Review: Savannah Music Festival
By Perry Tannenbaum
Jazz is always prominent when the Savannah Music Festival cranks up its eclectic springtime assortment of classical, country, Americana, rock, folk, and world music vibes. But diehard jazz fans will want to land at the festival during Jazz Week, culminating in the epic Swing Central Finale celebration and concert at Lucas Theatre of the Arts. Before the top three ensembles lead off the festivities, 12 high school bands play for a panel of jazz notables, once at the Lucas and once along the Savannah riverfront.
Workshops and clinics make Swing Central as much an educational experience as a competitive one. In the second half of the Finale, the awesome array of mentoring musicians gets to come out – after the winners’ placings are announced and the supersized checks presented – and strut their stuff. With the likes of Marcus Roberts, Ted Nash, Terrell Stafford, Stephen Riley, Ron Westray, Jason Marsalis, and Marcus Printup in their number, you can bet it’s a glorious march.
Celebrating the centenaries of both Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, Swing Central 2017 was particularly splendid.
Until that culmination happened, the Charles H. Morris Center was the workhorse venue for jazz concerts. On successive nights, SMF executive and artistic director Rob Gibson pleasurably introduced a pair of organ and trumpet aces. Ike Stubblefield and Joey DeFrancesco presided over the rare sight of two vintage Hammond B-3 organs on the same stage. Next night, on the eve of the Swing Central Finale, Rodney Whitaker and MSU Professors of Jazz showcased the estimable Etienne Charles blowing his horn after Printup teamed up with a quintet of Youngbloods.
Festivalgoers could choose between pairs of sets beginning at 5:30 or 8:30. If you missed the back-to-back organists at night, you could partially atone with a set by the Ike Stubblefield Trio the following afternoon at 12:30, while Printup & Youngbloods did the afternoon honors the following day. With a little creativity – and a media pass – I was able to negotiate a 6pm classical piano recital on organ night, stop out for dinner, and arrive at the Morris Center just before intermission so I could scope out empty seats for my wife Sue and me when Joey DeFrancisco took over the stage.
DeFrancesco isn’t a shy or contemplative personality, and I first heard how he wails in live performance shortly after his first Columbia recording, at the tender age of 17, in 1989. So I thought I knew what to expect from him and The People who back him up. But Joey has piled an electronic keyboard on top of his B-3 console, and he brings a trumpet with him these days when he comes onstage.
A new electronic bent manifested itself immediately in DeFrancesco’s percolating intro to “So Near, So Far,” nodding to the middle acoustic and later electronic periods of Miles Davis at the same time. Yet that track remains fairly mellow on the new Project Freedom recording, while here Troy Roberts signaled on tenor sax that it was time to fasten our seatbelts as he finished playing the line. DeFrancesco turned up the heat to a temperature that surpassed the studio version, and Troy kept the flame high – while Joey and drummer Jason Brown became very busy underneath. For anybody who might be sleeping on Roberts: he is not your generic sideman, and both of his most recent recordings as a leader are well worth checking out. Dan Wilson was also a treat on guitar taking his choruses, never distorting his silky tone, and Roberts roughened his outro with a pedal I hadn’t noticed on the floor near his mic.
There was no reprise of the floor pedal as the quartet reverted to the trad grooves usually heard at the Morris. “Bluz ‘n’ 3” brought to mind the funky flavoring Cannonball Adderley brought to hard bop when Bobby Timmons played with him – except on the opening solo when Wilson’s crystalline work on guitar conjured up Kenny Burrell. Roberts took us into rough turbulence with his solo, though there was a calm eye to the storm at its center where he quoted Monk. DeFrancesco seemed to relish the challenge of following in the wake of this bravura, prudently dialing back the intensity as he began. As he reached what seemed to be full throttle, Joey snuck in a sustained bass chord to play over, so he could take his two-fisted attack to an even greater sizzle. Brown quieted things down at the start of his solo, ably shuttling from sticks to brushes in the ebb and flow of his solo.
Compared to this eruption, the next two selections were relatively light – but with plenty of fresh colors. “Better Than Yesterday,” another track from the new CD, also shed its studio mellowness, taking on a “Parisian Thoroughfare” élan in live performance with more rim work from Brown at the kit, more intense crosstalk between Joey and Troy, and more quirky rhythms all around. Then a DeFrancesco spot like none I’d seen live before: he sang “Around the World” in a surprisingly effective hipster style and, after the choruses by Wilson and Roberts, returned with a trumpet solo, the first half of which he played with a mute. Not content with these novelties, Joey D traded fours with Troy, firing scat lines on all his vocal salvos.
As caught in the studio, the intro and outro of the righteous “Lift Every Voice and Sing” caught in the studio were very much like what we heard live, with Wilson and Roberts splitting the opening chorus. Roberts and Brown added a little extra lift to the release into the solos and there was more real blowing in the middle. Toward the end, just before the last gospel explosion, Wilson drew a little more space to clear the way with an unaccompanied rumination. Enough funk was added to the live version of “Karma” for DeFrancesco to solicit audience hand claps behind his own solo and those by Wilson and Roberts.
We seemed to be building to a predictable finale, but DeFrancesco surprised us by calling Ike Stubblefield back onto the stage to join in on the second B-3. Two organ giants then paid tribute to a third as the ensemble dug into Jimmy Smith’s “The Sermon.” Things became loose and joyous like a jam session when Stubblefield’s drummer, Herlin Riley, slid into Brown’s chair midway through the tune. Yet there was additional polish to the backup behind Ike as Joey picked up his trumpet for a second time and formed a horn section with Roberts, playing harmonized riffs.
A longtime sideman who has gigged with storied rock and R&B bands, Stubblefield is equally comfortable in backup or take-charge modes. Like the earth before an earthquake, he is always there, with no compelling need for finger-busting displays, but always capable of them. In his afternoon gig at the Morris, Ike broke loose most memorably on Richard “Groove” Holmes’s “Groove’s Groove,” a tune very much in the vein of “The Sermon” with perhaps a little more hop in its step. First his guitarist, Detroit Brooks, worked the tune from a relaxed groove to such a lather that, for the one time in the entire set, he felt compelled to stand up while he played. Stubblefield also stirred the line upwards from a simmer, until he was wailing, clawing at the sky before an abrupt halt giving way to Riley.
Like Holmes and Jimmy Smith, Stubblefield has a winning way with pop tunes whose tempos might seem set in stone. Back in 2011, he put some extra jump in “Misty,” as Holmes was fond of doing, but this time he took on Little Willie John’s “Fever,” which has resisted loudness, speed, and even instrumentation since Peggy Lee waxed her chart-topping cover in 1959. After Ike grooved on it, Detroit showed there’s plenty to be done with this line at a peppy pace. Then Ike proved there’s joy at the very heart of it.
Excitement always peaks for the second set on Thursday night of Jazz Week, because the house is filled to overflowing with an influx of Swing Central high schoolers – most of them enthusiastic jazz fans – on the eve of their final competition. With two sextets crammed with instruments you actually find teens playing (no B-3’s here), the festival was definitely keeping their audience in mind. Featuring arrangements with heads that always blended two or three horns, Marcus Printup & Youngbloods served up music the young crowd could identify with.
“Peace in the Abstract” kicked off jubilantly, featuring entirely different personnel behind Printup from those behind him in his 2006 CD with that same title. Nor were there any holdovers from Printup’s 2015 Young Bloods recording on Steeplechase. The group label lingers, but the personnel move on, a la Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Printup roared into his opening solo as if this were the first time he was playing on this tune, and young trombonist Corey Wilcox brought equal fire to his follow-up. Alto saxophonist Mercedes Beckman dialed it back a little before rapidly ramping up, but pianist Michael King aimed unerringly for a change of pace, almost Monkish in his initial relaxation. Yet drummer Henry Conerway III implacably picked up the intensity underneath King’s action, and the pianist’s solo soon swelled to rhapsodic density. This in turn was a perfect launching pad for Conerway’s pyrotechnics.
“Soul Vamp” was another trip back to 2006, but Printup gave the catchy tune a choppier, more energetic arrangement and added some vocal call-and-response to the out chorus. I was beginning to wonder whether the leader would be promoting his newer work when the next two selections, Printup’s own “The Bishop” and Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” were plucked from the Young Bloods disc. Of all the tunes on this set, “The Bishop” probably showed off the whole group best, with Beckman blowing her finest solo and King unveiling a tasty Basie quality, again acting as a mellowing agent. Yet King was most distinctive, pointedly not Brubeck, in his freaky solo on “Your Own Sweet Way.”
With the finale, “The New Boogaloo,” the tune became something of a family heirloom as Wilcox had one more chance to shine in taking the first solo after the three-horn head. Wilcox’s father, Wycliffe Gordon, was the trombone sideman on the 2002 CD that was named after this Printup composition. Hidden in plain view for the last two years among the Swing Central mentors, Wilcox announced he was a force to contend with at the 2016 latenight jam, dueling with his dad and other greats. He’s be at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a five-night stint – also latenight – on April 18-22 if you care to judge for yourself.
Printup and Beckham would follow the same basic path as the 2002 arrangement, soloing over a shuffle pattern laid down by Conerway until he provided a stop-time break for them to blow on. It was Wilcox – with King’s spikier accompaniment – who actually cooked up something new for “New Boogaloo.” After the horns, King took a modest but tasty solo, revving up his momentum with the first stop-time break and yielding gracefully on the second to bassist Eric Wheeler, who knew exactly what to do. Wheeler got into such a compelling groove that the audience spontaneously joined in clapping it out.
I loved the way that Rodney Whitaker and his drummer, Dana Hall, casually took the stage for the MSU Professors set, jamming quietly together as if they were doing a soundcheck. Before we knew it, Etienne Charles and tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera were in place, wailing out the melody of “In Walked Bud.” Twenty-four hours ahead of schedule, the Monk celebration had begun with an all-Thelonious songlist.
Unlike most of the Monk selections announced for the following evening, none of these were rarities, and all of Whitaker’s colleagues proved to be able professors of the repertoire. Randy Napoleon broke out on “Bud” with the first solo on guitar, pianist Bruce Barth demonstrated that the line could turn in a barrelhouse direction, and Hall returned with a series of explosions from the drum set before the horns took the out chorus.
Charles was no doubt the most powerful of the frontliners, but he didn’t really start firing off his arsenal until the ensuing “Monk’s Dream.” Rivera charged hard in his solo, but Charles’s had more arc and build, ending with an elegant handover to Napoleon. Solos by Whitaker and Hall established a similar mold, regularly marking each measure – until Hall broke that mold, mixing things up and splattering them like a textbook Max Roach fireworks display.
You couldn’t ignore Charles on the final three tunes, each of his stints halved in a different way. Quieting things down after a Rivera roar on “Evidence,” Charles meandered softly for a while before abruptly turning up the burners. On “Ask Me Now,” he took two pieces of the opening chorus, one muted after Rivera kicked things off and another wide open after Barth handled the bridge. Not only did Charles play quite tenderly in his solo, but Rivera also proved to have an affecting soft side to complement his hard-charging mode – underscored later when he delivered a mellow coda.
The two sides of Charles in the closing “Blue Monk” were both irresistibly ebullient as the trumpet ace started off with a mute plunger, expostulating the line in tandem with Rivera. Napoleon delivered his most burning work of the set and Rivera reverted to his leonine mode before Charles cooled the bluesy blowing down, fanning the low flame with his plunger. The plunger work became progressively louder and more playful until the time was ripe to Charles to discard the rubber and go all-exclamatory in Dizzy Gillespie style.
MSU’s rhythm section was a constant delight. Barth was the most chameleonic among them, channeling Dave McKenna in “Bud,” Thelonious in “Monk’s Dream,” and Horace Silver in “Evidence” before coolly quoting a mess of Monk in the bluesy closer. Aside from their stellar work on “Monk’s Dream,” Whitaker and Hall asserted themselves most memorably on their intros, whether it was Hall clunking on wood blocks leading us into “Evidence” or Whitaker misdirecting us at the top of “Blue Monk,” invoking the familiar bass-line of “A Love Supreme.”
Nothing was routine or hackneyed about the big band performances by Swing Central finalists Byron Center Jazz Orchestra (Byron Center, MI), Agoura High School (Agoura Hills, CA), and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts (Jacksonville, FL) – not when the titles included “Easy Money,” “Buddha,” and the winning Douglas Anderson’s “At the House, In Da Pocket” by Jason Marsalis. So I didn’t grow impatient for the all-star team to take the stage after the winners’ checks were distributed. The playing was consistently precocious and the vibe at Lucas Theatre, with so many young musicians and their families in attendance, was special.
The Monk-Diz centennial celebration lifted the evening even higher. Music directors Marcus Roberts and Ted Nash, both of whom with longtime links to Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, split emceeing chores while their set list took a singular approach to each of the honorees. Long acknowledged as a bandleader, showman, and innovative instrumentalist, Gillespie hasn’t gotten nearly as much recognition as a composer. So it’s altogether fitting that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is taking a compendium of Diz’s greatest hits on the road and making the case at selected concerts.
On the other hand, albums by younger artists devoted completely to Monk’s works are not so hard to find. It makes sense, then, to reprise Monk pieces we hear too rarely or to unearth new gems – expanding our appreciation of his compositional range. While shuttling between familiar and unfamiliar tunes, we also zigzagged between big band charts and tight combo presentations, always with plenty of space for band members to blow.
Signaling that this would all be fun, the band started out with Diz’s “Oop Bop Sh’ Bam,” a pretty grand display of the composer’s exuberance and the musicians’ firepower. You couldn’t say it was the full orchestra because there were two rhythm sections, starting out with pianist Bill Peterson, bassist Whitaker, and drummer Bryan. When we shifted to small combo mode for Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High,” the Marcus Roberts Trio took over the rhythm, Rodney Jordon on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums, while David L. Harris on trombone, Ricardo Pascal on tenor, and Terrell Stafford on trumpet stepped forward to form an impromptu horn section. With the flare and assurance of his solo, Stafford gave us our first indication that he would be the designated stand-in for Diz on this night.
Nash returned, alto in hand, with trumpeter Alphonso Horne and the Peterson rhythm to do “Con Alma.” From this third iconic Diz title, we switched to lesser-known Monk and big band format as the Roberts Trio took its first turn with the full ensemble on “Blues Five Spot.” While it isn’t Monk’s most familiar work, “Five Spot” is obviously a Roberts fave, since he has now played it three years in a row in Savannah. The piece certainly distills Monk’s essence and lent itself to nice round of blowing, with Roberts, Stafford, and trombonist Ron Westray standing out.
Roberts and his rhythm stayed aboard for the next two Monk morsels, “Coming on the Hudson” and the delicious “Little Rootie Tootie.” Two of my favorite Gillespie compositions followed as we reverted to combo format: “Manteca,” the fine co-composition with Chano Pozo, and “Woody ‘n’ You.” As Peterson returned to the keyboard, Marsalis switched to vibes on “Manteca,” making for an interesting new palette when altoist Joe Goldberg and trumpeter Jim Ketch came down to join them. Perhaps because the Cuban percussion and vocal shouts were missing from “Manteca,” I was more pleased when Wilcox, trumpeter Randall Haywood, and tenorist Stephen Riley lit into “Woody ‘n’ You.”
They found two more opportunities to put four rhythm players onstage at the same time, featuring both of the bassists on Monk’s “Light Blue” and fielding Marsalis on vibes once more for “Ugly Beauty,” a pretty ballad that served nicely to clear the way for a rousing finish. That one-two-three punch began with “Two Bass Hit,” Gillespie’s collaboration with John Lewis, with Printup and his plunger mute making a punchy cameo.
Monk’s “We See,” and “A Night in Tunisia,” Diz’s most familiar piece, closed things out. “Tunisia” was particularly potent on this night. One by one, the solos poured forth from the band members, a effervescent anthology of bebop. Surprisingly, we were able to scale one more pinnacle. After all the glorious blowing, after the whole band had repeated the anthemic theme, Stafford launched into a lonely cadenza, working it until he ended on a long, jubilant high note that could make a grown man weep.
It was emblematic of all that jazz can say and do.