East Lansing's Summer Solstice Jazz Festival: The Styles, The Sounds, The Artists

Friday, June 23, 2017, 10:09 am
Michael Teager

Later this month, the 21st annual Summer Solstice Jazz Festival will fill downtown East Lansing with a variety of live music on Friday, June 23 and Saturday, June 24.

Under the guidance of Artistic Director Rodney Whitaker, Professor of Jazz Bass and Director of Jazz Studies at MSU, the festival will feature a strong lineup of performers who represent a wide range of music that fall under the general “jazz” umbrella.

“What is Jazz?”

Just as “rock” and “pop” cover a wide range of styles and cultures and tastes, “jazz” is a broad term that serves as shorthand for a great many related—and at times almost contradicting—styles. Many quick and safe general definitions often include three primary ingredients: improvisation, swing, and the blues. These were the building blocks of early jazz. They’re not absolutes, however, as, over the decades, later jazz styles have developed to not include one or more of the those three factors, arguably pushing the boundary of what jazz is and can be. Much like today’s rock artists can be a far cry from Chuck Berry and Little Richard, today’s jazz artists have come a long way since the originators of a century ago.

Improvisation is a central feature of jazz. Instead of a musician playing a memorized solo or part note-for-note, they will improvise, or make it up as they go along. The musicians improvise within certain boundaries, and those boundaries change dependent upon the piece and style. Much like a pop song repeats the verse and chorus throughout, a jazz song also features a set form, which is established when you hear the main melody the first time.

Instead of continuing to repeat the main melody several times, jazz musicians improvise solos and accompaniment based off the main song. Most of the time, a song will include the melody at the beginning, followed by improvised solos, and a final time through the melody to end. It goes beyond the soloist, however, as the whole band improvises together. The spontaneity of what will come next, coupled with how the musicians interact with one another from moment to moment, is a cornerstone of jazz, and each performance is unique.

As for the other main ingredients, swing is the rhythmic feel most identified with jazz. It’s easier felt than described, and it has as many definitions as it has listeners and practitioners. In short, the swing rhythm is not evenly divided between beats. In most popular music, what happens between the beats (what you tap your foot to) is divided evenly, like a march. In swing, however, it’s uneven, with a “long-short” feel between beats.

Finally, the blues is present in much jazz music in one way or another, most notably in the melodies and harmonies. It’s defined by the use of so-called “blue notes”—notes that are dissonant or sound “off” to create tension.

So, music that incorporates some or all of the characteristic melodies and/or harmonies (the blues); rhythmic devices (swing); or transmission (improvisation, as opposed to notation) is often labeled as jazz. This doesn’t even take into consideration a seemingly endless array of other factors: instruments, vocals, and other stylistic or cultural ingredients (rock, Latin, classical, etc. influences).

What You’ll Find at the SSJF: A Style Guide to the Artists

This year’s SSJF promises to have a little something for everyone, from the well-versed connoisseur to the novice. Many kinds of jazz will be represented: swing, post- and neo-bop, Latin, the blues, smooth jazz, avant-garde, and more. ELi will feature some individual artist profiles in the coming days, so this is more of a primer on the types of jazz that will be present as opposed to a survey of artists.

Two related styles, post-bop and neo-bop, characterize most of this year’s performers. One reason is that, arguably, most jazz musicians and groups working today could be considered one or the other. As the labels suggest, they are outgrowths of bebop, the jazz style developed and popularized by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Neo-bop, often also called neo-traditionalist, is close to bebop in approach, with a core focus on the three aforementioned jazz ingredients, as well as often emphasizing quick tempos, acoustic instruments, and popular American songs from roughly the ‘20s to ‘60s (also called “standards”).

The leading exponent of neo-bop working today is Wynton Marsalis; many of his former and current sidemen have been affiliated with the MSU College of Music, notably Prof. Rodney Whitaker. When many people think of modern jazz, this style is often the first to come to mind.

Post-bop, meanwhile, is a bit broader while retaining those three main ingredients to some degree, and may incorporate elements of different musical styles (soul, rock, fusion, avant-garde), electric instruments, and more. It’s often used as a catch-all term for mainline jazz since Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet of the ‘60s. Post-bop musicians working today include Herbie Hancock (an alumnus of that very quintet), Sonny Rollins, and Branford Marsalis. Given post-bop’s flexibility in both definition and style, it covers a broad range of groups.

The following SSJF artists arguably fall under one of the above two categories: Carl Cafagna & North Star, Western Jazz Quartet, Rodney Whitaker Quintet, Roger Jones & Higher Calling, Gelispie/Haque/Monaco/Warfield/Dease Quintet, Arlene McDaniel Quartet, Zach Adleman Quartet, Seth Ebersole’s Quintet Ruby, and the Markus Howell Trio.

Swing music, which was exemplified by the big bands of the ‘20s through the ‘40s, most notably those of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, will also get its moment in the sun. Detroit-based Planet D Nonet will perform a tribute to Billy Strayhorn. Even if Mr. Strayhorn’s name is unfamiliar to you, his music certainly isn’t─his decades long collaboration with Duke Ellington made him one of the most significant American composers of the twentieth century. Among other things, Strayhorn wrote “Take the ‘A’ Train,” one of the best-known jazz standards and the de facto theme of Duke Ellington’s band.

Any discussion of jazz’s roots must include reference not only to swing, the blues, and bebop, but also to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. To give credit where credit is due, Detroit-based Gabriel Brass Band will lead a second line parade on Saturday 06/24. New Orleans-style brass bands feature danceable tunes and grooves stemming from New Orleans parade traditions, wherein a celebratory “second line” parade of observers/participants would dance and follow the official parade and band (the “first line”).

In keeping with styles that promote movement and dance, Latin jazz is well represented at this year’s SSJF by Dafnis Prieto, Grupo Aye, and Orquesta Ritmo. Latin jazz is an overly broad term describing jazz that incorporates traditional Latin American (particularly Brazilian, thanks to João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim) and Afro-Cuban (e.g., Mongo Santamaria) musical elements. In this case, improvisation and, to some extent, the blues are still present, but the rhythmic vocabulary trades swing for the likes of bossa nova, samba, mambo, danzón, and more. The music is often lively, and dance rhythms are omnipresent. For that reason, it’s best to have your dancing shoes at the ready when listening.

Furthering the global reach, Maureen Choi and Elden Kelly will bring their respective brands of international and world music influences to the festival. Choi, a violinist based in Madrid, incorporates much Spanish influence as well as Latin jazz elements. Meanwhile, guitarist Elden Kelly will bring his trio including bass and a mix of percussion instruments from around the world, including Africa and the Middle East. The trio’s set will feature musical influences spanning several continents.

Both Phil Denny and 496 West will bring their smooth jazz stylings to the SSFJ. Smooth jazz is one of the more pop-friendly strains of jazz, often incorporating electric instruments (guitar, bass, keys) and more accessible melodies. Even though there are smooth jazz examples with vocals (e.g., Grover Washington, Jr.’s hit “Just the Two of Us”), much smooth jazz is instrumental but with a vocal approach. (In other words, it’s much easier to hum or sing along to David Sanborn than it is to Charlie Parker or John Coltrane.) Smooth jazz also features rock, funk, and soul elements. If you like to move, Phil Denny and 496 West would be a nice complement to the Latin jazz offerings.

The festival’s avante-garde artists—Molly Jones Quartet, David Murray & Kahil El’Zabar, and BassDrumBone—will perform during the midday Kozmik Picnik sets at the Broad Art Museum Sculpture Garden. Similar to some of the above terms, avant-garde is an umbrella term for the experimental. Avant-garde jazz can include elements of free jazz, world music, classical music, electronics, and more. It’s more about stretching boundaries than it is about defining a particular style. Notable artists and groups include Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane’s late work, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Evan Parker.

Not all acts will be instrumentally focused, however. Though vocals may be incorporated in some of the above groups to varying degrees, most of the music will be largely instrumental. If singing is more what you seek, three singer-led groups will be performing: blues-based Twyla Birdsong, the jazz and blues singer Ramona Collins, and the soulful and funky Laura Rain & The Ceasars.

Given the festival’s association with the MSU College of Music, educational outreach will also play a role. To that end, there will be performances by the Jazz Alliance of Mid Michigan (JAMM) Scholarship Quartet, MSU Community Music School Spartan Youth Jazz, and the MSU Jazz Studies Big Band Symposium. This will be a great opportunity for younger musicians to participate in the festival and for the community to support the music’s future generations.

An interesting aspect of the SSJF’s programming is that, other than the Broad’s Kozmic Picnik, the various styles will be mixed together on various stages. For example, the Founder’s Stage on Saturday 06/24 will feature Planet D Nonet, Elden Kelly, Ramona Collins Group, the Gelispie/Haque/Monaco/Warfield/Dease Quintet, and Orquesta Ritmo. So, if you’d rather sit at one stage as opposed to jumping back and forth between locations, you’re guaranteed to hear a wide variety of jazz. A benefit of this is that, after a while, it can be a good aural exercise to hear what both bonds and separates these seemingly disparate styles.

The Summer Solstice Jazz Festival will feature a little something for everyone. Please stay tuned to read our upcoming artist profiles on select SSJF artists.