. They bring experience in harmonizing music and life. 

After recording a strong post-bop CD in 1997 with trumpeter Roy Hargrove (“East of Vilbig”), Sanders faced a big decision. Should he take his prodigious piano chops on the road or rototill his wide-ranging musical interests into a grounded life?

The searching, sophisticated melodies, harmonies and rhythms of post-bop jazz seem to sit well at Sanders’ fingertips, with echoes of giants such like Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. But the gospel-tinged last track on “Vilbig” was a clue to his future.

“Everyone’s fighting about what’s real jazz and what’s not,” he said. “It’s all OK to me. You don’t expect everybody to do the same dance.”

He decided to focus on his family and community and hasn’t looked back since.

“Some musicians respected it and some didn’t,” he said.

He spent 10 years as music director at Church of the King in Mandeville, La., near New Orleans, a humble congregation that started in 1999 with 17 members and grew to about 600. He built a studio in his home and mentored young musicians, inside and outside of jazz.

The surprise to Sanders was that his music felt better than ever. “Keeping it real” is a cliché, but it has worked for him. “All of us get tunnel vision, work on one part of our lives and make it good, but the great things come at a cost,” he mused. “I wanted to have a great family versus having a great career. You can’t share that with somebody sitting in a bar in Copenhagen.”

Recently, he moved to Texas to study at a seminary in Fort Worth and resumed cello lessons with his teacher from 20 years ago.

“I’m trying to learn all the things I learned on piano and adapt them to the cello,” he said.

With strong background in classical music, gospel, funk and jazz, musical turf wars don’t interest him at all.

“Once you put a fence around it, it becomes something you have to defend,” he said. “I want to have property everywhere.”

New Orleans vocalist Germaine Bazzle, a veteran music teacher and mainstay of the area jazz scene, doubles the rare fortune of Saturday’s East Lansing gig. Sanders called Bazzle “the matriarch of jazz vocalists in New Orleans.” He first heard her in 1991 at a New Orleans gig with star drummer Brian Blade.

“I was blown away by her ability to swing, her execution of harmony,” Sanders said. “It was like Ella [Fitzgerald] meets Sarah [Vaughan] meets somebody from Bourbon Street.”

Older teachers and players like pioneering music producer and teacher Harold Battiste, clarinetist Alvin Batiste and pianist Ellis Marsalis (the Marsalis family’s patriarch) schooled many of the new generation of jazz musicians in New Orleans. Bazzle embodies that old-meets-new scene as much as anyone.

“She’s been able to capture, vocally, all the things that have happened with that movement of New Orleans tradition with modern jazz education,” Sanders said.

Sanders and Bazzle have worked together around New Orleans, but this is the first time they’ll do so outside the area. 

“It will be a special night for me,” Sanders said. “She deals with the history of this music in a completely unique way. She is true improvisational master.”