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Bonfire of gratitude

MSU’s generous King tribute mixes old and new

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The night after MSU’s indoor winter bonfire of a Martin Luther King tribute concert Sunday — and I offer this humbly, with truth as a defense — I had a dream.

There was a mighty wedding feast. The food was ambrosial, but everyone sat on the floor. People were welcomed off the street. The cake, a frosted castle 20 feet high, came apart into little boxes that slid into people’s laps. From the looks on their faces, the boxes contained their heart’s desire.

That’s how the annual King concert, mounted by the Jazz Studies area and the College of Music, messes with your mind. It wasn’t just the fine oratory, blazing jazz, razor clean poetry, the lovingly retooled soul and R&B classics. The warmth, camaraderie, generosity, breadth and breath of it all whooshed like a bellows onto the last dying embers of January until everyone had enough heat to last until it’s spring again in America.

The body English and beyond-Stevie-Wonder vocal pyrotechnics of Sean Holland III on “How I Got Over” would have been enough to steal the show, were this not a Utopia where everybody could steal as much as they wanted. Holland worked himself into a tornado of gratitude for life as he danced, cajoled, pleaded and sent his larynx high into the ecstasy zone.

Later in the evening, silver-throated guest vocalist Kenny Washington strolled through a set of Marvin Gaye tunes with impeccable phrasing, behind-the-beat confidence and an incandescent inner light. MSU’s arranger-bandleader Diego Rivera and the sterling Jazz Orchestra matched him with high professionalism, note for note.

In recent years, Whitaker has ceded more of the spotlight to Rivera, his assistant jazz studies director, a killer saxophonist with a stage presence that grows more commanding every year. In the midst of the set with Washington, Rivera turned around, pulled out his saxophone (from where?) and tussled one-on-one with Micheael O’Neill, the bearish, down-and-dirty reedman Washington brought with him from the San Francisco Bay Area. Rivera tore it up, to everyone’s delight, O’Neill’s most of all.

The MLK concert has always been a happy blend of community stalwarts like Whitaker and Rivera with new faces. This year’s mix was especially lively.

A new MSU group, Color Me Music, curated a wide-ranging tribute to soul icon Aretha Franklin. Jordyn Davis and Jadrian Tarver, founding members of the group, both contributed warm vocal performances. MSU College of Music Dean (and silver eminence) James Forger pointed to Davis, a woman of color, and said, “that’s what leadership in the 21st century looks like.”

Tarver pleaded that it was a tough task to follow Holland’s explosive “How I Got Over,” and then proceeded to roll like the Rock of Gibraltar on chariot wheels through a mesmerizing, mercurial arrangement of “Amazing Grace.”

Whitaker led the orchestra in a romantic, sugar-sweet take on his own favorite Aretha Franklin tune, “Day Dreamin.’” Passionate spoken word artistry was a key part of the night’s generous mix. Poet William Langford, aka “Will the Poet,” gave his proud, defiant take on the resurgence of his home town, Detroit, from the inside, reminding the wine sippers, “fair weather fans” and casino tourists in the audience to “always bet on black.”

Pamela Bellamy, fighting off a hamstring injury, took to center stage on crutches to lift Maya Angleou’s “Still I Rise” into great green mountains of resounding humanity.

There was so much more to take in, from the mad volleys of solos from each member of the orchestra to the muted trumpets that keened like cicadas in Diego Rivera’s arrangement of “What’s Going On.” But it all came together when vocalist Brysien Beer, wearing a gray fedora Martin Luther King would have rocked, stepped forward to sing King’s favorite hymn, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Whitaker explained that when things got rough, King would call gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and ask her to sing this hymn.

Beer sang his heart out, channeling King’s hopes, fears and doubts into a universal human plea.

The rhythm section locked into a sweet gospel sway. All of the evening’s vocalists came to the stage and closed ranks in a gospel chorus behind Beer. Suddenly, it felt like I could reach out and touch King’s unquenchable yearning to make us whole. What a gift.

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