Jan. 22 2014 12:00 AM

MLK ‘Women in Jazz’ concert was earthy, eminent and oh-so-stylish


It’s hard to believe that “Jazz: Spirituals, Prayers and Protest,” MSU’s annual Martin Luther King celebration, is in its 14th year. The mélange of gospel, soul and jazz, knit together with the spoken word, gets fresher and resonates deeper each year. It doesn’t hurt that the world keeps furnishing new fuel for civil rights work. The phrase “stand your ground” was among the new, discordant notes that had to be assimilated this year.

Sunday’s afternoon and evening concerts were earthy, earnest, stylish and expansive. Any concert that can encompass a spoken-word account of the 1963 beating of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and a strutting, suggestive take on “Teach Me Tonight” without giving the audience whiplash must be doing “inclusive” the right way.

Right off the bat, Jazz Studies Director Rodney Whitaker’s fearsome student jazz orchestra cleared the air with “Things to Come,” a blistering arrangement of a Dizzy Gillespie tune. It sounded, in the context of the day, like a piece of Jim Crow legislation crumpled up and run over by a freight train. Pamela Bellamy, a spirited orator who could probably turn a list of shampoo ingredients into a call to arms, read a speech by King at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, explicitly linking creativity, especially that of jazz musicians, with the struggle for civil rights.

She followed with a full-on performance, in costume of “Ain’t I a Woman,” a speech given by Sojourner Truth in 1851, that set the house to laughing, whooping and affirming in vigorous call and response.

It was genius to follow up the fresh faces of the MSU Children’s Chorus with the graying gravitas of the Earl Nelson Singers. They didn’t even have to sing to make their point. But they did, of course.

The children’s chorus sang “Blue Skies” with a generous and sensitive obbligato from MSU Professor of Jazz Diego Rivera. A second tune, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” swelled into a delicate bubble of unexpected drama. Aside from its sweet song, the children’s chorus was a reminder that across this great land, countless groups of predomi nantly white, suburban kids are swaying to African-American spirituals. That, too, is cause for hope.

Whitaker is never the most flamboyant personality on stage, preferring to reflect the spotlight on his bandmates. But with five guest vocalists to showcase Sunday, his ego albedo reached new heights. Clad in a brown suit, he directed the proceedings like an anonymous gardener as the glorious diversity of womanhood blossomed around him.

Twyla Birdsong launched a swinging version of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” Then she gave everyone a soul attack (something like a heart attack, only they take you away from the hospital) with a spectacular reading of the spiritual “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” with pianist Reggie Thomas.

Informal and down-to-earth Rockelle Fortin ably embodied Ella Fitzgerald in two tunes: “The Nearness of You” and “Lady Be Good.” In sparkling red dress and attitude, Ramona Collins settled straight into Dinah Washington’s authority for “What A Difference a Day Makes” and vamped through a playfully suggestive “Teach Me Tonight,” firing syllables off the instrumental cushions behind her like a pool shark. Kimme Horne gave a chic, stylish reading of two songs associated with Sarah Vaughan: “What is This Thing Called Love?” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

The concert’s final guest vocalist, Jasmine Hamilton-Wray, calmly nailed “All Africa” and “Freedom Day,” two ultra-hip songs associated with Abbey Lincoln. In bright mustard pants, horn-rimmed glasses and heaped-to-heaven headgear, Hamilton-Wray put out minimal moves and maximum attitude. She gave the music a deliciously deadpan coffeehouse/beatnik vibe without dialing down the passion. It didn’t hurt that a furious battery of congas and drums erupted during “All Africa,” with moonlighting trumpeter Etienne Charles as the main instigator, as Hamilton-Wray stood watching like a queen.

At the end of the evening performance, all forces got back on stage for a massed “We Shall Overcome” and a spontaneous New Orleans style recessional, led by Charles, that snaked in and out of the Pasant Theatre. The formidable phalanx of female vocalists schmoozed and took photos of one another as the audience clapped and sang. Is it January 2015 yet?