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Eclipse, schmeclipse. Have you ever seen two suns in one sky? The blinding trumpet force of visit- ing artist Michael Philip Mossman and MSU’s own Etienne Charles lit up the night and scorched the audience to its very meatballs, stockpiled on paper plates at the MSU Credit Union headquarters Monday night.
It was the kickoff of a week-long residency by one of jazz’s most adept player-composer-arrangers, culminating Friday in a public concert where Mossman and MSU’s jazz orchestras will unleash several of those arrangements upon the public.
Monday, Mossman smiled as he watched Charles to his left, and along with sax man Diego Rivera and trombonist Altin Sencalar, read through his music for the first time.
That’s right — they were sight-reading the music at the gig. Charles had only just arrived, with Mossman in tow, and there was no time to rehearse.
But Mossman is bored by the fallback strategy of calling tired old tunes everybody knows. He excels at crafting incandescent charts of jazz classics that glow with sinuous filaments of melody and sudden harmonic flashes.
An alarming amount of sclera was visible in all six eyeballs to Mossman’s left as the horn section locked onto the unfamiliar music. Six lungs strained, six cheeks bulged, six lips pursed and three brains raced to keep up with it all. In the end, the horn men sailed through even the most intricate unison passages, darting over the swamp like three dragonflies, leaving zero mosquitoes.
“These guys can read,” Mossman said after hearing the band seamlessly weave through two intricate tunes made famous by Miles Davis, “Four” and “Dig.”
Asking for miracles, and getting them, is standard procedure in the highest echelons of jazz. I asked Sencalar, a last-minute replacement for MSU trombone professor Michael Dease, how much notice he got for the gig.
“What time is it?” he asked. (He found out the night before.)
“Those were tough to play but fun,” Sencalar said, exhilarated. “He’s the cat. Michael Mossman is the leading arranger/composer and a phenomenal trumpeter. It’s an honor to get to play his stuff in an intimate setting.”
All week, between master classes at MSU and touring the state with jazz students, Mossman will have plenty of chances to chat about working with jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan and soulful pianist Horace Silver.
In a quick post-concert interview, Mossman called Gillespie a “smart, funny person, an incomparable innovator, and not just on the trumpet.”
But dazzling, Dizzy-like runs didn’t work as well with Silver.
“He wasn’t impressed by a lot of notes,” Mossman said. “You had to learn to get inside the song. You had to learn how to play the blues with Horace.”
Mossman said only three musicians have left him “tongue-tied.”
“One was Miles Davis,” he said.
“When I met him, I could barely speak. Dizzy — I was in his band, and I could still hardly talk. The other was Adolph Herseth. I auditioned for him, and I was totally in awe.” (Herseth was principal trumpeter of the Chicago Symphony for 53 years.)
Mossman is a technical monster, but his approach to teaching goes much further.
“It’s about learning what questions to ask, what to look for and how to investigate things on your own,” he said. “If everybody learns the same thing, there’s no spark. Why are you here? What did you hear that made you want to do this, and do you understand it?” The sky’s the limit when Mossman writes charts for the top bands in the world, including Europe’s WDR Orchestra, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, where Mossman is artistic director.
“But you have to know who you are writing for,” he said. “It’s actually harder to write charts for middle schoolers than for pros. You have to really be creative in coming up with good music that’s playable by kids.”
On several tunes Friday, Mossman and fellow trumpeter Etienne Charles took complementary trumpet solos, the latter ricocheting with mathematical precision, all straight angles and zig-zags, the former curving with the coolest of calculus in the spaces between.
Students in the wings listened closely, leaving massive pyramids of meatballs untouched.
Trumpet student Evan Taylor from Ludington is so into Mossman he’s busy arranging a tune called “K-Say-D-Say” from Mossman’s CD “Spring Dance.”
“He is an incredible artist, an incredible example, and I expect a stupendous tour with him,” Taylor said.
Trumpeter Tim Blackmon learned about Mossman from a juicy 1980s run of Blue Note recordings by Mossman’s sextet, Out of the Blue, with saxophonist Kenny Garrett.
“We’ve been playing a lot of his charts,” Blackmon said. “He’s got a great ear.”
Mossman and the MSU jazz orchestras will spend a week barnstorming the state together, working with high school students in Byron Center, Holland and Black River and community college students in Ludington.
“It’s going to be all 25 of us, busting back and forth,” he said. “A week of playing this music together — we’re going to be tight by Friday’s concert.”
MSU Jazz Orchestras
Guest artist Michael Philip Mossman 8 p.m. Fri., Oct. 13 MSU Fairchild Auditorium