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Wednesday, December 10,2008

City's top jazzers jingle and throb

MSU Professors go all-out for the holidays; Chart-topping Organissimo mounts triumphal jam

by Eric Gallippo
The MSU Professors of Jazz (left) and Lansing's own chart topping trio Organissimo will help Lansing swing into the spirit with holiday concerts this weekend. (Courtesy photos)
Last Sunday afternoon, three of the MSU Professors of Jazz lounged around Jazz Studies director Rodney Whitaker’s office, getting revved up about their first-ever Christmas concert.

They looked steamed and ready to peel chestnuts.

Veteran drummer Randy Gelispie told saxophone man Diego Rivera his favorite Christmas song to play is “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” “Because that sucker swings, boy,” Gelispie said, shaking his beret-topped head.

December, Whitaker said, brings warm memories of extra gigs at parties and clubs he worked during his early years in Detroit. “Christmas is the time you work the most,” he said.

Soon after Thanksgiving, Whitaker loads up a 12-CD changer on his home system with Christmas jazz, R&B and Motown. “My ultimate one is Donny Hathaway’s ‘This Christmas,’” Whitaker said. “That was like an anthem in Detroit.”

All three jazzmen rhapsodized over Ray Charles’ “Spirit of Christmas,” Gelispie’s favorite. For Rivera, Nat King Cole’s classic version of “The Christmas Song” summons up the legacy of an under-appreciated jazz great.

Down the hall, alto man Wess “Warmdaddy” Anderson brazenly grinned as he named his favorite Christmas album: “Crescent City Christmas Card,” by Wynton Marsalis. Anderson, a longtime member of Marsalis’ band, plays on the disc, of course. “Wynton did everything he could think of to set the mood,” Anderson said. “He told us to sound like wind and trees.”

Saturday, the professors will swing through a slew of holiday favorites, including a “Charlie Brown Christmas” medley. Whitaker promised a lot of change-ups. “It’s not going to be some boring old Christmas concert,” he said.

The group will play en masse and break up into combinations, joined for a while by two MSU opera stalwarts. Soprano Melanie Helton will take the vocals on “Winter Wonderland” and “Toyland” and baritone Richard Fracker will pull the heartstrings with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

‘A Jazzy Little Christmas’
MSU Professors of Jazz
With Melanie Helton and Richard Fracker
8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13
Wharton Center Pasant Theatre
$25
1 (800) WHARTON
www.whartoncenter.com


***

Last Sunday night, Jim Alfredson, the composer/organist brain behind the national-chart-topping trio Organissimo, threw a party for a few dozen friends at his home in Lansing.

The trio’s upcoming holiday gig Sunday, Dec. 14, at The Small Planet caps a landmark year for Alfredson and his bandmates, guitarist Joe Gloss and drummer Randy Marsh.

Sunday’s party, too, had a victory-lap flavor.

After some mingling, Alfredson escaped to his basement studio, where the only evidence of the revelry was the constant creak of upstairs floorboards. “Welcome to my lair,” he said.

People around the world are listening to the vibrations that emanated from here several months ago. This is where Alfredson, Gloss and Marsh recorded “Groovadelphia,” their third CD, which climbed the CMJ national jazz charts this fall, spending three weeks at No. 1. “It’s a little strange,” Gloss said, “seeing our names up there with all those people we generally idolize.”

Gloss paused, deep in thought. “A part of me wonders whether it’s a fluke.”

Alfredson is just happy the group didn’t have to give in to a pre-digested formula to get airplay. “It’s nice because it’s kind of a vindication — people are accepting what we’re doing,” Alfredson said.

Step by step, the trio has expanded its range, carving out a series of hybrid dance-soul-jazz grooves all its own. “We wanted to take what we know about jazz and other kinds of music, create something new and be honest about the whole thing, and people seem to be getting that,” Alfredson said.

Gloss said Organissimo’s success reminds him of Joe Zawinul, the Austrian-born composer-keyboardist and member of Weather Report. Zawinul, who died in 2007, was a many-faceted musician with a knack for writing popular hits without losing a shred of credibility. “He was able to craft songs that reached out to huge audiences, but there was no obvious pandering,” Gloss said. “I like to think that’s our slant, too. We just play music that we like.”

Organissimo
Holiday show
8 p.m.-midnight Sunday, Dec. 14
Small Planet, 1600 Chandler Road, East Lansing
$10
(517) 351-6230
www.thesmallplanet.net

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