Mark Whitfield puts jazz guitar in its rightful place —total, cosmic ubiquity.
At a late afternoon gig Monday with the Michigan State University Professors of Jazz, Whitfield teleported in any direction he pleased, joyfully kicking off a week-long residency that will culminate in a concert Friday with the MSU jazz orchestras.
“He’s wild and free when he plays, in the best sense of the words,” MSU guitar Professor Randy Napoleon marveled.
Triple-thick, bendy chords made Whitfield’s introduction to the standard “Without a Song” sound like he was rising from the ocean in a diving bell. Whitfield’s solo feature, “Midnight Sun,” began and ended with satiny curtains of light, like aurora borealis.
In between, he laid down some tart blues, acoustic fog and sudden, slashing chords that almost wiped the beatific smile from Napoleon’s face as they played together.
Nah — the spanking only made Napoleon smile more.
“Sometimes people think a good accompanist is really dainty, stays behind the soloist, but the best accompanists light a fire behind you,” Napoleon said after the gig.
Whitfield has played with a lot of jazz greats, including Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock, but he credits the fringe-ier gigs with helping to nurture his adventurous spirit.
“I just never say no,” Whitfield said.
“When people ask me to play, I don’t limit myself to things I think I know how to do.”
In 1987, at 19, he dove happily over his head, playing for several weeks with no less a guru than avant-garde baritone saxophonist Hamiett Bluiett and his Telepathic Arkestra.
“I knew they were playing way beyond anything I knew how to play,” Whitfield said. After a disastrous audition — or so Whitfield thought — Bluiett hired him anyway. “He knew I wasn’t ready, but he was a generous spirit,” Whitfield said. “He knew that I what I needed, you couldn’t find in the practice room.”
At Monday’s gig, Whitfield held on to that avant-garde energy, usually for a breath at a time, like a wild stripe in a rainbow of moods. His zig-zagging solo on the exotic standard “Invitation” shifted from fine mist to cast iron chugging, with sudden stabs into the stratosphere.
MSU student Lowell Wolf, a senior in jazz guitar, was rapt as he listened in the wings of a packed conference room at the MSU Federal Credit Union headquarters.
“He’s one of my favorites because of the energy he has,” Wolf said. “I wouldn’t say he’s a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player, but the influence of rock ‘n’ roll is there, and he’s one of the most grooving, and rhythmic, and loud of anybody.”
Whitfield has also worked with Sting, Steven Tyler, Mary J. Blige and the Dave Matthews Band.
A gig with bluesy B-3 organist Jack McDuff, while Whitfield was still in his 20s, was a formative experience. After a year and a half with McDuff, he absorbed the blues into his bones and never let it leak out. Then followed a stint with the greatest jazz organist of them all, Jimmy Smith.
That’s Whitfield backing Smith on one of the master’s late, great albums, “Damn!” “He had a certain aggression, a conviction that if you didn’t play, you just got swallowed up,” Whitfield said. But that’s just what he needed to squeeze the last bit of “meekness” out of him.
After that, Whitfield “graduated” to a gig with supreme vocalist Carmen McCrae.
Unnervingly, they started each night in duet format. “I was the entire band, accompanying one of the world’s greatest singers,” Whitfield said. “The first few nights, she’d look at me and smile as I fumbled through my introduction: ‘Don’t worry, baby, I’ll wait, you just get it together.’” It was horrible and exhilarating at once. “I could never improve on her, just try to keep up,” he said. “But when I got there, she’d give me just a little half smile, and that was the greatest compliment.”
By the time Whitfield was in his mid- 20s, he had apprenticed with a major figure in nearly every style of jazz and felt ready to make his own music.
Napoleon has been a fan of Whitfield since he was 19 and wanted to bring Whitfield to MSU for years.
“Just exposing the students to a person like Mark is important,” Napoleon said. “Riding on the bus the other day, we were talking about some pretty profound things — what it means to be original, where being a student ends and being a creator begins.”
Whitfield will go far beyond teaching guitar technique as he tours the state and visits high schools with jazz studies students in the run-up to Friday’s concert at MSU.
“There are guys who are better communicators of theory, the nuts and bolts,” Whitfield said. “But music is a very individual thing with me.”
MSU Jazz Orchestras Mark Whitfield, guitar 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7 Fairchild Theatre 542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing $7-17 (517) 353-5340 music.msu.edu