Sol with soul to spare
|By Lawrence Cosentino|
East Lansing jazz fest hits its strideLike 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 has been a treasure of the Detroit
“I’ve been completely obsessed with music
When Nurullah was in fourth grade, students were invited to bring in
Besides jazz, Nurullah grew up listening to
In the 1980s, when Whitaker was a
“She’s my mentor, my big
“Yeah, I guess I’m a little bit older,” Nurullah allowed.
Deflecting talk about herself, Nurullah, 52, said she was lucky to grow
The next year, Nurullah taught herself
Nurullah studied music at Cass Tech, where many
A top-drawer mix of Lansing and
In the candy store of jazz, saxophones are the chocolate. (Vocalists are nuts, guitars are licorice and trumpets are butterscotch. Hmm,
Most combos mix flavors, of course, but the North Star
Cafagna, now a professional musician based in Rochester, Mich.,
Cafagna uses tunes from all three group’s books and quite a bit more.
No band Cafagna has ever had, including
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.
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.
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
Saturday, June 20
Parking Lot 1, corner of Albert