Dec. 27 2018 10:33 AM

Jazz and classical highlights of 2018


With apologies to William James, the varieties of musical experience in Greater Lansing — thanks to an overflowing local music scene and the region’s power to attract distinguished visiting musicians — were more than enough to cure a sick soul in 2018.

The biggest jaw drop in a relentless year goes to one of the greatest musicians alive, bassist Ron Carter, who dropped his bad self into the sizzling finale to MSU’s Jazz Spectacular in April.

Carter, 83, is arguably the most illustrious and influential in a long line of guest artists to do a residency with the stellar MSU Jazz Studies program.

For five ground-breaking years, Carter anchored trumpeter Miles Davis’ second quintet, one of the greatest groups ever, with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams. He’s played on 2,221 recordings as of September 2015, according to Guinness Records, making him the most recorded bassist of all time.

Mixing it up with musicians one-fourth his 83 years, Carter spurred a lineup of top student and faculty artists at MSU to new heights.

The ongoing series of jazz residencies sponsored by the MSU Federal Credit Union is the gift that keeps on giving. Especially welcome are the distinctive styles, and much-needed role models, offered by some of jazz’s top female artists. In February, pianist Helen Sung brought her classical-meets-jazz artistry to work with MSU’s jazz ensembles. Chilean-born saxophonist Melissa Aldana brought an athletic, agile, full-throated presence to the bandstand and classroom in October.

Meanwhile, in the private sector, Lansing’s Medicis of jazz, music patrons Gregg and Lois Mummaw, turned their home into a cozy performance venue for several small but exquisite fundraising dates.

Iconic singer Freddy Cole, 86, needed help getting to the piano at the house party Aug. 22, but once he got there, his understated, classy, soulful take on jazz standards charmed the room into butterscotch ooze.

Jazz Tuesdays at Moriarty’s is still going strong in its third year, and a newer venue — Old Town’s Urban Beat — stepped up its own series of eclectic concerts, highlighted by two sublime rhythmic effusions from the world-music-inflected Dave Sharp Worlds Quartet, with master guitarist Elden Kelly, in June and September.

While jazz festivals gradually wink out in major cities around the world, greater Lansing is still blessed with two two-day blowouts, in East Lansing in June and Old Town in August.

At the Lansing Jazz Fest in August, Flint pianist, composer and teacher Roger Jones fought off some technical glitches — including a piano stool he shattered with his large enthusiasm — to blow the crowd away with a nuclear fusion of jazz, blues, gospel and Rachmaninoff-level piano chops.

Not to be outdone, the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival was capped by an expansive three-way summit meeting of star saxophonist Steve Wilson, Virginia-based vocalist René Marie and MSU Jazz Studies director Rodney Whitaker’s Gathering Orchestra, a 19-piece big band assembling top jazz students from Wayne State, the University of Michigan and MSU.

Another performer at the Solstice festival, smooth jazz saxophonist Phil Denny, mounted his own smoothly run smooth jazz festival at Lansing’s Armory for the second year this summer.

The Solstice festival also featured vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, a local icon in the middle of a major bloom of creativity.

The same can be said of diva supreme Renee Fleming, who came to the Wharton Center Oct. 16 to give a rare solo recital, leaping with ease from Italian arias to the mesmerizing “Bachianas Brasilieras, “ recent forays into Broadway and movies, and a new song cycle by Pulitzer Prizewinning composer Kevin Puts. Despite her iconic status in the opera world, Fleming bantered with the audience in an accessible, un-diva-like way.

On Oct. 30, one of the world’s greatest conductors, Semyon Bychkov, and the Czech Philharmonic came to the Wharton Center to play music that courses through their veins — Antonín Dvoák’s Cello Concerto and “New World” Symphony. The music-making was grand, delicate, precise and passionate, and it was a homecoming of sorts for Bychkov, who led the Grand Rapids symphony from 1980, when he was fresh out of school, to 1985.

And let us not neglect the plucky home team, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra and music director Timothy Muffitt, who keep on finding ways to sneak new varieties of experiences in between the established classics. On Feb. 10, the LSO took an epic voyage through the little-heard symphony by American composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, best known for his classic movie scores of the 1930s and 1940s. On Nov. 15, the LSO premiered a profound and gripping new concerto by MSU composition professor David Biedenbender, played with fierce commitment by principal trombonist Ava Ordman.

So rich is greater Lansing in the varieties of musical experience that even early music is gloriously alive. Where else but in MSU’s Taylor Johnston Early Music series could you hear an ensemble of two cornetts (plaintive wind instruments that are also called “zinks”), three trombones and organ? The Dark Horse Consort brought this ancient sound to life in September.

But the last word in early music has to go to the Tallis Scholars, arguably the finest choral group in the world specializing in Medieval and Renaissance music, and their breathtaking recital at Fairchild Auditorium April 15. Hearing the Tallis Scholars soar and drift through the polyphony of Palestrina is like being massaged by Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman or having Julia Child cooking you an omelet.

It does not get any better.

One big-city experience that seldom filters down to most American cities is grand opera, but even here, Lansing is blessed, owing to MSU’s stellar opera program and its director, Melanie Helton.

In late March, MSU Opera mounted Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene,” a massive piece of theater with 90 roles that mixes Broadway-type tunes with operatic singing and reams of dialogue by the great poet and novelist Langston Hughes, all set to a wall-to-wall score by Weill at his most expressive.

The opera is beyond the means of most professional opera houses, but MSU’s College of Music put all hands on deck, with 50-odd students doubling roles and learning multiple skills.

Weill’s music, played by the MSU Symphony Orchestra, flowed freely under the whole panorama, including long stretches of spoken dialogue. The score earned Weill the first Tony Award for best original score.

But it was the opera’s gritty scenario — a tenement packed with immigrants and immigrant haters — that made for extra interesting theater in 2018. Finding the music in a motley patchwork of people who are stuck with living together is just one of the many varieties of musical experience that can cure a sick soul.