JazzFest takes over Old Town once again this weekend, offering two days of local and regional jazz acts. The diverse slate of artists ranges from intimate duos and trios to a bombastic brass band and a full salsa group.
City Pulse sat down with two of this year’s artists to preview the weekend’s festivities.
Ramona Collins: 'Life takes care of everything'
When Toledo-based vocalist Ramona Collins found out she will be closing Lansing JazzFest Saturday night, she took the set list up a notch.
Collins’ indigo voice and mesmerizing interpretive gifts are perfect for bittersweet standards like “Don’t Misunderstand,” but she can also go big with the biggest of them.
“We got to leave them on a high,” she said. She’ll close with a medley of Marvin Gaye tunes, starting with “What’s Happening Brother” and ending with “What’s Going On.”
“People will be singing along by the end,” she predicted.
Gaye’s message will sound extra sweet in troubled times, echoing through Old Town into the ears of a multi-hued JazzFest audience.
“What Marvin Gaye wrote in 1971 is even more relevant now,” Collins said.
The singer’s return to the Lansing scene is one of the more felicitous musical developments of recent years.
Born in Toledo, Collins’ family moved to Lansing when she was 2. She moved back to Toledo at 21, disappointed with the slim pickings in Lansing’s jazz scene.
She became established as one of the top vocalists in the Toledo area and around the Midwest, singing with a variety of groups, from small combos to the Toledo Jazz Orchestra.
But things have changed a lot in Lansing since Collins left.
“You have two festivals, both well attended,” she marveled. “There’s been a resurgence. One of the nicest, hippest things to happen in Lansing was to have Rodney (Whitaker) as the cat in charge of the (MSU) jazz program. He’s an internationally known bass player, he knows all these people and he’s turning out some folks that can play.”
Collins had fun joining a memorable vocal summit at East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival two years ago, but she said there is something special about Lansing’s JazzFest.
“There’s all kind of folks in the street,” Collins said. “It’s in a neighborhood, not some big field or some college. People feel like they have some kind of ownership of what’s going on.”
Collins missed her 50-year Sexton High School class reunion but hopes to catch up with some old classmates. Not all of her memories are golden, though.
In a seventh grade talent show, Collins was singing "Puppy Love," by Paul Anka, when her voice cracked.
“I heard this one voice bursting out laughing before anybody else,” she said.
And she knew who it was — a longtime nemesis going back to grade school.
“I went off the stage crying, and kids walked behind me, teasing me for years after that,” she said. “Kids can be cruel and kind of stupid.”
She paused for a few seconds.
“Some of them will be at the festival.”
Was she planning on giving them a hard time?
“Life takes care of everything,” she said.
Collins’ mother, a pianist, sang and played jazz at Coral Gables for more than 15 years.
“I was very shy, and she wanted me to get over it,” Collins said.
Her mother took her to jam sessions and all but pushed her onto the stage.
“She would say, ‘Get up there, tell them what you want to sing, count it off, tell them your key and don’t embarrass me!’” It was nerve-wracking at first, but Collins was captivated by the music. Her house was steeped in classic recordings by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and other classic jazz singers.
As we talked, a Billie Holiday tune began to play through the speakers at the Creole restaurant, where Collins was enjoying the gumbo.
“She’s not the greatest singer in the world, but she pulls you in,” Collins said of Lady Day. “I like her phrasing. Who else does that? She was very expressive, very memorable. She was jazz.”
Collins favors standards that plumb the hot-and-cold complexities of life and love.
“I’m not a scat singer,” she said. “I appreciate them, but that’s not what I want to do.”
One of her favorites is “Don’t Misunderstand,” by polymath photographer/writer/ musician Gordon Parks.
Parks wrote the song in 1955, but it grew legs after it turned up in the film “Shaft’s Big Score.”
“It’s about two people who have a one-night stand, and one or the other of them thinks there’s going to be more to it than there really was,” Collins said.
She sang a few verses over her gumbo: “Don’t misunderstand/We are only strangers on our way to somewhere else/to someplace we forgot.”
Somehow, Collins blinds you to her flawless phrasing and diction, overwhelming you with pure feeling. When a phrase ends on a low note, her submarine vibrato sinks gently to the sandy bottom with an almost physical jolt.
“I try to create a mood that fits the song,” she said. “I dig it when people play with feeling and expression. They don’t just play to hit the notes.”
Collins has a large fan base in the United Kingdom, based largely on her bouncy, Motown-flavored 1970 single, “You’ve Been Cheating.” The song was released on the long-defunct Clark’s label founded by Toledo record store owner Otis Clark. (Collins’ name is misspelled “Romona” on the record.)
The record is fetishized by the UK’s Northern Soul scene, a dance subculture that prizes obscure mid-1960s Motown sounds.
Nearly 20 years ago, Collins read in a newspaper that the record was a collectors’ item, selling from $50 to $500.
“I was like, ‘What the hell?’” she said.
In a recent post on the UK-based Internet site True Soul Weekender, a fan speculated that the price of the record has gone up to $2,000. The record is hard to find today, because most of the copies went into the trash when Clark’s record store went out of business.
“I couldn’t even afford to buy it myself,” she said. “When it came out, I gave copies to all my family and friends, but nobody knows where their 45 is. I don’t even know where mine is anymore. Of course it’s on YouTube.”
Fred Knapp: 'The trio setting is something special'
Singers, horns, big bands and Latin combos all sound great in the open air on a warm summer night, and all of these permutations of jazz will be heard drifting over Old Town at Lansing JazzFest this weekend.
But early Saturday evening, before the tumult reaches its height, Grand Rapids drummer Fred Knapp and his trio will lay down the basics and represent the classic sound of the piano trio.
“I love playing with horn players, but the trio setting is something special,” Knapp said. “It’s so intimate, and you can do so much playing off each other.Knapp is the name player in the group, but he freely admits that the trio’s sound is driven by pianist Jeremy Siskind, a piano professor at Western Michigan University and acolyte of modern piano master Brad Mehldau.
Mehldau’s name conjures visions of restless, non-swinging explorations in rhythm and harmony — and there’s nothing wrong with that — so Knapp was quick to qualify his words.
“But we’re all steeped in the swing tradition too,” he said. “We can meld all the different styles together. It gives the listener a fun mix — super swinging traditional style and more modern stuff.”
To complete the trinity, the familiar form of David Rosin, an MSU grad and music teacher at MacDonald Middle School, will be addressing the upright bass.
Knapp came to jazz relatively late in life, at 18, when he fell in love with expansive, hypnotic pianist Keith Jarrett. Under Jarrett’s spell, he started on piano but switched instruments three years later when he found that the drums came more naturally to him.
“But I wouldn’t change a thing, because having been a pianist, you have a better sense of the music, more depth because of your knowledge of harmony and form,” Knapp said.
Jimmy Cobb, the legendary drummer on Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” and hundreds of other albums, is a personal favorite. When Cobb visited MSU last year, Knapp was elated to meet one of his idols.
At 85, Cobb is still playing with a lot of heat.
“Drums are a physical instrument, and for him to play at that level is fantastic,” Knapp said. “You see a lot of old drummers. It keeps you young.”
Among younger jazz drummers, Knapp keeps a close eye on restless innovators like Brian Blade and Bill Stewart. One of Knapp’s most valued mentors is Quincy Davis, younger brother of MSU piano professor Xavier Davis.
Knapp’s triangle may morph into a polygon for a tune or two, with a special guest sitting in. Knapp was reluctant to name names, but we have it on good authority that the mystery guest’s initials are Michael Dease. The trombonist, MSU professor and Downbeat magazine’s newly minted “top rising trombone star” plays JazzFest with his own combo 8:15 p.m. Saturday.
Friday, Aug. 5
Main Stages (1200 block of Turner Street) 5:30–6:45 p.m. — Solace with Aneesa Strings and Dakota Peterson, North Stage 6:45–8:15 p.m. — Nicole New & the Woodward Horns, MICA (South) Stage 8:15-9:30 p.m. — Orquesta Ritmo, North Stage 9:30-11 p.m. — Lowdown Brass Band, MICA (South) Stage
UrbanBeat, 1213 Turner St.
11 p.m.-1 a.m. — The OtherBand ($5 entry, limited seating)
Saturday, Aug. 6
KidzBeat (in City Lot 56) 1-5 p.m. — Bob Wilson, electric guitar mentor; Randy “Bird” Burghdoff, electric bass mentor; and the MSU Community Music School woodwinds/ brass instruments petting zoo
Main Stages (1200 block of Turner St.)
2-3 p.m. — JAMM Scholarship Band, MICA (South) Stage 3-4 p.m. — Nashon Holloway and Bryan Blowers, North Stage 4-5:30 p.m. — Betty Baxter (2016 JAMM Tribute honoree), MICA (South) Stage 5:30-6:45 p.m. — Fred Knapp Trio, North Stage 6:45-8:15 p.m. — The People’s Jazz Band, MICA (South) Stage 8:15-9:30 p.m. — Michael Dease wsg Doug Webb, North Stage 9:30-11 p.m. — Ramona Collins, MICA (South) Stage
UrbanBeat, 1213 Turner St.
11 p.m.-1 a.m. — Global Roots Jazz Collective ($10 entry, limited seating)