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Wednesday, June 18,2014

Timelessness meets spaceiness

Worlds collide at Summer Solstice Jazz Festival

by Lawrence Cosentino

The Summer Solstice Jazz Festival brings two raucous flavors of jazz into its tent this weekend — ecstatic “space mu sic” and jubilant New Orleans-style brass — in a venue only East Lansing can offer.

Saturday afternoon in the courtyard of MSU’s Broad Art Museum, Detroit’s Planet D Nonet will pay tribute to the 100th birthday of bandleader/pianist/composer/mystic Sun Ra, the avatar of Afrofuturism who claimed to hail from Saturn. Why the Broad? Along with the Wharton Center, the Broad Museum is joining the festival’s growing list of MSU partners, and there’s no better place to showcase the cosmic vibes of Sun Ra than a museum many folks have already compared to a spaceship.

The task of getting the cosmic travelers safely back to Earth — or at least to the Albert Avenue parking lot and the rest of the festival — was left to professionals with sousaphones.

After the Planet D concert, a full-tilt Mardi Gras procession with beads, dancing and costumes will make its way from the Broad to the main festival area, to the whoops and whumps of Chicago’s Lowdown Brass Band.

If you weren’t around to hear Sun Ra at East Lansing’s Stables club in the 1970s, you owe it to yourself to dig the next best thing.

“He´s the cosmic master,” bluesman RJ Spangler of the Planet D Nonet declared. “He took it into the Space Age for sure.”

A big swing sound, crack arrangements, be-boppy twists and turns and frequent bursts of interplasmic modulation made Sun Ra’s music unique in all the universe. Throw Duke Ellington’s orchestra into a cyclotron and you might have some idea. But Saturday’s tribute is not a sterile exercise in hero worship: Several Planet D members have close ties with Sun Ra and his legendary band, the Arkestra. Spangler first heard the Arkestra in Ann Arbor in the 1970s, got caught in its gravitational field and ended up hanging out with members of the band and talking with Ra.

“Detroit has a close connection with Sun Ra´s band,” Spangler explained. (The “D” in “Planet D” stands for “Detroit.”) " A lot of the guys who came through that band were Detroiters and were close to me. They´d fill me in on everything and that´s been with me all my life.”

With its widest range of music yet and an irresistible headliner in vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, East Lansing´s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival is grooving high this year. (See pullout section for entire schedule.)

The Airmen of Note’s Glenn Miller-style swing will jostle with the straight-up blues/R&B of Thornetta Davis, the Latin sounds of Orquesta Ritmo and Aguonkó (with Cuban conga man Pepe Spinosa), the festival debut of trombonist Michael Dease´s big band and a phalanx of straight-ahead jazz stalwarts like saxman Diego Rivera.

In recent years, with the help of co-sponsor Wharton Center, the festival has become a platform for young artists making global waves. This year, there are two rising stars to watch for: Trumpeter/singer Benny Benack III, anointed by Wynton Marsalis as one of the next generation of jazz greats, will bring a crack band of top New York musicians to his 6 p.m. Friday gig.

But the hottest (free) ticket in this hot field is arguably 25-year-old vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, set to follow Benack Friday at 7:30. Like two Solstice performers of recent years, bassist Esperanza Spalding and vocalist Cyrille Aimée, Salvant is bringing a fresh take to the music and drawing younger audiences without losing hardcore connoisseurs.

Salvant’s playfulness, intelligence and supreme musicality drew strong comparisons from Whitaker.

“In jazz, we´ve got virtuosos like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and musically, she´s already at that level,” said artistic director Rodney Whitaker. “I’ve never met a person that age with so much depth of understanding of the history of her craft. It’s scary.”

Whitaker accompanied Salvant when she won the 2010 Thelonious Monk competition, the most prestigious in jazz.

While other singers tried to wow the judges with complicated arrangements, Salvant brought no-nonsense material suited to her no-nonsense approach. Salvant had her rhythm section (Whitaker, drummer Carl Allen and pianist Reggie Thomas) warmed up and ready to go in 15 minutes. “We looked at each other and said, ‘She’s gonna win,’” Whitaker said. “We just knew it.”

Salvant’s debut CD, “WomanChild,” mixes original songs with some daring choices, including 90-year-old chestnuts she livens up as if they were just minted. Whitaker plays bass on the CD.

“She sang everything live,” Whitaker marveled. “She didn´t overdub one note on that record. If we did a tune three or four times, she did it perfectly every time.”

East Lansing Summer Solstice

Jazz Festival Cécile McLorin Salvant 7:30-8:45 p.m. Friday, June 20 Main Stage Lot #1, 230 Albert Ave., East Lansing FREE

Kozmic Picnik: Planet D Nonet

Broad Art Museum sculpture garden 1-2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 21 followed by Second Line Parade Lowdown Brass Band 2:30-3:30 p.m. Saturday, June 21

Full festival schedule: eljazzfest.com

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