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Out the door swinging

Ron Newman works a few firsts into his last bow


Pianist and composer Ron Newman, playing here with vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, is celebrating his retirement from MSU with a swinging recital Monday.

There’s this guy doing a jazz piano gig at MSU Monday who has some pretty fresh material in his pocket: three original tunes, a duet set with a hot vocalist and the debut of a new combo with the unusual front line of saxophone and tuba.

He’s even going to play Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” Sounds like an up-and-comer is signaling his arrival on the scene.

But Ron Newman is no up-and-comer. Monday will mark his last recital at MSU. Even with a 40-year career at the College of Music behind him, he’s not content to stroll complacently down Memory Lane.

The debut of a new group with Newman’s colleagues Joseph Luloff on saxophone, Philip Sinder on tuba and John Weber on percussion is a historic first, requiring hard work and new arrangements.

Sinder, Fedewa and Luloff are all mainstays of MSU music and the Lansing Symphony Orchestra. They also play tennis together every week, so listen for some deft musical handoffs.

“It’s probably a one-off, but this was our last chance to do it,” Newman explained.

Rounding out the group will be Newman’s longtime trio rhythm section of Ed Fedewa on bass and Larry Ochiltree on drums.

The hot vocalist is Newman’s wife, Sunny Wilkinson, who will join her husband for three of his favorite ballads.

In retirement, Newman is looking forward to playing more piano, not less, even if it’s to an empty house.

“I just love playing piano,” he said. He’s been hooked on jazz since seeing his first concert, the Modern Jazz Quartet with the Detroit Symphony.

“I remember his mallets breaking and flying into the crowd,” Newman said. “He’d just reach over and pick up another one. Ba-ding-dat-doo-dat, he just swings, those single note lines, and then those Bach lines.”

They say you are what you love. To Newman’s mind, you can’t top Herbie Hancock classic “Dolphin Dance,” which he’ll play at Monday’s recital. The tune’s seamless blend of complexity and flow hits Newman’s own sweet spot as pianist and composer.

“It has four chords in the first three measures — nothing that repeats — four sections that are all harmonically complex, and yet it all just lays so low,” he said.

After getting his doctorate at MSU, Newman led the jazz studies program from 1978 to 1993, then moved to music theory. He’ll continue to serve as music director of the Lansing Symphony Jazz Band, which he’s led for about seven years, and write arrangements for the group.

“I’d like to kick it up, do more outreach, get more people involved,” he said.

But he won’t miss grading papers, going to meetings and all the other duties that go with being a professor.

“I’m just ready for something else,” he said.

Newman is cursed with an unquenchable curiosity about nearly everything. He plans on taking time to savor and study a music history book, with YouTube stops to listen to every piece of music the author mentions.

“It’s astounding what you can learn that way,” he said.

He needs some deep time to follow his many interests.

“I love electricity and I’m fascinated by it,” he said. “I’d like to go through the history of the experiments that were done up to about 1900.”

He’s also reading John McPhee’s magisterial “Annals of the Former World” and following the geologist’s detailed history of California landforms on reference maps he pinned to the wall. Plenty of travel time with Sunny is also in the cards.

And don’t be surprised if one fine day, you see Newman cruising by your house, slowly, to see what’s on the curb. He’s also into small engine repair.

“I have this feeling I’m going to drive down the street, and if somebody’s throwing out an old lawn mower, I’ll pick it up and start taking it apart,” he said. “I’m not trying to set up shop. I just want to know.”

Ron Newman, piano

Special guests: Sunny Wilkinson, voice Joseph Luloff, saxophone Philip Sinder, tuba

7:30 p.m. Monday, March 25


Fairchild Auditorium

(517) 353-5340


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