Penumbra of pulsations

Soak in sonic sunshine at East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival


From the relentless rhythm attack of drummer Randy Gelispie, still swinging at 89, to the jubilant, fresh sounds of CBS “Late Show” bassist and Michigan State University alumna Endea Owens and her band, the Cookout, East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival is rolling out a spectacular and sumptuous banquet of music this weekend. There are top national names, like vocalist Kurt Elling, and local treasures from across Michigan, like MSU’s Rodney Whitaker, Traverse City piano man Jeff Haas and Ann Arbor pianist Ellen Rowe.

The music will flow continuously for two days, served in large, medium and small (going by ensemble size), with tasting notes of R&B, hip-hop, folk, Latin jazz and masterful mixes with no known name. And don’t dare sleep on the Education Stage, where music lovers will discover a plethora of talented local students in a variety of tasty combinations. Here’s an up-close look at four of this year’s outstanding artists. (For a closer look at Owens, check out her interview with City Pulse from April 10, when she visited MSU to play with Jazz Studies students.) Happy jazzing!

Walter Blanding: submerged in music

Listen to a solo by Walter Blanding Jr., and you’ll hear worlds within worlds.

Simplicity and complexity converge. His pauses are like compact meditations. His breathtaking runs unfold like the iridescent plumage of a bird of paradise.

Blanding, ending his second year as an assistant professor of saxophone at MSU, has lived an incredible life in music, from busking on the streets of New York City as a kid to touring with big-band legends Cab Calloway and Wynton Marsalis and bringing jazz to Israel and China.

“I was always submerged in music. There was never a question about it,” Blanding said.

He speaks Italian as well as he speaks English, plus Spanish, Hebrew and some Chinese.

He brings a lifetime of experience and skill to the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, along with a stellar quintet of old and new faces.

His grandmother was the fountainhead of the family’s musical life.

“In the ‘60s, as a Black woman, she was teaching music history and theory at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and that’s really special,” he said.

However, like many people of her generation, she considered jazz “the devil’s music.”

Of course, her children became jazz musicians.

Blanding’s parents met at the Cleveland Institute. They formed the nucleus of a funk group, the Third Eye, and often practiced at home.

Blanding’s father, a bass player, took him to a music store when he was 6 and told him to pick out an instrument.

He choose the violin. His father told him to pick something else.

“You’ve heard beginning violinists — horrible,” Blanding explained.

He theorizes that he chose the saxophone for a perfectly valid reason, if you’re 6 years old.

“The Superman movie with Christopher Reeve had just come out that year,” he said. “The saxophone looked t

o me like a big letter ‘S.’”

Later on, he dug into his parents’ vinyl collection and gorged on classic jazz, from Miles Davis and John Coltrane to Thelonious Monk and beyond. He also got into Frederic Chopin, influenced by his mother’s piano playing.

Blanding made his saxophone debut in a 1991 CD with the group Tough Young Tenors, but don’t let the name fool you. The supple lyricism of Claude Debussy and other romantics often makes its way into his butterfly-delicate saxophone work.

Blanding’s family moved to New York City in 1981.

“We were extremely poor, really struggling,” he said.

To make ends meet, they played on the street as the Blanding Family Trio.

“Everybody’s got a story, and that’s mine,” he said. “I’m not ashamed. I’m proud to have that experience because it helps me understand the importance of humility and being grateful for the opportunities I was given.”

By day, he played in all the high school bands. In the evenings, he joined his family band to play at the Village Gate.

After high school, he attended the New School for Social Research. The school held a fundraiser, hosted by Calloway and jazz-loving comedian Bill Cosby. It changed his life. The star hosts not only hired Blanding’s to work for them, but they also bought him a saxophone.

Blanding toured the world for two years with Calloway and appeared on “The Cosby Show.”

The Calloway tour was a gas, even though Calloway was 80 and Blanding was 18.

“He represented elegance and class,” Blanding said. “He would wear a three-piece suit, tie, cufflinks, spats and a collar pin just to ride the bus to the airport. That’s how he rolled. It was a great experience.”

Blanding toured the world again in 1993, this time with the Wynton Marsalis Septet.

“That was like going from zero to 100, just like that,” he said.

Travel became an integral part of his life and thought. He spent four years in Israel, learned to speak Hebrew and toured the country with his ensemble. He taught music in Israeli schools and opened a private school in Tel Aviv. A story in Newsweek described him as the “jazz ambassador to Israel.”

After getting another call from Marsalis, Blanding launched a 25-year stint with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Along the way, he’s played or recorded with an astonishing variety of top musicians, from Dave Brubeck, Wayne Shorter and the Berlin Philharmonic to Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Willie Nelson and Elton John.

Always looking for an opportunity to broaden his horizons, he served as the jazz ambassador for Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai from 2018 to 2020 and added Chinese to his linguistic fluency.

When saxophone Professor Diego Rivera left MSU to take over the Jazz Studies department at the University of Texas at Austin, Rodney Whitaker invited Blanding to join his round table of illustrious faculty stars.

“I figured it was time to make a change,” Blanding said. “This is the end of my second year teaching here, and I love it in Michigan.”

He hit his stride last winter and spring with a smash series of concerts at UrbanBeat featuring a variety of local and regional guests.

“The reception has been really wonderful,” he said. “Every show has been packed, and most of them have sold out. It’s beyond words, and I’m loving it.”

Blanding’s pianist for Friday’s (June 21)  performance is a local favorite, Rick Roe, known for his brilliant interpretations of Monk tunes.

“Playing Monk is one of Rick Roe’s favorite things, as well as mine,” Blanding said.

Blanding has another Monk connection.

Throughout Blanding’s teens, Detroit piano legend Barry Harris was his teacher. He was “almost like a grandfather to me,” Blanding said.

Beginning when he was barely 10 years old, Blanding hung out with Harris in the Weehawken, New Jersey, home of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the legendary jazz patroness who helped support Harris, Monk, Charlie Parker and other jazz greats.

“We called her Nica,” Blanding said.  “I knew her, too.”

Blanding soaked up a priceless wealth of jazz lore and knowledge from Harris, along with many stories about Monk, who also lived in the house for the last 10 years of his life.

Whitaker, a former bandmate of Blanding’s in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, will play bass at Friday’s performance, with Detroit stalwart Dwight Adams on trumpet and MSU student Brian Allen on drums.

“Brian has played with me at UrbanBeat a few times,” Blanding said. “He’s an incredible drummer, and I’m sure we’ll hear much more from him in the future.”

Kurt Elling: ‘as much joy as we can bring’

At the ripe age of 56, despite a shelf groaning with awards and recognition as “the standout male vocalist of our time” from The New York Times, singer and composer Kurt Elling is still in searching mode.

“There’s so much to figure out,” Elling said. “I compare myself to the great singers who came before me, who set the standard and inspired me to want this life, and … ahhh!” he suddenly groaned, as if he stepped on a hornet. “I’ll never match that.”

There are others who beg to differ. Elling, headliner of the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, has won two Grammy Awards and is now rolling into a fresh field of clover.

SuperBlue, a joyful partnership with guitarist Charlie Hunter and a blazing, young rhythm section, is pushing his singing and composing skills into a funky, extroverted state of nirvana.

“This is the first time I’ve dived with both feet into a backbeat feel with electric instruments,” he said.

In the song “Manic Panic Epiphanic,” he soars jubilantly into Stevie Wonder territory, ending each phrase in a prismatic vibrato that shimmers like oil on troubled waters.

“I get to sing real loud every night,” he said. “I get to dance around in a way I don’t usually get to. Sometimes, with the jazz thing, it feels like it’s supposed to be ‘important.’ This just feels like, ‘Come on, let’s get out there and boogie down.’”

For Saturday's (June 22) performance, Elling will bring his key SuperBlue collaborator, Hunter, along with original SuperBlue drummer Corey Fonville, who excels equally at hip-hop, R&B and jazz. Another young, multi-talented musician, Julius Rodriguez, will join the group on keyboards. (Elling called Fonville and Rodriguez “two young geniuses.”)

At the height of the pandemic shutdowns, Elling and Hunter were climbing the walls, looking for something to do. After some preliminary fooling around with virtual duets, Hunter recorded a set of grooving bass and rhythm tracks with a group of young musicians and handed them to Elling.

“Nice, but where’s the melody?” Elling interrogated.

“That’s you,” Hunter shot back.

Elling got to work, producing literate, witty lyrics and pugilistic, shin-kicking melodies as only he can.

Elling joked that he grew up in “squaresville” (Rockford, Illinois), playing French horn, violin, piano and drums and singing classics like Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem.”

The training stood him in good stead when he made the switch to jazz.

“I had to learn how to support the tone and sing in tune,” he said. “I had to learn the importance of the lyric and make sure people knew what I was singing ,and why I was singing it, to infuse my singing with as much spirit as possible — and to do it without a microphone.”

He fell in love with jazz and standards while studying at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. For a while, he resisted the siren calls of Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis and studied diligently at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He was just one credit short of a degree when he pulled out to follow his true calling as a jazz vocalist.

“I didn’t really pull out as much as I was pulled out!” he laughed.

By then, he was singing in Chicago nightclubs with great musicians like hard-bop saxophonist Von Freeman.

“One night, I’m up until 3 in the morning with Von Freeman at the New Apartment Lounge,” Elling recalled. “He’s like, ‘Sing some more! You’re on fire tonight!’”

He got less encouragement from his professor the next morning.

He reenacted the scene, using an exaggerated German accent: “Mr. Elling, I’ve read your paper several times, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

He chucked the German accent and laughed.

Working days as a mover and nights as a bartender, Elling sang at weddings and clubs. He thought he was living the dream.

“Just to have a gig was so thrilling, and it still is,” he said.

He had no idea what was in store. 

He threw a Hail Mary pass and recorded a demo with pianist Laurence Hobgood.

After a few rejections, he got a call from Bruce Lundvall, then-president of Blue Note Records.

“He was all about it,” Elling said. “‘Don’t sign with anybody else! I’m coming for you!’ Sure enough, they put out the demo.”

“Put out” means “issued,” as is, with a few added standards to round out the CD’s running time — a dream come true for an aspiring singer. On top of that, the album earned Elling his first Grammy nomination.

(He later won Grammy Awards in 2010 for “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman” and 2021 for “Secrets Are the Best Stories.”)

Elling is renowned for his incisive, respectful take on jazz and Tin Pan Alley standards, but he’s got a lot to say in his own right. “Manic Panic Epiphanic” taps openly into the fraught cultural atmosphere of 2024.

“There’s a lot of anxiety in the air, and rightfully so,” he said. “We’re facing down a lot of survival issues. People would really like to find some peace of mind. Music, thankfully, is one of the chief delivery systems of peace of mind. You’re just here now, in the Buddhist sense, experiencing your moment.”

In his mental cockpit, Elling watches a lot of dials and lights, from articulation to intonation to balance and mood, but it all comes together when the band reaches escape velocity.

“Here we are. We’re together. We’re so happy that we don’t even know how happy we are. That’s what’s in it for me. We’re going to bring as much joy as we can possibly bring.”

Ellen Rowe: long-distance runner

Jazz is usually associated with not-so-wide-open spaces like bars, coffee shops and (of late) university classrooms. Ann Arbor-based pianist and composer Ellen Rowe prefers the open air, so a summer festival will suit her stellar, all-women “Momentum” octet just fine.

A recent residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, Canada, plunked Rowe into one of the most beautiful places in the world. Her wood-and-glass cabin was perched 5,000 feet above a lush valley, surrounded by “elk, squirrels, birds and other artists.” She meant there were other artists there, too, not that squirrel and elk are artists — although, who knows?

“I would sit at the piano at night with a candle or two, come up with some grooves and melodies and spin some of them into compositions,” she said. “I can’t tell you how lucky I was.”

She wrote part of her landmark 2019 album, “Momentum: Portraits of Women in Motion,” at another artist residency at Ucross, in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains in northeast Wyoming.

“Every day, the song of the western meadowlark was coming through my windows,” she said. She stole the poor, un-lawyered bird’s call as the opening motive for the final track on the album, dedicated to her mother and her love of birds.

Rowe grew up hiking, fishing, swimming and birding in the woods of Maine, where her family owns a cabin that was built in 1955. In “Song of the Meadowlark,” she relaxes fully into her melodic, meditative, limpid style.

It’s not easy to keep an octet of in-demand jazz stars going, but the “Momentum” project is dear to Rowe’s heart. The music pays tribute to great women in politics, sports and music, blending the categories whenever possible.

Tucked inside these tributes to other women is a hidden chronicle of Rowe’s own rocky musical development. Early on, she favored folksy rock in the vein of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and James Taylor.

A cool high school teacher hipped her to bebop players like Bud Powell and Horace Silver.

But it took time for Rowe to become comfortable with her own muse.

“Times are changing, but I don’t fit the quintessential profile of the jazz musician,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of clapping on two and four in the church I went to.”

At the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, she was told she sounded too much like pianist Bill Evans.

“It was a criticism. I was too feminine, too lyrical,” she said.

Pianist Marian McPartland took Rowe under her wing and helped her develop a thicker hide. Rowe guested twice on McPartland’s radio show, “Piano Jazz,” and the two became friends, even though McPartland once told Rowe she found her original compositions “somewhat compelling.”

When Rowe moved to Michigan, Detroit saxophonist Donald Walden was a key mentor.

“I learned so much just from being around him,” she said. “Coming to Michigan and discovering the incredible world of Detroit jazz was really eye-opening.”

Detroit pianist Geri Allen, who also blended lyrical storytelling with straight-up jazz, was a good friend and teacher.

You can hear Rowe’s respect and love for Allen in her music. Allen’s harmonically fertile right hand is at the core of “The Soul Keepers,” a tune Rowe dedicated to Allen.

But the tune has a hot, boogie-woogie core, in the mode of underappreciated swing-era pianist Mary Lou Williams, that lets Rowe show her good-times side.

“Game, Set and Match,” a tribute to Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, melds music and sports with a light touch of genius. The tune begins with a volley of sudden, quick horn blasts and tickety-tick bounces on the drum kit that evoke a heated tennis match.

“RFP (Relentless Forward Progress)” starts with a shimmering sizzle on the hi-hat, like a fresh breeze. The major-key, optimistic tune refers to a mantra in the world of long-distance running, one of Rowe’s great passions. That breeze is a nice thing if you’re running 100 miles, as Rowe has done many times.

“That whole piece is about a trail run,” Rowe said. “It picks up with footsteps and goes from there.”

“The Guardians” is dedicated to environmental advocates Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

At the East Lansing gig, the octet will play three newer compositions not included on the disc: a jazz paean to female comedians, a tune dedicated to unsung woman jazz musicians of the swing era and “For That Which Was Living, Lost,” dedicated to environmental activist Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring.”

Because of the tangled logistics of eight busy musicians’ schedules, it wasn’t possible for Rowe to assemble the same octet that plays on the album for Saturday’s performance, but she came close.

A key member, Detroit jazz legend Marion Hayden, will anchor the proceedings on bass.

“I haven’t had to do a gig yet without Marion, and I’m so grateful,” Rowe said. “She’s all propulsion. She makes it go.”

Australian saxophonist Lisa Parrott and powerhouse trombonist Melissa Gardiner also played on the album and will rejoin the octet in East Lansing.

“Having Lisa in the band is really important to me,” Rowe said. “Everybody in New York and Australia knows her, and she does so many things: straight-ahead swing, contemporary improvised music. She’s got this amazing sound.”

New York saxophonist Virginia Mayhew, whom Rowe called “one of the unsung heroes in jazz,” was set to rejoin the octet in East Lansing until she tripped over a curb in the Big Apple and broke her arm. Ann Arbor-based Janelle Reichman will take her place. Reichman played clarinet on the album and will double on tenor this weekend.

Tina Raymond, director of the Jazz Studies program at California State University Northridge, will take the drum seat, and baritone saxophonist Kaleigh Wilder, a former student of Rowe’s and a rising star in the Detroit jazz scene, will hold up the low end.

That’s a beast of a combo. It’s hard enough to keep a trio or quartet going in jazz. With a full-time job as a professor at the University of Michigan and no professional management, it’s down to Rowe to take care of booking, travel and finances for the entire octet. Still, she hopes to record a second album with them, write more tunes and get more gigs at festivals and other events.

“I’m not the greatest businesswoman in the world,” she said. “But I’m working on it. Everybody is so dedicated to this, and we have a great time together.”

Sean Dobbins: ‘more fun than your own thing’

The way drummer Sean Dobbins talks about leading a band sounds a lot like being a good friend. If you want your friends to flourish, you support them, stay out of their way and encourage them to be their best selves.

The fine art of staying out of the way is something that eludes many drummers. When Dobbins plays with organist Clif Metcalf, as he will this weekend, he takes that art down to the fine details.

“If you play with really loud, brassy cymbals, it takes away from the organ sound,” Dobbins said. “If you’re really busy all the time, it takes away from the rhythmic things drums can add to the band. If your drums are tuned too low, it makes their low-end sound too muddy.”

This weekend, Metcalf, a stalwart of the western Michigan jazz scene and parts well beyond, will join Dobbins, guitarist Luke Sittard and vibraphonist Peyton Miller.

“We had a performance last night, and Clif was on fire,” Dobbins said. “People were like, ‘Oh, the band sounds great,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, just don’t get in Clif’s way. It’s easy. Let him make music.’”

The organ trio is one of the most durable and appealing combos in jazz. Without the long, singing lines of sax, trumpet or trombone, the ears are free to float in a pleasurable penumbra of pulsations. A dusting of vibraphone only enhances the effect.

When they play together, Dobbins and Metcalf merge into a two-cycle rhythm machine. No — make that three cycles.

“He’s got to hold down two jobs at once,” Dobbins said. “He’s got the bass — the left hand and the pedals — and he’s got the right hand. Then there are the drawbars. He’s got a lot going on.”

Dobbins loves playing with horns, but the organ trio has a thicker, richer flavor. Unlike a sax or trumpet, the guitar and the organ can both play chords as well as melodies.

“It changes the texture and brings a different light to the band,” Dobbins said. “You get these different harmonic colors. The vibraphone and guitar can enhance each other’s sound.”

Dobbins came up in the Detroit jazz scene, playing with Blue Note Records trumpeter Louis Smith. He’s now an associate professor of music at Indiana State University.

Despite a long tradition of drummer-bandleaders, from Louie Bellson and Gene Krupa in the swing era to Roy Haynes and Art Blakey in the years following the bebop era, a drummer-bandleader “is still considered an outlier,” Dobbins said.

“I’m leading a lot of stuff,” he said. “My job is to put everybody’s ideas together.”

Being both a drummer and a leader is not a stretch by any measure. Even if they’re not booking the dates, calling the tunes and signing the checks, drummers inherently play a leadership role.

“If I decide to play loud, everyone has to play loud,” Dobbins said. “If I play too soft, maybe everyone won’t hear the time as well. I can do so many things that affect how everybody hears the music. There are always things you can do that have a high impact on the band, and that, to me, is leadership.”

He sets a goal of doing no more than “one-and-a-half” drum solos per gig.

“It doesn’t have to be seven drum solos a night for you to enjoy what a drummer brings to the table,” he said.

Dobbins follows the example of Jeff Hamilton, one of the best drummers in jazz today and a master painter of soft brushwork. Hamilton calls himself “a musician who plays drums,” and that description fits Dobbins as well.

“I’ve watched him live many times, and it’s been a turning point in my thought process,” Dobbins said. “He allows the listener to find the other things of beauty in the drum set. It might be your brushwork, the way you can play soft behind somebody and make a dialogue, show people that it’s a musical instrument.”

His latest project, “The World We Know,” dives into current issues that are at the top of his mind these days, from racial inequality to gun violence to mental health.

The group will play some of it at this weekend’s gig in East Lansing.

There are vocals and spoken-word segments on the disc, but Dobbins is confident he can get the message across without words. It’s an elusive challenge, but of late, many jazz musicians have turned toward telling stories in their music. Dobbins cited Ann Arbor-based composer and pianist Ellen Rowe (appearing at the festival with her octet later on Saturday) and saxophonist Diego Rivera, a longtime staple of MSU’s Jazz Studies program.

“Ellen is a great composer, and Diego is great at sitting down and writing from a story,” he said. “If you’re able to write from a story, all you have to do is explain it to the audience, and they’ll hear it as well.”

Dobbins hopes that community members, schools, churches and young people will find the music useful in focusing on and exploring many contemporary issues.

“It deals with a lot,” he said. “I’m trying to make the point that if we create the community we want ourselves, we don’t have to wait until November for someone to do it for us.”

The album is all original, with the exception of drummer Max Roach’s ebullient anthem “Freedom Day.”

Roach, a pioneer of bebop who pushed the music into political and social activism with his “Freedom Now” suite and other works, is a role model.

“Right now, I see myself trying to have a social impact,” Dobbins said. He’s also writing and recording music for very young children.

“We’ve already demonstrated that we’re masters of our instruments,” Dobbins said. “Now it’s time to take the music and make sure we’re moving humanity forward.”










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