East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival is sprouting an early pepper this year, and it’s a hot one.
Bassist Jonathon Muir-Cotton and his multi-talented Expressions band will sonically stimulate visitors to the East Lansing Famers Market, 280 Valley Court Drive, from noon to 2 p.m. this Sunday (June 18).
The music will pop all over the map, from straight-up acoustic jazz standards to electrified fusion, Latin grooves, R&B and hip-hop.
Phenomenal young guitarist and MSU student Christopher Minami and his band will play the early slot at the market, from 10 a.m. to 11:45.
Muir-Cotton is a thoroughly 21st century, “all of the above” musician. He plays acoustic bass, electric “pork chop” and keyboard bass, and wields an arsenal of pedals that multiply and bend the grooves. His Expressions band mate, Detroit-based trumpeter Allen Denard, is a master of the pedals as well.
“I go for a diverse musical experience,” Muir-Cotton said.
The quartet also includes drummer Caleb Robinson, currently a student at MSU, and MSU grad Jordan Anderson on piano.
Muir-Cotton has played all over the map, from Mezzrow Jazz Club and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York to Cliff Bell’s in Detroit, from Disneyland Resort to Seattle’s Langston Hughes Theatre, but he sounds genuinely excited to play the farmers market on Sunday. For one thing, the market is in Valley Court Park, just across the street from his apartment. During the COVID shutdown, Muir-Cotton played basketball many afternoons at Valley Court with his fellow MSU students.
And then there’s the weather.
“I’m excited because now it’s actually starting to stay warm in Michigan,” he said.
He’s equally comfortable in Carnegie Hall or a jazz club, but he doesn’t mind laying grooves on garlic chives. About 10 years ago, one of his musical idols, the iconic jazz bassist Christian McBride, offered some practical advice to MSU students.
“Take every gig you can — every bar, every bar mitzvah, every wedding, every backyard barbecue,” he told them.
Muir-Cotton, then in high school, caught up with McBride and the MSU ensembles when they stopped at Schoolcraft College.
“I remember it very well,” he said. “He’s one of my favorite bass players.”
Muir-Cotton grew up in Ann Arbor, where another iconic jazz bassist, Robert Hurst, is a professor. He considers himself “blessed” to have studied with the formidable triumvirate of Hurst, Detroit legend Marion Hayden and MSU’s own Jazz Studies director and resident jazz icon, Rodney Whitaker.
“That’s three of the worlds’ greatest bassists, all in a 200-mile radius,” he said. Add to the list Ralphe Armstrong, master of the fusion fretless bass. Muir-Cotton’s mentors and teachers span a dizzying range of styles and periods, but he isn’t the least bit worried about filling all those big shoes.
“It doesn’t discourage me at all,” he said. “Professor Whitaker always encouraged me to be original, write music and have my own voice. He doesn’t put pressure on you to sound a certain way.”
Muir-Cotton has also learned a lot from Whitaker on how to lead a band and shape it to create the sound he’s going for.
Muir-Cotton’s eclectic musical tastes were shaped in large part by his mom, Julieanne Muir, a music-loving native of Montego Bay, Jamaica. They go to all kinds of concerts together, from Jazz at Lincoln Center to Erykah Badu.
“She played all kinds of music around the house, Caribbean, funk, R&B, salsa, more than straight-ahead,” he said. “That influences my writing as well. She helped me make sure I don’t put myself in one box.”
Cotton-Muir is living in New York this summer, but will return to MSU to finish his degree in the fall. At a music festival last weekend festival in New York, he added a new weapon to his arsenal — the key bass, an electric bass played on keyboards.
He reveled in the swirl of sound, toggling at will from key bass to stand-up acoustic to his electric bass with pedals.
In January, he played a 10-day gig at Carnegie Hall’s Music Explorer series with a hip-hop group called Soul Science Lab.
“We’re doing hip-hop, we’re swinging, we’re doing all these genres,” he said. “Everything kind of blends now. It’s a great time, especially now. A lot of people steered away from fusion a couple of years ago but they’re doing more of it now.”
The wide-open musical world of 2023 is a joy for him, but it demands more than just learning a myriad of styles.
“With all the technology, you have to be able to do everything, even recording your own stuff at home,” he said. “But it’s also the best time to do music, especially coming out of the pandemic, because people are starving to have live music. It’s a great time to be an artist.”
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