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After being canceled in the pandemic year of 2020 and scaled back in 2021, Lansing’s Smooth Jazz Fête, an afternoon review of national smooth jazz luminaries in the shadow of the East Side Armory Building, returns in all its glory this Saturday.
The fourth incarnation of a now-established Lansing tradition brings back an age-old question: What’s the difference between jazz and smooth jazz?
Do you have an hour? Nope? Saxophonist Phil Denny, mainstay of Lansing smooth jazz and organizer of the Fête, offered us a shortcut through a thorny thicket by calling it a “party,” not a “festival.”
A party is a party — one that aspires to a particular class. You can have a gizzard party, but not a gizzard party.
A blend of jazz-level musicality, hip-level engagement with the groove, and a sanctuary of escape are the key elements of the Fiesta, now in its fourth year.
But don’t confuse this laid-back vibe with a lack of passion.
Detroit trumpeter Lin Rountree, an avid fan of all the great jazz trumpeters and one of Saturday’s headliners, is an R&B groover to the core of his soul.
“I want to make my sound as fat, as round and as supple as possible,” Rountree said. “But I also want to play with fire, intensity and soul. People who come to my show tell me they didn’t know the trumpet could be like that.
When Rountree speaks of his trumpet heroes, like the late Roy Hargrove, he sometimes exaggerates: “When he goes into his soul kick, he blows so hard you see smoke coming out of his bell.
He admires the technical skills of virtuosos like bebop legends Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown, but finds it more important that Brown “exudes joy and love.”
Rountree’s father, a former musician, treasured his cornet. He kept it in the room the family called the “good room,” where the children weren’t supposed to go.
“But my father was the original Jedi master,” Rountree said. “He said to me, ‘You can cross here, even sit on the couch, but don’t touch the cone.'”
Inevitably, he picked it up, unaware that his father had placed a safety pin on it “for auditing purposes”. He was 11 years old.
When he confessed, his father had a ready response: “I’m glad you told the truth. Now you have to play it.
“I fell in love with the sound from the first note,” Rountree said.
He quickly picked up the instrument, with the help of lessons at the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. He was recruited by Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, where he became a member of the Marching 100.
His musical passion was R&B, and still is, but jazz caught his attention at Florida A&M, former stomping grounds of saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and frequent stop of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
“The improvisation, the technical ability, the ability to speak in a special language on the bandstand, that’s what really intrigues me about jazz,” he said. “But I was raised on hip-hop, R&B, gospel. Jazz was in my head, but it wasn’t in my soul.
He moved to Detroit, surveyed the thriving R&B scene, and decided to start his own unique band.
“It’s very rare for the trumpeter to be the soloist in an R&B unit,” he said. “The jazz lane is already full of great, great, great guys. It’s my passion and I decided to go the R&B route.
However, it’s not exactly a dedicated lane.
“The trumpet is king in every other genre, but saxophonists have kind of conquered the realm of smooth jazz,” Rountree said. “It’s a chip on my shoulder. It’s quite a conversation.
It’s a conversation that will have to be tabled to get to the rest of Saturday’s lineup, especially since it includes two saxophonists.
In addition to Rountree, Saturday’s headliners include Denny himself, Chicago guitarist Bryan Lubeck and the duo of New York saxophonist Judah Sealy and pianist Gino Rosaria from the Caribbean island of Curacao.
Denny paired Sealy and Rosario because they’ve been writing music together for the past few months, but the pandemic has kept them from performing together until now.
“Judah is a big guy, like a linebacker, with a terrific, rugged tenor sound, a powerhouse onstage,” Denny said. “Gino is a great composer of melodies, classically trained, and he comes from this music rooted in the island.”
Lubeck, a Spanish nylon-string guitar specialist, will spice up the Fête with his own distinct, bossa-inspired style, which Denny has described as “vineyard music.”
Denny himself took care of a new track, “Lifted”, which reached number five on the Billboard Smooth Jazz charts. Another track, “Urban Troubadour”, spent two weeks at No. 1.
After two uncertain years, the renewed vigor of the Fête 2022 shows how much Denny has anchored the event in the festival landscape of the region. When the 2021 Party was canceled, many sponsors, including main sponsor Michigan Plumbing, told Denny to keep the money, knowing he would bring it back.
Last year, amid pandemic uncertainty, Denny hosted a “micro-festival” in the parking lot of Motor Wheel Loft. He wasn’t sure how it would be received, but he was happy to see it attract 350 people.
This year, the Fête returns to the Armory and a full panoply of music and finery. Must-haves from years past, including food trucks (517Picnic, GotSmoke Barbecue, and Finger Lickin’ Chicken), beer and wine, ice cream from Park Lake Creamery, artist booths, giveaways, and hangout spaces with the musicians, will all be back. “I would like people to come and feel like they haven’t missed anything,” Denny said.