Category Archives: Jazz

Ziad Quartet Celebrates the Middleweight Champ of the Tenor Sax

Review: Ziad Jazz Quartet’s Tribute to Hank Mobley

2020~Ziad's Mobley Tribute~8

By Perry Tannenbaum

Introducing the honoree at the latest Jazz at the Bechtler concert, Ziad Rabie cited fellow saxophonist Hank Mobley as a foundational member of the hardbop stable of musicians on the Blue Note record label during the 1950s. Mobley, he further asserted, was also one of the most prolific hardbop composers of that era, at one time releasing eight albums within the space of 16 months. So there was plenty for Rabie to pick from for the Ziad Jazz Quartet’s hourlong tribute. My own collection merely includes seven albums with Mobley as the leader and stints as a sideman with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Horace Silver, so of the six tunes on the Ziad set list, I had only heard four before, including two title tunes from Blue Note albums of the ‘60s.

We started out with drummer Al Sergel’s cool preamble to “High and Flighty,” an uptempo gem from 1958 that I acquired in the 2008 reissue of Peckin’ Time while I was catching up with Mobley’s work five decades later. While some of the Blue Note flavor was missing when Rabie roared through the melody without a trumpeter alongside him on the bandstand matching him note for note, Rabie’s pace and energy were as compelling as the master take on the Mobley album when he launched into his solo, faster than the alternate take from Mobley and trumpeter Lee Morgan added on the reissue.

Without an intervening trumpet solo in the Ziad arrangement, pianist Sean Higgins entered the fray sooner – with an effervescent spirit that chimed well with Wynton Kelly’s work on the original session, along with some filigree that Herbie Hancock might recognize. Since there wasn’t a trumpeter in sight to join with Rabie in firing four-bar volleys back and forth with Sergel – as Morgan had alternated with Mobley in the original – Higgins replaced the trumpet in bringing the piece to a rousing climax, before Rabie played the outchorus.Screen Shot 2020-11-07 at 5.32.17 PM

Sergel didn’t quite let go at the end of “High and Flighty,” thrashing away mostly on his cymbals as he transitioned to “The Morning After,” a tumultuous 3/4 composition that appeared on Mobley’s A Caddy for Daddy in 1965. With Higgins adopting a McCoy Tyner manner as he layered on, dropping power chords in his left hand that were a hallmark of John Coltrane’s quartet recordings of 1961-65, the rhythm section sounded very much like the sound Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones pioneered on those classic sessions on Impulse.

Rabie certainly picked up on the sound, for Tyner turned out to be a key ingredient on Caddy for Daddy when I tracked it down, and the tenor saxophonist’s solo had a few licks that echoed Coltrane’s Crescent from 1964, abandoning Mobley’s less fiery style. When Higgins followed Rabie’s incendiary exploits, he let loose with more bombs in his left hand and a Tyner-like flurry in the treble. Nor was this powerful rhythm section done here, for Sergel was still thrashing when the leader returned to reprise the melody on sax, and he took over for a second drum solo afterwards with wailing support from Higgins underneath.

This was a perfect moment for Rabie to repeat jazz critic Leonard Feather’s judgment that Mobley was “the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone,” for his quartet was about to turn down the heat for “Madeline,” an original recorded in Mobley’s pre-Blue Note days. Sergel switched to brushes behind his drumkit and, after lyrical solos by Rabie and Higgins, Ron Brendle finally had an opportunity to shine in the spotlight, better captured in his bass solo than in any of the previous Bechtler webcasts from The Playroom – double kudos for the sound and the music. Higgins was more distinctively his own man in his solo, maybe weaving in wisps of Hancock and Red Garland, while Rabie came closest on this tune to replicating Mobley’s smoky sound on tenor before giving way to Higgins. After the pianist took his solo, Rabie’s blowing had more of a Coltrane tang as Sergel unobtrusively switched to mallets, and the breathiness at the end of the tenor coda injected a faint hint of Ben Webster.2020~Ziad's Mobley Tribute~2Rabie’s final three selections were his most predictable, culled from two of Mobley’s most acclaimed Blue Note recordings, Soul Station (1960) and Workout (1961). “This I Dig of You,” from the earlier album, bopped more than “High and Flighty,” but the creativity flowed richly from the quartet as all the players had a chance to solo. Sergel took up his sticks to launch the merriment, pounding on his rims as well as his toms, and Rabie handed things over quickly to Higgins, who swung his first chorus on the keyboard and offered fresh new angles on each ensuing variation. Rabie was deceptively tame at first, almost cool with his bopping triplets, before he whipped up a harder sound up in the treble, getting a second wind. Brendle had a crisp, swinging take on the tune before Sergel crafted a hybrid solo at the drums, beginning with brushes in Brendle’s wake and then turning the heat back up with his drumsticks.

Weighing in at a middleweight 16 bars, “Soul Station” is as groovy and infectious a blues as you’ll hear, arguably Mobley’s signature composition, and the Ziad Quartet made sure they didn’t mess up the pulse or the tempo, leaning into its medium-paced quietude with its arrangement and obviously having fun. Rabie scorched it without rushing it, and Higgins tossed a bit “Night Train” into his flame (a 12-bar blues that can be traced back to Ellington). Brendle proved that he had been listening closely, popping a bar or two of the same train into his solo.

Inevitably, Rabie chose the title tune of Workout as part of his Mobley tribute, for Feather’s memorable pronouncement on the tenor sax great was the first sentence of his liner notes for that worthy album. Now it sounded like it was Rabie who was refusing to let go, thundering into each new improvised chorus, with Sergel in an orgiastic mode behind him. Higgins was no less dazzling, he and the drummer spurring each other on the pianist’s solo until Sergel pounced on his solo. The liquid intensity of guitarist Grant Green’s solo spot on the Blue Note recording was expunged from the Ziad arrangement, nor did Sergel gradually build to primitive ferocity as Philly Joe Jones had in the March 26, 1961, studio session. He was still roaring while Rabie reprised the Mobley melody one last time. Listening to this rousing closer, I heard more champion than middleweight in this “Workout.”

 

 

 

David Lail’s Jazz Quintet Celebrate the Goliaths of Tenor Sax

Review:   Ocie and Lonnie Davis have launched a new series, Live at the Crown

By Perry Tannenbaum

My last memories of the NoDa district of Charlotte, when theatre still thrived there and gentrification was still in progress, are vividly stamped by the obstruction that bisected 36th Street about a block west of North Davidson Street. This was the ongoing construction of light rail, envisioned as salvation for theatre companies producing in NoDa until Carolina Actors Studio Theatre was shut down in 2014 by its less-than-visionary board of directors.

Fringe theatre companies are more comfortable these days in Plaza Midwood, but a new online JazzArts Charlotte series is supplying me with fresh incentive to revisit NoDa once we’re all clear of current pandemic restrictions. Presenters Ocie and Lonnie Davis have launched a new series, Live at the Crown, that has an intimate clubby feel, devoid of the glitzy studio vibe of The Playroom, where Bechtler Museum is streaming its jazz series, and more to the liking of cellar dwellers.

Crown Station, as its name implies, will be accessible for its indoor events by motor and light-rail transit once Governor Cooper sounds the all-clear. Meanwhile, my first exposure to the Crown via the David Lail Quintet put me in mind of the Village Vanguard with its unassuming ambiance. Three cameras were deployed for the Facebook Live webcast, none of which changed position or zoomed in when musicians soloed. Combined with Chromecast, the stream produced fairly sharp video, particularly when pianist Phillip Howe soloed.

On the audio feed (pumped into Boston Acoustic speakers via Bluetooth and a Yamaha receiver), Lail on tenor sax, Matt Postle playing trumpet, and Ocie Davis behind the drumkit were the best served. Howe could have benefited from a smidge more amplification at his open-front upright, and bassist Vince Rivers was woefully undermiked on his first solo, but evidence of on-the-fly audio engineering could be detected during Rivers’ subsequent solo, and he was a satisfying part of the mix afterwards. On a couple of occasions, Lail’s hand mic didn’t seem to be switched on during his introductions, but this problem seemed to have been remedied in post-production when I watched the set a second time.

After Davis’s welcoming remarks, Lail’s program emerged as an homage to his tenor sax heroes – Wayne Shorter, Joe Farrell, Stan Getz, and Joe Henderson. Discriminating listeners may have descried John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon among the leader’s unmentioned influences. The emphasis for the first three selections was on Shorter, Coltrane’s successor in the Miles Davis Quintet, in compositions written during the 1960s – before Shorter became a foundational member of Weather Report and better known for his work on soprano sax.

“Armageddon,” the opening tune, was first recorded on Shorter’s Night Dreamer album, his 1964 debut on the legendary Blue Note label. This composition surely has the hard-bop flavor that Blue Note is famous for, but Lail’s solo, like Shorter’s before him, was marked by the surge and wail of Coltrane and Gordon. Postle proved to an effective counterpart, cooler and less frenetic in his trumpet solo. Howe was even cooler, soft enough for us to savor the support from Davis more keenly before Rivers had his muffled spot. Davis took over briefly and effectively before the horns reprised the melody.

“Night Dreamer” brought forth an even more blazing solo from Lail, with Postle and Howe sounding comparatively meek in his wake, but it was reassuring to hear the swing from Rivers’ bass as his solo gathered steam. Once again, the tenor and the trumpet returned with the outchorus, but this time, Lail reserved a slice of the replay for himself.

My strongest misgivings of the evening assailed me when Lail announced “Nefertiti” as his next number, a Shorter composition that first appeared as the title tune on a Miles Davis release in 1968. On both the Davis album and Herbie Hancock’s subsequent V.S.O.P. recording, the arrangement became a tedious repetition of the same slow-paced riff played by the horns, with all the excitement passed down to the piano and drums’ accompaniment. Lail and Postle both triumphantly proved that you can improvise on this composition without compromising its lazy, luxurious pace, and despite being granted scant time in this arrangement, Howe also distinguished himself with his thoughtful work.

There are certainly more obvious launchpads for a tribute to Joe Farrell than “500 Miles High,” a Chick Corea tune that first appeared on Return to Forever’s Light as a Feather album in 1973, where Farrell appeared as a guest artist playing flute, soprano sax, and tenor. The texture of that cut – with a Flora Purim vocal, Corea playing electric piano, and no trumpet at all – was very different from the sound that the Lail Qunitet brought to the Crown. Maybe that’s why the performances on “500 Miles High” were even more impressive than those on “Nefertiti.”

Postle opened the soloing, more brash and confident than he had been when comparisons might be made with trumpeters Lee Morgan or Miles on the original recordings. Lail had a more individual sound here as well when he followed – and a well-defined story to tell, building his solo beautifully and not entirely discarding his Trane-like wail. Not at all obligated to sound like an electronic Corea, Howe sounded more like Hancock or early McCoy Tyner as he worked up a lather.

Tyner is the common denominator who bridged Lail’s early segment of Shorter compositions with the final two paying tribute to Henderson, for Tyner was a sideman on Shorter’s Night Dreamer and on Henderson’s Inner Urge. After those stellar 1964 albums, Henderson guested on another Blue Note gem in 1967, The Real McCoy, from which Lail covered one of Tyner’s most celebrated compositions, “Passion Dance.” Once again, Postle took the first solo, still frisky and brash but now punching in a style that might bring Dizzy Gillespie to mind. Lail roared again in his Coltrane comfort zone, but it was Howe who surprised most. Inevitably, he must have been thinking of Tyner’s rich and heavy left hand, but the chords he played were different and his right-hand treble was funkier, reminding me more of Dave McKenna’s hard-driving swing. In a foretaste of fireworks yet to come, Davis asserted himself in a fine bashing solo.

Before a snippet of Shorter’s “Footprints” faded us out, the closer was a Henderson original, “Isotope.” It would have been interesting to hear Lail and Howe hook up on the melody as Henderson and Tyner did on Inner Urge, but instead Lail remained formulaic, introducing the catchy tune in unison with Postle. The trumpeter began the soloing again, poised and authoritative, and the leader was nearly as inspired as he had been in “500 Miles,” clearly having fun and dropping a snatch of Coltrane’s “Bessie’s Blues” as he signed off.

Howe was also in a frolicsome mood as he soloed, and the camera caught Davis acknowledging that he was up next. Here Lail’s arrangement was more in line with Henderson’s when the tenor sax traded four-bar volleys with Davis, but Lail also admitted Postle and Howe to his trading-fours party. Two rounds of Davis pounding his answers to trumpet, tenor, and piano led us back to Henderson’s genial melody. Taking up his microphone and thanking us for virtually being there, Davis had plenty to be pleased with.

Ziad Quartet – Plus Extra Brass – Celebrates Classic Blue Train Album

Review:   Virtual Jazz at the Bechtler event hosted by The Playroom, the Ziad Jazz Quartet

By Perry Tannenbaum

Aside from the color blue, John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue have a few things in common. Both were recorded in the late fifties, Coltrane’s album for Blue Note in 1957 and Davis’s for Columbia in 1959, both featured sextets, both were dominated by compositions written by their leaders, and both were fueled by tenor saxophonist Coltrane at his fiery peak, one of the many reasons why both albums are regarded as jazz classics. As the title implies, Blue Train is the more hard-driving of the two albums, and in the second virtual Jazz at the Bechtler event hosted by The Playroom, the Ziad Jazz Quartet paid tribute to this beloved recording, roaring as perhaps they’ve never roared before. Pumping up the volume for this special event, and helping tenor saxophonist Ziad Rabie to replicate Trane’s original instrumentation, were guest artists Lynn Grissett playing trumpet and Rick Simerly ably sliding a trombone. Bassist Ron Brendle and percussionist Rick Dior returned in their backup roles, while Lovell Bradford took over Noël Freidline’s bench at the keyboard.

The two brass players made social distancing a bit more strained than last month’s Quartet tribute to Jimmy Heath, but space was adequate and both guests sported pandemically-correct masks with cunning mouth flaps designed for wind players, the first time I had seen these. Nor was there any delay in seeing these masks in action, for one of the most memorable aspects of the title tune that opens the Blue Train album is the roar of the saxophone, the trumpet, and the trombone all playing at once. Even watching a 23-inch monitor and listening through a pair of Boston Acoustic speakers via a Bluetooth hookup to my Yamaha receiver, I was surprised by how emotional I became listening to the familiar sound. It’s the trombone that makes the blend so distinctive, and maybe that’s why I found myself getting choked-up. Rabie certainly didn’t let me recover as he launched his solo, wasting no time in reaching peak form – perhaps the most majestic playing I’ve heard from him. Adding extra coal to the engine of this “Train,” as each of the horns nears the end of his solo, the other two horns back him up with a repeated riff, challenging the soloist to rise above them.

Rabie was pretty much at full throttle beginning his solo, so he needed to flare up to white heat with the brass behind him, yet Grissett came in softly with his trumpet solo, reminding us after Rabie’s fury that “Blue Train” is actually a midtempo tune. He and Simerly, who would follow, gradually came to a boil in their brass solos, and the other two horns would enter when the soloist had shifted into cruising gear – and the backup would prod them into redlining. It’s a wonderful arrangement, very much in the hard-bop tradition perfected at Blue Note records, so it came as no surprise when Rabie later stated that the musicians on the original recording had been given two days to rehearse. At the keyboard, Bradford was up to the challenge of having three horns behind him as his solo climaxed, beginning quietly and tightening the tension with each chorus. The quieted episodes of the performance enabled us to savor Brendle’s bass, heard to better advantage than at last month’s session, while Dior also made his presence known as the soloists reached maximum ferocity, most noticeably when crashing his cymbals in the transition between Simerly and Bradford. To be absolutely precise about the arrangement of the melody, repeated at the end, it was Rabie and Simerly who began, with Grissett’s entry on trumpet perfecting the blend.

Named by trombonist Curtis Fuller because of how the tune was sprung on him at the Blue Train recording session, “Moment’s Notice” has always been one of my favorite Coltrane compositions, notably covered by flutist Hubert Laws on his In the Beginning album. Once again, the three horn players combined in introducing the melody – until the final eight bars, which Ziad used as a runway to launch his solo. Rabie seemed to share my affection for this composition, for he worked Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” – a tune that Coltrane made a jazz standard – into his blazing solo. Simerly reached peak form in his solo, saluted again with a bomb from Dior as he made way for Grissett, cooling things down before gradually turning his solo up to high heat. Bradford’s allusions to the Scottish “Comin’ Through the Rye” in his solo were less Coltrane-connected than Rabie’s had been, but they made amusing musical sense.

The sextet played “Locomotion,” aptly described by Rabie as “a blues with a bridge,” at a noticeably slower tempo than you will hear on the Blue Train album (a newer release, The Ultimate Blue Train, adds two alternate takes to the original album). I have to say – heretically, I know – that Rabie has found the better groove. It’s another glorious arrangement, three horns again playing the melody until the final eight bars and Rabie once again launching into his solo after already seizing the spotlight. A similar falling away occurred in this arrangement when Simerly and Grissett began their solos, the rhythm section suddenly silenced as the brass players entered acapella. When the rhythm section returned, Dior on drums especially raucous, it was like giving each of these solos a fresh kickstart. Grissett was consistently wonderful through this entire set – maybe his evocation of Lee Morgan, the original Blue Train trumpeter, explains the unexpected emotional impact I felt with each of his solos. The rhythm section kept going when Bradford took his turn, building to a two-fisted apex before handing things over to Dior for a well-earned, well-bashed solo.

Rabie introduced Todd Smith, who informed us that he was in his fourth day as the Bechtler’s new executive director. Better yet, he said the Museum would be reopening in a couple of weeks with free admission to start. This little respite was followed by a change in mood as the sextet played “I’m Old Fashioned,” the only non-Coltrane composition on the album and the only ballad. Rabie played the melody, this time without the brass at all, beginning with the lovely ending to the Jerome Kern melody and then recapping as the full rhythm section entered so that the end the melody got an extra hearing before he set off into his solo. Simerly followed in a more solemn ballad mode, with enough space in the arrangement for Brendle to shine briefly before Bradford’s entry. The pianist didn’t hurry the tempo, but he certainly crammed more notes into it, reminding me of how Art Tatum and Red Garland treated the blues. Grissett’s solo, weaving bits of “My Funny Valentine” into the fabric, was another gem, Dior sensitively plying his brushes in accompaniment. A short coda from Grissett was backed by the other winds.

Grissett continued in the lead for the final piece, “Lazy Bird,” only sparingly accompanied by the other horns before swooping into his solo. Simerly played in a lighter vein, pointing up the melody’s anthemic jollity, while Rabie upstaged him slightly, pulling out his horn-player’s mask for the first time and trying it on. Perhaps he had been worried that taking the mask off for his emceeing chores would dislodge his eyeglasses or his earpieces. Whatever caused the hesitation, the mask was no impediment as Rabie’s tenor solo evoked Trane’s most joyous vein. Bradford continued the celebratory mood, giving way to Dior, who regained his customary ebullience with his sticks before Grissett led the outchorus.

Production of the latest livestream improved incrementally on its predecessor. The opening montage by Wonderland still rocks, and Playroom was still populated by four video cameras that never budged or zoomed. Positioning was slightly changed. The better-miked Brendle gave up his dedicated camera to Simerly, while Bradford shared his with Grissett. A third camera occasionally peeped in on Dior from the rear of the stage, and there was an establishing shot from front-and-center. Song titles were discreetly scrawled at the bottom of the screen, perhaps too briefly but a nice new touch. Only the rhythm section seemed to have gotten the blue memo about the dress code, while Rabie and Grissett veered off into olive green. Simerly was the outlier in a peach-and-tan outfit, but he blended best with the special burnt-orange COVID masks. Best of all, the set didn’t abruptly end at the hour mark, continuing at least ten minutes longer until the complete Blue Train tribute was done. Well done.

Ziad Tribute to Jimmy Heath Marks the Beginning of a Beautiful Bechtler-Playroom Friendship

Review: Jazz at the Bechtler

By Perry Tannenbaum

Located on the west side of town, The Playroom bills itself as Charlotte’s oldest music production facility, offering rehearsal space and recording/mixing services. Lately, Playroom has changed its tune, becoming the site for the newest Jazz at the Bechtler webcast as the Ziad Jazz Quartet paid tribute to the music of Jimmy Heath, the composer and saxophonist who passed away back in January at the age of 93. As social distancing and severely restricted public gatherings become pandemic norms, the Bechtler-Playroom partnership makes beautiful sense from a musical standpoint. Technically, the museum can expect the studio to deliver optimum sound from expertly deployed state-of-the-art equipment, and if Ziad Rabie and his jazz quartet are to perform concerts without the vibe of a live audience, it would be hard to imagine a more comfortable place for them to play than the studio of their choice.

The risky element of this business had to be the video, for livestreams are not on Playroom’s pricing schedule. Any misgivings about this end of the Bechtler-Playroom collaboration were quickly dispelled when the program opened with an adroitly edited montage of Charlotte night scenes, including the city’s light rail and its iconic “Firebird” sculpture in front of the museum. Music from the quartet was already playing under the movie cuts, and aside from a voiceover “5-4-3-2” countdown, the Ziad Quartet’s set began without any formalities – or an emcee until Rabie himself spoke after the third selection.

Rabie gave his downbeat for the first Heath original of the evening, “Togetherness,” behind a second retro test pattern, but our first glimpse of The Playroom was not at all old-timey. Pinpoint lightbulbs studded a black backdrop, dispelling any worries of a rehearsal room ambiance. Lighting was otherwise ample, giving a nightclub feel to a venue that presumably offers limited seating. All four cameras came into play with nifty screen wipes as we transitioned from one view to another and pianist Noël Freidline soloed between two Ziad improvisations. An unobtrusive “Live from The Playroom” logo took up permanent residence at the upper righthand corner of our screens, no matter which camera view we saw. Occasionally, promo messages for donations and the Bechtler’s Facebook and Twitter hangouts swept across the lower lefthand corner. The cosmopolitan polish of the introductory montage was definitely sustained.

Freidline, drummer Rick Dior, and bassist Ron Brendle all wore masks – and all were admirably socially-distanced behind Rabie in a diamond-shaped configuration as Rabie blew on his tenor sax. Sitting upstage behind a plexiglass enclosure and wearing headphones as he wielded his drumsticks, Dior was the most conspicuous reminder that we were in a studio, but his bandmates were also wearing earbuds of some kind. Rabie would turn around between tunes as Dior launched “Gemini” and then “C.T.A.” in the opening cluster of Heath compositions, so they played with hardly a pause.

“Gemini” was most famously covered by Cannonball Adderley, a slower, bluesier title than “Togetherness” that settled comfortably into a waltzing 3/4 groove. Freidline had the first solo after Rabie played the melody, and then the leader returned with a rougher sax sound than we had heard earlier, not at all shy about revealing that he had listened to more John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins than to Heath in forming his style. Brendle soloed tastefully afterwards, though I wished his bass were potted up more at the soundboard, before Ziad then took the outchorus.

Another oldie, recorded by both Miles Davis and Lee Morgan when they vied for trumpet supremacy back in the ‘50s, “C.T.A.” returned us to uptempo. Rabie was already in bebop mode when he introduced the melody, bouncing when he laid out the melody, and he didn’t let go until he had wailed an extended improvisatory rant. Freidline took over authoritatively at the keyboard, swinging hard and comping aggressively when he handed the reins over to Brendle. Dior excelled in his first spotlight of the evening, trading four-bar thrusts with both Freidline and Ziad before the leader circled back to the theme.

Featuring all the members of the quartet, “C.T.A.” was the sort of arrangement that scales a summit that concerts should close with. So it was the right moment for Rabie to pause and speak to us, introducing his band and speaking briefly about Heath, his music, and his career. It was also the right moment to change the mood. Musically, Radie did the job beautifully with Heath’s “The Voice of the Saxophone” after an impressionistic and unaccompanied intro from Freidline. If you’ve heard Coltrane’s Ballads album, you can imagine the aching, romantic region that Rabie steered us toward after the full stop that preceded his solo. It was only here that it became apparent that we might be watching The Playroom’s maiden voyage into video. Lights didn’t dim for Rabie’s most lyrical moments of the evening, nor did we zoom closer to either of the soloists in “The Voice of the Saxophone,” laying bare the fact that both the lights and cameras were unmanned.

While the tech crew for this production didn’t sustain the nightclub vibe here, they were tasteful enough to refrain from marring the seriousness of Ziad’s balladeering with any promotional wipes on the video. Rabie also had a sure sense of drama, following his tenderest selection with his wildest so far. The percussive two-note phrase that is so salient in the melody of “The Thumper” probably gave this Heath piece its name – and it definitely stamps its hard-bop flavor. Ziad embraced its bounce from the beginning, with wilder, higher and screechier playing on tenor than ever, doubling back to the melody before handing soloing chores over to Freidline, who sprinkled broad hints of Charlie Parker and Gershwin into his launch, almost tipping his chair over with his gusto. Brendle also seemed to be keyed-up by this tune’s exuberance in his brief spot, his most impressive playing so far.

During an interval when Bechtler’s director of programming and public engagement, Daniel Ferrulli, punctuated his descriptions of the museum’s upcoming programming with pleas for financial support (rather than the other way around), one of the camera positions was altered, moving closer to Freidline and blocking off the leader from his rhythm section. “A Sound for Sore Ears” had the most irregular pacing of the night as Rabie unveiled the melody, Dior’s emphasis on his cymbals adding a Latin tinge. Freidline had no difficulty at all navigating the jagged terrain as he initiated the soloing, wailing and banging away as he riffed. Rabie answered with a majestic rant of his own before handing things over to Dior for his most extended soloing yet, and the saxophonist added extra trimmings when he returned with his outchorus.

The Ziad Quartet arrangement of “Gingerbread Boy,” by far Heath’s most recorded composition, emphasized its funkiness, effectively splitting the melody between Rabie and Freidline, who only needed to alter his introductory vamp slightly to make it mesh with the sax portion. First recorded in 1961 on Milt Jackson’s Statements album, where Heath played tenor sax in the vibraphonist’s quintet (with pianist Tommy Flanagan anchoring the rhythm section), “Gingerbread Boy” has attracted a sufficient number of proponents, from Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon back in day to more recent covers by Kendrick Scott and Kurt Elling, for it to be considered a jazz standard. Both Rabie and Freidline seemed to be having fun with their own slant on the tune, the saxophonist squonking merrily in his glee and the pianist shuffling through a variety of jazz styles in their solos. Rabie returned just briefly, supplying a launching pad for Dior’s firecracker rampage on the drums. Completing the admirable symmetry of this arrangement, the rhythm section led by Freidline chugged it out.

In effect, “Gingerbread” was the closer. Although the combo moved onto “Far Away Lands,” a tune that has been covered by saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Art Farmer, the webcast cut off abruptly about 30 seconds past the one-hour mark, just as Freidline was beginning to work up a lather in his solo. Rabie had given us a fine account before relinquishing the reins, leaning into the speedy piece with Coltrane-like intensity in his valedictory solo. No doubt when the Bechtler Museum and The Playroom look back on their first collaboration they will be very pleased, but they will also doubtless be thinking of adding a webcast sign-off that’s as slick and urbane as their intro.

Hope in the Time of COVID Sees Sleeping Beauty Reawakening in December

Review:  The Arts in the Time of COVID

By Perry Tannenbaum

The COVID collapse happened quickly on March 13. “We were hours away from the curtain rising on our all-new Fairy-Tailored Sleeping Beauty when we had to postpone the season,” says Hope Muir, Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director. On the morning before that, Charlotte Symphony’s new director of communications, Deirdre Roddin, met with me to discuss future concert coverage at this publication. But the upcoming Saint-Saëns Organ Concerto concert would soon be postponed, among the first performing arts dominoes to fall to the pandemic in the week that followed – along with an annual Women in Jazz fest at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the annual Charlotte Jewish Playwriting Contest at the Levine JCC, a chamber music concert at the Bechtler Museum, and Theatre Charlotte’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Tom Gabbard, president and CEO at Blumenthal Performing Arts, last attended a live show on March 11 – in the UK, before he and his wife Vickie returned home and tested positive for COVID-19. The Gabbards quarantined and recovered, but by the day after Ballet’s postponement, Gabbard had announced that all events at all Blumenthal venues were suspended through April 12. Complying with NC Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order suspending all public gatherings of 100 or more people, the Blumenthal directive took all decision making on the Saint-Saëns concert, scheduled for March 20, out of Symphony’s hands. Both of CSO’s primary venues, Belk Theater and Knight Theater, are managed by Blumenthal.

So far, Symphony has had to cancel 49 concerts. “That’s obviously a huge blow to the organization, both artistically and financially,” says Michelle Hamilton, CSO’s interim president and CEO. “The estimated financial impact of these concerts alone is in excess of $1.5 million. This does not include the impact of the pandemic on future concerts and attendance.”

On the revenue side, Opera Carolina wasn’t as seriously damaged as Symphony, losing just one event, an extensively revised version of Douglas Tappin’s I Dream. “The company received support through the Payroll Protection Plan [PPP],” says Opera artistic director, James Meena. “That has allowed us to maintain our staff and redirect funds to our new online series iStream, which has provided employment to our resident company.”

PPP funding has flowed to the most established arts organizations in Charlotte, including Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, Blumenthal Performing Arts, and Charlotte Symphony. “However,” Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke points out, “the PPP was designed to help organizations through what Congress thought was going to be a short-term, 8-week issue.”

Blumenthal drew the largest PPP allotment, $1.7 million, that helped with payroll in May and June. “We avoided furloughs until July 5,” says Gabbard, “when three full-time and 114 part-time team members were furloughed – 105 full-time remain, mostly working from home, with some working in the venues on various maintenance projects. PPP made a big difference.”

What lies ahead for all Charlotte performing arts groups is very murky, subject to weekly health directives from city or state government officials loosening or tightening restrictions. “Opera is dealing with a multitude of challenges,” says Meena, “caused by COVID-19 and now the 43% reduction in ASC [Arts & Science Council] support for the 2020-2021 season. We are evaluating audience concerns for attending performances, and perhaps more dauntingly, health and safety concerns for our performing company.

“Singing is one of the most effective ways to spread the coronavirus. Many church choirs are rehearsing remotely, so imagine a 50-voice opera chorus, principal artists, extras and the more than 30 technicians who normally work on an opera production. Additionally, health and safety concerns for the orchestra musicians (imagine being confined – maybe consigned is a better word – to the orchestra pit where social distancing is all but impossible) are challenges to performing Grand Opera that we have never experienced before.”

All of the companies we’ve mentioned have pivoted to online programming, but all weren’t equally prepared to make the switch. Charlotte Ballet, the first company impacted by the COVID ban on public assembly, was quickest to steer a fresh course. “I had implemented a much more robust structure for archiving and curating digital content over the past three years,” says Muir, “not just performance footage but interviews with artists, designers, collaborators and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage as well as the documentation of the Choreographic Lab. That commitment, I think, is why we were able to get out of the gate so quickly.”

Raiding their digitized vaults, Ballet was able to present Dispersal online, repackaging the company’s Innovative Works 2019 program with behind-the-scenes footage for a new kind of digital experience on March 27, just two weeks after Sleeping Beauty had been scheduled to premiere. Opera Carolina’s iStream series began in April and is archived on its YouTube channel, while Charlotte Symphony has logged an assortment of live Zoom and pre-recorded material online. For six straight Wednesday evenings, ending on July 29, they streamed a series of Al Fresco chamber music concerts recorded on video in the backyard of principal cellist Alan Black. It’s an avenue that will likely be revisited. Meanwhile, CSO has extensive recorded inventory to call upon, but unlike Charlotte Ballet’s, it is entirely audio, so their outlet of choice has been WDAV 89.9, where past concerts are aired on Friday evenings.

The mass exodus to streaming platforms has been global, creating a glut of available online events that don’t quite measure up to live performances. Charlotte Ballet has responded to this oversaturation by thinking outside the box. “I worked with choreographer Helen Pickett to discuss our options and this resulted in an opportunity for five of our dancers,” says Muir. “Charlotte Ballet joins artists from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem for part III of a trilogy Helen developed titled Home Studies, which is entirely choreographed and rehearsed via Zoom.”

Other companies are pushing the envelope by reimagining live performance under COVID restrictions. Rehearsing with masks and performing unmasked live at their dance studio, Caroline Calouche & Co. presented two online showings of A Love Show on July 25, charging admission for a ticket link. Theatre Charlotte is trying a more audacious outdoor model, presenting Grand Nights for Singing: The Parking Lot Performances on Friday nights outside their building, limiting audience size to 25, and charging $10 per ticket. Each of two performing singers wields a separate mic, there are no duets, and the audience is expected to provide their own chairs, snacks, and beverages.

“We are most likely not going to be able to perform for an audience in TC until at least December and maybe beyond,” says Ron Law, who was scheduled to retire June 30 but has extended for another season as Theatre Charlotte artistic director – and as President of the Board of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. “We have purchased appropriate video equipment so we can livestream productions. At this time, we are planning on doing performances of What I Did Last Summer by A.R. Gurney that will be livestreamed, with a per household ticket charge, on three dates in September.’

Waiting until June 11 to announce their 2020-21 season, Theatre Charlotte has prudently delayed their musical productions, The Sound of Music and Pippin, until spring 2021 – with understandable contingency plans. For their fall plays, they are tentatively offering their audience the options of live performances or streaming. Children’s Theatre have allowed themselves less wiggle room for 2020-21, eliminating musicals entirely from their slate. Yet their company, with video production a longtime component of their educational offerings, is probably the most adept we have in Charlotte when it comes to hybrid, live-or-streamed presentation skills.

While closing down all public performances at their two ImaginOn theaters, Children’s Theatre was at the tail-end of a 20-week School of Theatre Training programs, which culminates in four fully-produced OnStage presentations, two plays and two musicals. “We decided to move all four productions to a virtual format,” says Burke. “We’ve made other adjustments as well. We started some online educational programming and shifted our June summer camps to virtual experiences. In July we offered students the choice of virtual or in-person camps. We’ve kept close watch on all CDC, state and federal guidelines and have invested in some technologies that help us to maintain safety.”

Like Charlotte Ballet, Children’s has plenty of past performance video on file. They’ve edited these multi-camera shoots and served them up on a series of “Watch Party” webcasts. The new work keeps coming, further underscoring CTC’s technical prowess. “We’ve continued to move forward, as best we can, with the works that are in development including a collaboration with 37 children’s theatres across the country to adapt, as a virtual performance, the book A Kids Book About Racism.” That new piece launched into cyberspace on August 1. Other projects in the pipeline are Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, and a stage adaptation of the award-winning The Night Diary.

On March 12, the day before performing arts in Charlotte abruptly shut down, the town was abuzz in anticipation of Mecklenburg County announcing its first case of COVID-19. A surreal five months later – without any improvement, to be sure – announcements for the 2020-21 season, sensibly stalled in March, are beginning to flow amid a chaotic atmosphere in anticipation of the fall. Once again, Charlotte Ballet is at the vanguard, announcing that the long-delayed premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-Tailored Classic will open at Belk Theater on December 10 – replacing the traditional Yuletide presentation of Nutcracker. Makes sense: the trimmed-down Tchaikovsky ballet remains family-friendly with a helpful narrator to keep us abreast of the storyline. Unlike Nutcracker, the Tailored Sleeping Beauty doesn’t consign the Charlotte Symphony to the orchestra pit, and it doesn’t recruit 150 sacrificial lambs for children’s roles, including the ever-lovable Clara.

Iffier but on the schedule is Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, scheduled for April 22-24. Muir is “holding onto a beacon of hope” that CSO will be able to collaborate with Symphony on that auspicious event, booked at Belk Theater. Opera Carolina maestro Meena has seen his own commitments scuttled in Italy, where he had planned to conduct Andrea Chenier, Manon Lescaut and Turandot. He doesn’t expect opera to resume in Italy until December, so he isn’t counting on Opera Carolina collaborating with CSO before 2021. Meanwhile, expect the unexpected as OpCarolina fires up a new chamber music series, reviving their iStream Online concerts the week of September 11, returning every two weeks through November 16.

Keeping his eyes open for online options and live opportunities, Actor’s Theatre artistic director Chip Decker isn’t counting on returning to live performance at Queens University before July 2021. Tom Hollis, theatre program director at Central Piedmont Community College, retired on August 1. But he didn’t go out directing a final season of CPCC Summer Theatre as he had planned, so he’s expecting to reprise the complete 2020 slate in the spring or summer of 2021. Sense and Sensibility, originally set for this past April, may also figure in the mix.

Gabbard, the first to respond to our questionnaire on July 14, said that over 300 performances had already been cancelled at Blumenthal’s multiple facilities and wasn’t expecting national tours – their bread and butter – to resume “until at least late fall, and perhaps early 2021.” Even outdoor stopgaps that Gabbard might stage in Charlotte’s Uptown must remain on the back burner until public gatherings of 100 or more are approved.

On the lookout for best practices and inspiration, Gabbard is looking globally, “including Seoul, Korea, where big musicals like Phantom have played throughout the pandemic. I was asked to join the COVID-19 Theater Think Tank in New York, where we are speaking with academics and thought leaders in a search not only for short-term solutions, but also ways to improve our venues and hygiene practices long-term.”

Bach Akademie Charlotte artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett slowly realized last spring that there was no way to mobilize the musicians, patrons, and audience that would be necessary to make the third annual Charlotte Bach Festival happen last June. Hurriedly, he pulled together a four-day virtual festival that streamed on Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom. Much like Actor’s Theatre and CPCC Summer Theatre, Jarrett is hoping that the June 2020 event will happen in June 2021.

The experience shook him. “The recognition that I hadn’t made music with another human being in a month hit me hard on Easter Sunday morning,” Jarrett recalls, “and I grieved deeply for several weeks. Gradually, the shared recognition of all that we were losing with one another affirmed a shared value for communal music making. Those conversations continue to sustain me.”

Jarrett is busy, busy, busy these days up in Boston, working as artistic director with the Back Bay Chorale on their new Zoom curriculum and as director of music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel – and expecting to stay healthy. BU has taken the plunge, plowing millions of dollars into testing in an attempt to bring their student body back to campus, aiming to test all faculty weekly and all students twice weekly. Plans for the 2021 Charlotte Bach Festival are on hold, says Jarrett, until a proven vaccine delivers true COVID immunity.

Yet he’s clearly upbeat, even if he’s forced to deliver the 2021 Bach Experience via Zoom. Describing her own company’s trials, Charlotte Ballet’s Muir offers the best explanation for this paradox: “Once we realized this virus was not going anywhere quickly, we had to pivot and focus on new ways to keep the team motivated and creative. And this is where artists thrive! At our core, we are shape-shifters and it’s exhilarating to think of new ways to communicate and engage with one another.”

Lucena Quartet Tours “The Music of Brazil” With Raucous, Upbeat, and Sensuous Surprises Along the Way

Review: Duda Lucena Quartet

By Perry Tannenbaum

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From the schedule at his website, you get the idea that Brazilian-born singer/guitarist/composer Duda Lucena and his quartet record only rarely and play most of their gigs in two posh spots in Charleston, his adopted hometown. Listening to the Duda Lucena Quartet at the Stage Door Theater earlier this week, the latest installment in The Jazz Room’s Premiere Thursdays series, I had to think that a lot folks are missing out. The 80-minute “Music of Brazil” set included a wide assortment of Braziliana by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Caetano Veloso, Djavan, and Lucena himself – and it could be accurately judged by the title of the Quartet’s one non-Brazilian excursion, the Gershwin Brothers’ “’S Wonderful.”

Lucena’s voice certainly brought back memories of João Gilberto, the vocalist who teamed with saxophonist Stan Getz back in the ‘60s to launch the bossa nova boom in the US with the music of Jobim; and memories of the later Renato Braz, who has headlined on multiple occasions in Charleston at Spoleto Festival USA. With a gifted rhythm section at his command, however, Lucena wasn’t always tethered to the dreamy, “Quiet Nights” concept of Brazil’s intoxicating rhythms. Not only would bassist Kevin Hamilton draw plenty of solo space, so would drummer Ron Wiltrout. At the piano, Gerald Gregory didn’t simply demonstrate his fluency with the tangy single-note stylings of Jobim and Count Basie, he occasionally showed us that he had absorbed the denser textures of Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner. No less surprising, the Lucena Quartet was emboldened to accelerate beyond quiet-city-streets speed limits on uptempo tunes.

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Instantly quashing any suspicion that he was leading a Jobim or bossa nova cover band, Lucena began with two of his own compositions. Purely instrumental, Lucena didn’t stray far from his melody in “Spider Waltz,” keeping his guitar virtuosity and his vocal skills momentarily under wraps, but Gregory and Hamilton didn’t hesitate to show us what they could do, good omens both. “Just for Now,” with lyrics by Heather Rice, was a more impressive Duda display. After Gregory’s intro, Luceno sang with a rich vibrato-less tone more reminiscent of Braz than Gilberto and followed with his first guitar solo, festooned with grace notes and charming sliding glisses that assured us he could play. Gregory was even tangier than he had been previously in his solo, and Luceno embellished his concluding vocal with a sprinkle of Brazilian scat, more modest, concise, and percussive than Louis Armstrong’s American style.

With Veloso’s “Coração Vagabundo,” it was time for the Quartet to cut loose. Not only did the speed of the performance leave recorded versions by Veloso, Gilberto, and Karrin Allyson far behind, it unleashed a the denser side of Gregory’s pianism in a solo that again surpassed what we had heard before. More heretical yet, Gregory’s exploits were followed by the first explosions from Wiltrout at the drums. Maybe it’s useful at this point to mention that Jazz Room concerts not only include a cabaret-style bar and a fair amount of chichi cocktail tables near the stage, they also flash continuous slideshows on a large-screen monitor behind the performers. During the “Brazil” concert, we didn’t merely see the obligatory sunsets in Rio’s shores, we saw Corcovado and the coast spectacularly lit up at night, majestic night-time aerials that revealed an illuminated ring of sea water lapping the beach, and a bevy of photos highlighting the colors, the spectacle, and the glitzy sensuality of Rio-Carnival. In that context, the uptempo brashness of “Vagabundo” fit well.

Jobim fanatics, though put on hold, would not be disappointed. Lucena had four of the Brazilian pianist’s compositions slated for the middle of his set list, punctuated by another Lucena original, “Festa dos Passarinhos” (Party of Little Birds), which quietly featured Wiltrout briefly accompanying Hamilton’s fine solo with hands on drums instead of sticks or brushes. “Água De Beber” had all the scat trimmings of Astrud Gilberto’s version without João’s discreet backup vocals, spiced with solos from Gregory and Hamilton; “Insensatez” drew again upon Hamilton’s resourcefulness, with another nice Lucena solo; so it looked like we would be cruising through Jobim without any radical surprises or fresh wrinkles. That suddenly changed when the Quartet lit into “Só Danço Samba,” the only planned cover from the landmark 1964 Getz/Gilberto album. Suddenly, two Brazilian dancers in full glittery Carnival regalia emerged from the Stage Door wings, flanking the stage and shimmying with gusto. Although Lucena had planned this treat – or at least had been alerted beforehand – there might be some question about whether this spot had been rehearsed, for the two lovelies were not complemented with satisfactory lighting that would have enhanced their glitter.

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Another Jobim fave followed this lively spectacle, his contagious “One Note Samba,” but when it came time for Gregory to solo, he absolutely blew away the presumption that he would play in the Jobim one-note style, tearing up the keyboard with a knuckle-busting barrage. The vibe grew quieter for the next three songs – but not at all moribund. In Veloso’s “Trilhos Urbanos,” Lucena unveiled some sweet whistling each time he finished singing the melody; and on his original “Hammock,” the leader showed off his instrumental skills most extensively with an appropriately relaxing intro and, after some fine work by Gregory and Hamilton, truly luscious tone in his concluding solo. “’S Wonderful” was a nice planned surprise, for we hadn’t heard Lucena singing English in a while – or anything from Tin Pan Alley – but the next surprise came from one of the cocktail tables up front with a request that Lucena return to Jobim and his megahit, “The Girl from Ipanema.” The Quartet took on this impromptu addition with gusto rather than humility or fidelity. Lucena played freely with Jobim’s rhythms, pushed the tempo a bit, and interpolated his own suggestive exclamations where lyricist Vinicius de Moraes merely provided a simple “Ah!” Gregory, Hamilton, and the guitarist also obliged with some gorgeous soloing.

The concluding Djavan section took us to a sunnier, more contemporary region of Brazilian music, one that reminded me of my beloved Gilberto Gil albums dating back to the ‘70s. But we did not arrive in that sunshine immediately, for the Lucena Quartet’s take on Djavan’s “Sina” was more than a little bit funky and R&B-flavored with the most blazing solos of the evening from Gregory and Hamilton between two righteous Lucena vocals. “Maçã Do Rosto,” with more soloing from the pianist and the bassist, was like a calming inhalation before the rousing finale, Djavan’s “Aquele Um.” The Brazilian dancers emerged from the wings, and it was Carnival all over again. But this time, perhaps aware of the poor lighting in the corners of the Stage Door Theater, Lucena invited the two glittering dancers to join him onstage where they could truly shimmy and shine. Their previous glitter was now full-fledged dazzle. I’m afraid I was too distracted by the dancing to track all who soloed here – and I’m not at all sorry!

 

Andy Page Turns Stage Door Theater Into a Hot Club With Django Tribute

Review: JazzArts Charlotte’s Stage Door Theater “Gypsy Jazz: Andy Page                 Plays Django Reinhardt”

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Rolled out during the fall of 2018, JazzArts Charlotte’s new Premiere Thursdays augments its firmly-established Jazz Room series. Jazz Room began its 14th season in October at the Stage Door Theater, packing four sessions into Friday and Saturday nights. Premiere Thursdays began its second season at that same venue with “Gypsy Jazz: Andy Page Plays Django Reinhardt,” logging two sets – the second one at 8pm sold-out – during its one-night stand. Unlike other subjects of Jazz Room homages, say pianist Thelonious Monk or saxophonist John Coltrane, Reinhardt’s guitar exploits are often synonymous with a group and a genre, namely the Quintette du Hot Club de France and Gypsy Jazz.

So it might have been a little surprising to see four musicians taking the bandstand for the 6pm performance that I attended. But with violinist Steve Trismen filling the great Stéphane Grapelli’s slot in the Quintette and a second guitarist, Leo Johnson, available to strum rhythm behind the leader, I was confident that the basic Hot Club sound would be preserved. Page was joined by his twin brother, Zack Page, playing the upright bass, while vocalist Lauren Hayworth was waiting in the wings.

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With the second guitar strumming, bolstered by pizzicatos from the bass and even – at times – the violin, Page’s quartet had a surprisingly driving sound from the moment the leader launched into his opening tune, “Rose Room.” They were very much on-the-beat in a way that combos with drums and piano rarely are, and with plenty of space accorded to the soloists – three choruses each for Andy Page and Trismen, and one for Johnson – we quickly became acquainted with their swinging capabilities. Page’s asymmetrical guitar had the look of instruments Django was photographed playing, and his sound had a similar twang, though Page had a greater tendency to indulge in slides at the end of his phrases. All in all, both in the configuration of the group and in the leader’s style, we were getting the flavor of the Hot Club quintet with individualistic departures rather than merely a slavish imitation.

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In the ensuing “Douce Ambiance,” a more complex arrangement that divided the closing chorus among multiple soloists, Page demonstrated his readiness to share the heavy lifting with his bandmates. After Page played the melody, Trismen drew the most solo space and Johnson, with a guitar as Django-like as Page’s, proved to be just as schooled in the rudiments of Reinhardt’s style, dwelling more constantly up in the treble with a tinnier sound. At a slower tempo, “Troublant Bolero,” covered one of Reinhardt’s most amazing solos. Though “Bolero” was quite differently arranged from Reinhardt’s recording, with Page playing the melody instead of his violinist, similar harmonics adorned Page’s concluding coda. “Swing 39” expressly featured Johnson, with a half-chorus set aside for Zack Page to solo on.

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The next nine selections diverged from the opening cluster. Between two stints by vocalist Lauren Hayworth, joining the band for a nice mix of French and American tunes, Johnson switched out his guitar for a clarinet and fronted the quartet for a couple of tunes, “Tears” and “Belleville.” Before taking a chorus of his own on “Tears,” Trismen heightened the impact of Johnson’s fine solo with his backup work. At a quicker pace, Trismen and Johnson split four choruses improvising on “Bellville,” with simpler statements of the melody by Johnson framing their duel.

Reinhardt hardly ever recorded with vocalists, so it was interesting to see how Hayworth would mesh with the combo and what tunes she would select. The first three – “Ménilmontant,” “J’Attendrai,” and “Si Tu Savais” – can be found in Reinhardt’s discography in instrumental versions, so these vocals were nice discoveries. Others that followed, “C’est si bon” and “Sous le Ciel de Paris,” weren’t connected to Reinhardt. With exponents as diverse as Yves Montand and Conway Twitty, “C’est si bon” is a more commercial work, so Hayworth’s comparative lack of pizzazz wasn’t an asset, but on “Sous le Ciel de Paris,” most closely identified with Edith Piaf, Hayworth’s vibrato-less version had a refreshing effect like Karrin Allyson’s recent recording. Hayworth’s lack of ornament wasn’t a lack of feeling at all. Rather, it reminded me of approach that Brazilian singers like Astrud Gilberto have to songs and lyrics.

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Nevertheless, songs sung in English by Hayworth were a pinch spicier, especially after her “Crazy Rhythm” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy” medley. “Undecided,” an early Ella Fitzgerald hit that Reinhardt actually recorded with vocalist Beryl Davis, drew Hayworth’s most swinging singing of the evening, bolstered by some of Page’s hottest soloing. Nor did the break that Hayworth took afterwards dull her edge while the quartet played two of Reinhardt’s signature compositions, “Nuages” and “Minor Swing,” the latter co-written by Grapelli.

Page’s brilliance on “Undecided” carried over into “Nuages,” and brother Zack had his best moments of the program soloing on “Minor Swing.” Hayworth returned for the finale, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” certainly a great getaway title – and one on which both Reinhardt and Chet Atkins lavished some sliding glissandos of their own in their recordings. Hayworth floated over the hard-driving accompaniment bookending the arrangement, always an exhilarating effect. In between vocals, Trismen, Johnson, and Andy Page each frolicked through the melody at breakneck speed with distinctive embellishments. We were in for a rousing finish when Hayworth reminded us of Isham Jones’s simple tune, with even more jubilant unrest percolating beneath the singer’s silky voice.

Matt Lemmler and a 10-Piece Band Ignite a Stevie Wonder Sampler, Aided by Three Guest Vocalists

Review: Matt Lemmler Plays Stevie Wonder

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Anyone who seriously follows the work of jazz instrumentalists and vocalists has likely realized that, for the last 30 years and more, the compositions of Stevie Wonder have become as much a part of his contemporaries’ songbooks as the works of George Gershwin were for Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald. Jazz covers of certain Wonder songs like “Sir Duke” or “All in Love Is Fair” are so ubiquitous that it came as no surprise that the latest Jazz Room concert presented by JazzArts Charlotte, Matt Lemmler Plays Stevie Wonder, should set out to explore the superstar’s songs for the length of a full concert at the Stage Door Theater. What did take me a little by surprise was that those songs – as well as “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Boogie On, Reggae Woman,” “Living for the City,” “Keep on Running,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” – could all be omitted from Lemmler’s playlist without crashing the quality of his concert. Perhaps we all take the bounty of Wonder’s output for granted.

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Lemmler brought plenty of artillery to the occasion, leading a 10-piece band from the keyboard and deploying four vocalists to the singing chores, including his own tonsils. For his opening and closing tunes, Lemmler showcased his band, rotating his vocalists for the intervening eight songs. Beginning the set, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” was the only purely instrumental offering penned by Wonder, readily identifiable in a fairly long ensemble arrangement before Lemmler soloed and we had our first sampling of David Lail’s zesty tenor sax. The ensemble continued to be a substantial part of the mix when the vocalists appeared. A plucked bass intro kicked off Lemmler’s arrangement of “Ribbon in the Sky,” followed by some pleasing back-and-forth between the brass and the piano before the vocalists took over. Lemmler took the first vocal and his first guest vocalist, Matt Kelley, took the second. “Ebony Eyes” drew an even more colorful arrangement as Lemmler layered on another vocalist, Robyn Springer, into his chart, limiting his own role to the piano and giving trumpeter Eleazar Shafer some solo space. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” spotlighted Kobie Watkins’ percussion, Dave Vergato’s bass, Darrel Payton’s muted trombone, and some nice section work from the saxes around the vocal.

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After Kelley returned with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and Springer had joined with him on a more satisfying “You and I,” punctuated by solos from Lemmler and Lail, I was expecting to pronounce that Springer had outsung Kelley on this night. But a couple of unexpected twists – and a whole new level – lay ahead as Lemmler introduced a third guest vocalist, Kevin “Mercury” Carter. Wait a second. Isn’t it a law that, after any vocalist you’ve introduced to your audience makes a second entrance, no new vocalists shall be introduced? Apparently not. Compounding the singularity of this moment, Lemmler was playing his first set in a three-night, six-performance engagement, and was apparently only fleetingly familiar with Mercury’s talents. He introduced him as “Mercedes Carter,” which really threw me, since I was totally unfamiliar with this singer. On the one hand, I’ve only heard of women named Mercedes; but on the other, despite a coordinated Afro-flavored outfit that was gender-ambiguous, Carter was sporting some serious facial hair.

So we seemed to be floating outside of binary territory when Carter lit into “Isn’t She Lovely,” scaling substantially into the treble clef after Lemmler’s vocal and Lail’s tenor with a smoothness that recalled Michael Jackson, the best vocal so far. But after a solid rendition of “Overjoyed,” Kelley returned and forced me to shuffle my vocal rankings once again as he absolutely torched a wondrous arrangement of “Part-Time Lover,” embellishing the wordless riffs on Wonder’s original recording to the point that they became a more freestyle scat. In between Carter’s two choruses, the last followed by a prolonged scat outro, there were exciting solos from Shafer and Payton, the latter unmuted this time on his trombone, and Lemmler’s best piano solo of this set.

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Off that high, Lemmler came down to earth with his own original dedicated to Stevie, “S’Wondersong,” yielding the instrumental spotlight to Lail, Watkins, and alto saxophonist Harvey Cummings. It’s a bit awkward for a 10-piece band to go through the ritual of vacating a stage and returning to do an encore after wild audience applause. Lemmler opted to skip those formalities and, after the perfunctory coaxing from the JazzArts Charlotte emcee to justify our presumed reward, it quickly became obvious that Lemmler’s Storyville medley was an integral part of the show. Not only did the medley give the leader/arranger a chance to extol his New Orleans roots, it carved out space for all of his band members to toss off a valedictory solo. It also brought Lemmler home to the places where his vocal style sounds most forceful and comfortable, “The House of the Rising Sun” and “St. James Infirmary.”

 

Charleston Heatwave and Steamy “Salome” Set Spoleto Ablaze

Review: Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Hold your horses! That was the directive that went out to operators of horse-driven carriages that usually swing Memorial Day tourists around Charleston during Spoleto Festival USA. It takes readings of 95º or higher for tourism officials to order the drivers and their carriages back to their stables. During this year’s festival, the mercury hit that mark on the first Saturday and eclipsed that high for five consecutive days afterwards. On Memorial Day – and the next day– official highs hit 100º, the first times that plateau had ever been reached during the month of May.

Naturally, the heatwave was the hottest topic among concert audiences and operagoers during the first week of Spoleto. The sensational – or sensationalized – new production of Richard Strauss’s Salome was a distant second in generating buzz, while the proliferation of new music at all of Spoleto’s music venues hardly generated a peep.

You could say that grumblings about new music had receded because new opera at Spoleto had retreated. Although the directing team of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, rethinking their 1987 approach to Salome, had made their modernized version steamy enough to rival the weather, it stood alone. There were no new operas at the festival, such as last season’s Tree of Codes or Quartett from the year before, both given their American premieres. Nor were there any exciting excavations like the past two seasons’, when we saw Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei and Vivaldi’s Farnace in American premieres.

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On the other hand, you could also say that orchestral director John Kennedy, Westminster Choir leader Joe Miller, and chamber music director Geoff Nuttall have opened the gates to new music to such a degree that it now permeates Spoleto’s classical programming. At Dock Street Theatre, the chamber music venue dripping with antiquity, I don’t recall an after-concert buzz that quite equaled what I heard when Karen Gomyo made her festival debut. On the heels of a gorgeous Bach sonata from flutist Tara Helen O’Connor and an exhilarating Concerto for Two Celli by Vivaldi, featuring cellists Joshua Roman and Christopher Costanza, Gomyo gave an electrifying account of Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy” that left me trembling.

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That performance seemed the obvious choice when I reached the outdoor courtyard, probably no warmer than 98º, and I overheard one guy asking his lady which piece she had liked best. After a couple of seconds of reflection, she answered, “I think I preferred the quartet!” That piece was When the Night for Cello Quartet by composer-in-residence Paul Wiancko, with Roman, Costanza, the composer, and Nina Lee in her Spoleto debut. Introducing the piece, Nuttall outed Lee as the musician who had asked Wiancko where his title had come from. Then he had Wiancko play the bass intro to Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” and, to complete Lee’s hazing, asked everybody who knew the first three words to sing them. We were fairly loud responding to our cue. Twice.

Like Charles Wadsworth before him, Nuttall feels no compulsion to solemnly match the mood of his intros to the music that will follow. So it’s typical of his hosting style that, while pranking the newbie, Nuttall also let us know that the three movements of When the Night would be ethereal and serene.

Wiancko’s previous pieces had been more multicolored in mood and instrumentation. Closed Universe, written in the wake of the 2016 election, pondered the dark days to come with Costanza tilting the instrumental makeup of a piano quartet toward his solo cello. The composer added another intriguing twist, playing a second cello and a glockenspiel, which chimed in to signify the glimmers of hope he felt amid the gloom. On Program III, oboist James Austin Smith and the St. Lawrence String Quartet premiered Wiancko’s newest piece, Faults. It was also the brightest of the works played during the composer’s residency, with abrupt shifts between lyrical beauty and discordant chaos – with a little mischief tossed in. Smith seemed to be having fun on the bumpy terrain, particularly late in the piece when he and St. Lawrence violist Lesley Robertson performed a clapping accompaniment for the other players. Playing first violin with his quartet, Nuttall was so gleeful that he seemed like a kid.

In the more traditional repertoire, Nuttall was playing with more fire and flair than we had seen from him since he took over as chamber music director after the 2009 festival. Following on the heels of Closed Universe in Program I, Nuttall absolutely scorched the first violin part of Ernst von Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet, smiling as he burned with pianist Stephen Prutsman and the St. Lawrence. Nuttall and the St. Lawrence also played the coveted finale spot – with its guaranteed standing O – in Program II, Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet, after the violinist’s alert that the “Deutschland über alles” melody was upcoming in the quiet second movement.

If we can accept that Ben E. King would go on to upstage Carmen, then I’m emboldened to proclaim that Prutsman turned the St. Lawrence’s heroics with Haydn into something of an anticlimax in his rendition of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. Nuttall’s intro stressed the range of emotions we were about to experience, warning the Dock Street audience that the opening Adagio sostenuto might bring them to tears. My tears actually welled up in the closing Presto agitato, one of my favorite piano pieces, for I’d never heard it played live with such white-hot ferocity and fury.

As far as audience favor that afternoon, that may have been secured by the chunk of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that bassist-composer Doug Balliett so charmingly modernized in his Echo and Narcissus, with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo singing both of the title roles and the composer narrating. Prutsman was literally upstaged in Program IV when he performed a rollicking film score for piano quintet – with Nuttall doubling on a cheesy toy trumpet – that he composed for Buster Keaton’s 1927 silent film, College. At the start of the concert, Nuttall promised that anybody who didn’t laugh hard at least once could ask for his or her money back at the end of the show. Projected on a fairly wide screen while the musicians played off to the side, Keaton’s antics prevailed. Even if I hadn’t been comped, I couldn’t have collected.

Prutsman also had a salutary impact on Kennedy’s more militantly modern Music in Time series, which split its four concerts between the funky Woolfe Street Playhouse, with its Bohemian cocktail tables and faux candles, and the Simons Center Recital Hall with its clean-room sterility. Looking very much at ease at Woolfe Street, Prutsman introduced his 30: An American Kaleidoscope and left the performing to a string quartet comprised of four Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra members – except for the pre-recorded soundtrack that the composer provided for accompaniment. The idea was to simulate a road trip across the US, the quartet acting as the riders and Prutsman’s audio imitating the sound of a car radio as the travelers sped in and out of the wavelength of stations that they passed. Sped might be an understatement, since Prutsman claimed to have condensed snips of some 400 songs into his soundtrack, far more than he stole for his feature-length College score.

Kaleidoscope was somewhat unique in the “Rebellion in Greenery” concert, since Britta Byström’s title piece, Pauline Oliveros’ From Unknown Silences, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s were all more tranquil nature studies, not speedy at all. was easily the most exotic, with bass flute and bass clarinet included in the texture, and punctuations on the piano that included hitting the strings with a mallet. Percussionist Ye Young Yoon had even more outré assignments: rubbing a drum with a disc, bowing a vibraphone, applying a crumpled piece of paper to gong, and simply crumpling a second piece of paper! Except when Yoon banged the bass drum, the music hardly rose above a whisper, mesmerizing.

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Dedicated to bringing rock instrumentation to new – and old – classical music, The Living Earth Show was more rowdy, raucous, and crowdpleasing in their second Spoleto appearance. Both members of this Left Coast duo, stoked percussionist Andy Meyerson and slightly mellow guitarist Travis Andrews, took turns personably introducing their repertoire along with one or two of the many instruments that littered the stage. By far the most unusual of these was the electric percussion instrument Myerson played with mallets during Dennis Aman’s Prelude #5/Fugue #4, based on Bach. It seemed to be fashioned from three plastic disks, about the size of an old studio tape reel, each of which sported four blobs of primary colored Jell-O – lemon, lime, blueberry, and cherry – sufficiently solidified so they wouldn’t splatter.

Living Earth’s exploration of what is possible was fun. Before Nicole Lizée’s Family Sing-A-Long and Game Night, I’d never seen anybody bowing a guitar, and before Raven Chacon’s Tributary, I’d never contemplated the musical possibilities of smashing a drinking glass into a bucket and mucking around with the broken shards. Also memorable was Sarah Hennies’ update of Bolero, emphasizing the snare drum tattoo until the piece dissolved into a percussion orgy.

As opposed to the more retro and conservative music performed at Woolfe Street, mostly by female composers, the slate at Simons was strictly modern, often minimalistic, and exclusively male-composed. In the “Stay on It” concert, the title piece by Julius Eastman was preceded by two more recent works by Steve Reich, Pulse and Runner. Before conducting, Kennedy prefaced the Reich works, comparing Pulse (2015), in particular with the late symphonies of Haydn for its clarity. A bit of a stretch, I thought when the piece was done, so the whoops of enthusiasm that welled up from the audience took me a little aback. Patches of fanatical support enlivened the entire Music in Time series.

Written for two orchestras, each deployed to one side of the stage, Runner (2016) struck me as livelier and more engaging, but the Eastman piece, exhumed from 1973, had the most color and chaos, with stretches of jungle riot and jazz. Soprano saxophonist Jeffrey Siegfried led the ensemble, playing with and without his mouthpiece and reed, contributing the elephant roar to Eastman’s sonic Africa.

After my Spotify preview, I had somewhat dreaded staying an extra day for Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain (2000), but Kennedy hinted that seeing the work staged would add an extra dimension, and he was right. Aside from its tuning complexities, this apocalyptic work, over an hour in length, was written to be played through two extended periods of total darkness. Not only did the 24 musicians from the Spoleto Orchestra need to memorize long stretches of their parts, they needed to play them together without Kennedy’s direction, shifting dynamics and tempos by listening to each other.

I found myself getting more accustomed to the gloom during the second episode of darkness, able to see Kennedy’s motionless silhouette – and also able to more keenly perceive the musicians’ striving for unity and community. Their struggles were all the more poignant when brief flashes of light pierced the darkness without providing any help.

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Kennedy was one of five conductors at the podium for Spoleto’s larger musical productions. After serving as assistant director for the 2017 production of Eugene Onegin, Michelle Rofrano made her formal debut conducting a groundbreaking Classical Showcase concert that brought the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra out of the pit and onto the stage at Dock Street Theatre. She also brought Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C on board to share the stage with works by Bach, Stravinsky, and Beethoven. A hefty piece it was, for there were more musicians exiting after the Mendelssohn than entering for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1.

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Memminger Auditorium, where Amistad, Peony Pavilion and Paradise Interrupted have been staged, was the right choice for Michael Gordon’s City Symphonies trilogy, paired with films by Bill Morrison. Kennedy took on this edgier fare, getting wonderful work for the Festival USA Orchestra, but the most provocative elements of this evening were Morrison’s depictions of New York in Gotham, LA in Dystopia, and – let there be color! – Miami in El Sol Caliente.

Aside from the customary Westminster Choir concerts, which included touching tributes to their late former director Joseph Flummerfelt, Miller and his Princeton-based ensemble were unusually active. Before and between the two choral potpourris at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, there were two blockbusters at Gaillard Center, Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles and Bach’s St. John Passion.

Stage directed and set designed by John La Bouchardière, Spoleto’s Path of Miracles took a score that wasn’t intended for the stage and plopped it down at St. James the apostle’s tomb in Santiago and the Camino de Santiago path across Spain that pilgrims take to the shrine to be healed and shriven. Talbot’s music handed out 17 different vocal lines to the Choir, set to a Robert Dickinson libretto in seven languages. Seven, including Basque.

path-of-miracles_47954465041_oA circle of rocks onstage seemed to allude to the circle of stars that originally helped a hermit to discover what is called Santiago de Compostela – Saint James of the field of stars. Having seen so many Westminster concerts before, I was probably more disoriented than anyone. La Bouchardière began with a procession of choristers parading down the aisles to the stage, skipping over the miraculous 9th century discovery of St. James’s tomb and introducing us immediately to the flocks of pilgrims trudging there on foot.

Didn’t La Bouchardière know that Miller does that same processional shtick at the beginning of every Westminster concert? Yes, he did it this year, too.

Somewhat overshadowed by Caurier and Leiser’s bold restaging of Salome – and the outstanding cast he was fortunate enough to lead – Steven Sloane did not instantly emerge as the most outstanding conductor at the festival this year. Sure, the score absolutely crackled under his baton, but the new twists were sensational, Salome baring her breasts as she attempted to seduce Jokanaan and a “Dance of the Seven Veils” set to a full ten-thrust sexual encounter with Herod. Hail, Viagara! The modernized rooftop set design by Christian Fenouillat became spectacular when he dropped Jokanaan’s entire bedroom down on it, glowing against the nighttime sky.

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Scenery and stage directing screamed audacity, but consider: Sloane’s Salome, soprano Melanie Henley Heyn, was singing professionally for the first time ever in a full-length operatic production – and she was amazing, validating the awesome risk of casting her. Heyn wasn’t a temptress; she was more of a petulant Salome, a privileged teen accustomed to being worshipped. So she wasn’t tasked with performing diva exploits when she came on to rich-voiced baritone Erik Van Heyningen in Jokanaan’s bedroom, and she could be unusually passive – if not absolutely a victim, since she knew she would be repaid! – when tenor Paul Groves dropped his pants for the “Seven Veils” dance.

The hauteur and conceit of Salome came across best when she prevailed upon the helplessly enamored tenor Zach Borichevsky as captain of the guard Narraboth (easily on a par with Groves and Van Heyningen in this admirably deep cast) to let her visit Jokanaan in his cell – and later when she demanded his head, stretching his name each time to seven chilling syllables. Caurier and Leiser stumbled a bit after Herod hitched his belt, for they didn’t make a serious attempt to equal the shock value of Salome’s failed seduction and faux dance when she claimed her prize. Heyn and Sloane were arguably most impressive there, because the succeeded in making up the slack.

Newly appointed as music director of the Jerusalem Symphony, Sloane may have been the most underappreciated conductor at Spoleto this year in his mostly underground performance, but Evan Rogister vied with him for excellence in a program of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. He also has big things in the works as the newly appointed principal conductor of Washington National Opera. What all these conductors accomplish with the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, young professionals and grad students freshly gathered through nationwide auditions every year, is routinely astonishing.

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But with selections from Prokofiev’s two Romeo and Juliet orchestral suites, what Rogister achieved was unique for me. What I heard at Gaillard not only eclipsed every live or recorded performance I’d experienced before, it made me admire and thrill to music that I had strained to tolerate before, beginning with the familiar “Montagues and Capulets” theme that had grown hackneyed and noxious for me. I can hardly explain the difference other than to say that Rogister had channeled the youthfulness and energy of this orchestra and somewhat pierced through to the soul of the gritty, grudgy, and utterly rhapsodic story Shakespeare had written, a story whose essence is youth. Of course, the proficiency of the musicians and the acoustics of the hall didn’t hurt.

A window into how Rogister accomplishes such wonders may have been opened when he prefaced the Orchestra’s rendition of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. He went beyond talking about Shostakovich’s tribulations during the Stalinist regime, the framing of this symphony as a penitential offering, a step toward political and cultural rehabilitation. Rogister took an additional moment to pay tribute to three virtuosi who made so much of modern Russian music possible with their encouragement, sponsorship, and artistry – cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and violinist David Oistrakh.

That’s valuing musicians to the highest degree.

Outdoor Spoleto Headliners Beat the Heat

Review: Spoleto Jazz at the Cistern Yard

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 

There had never been anything like it at Spoleto Festival USA before – four consecutive days of 100-degree heat – and nothing like it in Charleston before, where temperatures that torrid had never previously been recorded in the month of May. Fortunately, two of the three outdoor headliners in Spoleto’s 2019 jazz lineup straddled the worst of the heat wave, Esperanza Spalding on the opening two nights of the festival and Carla Bley on the last night of the month after the heat had broken. Somewhat.

Leading a Geri Allen Tribute Quintet into Cistern Yard, drum diva Terri Lyne Carrington was caught smack in the middle of the cauldron. “How do you people deal with this heat?” she cried out shortly after sitting down at her kit. “It’s like a sauna up here!!”

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Carrington may have had the question, but it was clear that her all-star quintet, fronted by Craig Taborn and Ravi Coltrane, had the answer. They would fight fire with fire.

Before the trio, completed by bassist Robert Hurst, got rolling with the pianist’s originals, Taborn filled in with “Bemsha Swing.” The impromptu choice was marvelously apt, since Allen had covered Monk’s line on a solo CD recorded in the mid-80s – with less swing and more Monkish angularity. Taborn remained the dominant voice on both of the trio selections, “LWB’s House” and “A Place of Power.”

But not the only voice: Carrington immediately asserted herself on “LWB” under the pianist’s bravado, then an inconspicuous shifting of the lead as the drummer wailed more emphatically and the piano subsided into a vamp – before a Taborn-again explosion. On “Power,” the heavy bass line underpinning Taborn’s work clearly signaled that Hurst would be getting some solo space. So did Allen’s original recording on her 1989 Twylight album, with Jaribu Shahid on electric bass.

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Hurst’s acoustic solo made for a mellower prelude to Coltrane’s arrival – right on cue for “Feed the Fire,” the working title for the whole set. Everybody got in on the feeding, Carrington framing the other solos by opening and closing the piece. The fire inched closer to a blaze in “Swamini,” a more spiritual piece at the outset as the percussionist picked up her mallets and Coltrane, still on tenor sax, glided through the line and upwards into his zone. Between Ravi’s two solos, Taborn asserted himself forcefully to remind us that this was a tribute to another pianist.

A Beauty-and-the-Beast pairing followed as Coltrane picked up his soprano and lavished his burnished tone on “Unconditional Love,” one of Allen’s loveliest compositions. After Taborn, Coltrane, and Carrington all soloed, an extended drums-and-bass jam segued into “Running as Fast as You Can” with Taborn, both hands ablur, going entirely out, defying the heat as militantly as Carrington – though Coltrane would have a pretty bodacious answer.

The end of the concert had a couple of interesting novelties. Carrington sang the newly revealed lyric to “Your Pure Self,” received directly from the late composer, and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut came onstage to complete the Allen Tribute Quintet. In “The Dancer” and “Celebration of All Life,” Chestnut appeared to be burning more calories than the rest of the quintet put together, driving the group to a new level of energy and pure joy. Coltrane seemed to get the greatest kick out of trading licks with Chestnut, supercharged in his exchanges, but there was a closer fellowship between Carrington and the dancer when those two percussionists started trading.

At the climax of the celebration, there was a musical moment as touching as the spoken testimonials we had heard from Carrington and Coltrane, when the Tribute Quintet performed “Our Lady,” Allen’s tribute to Billie Holiday. We looked down a long corridor of jazz history in that moment, especially when Taborn, echoing Allen on her instrument, simply and soulfully played the blues.

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Scatting a few bars of Eric Dolphy before her band joined her onstage, Spalding declared that she was thereby fulfilling her obligation to perform jazz as part of Spoleto’s Wells Fargo Jazz series. That was slightly more respectful than Dee Dee Bridgewater, who told her 2017 audience that if they were expecting a jazz concert, they were out of luck. Or was it? Though most of her set was culled from the originals of her new 12 Little Spells album, which she can categorize as she pleases, she also performed works by composer/performers who didn’t shun the jazz label when they appeared at the Charleston festival.

Yes, Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” and Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” were also on Spalding’s set list. Before she sang either of those, Spalding hearkened back to her own debut jazz trio album, Junjo, accompanying herself on acoustic bass in singing Manuel Castilla’s “Cantora De Yala.” Jazz or not, it was the loveliest vocal performance I’ve ever heard from Spalding. While the bassist could not equal the trademark huskiness of Lincoln’s voice, her rendition of “Throw It Away” was arguably jazzier than the iconic Abbey version at her 2003 concert in Gaillard Auditorium.

There was definitely more showmanship packaged into Spalding’s concert as she changed from slacks and T-shirt to a fairly formal dress after her band appeared. Corresponding with various body parts, the songs performed from 12 Little Spells, somewhat stripped of their studio trimming, were very reminiscent of the “Joni jazz” albums, Mingus and Miles of Aisles, that Joni Mitchell recorded back in the ‘70s. The resemblance was most striking when the versatile Morgan Guerin, camped behind keyboards most of the evening, abruptly picked up a tenor sax for “With Others,” the piece dedicated to the ears. Briefly, the Tom Scott backup sound lived again.

Spalding’s lyrics usually drove the rhythm of her vocals, an approach that grew rather monochromatic after a refreshing R&B excursion, the hips-driven “Thang.” With Esperanza taking over the catchy backup vocal riff and bringing it to the forefront, the Cistern Yard performance was far funkier than the studio version. When Guerin supplanted guitarist Matthew Stevens as the lead instrumental voice, the band grew edgier and more acoustic. Hotter. Stevens took a solid solo as Spalding capped the evening with Shorter’s “Species,” but Guerin took two, sustaining the heat. Ultimately, jazz prevailed.

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All of the other performers in the Spoleto jazz lineup seemed comfortable enough with the notion of playing jazz, but those who played indoors – with blessed air conditioning – were no doubt the most comfortable. These included Dafnis Prieto Big Band at the lavish Gaillard and two six-performance engagements at the Simons Center Recital Hall. The tenor sax-piano duo of Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson is onstage during wrap-up week of Spoleto, but I caught pianist David Virelles during his Simons stint, beginning on the festival’s opening weekend and stretching past Memorial Day.

Virelles varied his format, flying solo during his first three concerts and teaming up with a fellow Cuban, master conguero and percussionist Román Díaz, for his final three gigs. Most of the titles went unannounced, and it wasn’t until after the duo had played Monk’s “Epistrophy” that Virelles indicated that previous pieces had been exploratory, recently composed work – perhaps awaiting titles to be given after some more workshopping.

From the opening moments, it was clear that this was a joint project. Virelles played a searching solo while the percussionist, armed with just a couple of congas and shaker bracelets, sat by. When Díaz made his entrance, it wasn’t merely to accompany. Instead, his congas gradually initiated a dialogue, at first with abrupt unrhythmic punctuations that seemed to be heeding voices other than Virelles’. The sudden strokes morphed into phrases, which became interpolations when the pianist paused to listen. As if the mutual feeling out had ceased, the melody and rhythm between piano and congas became more integrated as the tempo quickened.2019~Spoleto-025

On the ensuing piece, Díaz switched back and forth from sticks to hands in striking his drums while Virelles began with a heavily percussive approach of his own, grew suddenly boppish for a stretch, and finished totally out and cacophonous when his partner returned to sticks. On another work, the script was flipped for the most symmetrical performance in the set, Díaz beginning and ending the piece, framing Virelles outbursts that were darkly anchored at the bass side of the keyboard. In between, the conguero and the pianist each had a couple of spots where they held forth, Virelles almost bluesy in one of his, ruminative in the other.

With Díaz on hand, Virelles’ restless shifts and caprices were likely easier on the ear than they had been in solo performance – and certainly more readily recognized as Cuban. Yet there were lighter, more accessible moments. Díaz found some sort of bell to beat on as Virelles, only somewhat obliquely, played “Epistrophy” up to the break, going to his conga set to play us though the rest of the line. Seemingly flying along multiple paths at the same time, Virelles’ choppy, pithy solo had the poise and grace to briefly swoop into Monk’s famed “Misterioso” for a nibble or two.

The other announced piece, Miguel Matamoros’ classic “Son de la Loma,” began with Virelles’ longest solo of the evening, gliding from a merry stride piano to a rustic salsa before Díaz joined in. What followed was a Virelles original that most likely has its title, with the conguero comping conventionally for the first time. The duo’s farewell was inchoate and searching to start, Virelles seemingly gravitating toward something we would readily recognize – including Díaz, who lay in wait. Just as pleasing, Virelles settled into a 4/4 groove, where the two Cuban masters rocked us out.

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We would be remiss not to point out that half of the groups in this year’s Spoleto lineup – notably the smaller groups – hail from the ECM stable as that distinctive label celebrates its 50th anniversary. The Carla Bley Trio, one of the most prestigious names in the ECM catalogue, typifies the classical solidity and the chamber rapport we’ve come to expect from each new jazz, classical, folk, or world music release that emanates from the Munich HQ. Even among the cavalcade of notables who have built ECM’s enviable stature, the balance of Bley – Trios is exemplary.

Of course, Bley, saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and electric bass giant Steve Swallow have honed their wondrous synergy over the span of decades. Bley and Swallow are romantic as well as musical partners, their discography together goes back more than 30 years, so the bassist, playing his instrument’s upper range, gets his well-deserved space on nearly every tune. Sheppard, the youngster in the group at the age of 62, has been on board for a mere 24 years. He isn’t the glue in the outfit, since Bley and Swallow cerebrally intertwine with their edgy voices. Beginning on “Copycat,” Sheppard’s smooth soprano sound was more like the aromatic lubricating oil that kept the music flowing.

He took multiple solos on that opener and – switching to tenor – on the ensuing “Ups and Downs,” a line that hearkens back to the Bley-Swallow Duets album of 1988. A more topical edge sharpened “Beautiful Telephones,” which Bley told us was inspired by what impressed our incoming President when he first occupied the Oval Office in 2017. You might have gathered from Bley’s intro that she felt 45 was cherishing a rather stupid thing.2019~Spoleto-085Mischief was in the air. Before Sheppard picked up the pace and darkened his tone, Swallow and Bley both had their say, the bassist having a little more fun as he snuck a bit of “Beautiful Love” into his utterance. Bley asserted herself most emphatically in her lengthy summation at the end, weaving threads of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “The National Anthem,” and “Yankee Doodle” into her biting sarcasm before her final thrust, the kitschy conclusion of “My Way.”2019~Spoleto-078

 

With “Útviklingssang,” the mood lingered in mournful darkness without any witty barbs or quickening tempo. It was the oldest Bley work on the program, dating back to 1980, yet it resurfaced on Trios, the group’s ECM debut in 2013. Here the leader stayed in the background, allowing Swallow and Sheppard to spread the gloom. After the White House prank, here was an onset of grim sobriety.

“Well, this is a sad way to end,” Bley suddenly told us. Unseen eyes had been keeping watch on the weather throughout the concert after a late afternoon cloudburst had threatened the event. Now they emerged from the shadows at Cistern Yard and told Bley that there were approaching storm clouds. Festival officials were understandably concerned about exposing their Steinway to the elements and wanted to cover it immediately.

Bley pleaded for a few minutes of reprieve so she could end the evening on a more upbeat note. It was a pretty wild scene as many began fleeing to their cars, homes, and hotels, while the rest of stayed on as Bley reported her success and offered “Sex With Birds.” It’s the last of three parts in Bley’s “Wildlife” suite, first recorded in 1985 with an octet that included Swallow and reconfigured for the Trios release. Very likely, the group had planned on playing the whole triptych, yet the sampling we heard ended beautifully. Back on soprano, Sheppard faded out over a lovely Bley accompaniment, twittering happily.

Under the circumstances, a graceful save.