If jazz is about chemistry, there’s a sweet double pour in store at this weekend’s JazzFest in the streets of Lansing’s Old Town. Two of this year’s headliners are MSU’s present and former saxophone colossi — Diego Rivera and Andrew Speight.
The refined roar of Rivera, MSU’s tenor sax professor, and the airstream of Speight’s agile, avian alto sax make a perfect study in kinship and contrast. Speight and Rivera have a long history, both together and apart.
Each man will bring a stellar quartet to a varied JazzFest banquet, and likely sit in on each other’s gigs.
Best of all, Speight was Rivera’s teacher at MSU in the late 1990s. The chance to see the teacher and the teacher’s teacher — a double strand of jazz DNA — on successive nights only sweetens the chemistry.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Speight left MSU to teach at San Francisco State University and be closer to his native Australia. Since then, the pioneering co-builder of MSU’s jazz studies program has built up another academic beachhead on the Pacific and runs a busy schedule of gigs, usually for appreciative dot-commers in the Bay Area’s humming jazz scene.
Speight is a master of many styles, but is best known as an acolyte of bebop icon Charlie “Bird” Parker, whose blindingly fast, micro-melodic artistry is still being unpacked by generations of alto players.
“I love listening to it and playing it,” Speight said. “It’s just infectious.”
His unquenchable passion for Bird, pianist Bud Powell, trumpeter Fats Navarro and all the other beboppers impressed Rivera from the start.
“Andrew is the one who took me from zero to 60,” Rivera said. “He was so important for establishing a sense of care, stewardship and respect for the tradition of the music. That’s what people identify me as — somebody that’s firmly grounded in tradition, and that comes from him.”
When Rivera was still in high school, he was so taken with Speight’s playing that he ambushed the Australian in the parking lot of the Wharton Center after a gig.
“I knew I wanted to study with him,” Rivera said. “I didn’t realize I’d spend the rest of my life having him as a mentor.”
“He always did the right thing as a student,” Speight said. “He was talented, but very dedicated.”
While at MSU, Speight brought brilliant saxophonist Branford Marsalis on board as an artist in residence, further enriching Rivera’s life.
“Diego was particularly inspired by Branford too,” Speight said. “He took all that we taught and made it his own.”
“He’s still having an effect on me, my students and my teaching,” Rivera said. “The things I learned from him are things I’m still doing today.”
But Rivera is no clone of Speight, or of anyone else. In the past 20 years, he has seamlessly infused spiritual, ecstatic surges of John Coltrane into the rich stock of swing and bebop, folded in the bluesy swing of old-school voo-voo-voo-ers like Ben Webster and Lester Young and infused it all with a Latin tinge that expresses his own heritage. Rivera’s new album, “Connections,” takes this rich blend to new levels of grace and vigor.
For such a complex synthesis to make any sense at all to a musician, let alone a listener, requires hard work and patience. Like many teachers, Rivera finds that his students often rush prematurely to judgment about the things they are learning.
“They want to evaluate the information before they can take it all in,” Rivera said. “I don’t think my students are like that, because I’m not like that, and Andrew didn’t let me be like that.”
Speight visited MSU to teach last November, giving Rivera’s students an enlightening glimpse into their teacher’s teacher.
“It was kind of magical for my students,” Rivera said. “They said, ‘Oh, I get it.’”
Speight said he enjoyed returning to the classroom.
“I feel very comfortable going back,” he said. “The philosophy is the same philosophy as mine — built on the traditions of jazz.”
Speight is not messing around when it comes to band mates Saturday. His quartet will feature MSU piano professor Xavier Davis, drummer Randy Gelispie and bassist David Rosin.
Gelispie, the avuncular eminence of MSU’s jazz program, holds a special place in Speight’s life.
“He was one of the reasons why I stayed in Lansing,” Speight said.
Speight’s first gig in Lansing came during a brief week-long visit, while visiting a friend. He had no intention of staying in town, but bassist Peter Dominguez called and asked if he would do a gig.
Sharing a bandstand with Gelispie, Dominguez, Michigan-based jazz-funk pianist Eddie Russ and Ann Arbor trumpeter Louis Smith convinced Speight there was a jazz scene in Michigan strong enough to ditch his plan to go to New York.
“Oh my God, what an incredible band,” Speight said. “It showed there were brilliant musicians here I could learn from and be around.”
Speight’s quartet Saturday also includes bassist Dave Rosin, now a veteran band teacher in East Lansing, who studied with Speight at MSU together with Rivera.
“There was a crop of great musicians who all went through at the same time,” Speight said. “We go way back.”
In 1988, Speight brought Rosin to his native Australia. They played together on a fine CD, “Andrew Speight Quartet,” that won the Ana Award, the Australian equivalent of a Grammy.
Rivera’s quartet Friday is no slouch, either. On drums is MSU master’s student Michael Reed, 2019 jazz grad Javier Enriquez Arjuelo on bass and Xavier Davis — again — on piano.
It’s no wonder Davis is playing both gigs. On a career high this year, Davis is the stealth bomb of any group he’s in.
When the MSU Professors of Jazz assemble, Rivera and his colleagues in the front line, trombonist Michael Dease and trumpeter Etienne Charles, spend a lot of time shaking their heads at the endless change-ups and micro-miracles Davis conjures with his digits.
“Michael says to me, ‘What is this sorcery?’” Rivera said. “Where does he think of this stuff? It’s so creative, it’s in the moment. It’s peculiar, but it’s so grounded and it makes sense. The cat’s just a genius.”
That leaves one big question. As JazzFest unfolds, will the two saxophone colossi clash directly?
Rivera and Speight agree that they are headed for a one-on-one, alto vs. tenor tangle at one or more points in the festival.
“Chances are, we might sit in on each other’s gigs,” Speight said.
Rivera said he’s sure it will happen. If not on stage, then a “jam session afterwards.”
How hot will it get? Speight diplomatically observed that his musical relationship with Rivera is “pure collegiality” and no rivalry.
“Rivalries happen in a younger time in your career,” Speight gallantly observed.
When Rivera heard that, he couldn’t help but burst out laughing. True to form, he quickly tempered his mirth with philosophy.
“For two musicians to push one another musically shows an incredible amount of respect,” he said. “What does it mean to do better? It’s not an arbitrary concept. You need to recognize, to assess what the other person is doing. It’s good collegiality only if it’s simultaneously...”
He stopped, realizing he’d come full circle, back to the words of his teacher.
“It’s all collegiality,” he said.
Diego Rivera Quartet
Friday, Aug. 2, 6:30-7:45 p.m.
South Turner Stage
Turner Street and E. Céasar Chávez Ave.
Andrew Speight Quartet
Saturday, Aug. 3, 6-7:30 p.m.
South Turner Stage
Turner Street and E. Céasar Chávez Ave.