Turning up the heat

By Lawrence Cosentino

East Lansing jazz festival snags Joe Lovano, Somi

Summer jazz forecast for East Lansing: Increased blue notes,
with an upswing in swing. Bebop will also be boppier.

National headliners Joe Lovano and Somi, quadrupled tent space
and a third day of festivities will twist the ratchet another few notches for
the 14th Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, set for June 18-20 in East Lansing.

Joe Lovano, arguably the top tenor saxman in jazz today,
will bring his all-star Us Five group — the one with two drummers and
26-year-old phenomenon Esperanza Spalding on bass — for an afternoon Wharton
Center performance Sunday, June 20, extending the festival to a third day and
adding a venue.

jlovano2006.jpgThe festival proper, held in downtown East Lansing, will
feature polystylistic young vocalist Somi, one of jazz’s most intriguing young
vocalists. The emerging empress of a blend of African, Latin and jazz styles
called New African Soul will sing Saturday night under a new tent nearly four
times larger than the old one, according to East Lansing spokeswoman Ami Van

Taking their cue from a collaborative art form, a trio of
entities — the East Lansing, the Wharton Center and MSU’s College of music —
joined to put some fire under the festival in 2008. The festival grew from one
to two days, took advantage of Wharton’s clout in snagging national artists,
and beefed up its slate with more of MSU’s stellar jazz faculty and students.

It’s become a yearly tradition for the East Lansing festival
headliner to return in the fall and play the Wharton Center. Following a
successful formula established by vocalist Sophie Milman in 2008 and Spalding
in 2009, Somi will follow up her June appearance in East Lansing with an Oct.
28 gig at Wharton.

Last year’s appearances by Spalding at the East Lansing
festival and at Wharton led indirectly to snagging the biggest fish of all: Lovano, a hard-driving, innovative tenor man who has conquered many facets of
jazz, from small groups to big bands and symphonic projects.

Lovano’s stature in the jazz world enabled him to assemble a
quintet of top musicians: the two-drummer engine of Francisco Mela and Otis
Brown III, pianist James Weidman and bassist Spalding. The Us Five quintet’s CD
“Folk Art” topped dozens of 2009’s best-of lists.

Lovano needed to fill a blank spot in his schedule between a
June 18 gig at Mears Park in Milwaukee and a June 24 Carnegie Hall birthday
gala for pianist Herbie Hancock. After Spalding played the East Lansing
festival last summer and Wharton last fall, she urged her agent, who also
represents Lovano, to call Wharton.

Lovano’s Wharton performance will be ticketed; the rest of
the festival will be free to the public.

The two-day slate of local artists mines a broad cross
section of MSU and Michigan jazz talent. Guitarist Neil Gordon, saxmen Diego
Rivera and Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson, the neo-gypsy combo Hot Club of
Detroit, Latin combos Los Gatos and Ritmo, bassist Sean Dobbins, vocalist Sunny
Wilkinson and Rockelle Whitaker and pianist Rick Roe are all scheduled to
perform, with MSU jazz student combos filling the air during set changes.

Van Antwerp estimated that 5,000-7,000 people attended
the Summer Solstice festival last year. She said the city would like to see the
festival grow into a three- or four-day indoor-outdoor cluster of jazz events,
like the Montreal Jazz Festival. Venues under consideration for future
festivals are the nearby Valley Court stage and a black-box theater likely to
be built as part of East Lansing’s planned City Center II development.