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Clarity inside chaos: Randy Napoleon buffers bebop into a balm

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It wasn’t in his job description, but MSU jazz guitar Professor Randy Napoleon has quietly taken on a big task — make the world make sense.

Napoleon’s new CD, “Common Tones,” sublimates today’s trouble in mind into positive musical energy. The album is hot in the jazz world, garnering good reviews and brisk sales nationwide. Napoleon is backing the release by touring all over the world, from Detroit to Japan to Senegal in West Africa.

Napoleon’s local stop of choice these days is Red Cedar Spirits in East Lansing, the latest haven for live jazz in the area. Napoleon and his student quartet played a generous set at Red Cedar last week and will return Tuesday (Dec. 5) for another round.

Napoleon doesn’t simplify the avian aerobatics and pinball ricochets of bebop, but rather etches them into the air with perfect logic and clarity.

“Bebop is something you have to reach for your whole life,” Napoleon said. “The rhythmic and harmonic language is everything to me.”

The co-creators of bebop, saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, played with blinding speed and virtuosity. Napoleon always gravitates to the songful nucleus inside bebop’s blurring electron shells.

“They are both highly melodic,” he said of Parker and Gillespie. “Charlie Parker has unbelievable speed, but there are always moments, where he’ll play a nursery rhyme, something we could all sing. It always comes back to a direct, memorable melody, or to the blues.”

Napoleon is always careful to keep the audience in mind.

“If you just play too many notes all the time, it becomes hard to follow,” he said. “You need to put up signposts.”

On about half the album, Napoleon is joined by his fellow MSU Professors of Jazz, playing at the height of relaxed virtuosity. Napoleon’s students, featured on the other half, hold their own and more.

Despite the CD’s relaxed vibe, there is a pensive undercurrent. The names of Napoleon’s original tunes on the album say it all —“You’ve Got to Hang On,” “Saber Rattle,” “Where it Ends,” “How it Might Have Been” and “Lessons Learned.”

“We’re going through a period of extreme strife,” Napoleon said. “Some of those tunes were directly geared to that.”

Even the giddy joy of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the album’s first track, masks a feeling of hopelessness. The song envisions a place “where we belong,” but there is no such place.

Or is there? If paradise is anywhere, it’s surely on the album’s most centered track  — “Signed Dizzy, With Love.” This corner of bebop heaven was written by soulful Detroit saxophonist Donald Walden, one of Napoleon’s most revered mentors. It’s a confident, muscular stroll on a sunny day with warm ensemble touches and a perfect solo by saxophonist Diego Rivera. “Signed Dizzy” is one of two tunes on the album dedicated to Walden, who died in 2008. (“If DW Were Here” is the other.)

You won’t hear Napoleon play stock licks or jazz clichés, thanks in part to Walden’s tutelage.

“The thing that was so great about him is that there was no one more rooted in the bebop language, and knowledge of tunes and repertoire,” Napoleon said. “But he was very exploratory, and stressed avoiding clichés. If I played something that was too 1940s, he’d just say, ‘That’s corny.’”

The other unseen presence on “Common Tones” is Ann Arbor-based trumpeter Louis Smith, an under-appreciated jazz giant who died in 2016.

“Louis was the absolute essence of early bebop,” Napoleon said. “There was almost like a mathematical purity and clarity to his thinking. Everything was balanced, almost like a Platonic ideal.”

He was the same way off the bandstand, Napoleon said.

“If you asked him a question, it was not a mysterious answer,” Napoleon said. When Napoleon asked Smith how he deals with bebop’s fast tempos, Smith had a simple answer.

“He didn’t say anything about looking at the moon on the third Thursday, or imagining some mysterious energy — just practice,” Napoleon said.

At Thursday’s gig at Red Cedar, Napoleon seemed to clasp Smith’s clarity as if it were a lifeline.

“The world is so chaotic,” Napoleon said. “I think about Louis a lot because everything about him made sense.”

Randy Napoleon Quartet at Red Cedar Spirits

Free

Thursday, Dec. 5, 7-10 p.m.

2000 Merritt Road, East Lansing

(517) 908-9950

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