It started with the harps

Jazz, classical heaven came to Earth in 2019

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The jazz and classical music lovers of greater Lansing started out on Cloud Nine in 2019, and it only went up from there.

Thanks mainly to the burgeoning MSU College of Music, a relentless run of symphonic and chamber performances, brilliant guest artists, jazz combos of every size and flavor and unusual hybrid events filled the year with delight and stimulation. With apologies to the inevitable omissions, here are just a few of the highlights.

A big clue that music heaven was in the works came at the beginning of the year. Two of the world’s most formidable warriors of the harp, jazz harpist Brandee Younger and classical harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, performed gorgeous and substantial new music in January with the MSU Professors of Jazz and the Lansing Symphony, respectively.

The two-harp salvo established a growing trend of concerts, both jazz and classical, that featured younger artists and newer music. The Chicago-based ensemble Eighth Blackbird burned through a stunning set of modern music April 10, culminating in a hypnotic, incendiary performance of maverick composer Julius Eastman’s stunning parable of the Civil Rights movement and the ragged glory of human persistence, “Stay on It.” The Imani Winds brought an eclectic, engaging brand of new music to MSU the week of Nov. 3, culminating in a bracing recital at the Wharton Center. MSU’s innovative Musique 21 was in top form all year.

The established classics were, of course, not neglected.

The Lansing Symphony, with guest soloists and choral forces, lifted Mahler’s epic “Resurrection” Symphony to the rafters in a transcendent night Nov. 2. To kick off its 90th season Sept. 21, the symphony went in a completely different direction and joined forces with one of its biggest guest artists ever, Broadway and TV megastar Audra MacDonald.

Three jazz festivals filled the air with beautiful sounds over the summer — the East Lansing Summer Solstice Festival in June and the Lansing JazzFest and Phil Denny’s Smooth Jazz Fete in August. If I had to pick one standout moment, it would be trumpeter Etienne Charles’ energized romp through the music of his latest hit CD, “Carnival: Sound of a People.” Charles’is becoming a national star, and it was a thrill to see him bring his own young band back to East Lansing.

All the MSU Professors of Jazz seemed to go into creative overdrive this year. They hosted a series of guest artists, such as drummer Kenny Washington and trumpeter Tanya Darby, in addition to pursuing their own diverse creative projects.

Charles wasn’t the only professor to strike gold with a national chart-topping CD. Guitarist Randy Napoleon, bassist Rodney Whitaker, trombonist Michael Dease, saxophonist Diego Rivera and pianist Xavier Davis all released nationally acclaimed albums with a variety of styles and approaches and some strong statements to make. Davis’ “Rise Up Detroit” combined a jazz combo and string quartet in a new and quietly shattering way; Whitaker is in the middle of a run of five diverse CDs celebrating his 50th birthday. All year, the jazz professors and their students popped up at MSU and around town in various delightful combinations, even as they toured the world and kept up with their duties at MSU. It was a grand scene indeed when the -= brought the professors to Lansing’s riverfront Sept. 10, the same night Rotary Park opened to the public, as the sun set and crowds thronged the city’s resurgent riverfront.

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