March 28 2016 01:35 PM

East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival marks 20 years with biggest slate ever

MONDAY, March 28 — Subtle, vocal, brassy, free — more than 25 flavors of jazz promise a memorable 20th anniversary year for East Lansing’s ever-expanding Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, June 17-18.

This year’s diverse, high-powered lineup nudges the event closer then ever to the top echelon of jazz festivals nationwide.

Marcus Roberts
Courtesy photo

Highlights include soulful pianist Marcus Roberts, the cream-of-the-crop Chicago Jazz Orchestra, a summit of four young vocalists and a tripled roster of top avant-garde/free-jazz groups, with many more local and guest artists crowding two stages at East Lansing’s Parking Lot 1 at 230 Albert Ave. and Ann Street Plaza.

The schedule has not been officially released, but a list of participating artists was distributed at a fundraiser for the festival Friday night.

The music is a multi-layered counterpoint of education and entertainment, as befits a festival co-sponsored by Michigan State University’s College of Music, the Wharton Center and the City of East Lansing.

Headliner Marcus Roberts is an international star and one of the world’s best jazz pianists. Roberts started out as part of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s band in the 1990s and went on to make a lasting mark as a composer, bandleader and musician. A 2014 segment of CBS’s “60 Minutes,” entitled “The Virtuoso,” traced his life from his early years at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind to his present work as educator in Jacksonville, as well as his work with various jazz combos and his collaborations with symphony orchestras and fellow virtuosi like banjo master Béla Fleck.

The festival’s artistic director, MSU Jazz Studies Director Rodney Whitaker, is again bringing top musicians from his native Detroit, including post-Coltrane tenor sax player Marcus Elliot, who played an all-too-short set at the Lansing Jazz Fest last summer; and Lady Sunshine and the X Band, a brass-heavy soul/blues/jazz machine in the Stax/Volt mold.

This year, Whitaker is adding Chicago artists to the mix, a trend he hopes to nurture in future years. The Chicago Jazz Orchestra, a big band packed with top musicians from the Second City, will close out the big tent Saturday.

Ben Williams, an MSU alumnus who has made it big as a bassist, bandleader and composer in New York, will make a triumphant return to his alma mater with no less a colleague than Thelonious Monk Competition winner, vocalist Jazzmeia Horn.

Whitaker is also building on his grand design to make the East Lansing festival a premier state-wide event. This year, he reached out to the West Michigan Jazz Society for the first time in the festival’s history to bring another big band, the Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra with Edye Evans Hyde.

Another festival headliner is pianist Gary Motley, director of jazz studies at Emory University, an unsung American piano master and a highly regarded torchbearer of jazz tradition. Motley has performed with Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis and many other jazz greats, composed music for Broadway productions and is a also deeply committed to jazz education.

This year’s festival is also throwing some red meat to music lovers who long for more adventurous fare. Three bands, not one, will play the Kozmic Picnic, held Saturday afternoon outside the ultramodern Broad Art Museum.

This year’s Picnic headliner, multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, is among the most influential, intrepid and inventive free jazz musicians in the world. McPhee lives in Poughkeepsie, New York, but does much of his work in Europe. He will come to East Lansing with Universal Indians, an Amsterdam-based collective.

The Kozmic Picnic will also feature an adventurous trio fronted by cellist Tomeka Reid, with guitarist Matt Schneider and bassist Joshua Abrams, and a world-jazz-music quartet led by trumpet and electronics master Ken Kozora. The avant-garde Kozmic Picnic roster was put together with the help of Ann Arbor’s adventurous venue, the Kerrytown Concert House.

The traditional New Orleans-style procession from the Broad Museum to the main festival area will be fueled by the Gabriel Brass Band from Detroit.

Among other highlights in 2016 are a vocal summit with a fresh array of artists appearing for the first time: Danielle Blanchard, Evangeline Nashon Holloway, Nicole New and Beth Stalker.

Another notable singer on the festival slate is Boston’s Lydia Harrell, third place finisher in the 2015 Sarah Vaughan Competition.

Rounding out the all-star roster are five-time-Grammy-nominated vocalist Karrin Allyson; the George Delancy Quintet, blues-soaked Detroit-area guitarist Bobby Murray and his band and two MSU mainstays who have made national marks in the jazz world, saxophonist Diego Rivera and trombonist Michael Dease.