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Torn from a tapestry

Classical and jazz highlights of 2017


It’s impossible to do justice to the riches enjoyed by Lansing area jazz and classical music lovers in 2017 in such a tiny space. A sample swatch of a vast tapestry will have to represent.

Consider these two consecutive nights in February.

On Feb. 10, Israeli-born clarinetist Anat Cohen, one in a series of major jazz artists-in-residence to visit MSU’s Jazz Studies program, performed with the student octet. Genre-bending licks of jazz, klezmer, pop and Latin are getting to be standard in jazz, but it was electrifying to see Cohen bump worlds with the enthusiastic, hyper-talented students assembled by Jazz Studies director Rodney Whitaker.

The next night — the next night! — Sharon Isbin, arguably the world’s foremost classical guitarist, played a hypnotic, sobbing “Concerto de la Aranjuez” with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Timothy Muffitt. The deep-breathing performance brought the hall to complete silence, swelling from candle-flicker delicacy to vast, tragic scale, and it was only part of a thrilling night of little-heard Latin music that included a thunderous ride through Alberto Ginastera’s thrilling “Estancia.”

That’s two nights, two star soloists — both women, it’s worth noting — two world-class local organizations and two riveting nights of music. It doesn’t get better.

Somehow, though, the Lansing Symphony topped itself again May 19, when dynamic percussionist Lisa Pegher joined the home team to perform Ann Arbor composer Paul Dooley’s “Northern Nights,” a seamless web of acoustic and electronic sounds with real-time samples and other electronic elements. It was daring stuff, requiring split second timing, but it paid off with an almost hallucinogenic performance.

The Dooley foray showed that even in Lansing, classical music does not always stick its bread and butter, centering on Mozart and the romantics. Similarly, MSU’s Jazz Studies Dept. is overwhelmingly swing-based, but every year, the needle of diversity is nudged and avant-garde music gets more of a toehold. The Kozmik Picnic, the adventurous side of East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, got better than ever, with the iconic duo of veteran saxophonist Joe McPhee and percussionist Hamid Drake, and a penetrating, intricate set by cellist Tomeka Reid.

Among many highlights of the main festival was Detroit saxophonist Marcus Elliott, who brought a searing set of original compositions in the post-Coltrane, searching, spiritual mode.

The avant-garde needle went into the red Oct. 11 at MSU, when Ann Arbor collective Crystal Mooncone (Chris Peck, Jon Moniaci and Stephen Rush) spun a hypnotic series of electro-acoustic improvisations that ran the gamut from numinous to humorous.

New MSU composition professor and sound artist Lyn Goeringer joined the trio on stage, drawing sounds from various objects, including her squeaky chair, and finding other ways to push the sonic envelope.

But let’s rewind the chronological tape. Some music shatters all attempts to pigeonhole it as new or old, traditional or avant-garde. One of the greatest of living jazz legends, Wayne Shorter, brought his all-star, late-period quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade to Wharton Center April 21 for a unparalleled display of telepathy, exploration and instantaneous communication. Shorter is such a strong presence that you could just watch him, listening to the other members of the band, and not feel cheated of your ticket money.

But he played, all right. Shorter is a devotee of astronomy and physics, and he homed in like a space probe on the signals around him. His perfectly timed statements were spaced apart, like retro-rocket blasts that are only used when it’s necessary to change course.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, this was the year Lansing fell firmly into the orbit of the quietly brilliant poly-stylistic guitarist Fareed Haque, who performed April 1 at a new venue, UrbanBeat, and returned Nov. 10 for another round. Haque also played to a packed Jazz Tuesday’s at Moriarty’s Dec. 10.

It’s no secret why Lansing is able to snag so many illustrious guests, some of whom come back time after time. It’s expensive even for top artists to tour with a band, but when a town has so many talented musicians to draw from and as supportive an audience as Lansing’s, a master musician like Haque can practically roll out of a Greyhound bus unannounced and still have a reasonable chance of getting a gig together.

In the case of MSU’s Jazz Studies program, a million-dollar grant from the MSU Federal Credit Union is the gift that keeps on giving, with guest artists in 2017 like trombonist Conrad Herwig (March), trumpeter Michael Philip Mossman (October) and a jazz legend, drummer Harvey Mason in December.

Moriarty’s Jazz Tuesdays kept rolling along all year, with many memorable nights, but the highlight of highlights was arguably the Feb. 28 CD release party for 92-yearold saxophonist George Howard. After decades of busking in the streets and playing in private groups for fun, a group of local musicians coaxed Howard into the studio to bring his deep, dark, soulful tone into the studio and record his first CD. The love Howard got at Moriarty’s, and the love he gave back, was a joy to behold.


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