Monday afternoon, Steve Wilson, a compact, laser-focused jazz saxophonist from New York, turned the exotic tent setting of “Caravan” into a benign crime scene.
He started with quick stabs, like a dagger poking through a red silk veil. The stabs elongated into slashes, running up and down until streams of sound flew like ribbons in the convection currents of a red-hot rhythm section.
On the first day of a week-long whirlwind of classes, performances and trips with MSU students to Michigan high schools, Wilson joined the Professors of Jazz for a scorching gig at the headquarters of the MSU Federal Credit Union, sponsor of four jazz residencies every year. Wilson will team up with the student big bands for a concert Thursday at MSU’s Fair child Theatre.
The hall was packed with people, with standees against the wall and students dancing in the wings. After trading licks with the professors, Wilson shook his head in amazement.
“I’ ve taught in a lot of great programs, but this one stands out,” he said as he took his sax apart and put it away. “I’ve never seen anything like this, including Juilliard, or anywhere else.”
For Charlie Parker’s “Parker’s Mood,” the rest of the horn players took a walk while Wilson dug into the blues so deeply he might as well have poured a half-thousand whiskey sours, lit as many unfiltered cigarettes and passed them out to everyone in the place.
Freshman saxophone student Sam Corey stood in the wings, slack-jawed. “That was incredible,” Corey said. “He plays with such soul, deep down.”
“We are rediscovering the blues on a bunch of levels,” Wilson said after the gig.
Wilson said he’s worked with several MSU graduates after they went on to graduate studies in New York.
“Every one of the grads I’ve worked with, they come prepared, rooted in tradition and knowing what the deal is,” he said.
Wilson, 57, is not the biggest name in jazz, but he’s made over 150 recordings and is often called a “musician’s musician” and a tireless educator.
“It’s common to find that students at this stage are trying to get the mechanics of your instrument, and of the music,” he said. “I was at that stage myself at one time, but this music means nothing without a cultural context.
It’s about our humanity.”
In his teen years, Wilson played in symphonic band and marching band in his home town of Hampton, Virginia, while playing in a garage band on weekends. He went on the road, playing R&B and funk.
In 1987, after signing with Blue Note Records, Wilson moved to New York, where he got a gig with Hampton, a living legend of the big band era and pioneer of jump blues and rock and roll.
“Even with the wonderful academic setting that has proliferated in the last 40 or 50 years, it’s still an oral tradition, a folk music,” Wilson said. “There are things you can only learn from older peers and mentors.”
Lately, Wilson has been working with one of the greatest of them all, 80-year-old bassist Ron Carter, a mainstay of Miles Davis’ second great quartet and a scheduled guest at MSU’s Jazz Spectacular in April.
“These great leaders and legends — they’re in their 70s and 80s but they’re not coasting,” Wilson said. “They want to know what’s next. Charlie Parker was trying to find the next thing up until the day he died.”
Wilson has played with everyone from Lionel Hampton to Joe Henderson and Chick Corea, but playing with the MSU professors, he said, is the “real deal.”
“I’ve taught in a lot of great programs, but this one stands out,” Wilson said. “It’s rooted. They take all of that history with them. Every one of those cats on the bandstand takes you to another level, make you want to reach higher.”
MSU Jazz Orchestras Artist-in-Residence Steve Wilson Thursday, March 22
7:30 p.m. MSU Auditorium Fairchild Theatre $5-15 (517) 353-5340 music.msu.edu