As snow drifted across Michigan State University’s north campus last Thursday, student musicians schlepped heavy black cases full of trombones, double basses and such.
A lucky few breezed into the Music Building for afternoon practice carrying only a folder and a smile.
Coats slipped off. A technician handed microphones to a gathering semi-circle of men and women. A student gulped down the last of her coffee. Professor of Jazz Sunny Wilkinson went to the piano and started to play.
A soft harmony invisibly condensed in the room.
Long overshadowed by more established, instrumental-only monsters of MSU’s jazz program, the 5-year-old vocal ensemble, led by Wilkinson, is coming into its own this year.
Only last year, the group consisted of five members, all women. This year there are 11 singers of both sexes.
“It’s grown a lot,” ensemble member Natalie Galey said. Galey, who is from Evanston, Ill., has already sung with the group two years. “When I first got into it, it was a very different choir,” she said.
“The kids have always been open and willing and wanting to make music,” Wilkinson said. “The thing that’s evolved the most is me.”
Wilkinson has been singing and scatting jazz for decades, and she easily holds the stage with her heavyweight colleagues, like Rodney Whitaker, and occasional guest stars, like Wynton Marsalis. But leading an ensemble of her own was a new adventure.
Her singer’s instincts seem to guide her through the job. Sure, there were technical details to work out, but Wilkinson’s most frequent criticism at last week’s rehearsal came from the gut: “I’m not convinced, guys.”
She said it almost with regret. A disciplinarian she’s not. The rehearsal was more like a barn raising, with a hint of group therapy.
“It’s the first group I’ve been in where it’s not competitive,” sophomore Brent Mitchell said. “It’s all love. Everybody just wants to help each other.”
Mitchell started at MSU singing classical music, but he didn’t like it and fled that scene to major in something less Germanic — advertising. His voice found a new playground in jazz.
Wilkinson had the group working on a lot of material last week in preparation for a Dec. 3 concert at Old Town’s Perspective2.
There’s some delightful music by Gene Puerling, the sophisticated arranging mastermind behind the Hi-Los and The Singers Unlimited, including the theme from “Sesame Street,” adapted from a recording The Singers Unlimited made with piano legend Oscar Peterson.
At the concert, stellar MSU student pianist Ross Margitza will ably fill the chair of his musical hero.
There will also be Brazilian music by Djavan Caetano Viana and the haunting ‘60s song “People Make the World go Round,” made famous by The Stylistics.
Then the group will break up into smaller combos and romp through swinging arrangements of holiday tunes like “Let it Snow.”
The ensemble worked hardest last week on a super-tricky song meant for January’s Martin Luther King Jr. tribute concert.
“Pavane for a Real Musical Prince,” originally written for jazz trumpeter Don Ellis, has noble lyrics, a freedommarch vibe and a loving spirit that proved uncannily apt for King.
To open the tune, Mitchell had to turn himself into a bass drum, singing “tom-ta-tom,” while alto Andrea Wood mimicked a snare drum, singing “trrr-a-a-a-tata.” (That’s what they get for not bringing instruments.)
“How’s your tongue?”Wilkinson asked Wood after a few repetitions.
There was a lot of give and take as the group negotiated the tune’s seven-beats-to-the-bar rhythm and constant off-kilter entrances and exits.
After a lot of false starts, they sang it to the end, building from soft lyricism to a powerful random-entrance effect that made it sound as if Biblical multitudes were joining in praise of King. At the music’s height, they suddenly cut off, leaving a bare echo.
The music has to be challenging, Wilkinson said, so that when concert time rolls around, the group is at home, but not weary, of the music.
“I feel like this year is a gift,” she said. “I’ve got students with terrific attitudes and terrific aptitudes.”
Eric Dawe, a Lansing Community College student, is so enamored of the group he plans to transfer to the MSU jazz program this fall.
“I’m interested in sound healing, the effect of sound and rhythms on the nervous system,” he said. He seems to have found it here. “When you hit those pitches and everybody’s in harmony, it’s like that floating thing in the air.”
MSU Vocal Jazz Ensemble
7:30 p.m. Dec. 3 Perspective2 319 E. Grand River, Lansing (517) 853-5880 $12-$15