Category Archives: Jazz

Spoleto Festival USA Widens Its Jazz Playing Field

Review: Spoleto Jazz  May 25 to June 9 Charleston, SC

By Perry Tannenbaum

Two years ago, there was a changing of the jazz guard in Charleston as Spoleto Festival USA swung into its 40th anniversary celebration – with a revival of Porgy and Bess distilling the essence of the city and the festival, bringing jazz to the forefront. With Wells Fargo jazz director Michael Grofsorean replaced by jazz advisor Larry Blumenfeld, the lineup turned noticeably toward more domestic, New World performers, and the trend has continued for the two seasons after the big celebration.

Meanwhile Blumenfeld’s programming is pushing the envelope in two directions away from Spoleto’s former mainstream, straight-ahead groove. With Jon Batiste and the Dap Kings, we moved to the pop music realm. At the other end of the spectrum, the Artifacts ensemble’s tribute to AACM repertoire spearheaded by Nicole Mitchell and the set by Trio 3 + Vijay Iyer threw the doors wide open to off-the-rails experimental jazz. Wells Fargo hung in with their sponsorship, but they didn’t increase the number of jazz concerts to accommodate Blumenfeld’s push. Seven remained the magic number, leaving the Fred Hersch Trio, Jazzmeia Horn, the Chucho Valdés Quartet, and Craig Taborn in the mainstream, a noticeable shift in the balance.

Of course, there was a move towards pop last season, seemingly unanticipated, when Dee Dee Bridgewater strode onto the stage at Cistern Yard with the Memphis Soulphony and declared that we were out of luck if we expected a jazz concert from the newly anointed NEA Jazz Master. But there was nothing coy or unanticipated about Batiste appearing with the Dap-Kings on the first weekend of the 2018 festival, teaming up with the funk royals on the second night of his two-night stand at the Cistern.

Contrasting with solo gig the night before, when Batiste included “St. James Infirmary,” “What a Wonderful World,” and Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” on his set list, the Daps turned the Cistern into a no-jazz zone. Fats Domino’s “Ain’t It a Shame” and Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” took me back to my youth, and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” was the bluesiest selection from the bandleader on The late Show With Stephen Colbert. Keenly ruing that I’d missed the solo concert, I found sizable solace in the revelation of Batiste’s singing prowess, which I’d never stumbled across during my occasional viewings of Colbert. If you thought “Sunny Side of the Street” from his Jazz Is Now CD was anywhere close to Batiste’s outer limits, guess again.

No such surprises were forthcoming when Jazzmeia Horn took the stage at Gaillard Center, mostly singing tunes from her scintillating debut CD, A Social Call. The opening song on both the 2017 release and the concert was Betty Carter’s “Tight” – in pretty much the identical arrangement, with Victor Gould leading the rhythm section and Marcus Miller stepping in to supply the alto sax solo. Both Gould and Miller traded potent 4’s with Horn before her outchorus. When she veered from the studio versions, she expanded on them. “East of the Sun” gave space to bassist Barry Stephenson for a solo, an opportunity for drummer Henry Conerway III to return fire during after extra scat volleys from Horn, and for the audience to go “East” and “West” in further exchanges.

“The Peacocks (A Timeless Place)” and “I Remember You” followed the same order as the album, but with trumpeter Josh Evans on hand to reprise his spots on the Jimmy Rowles line, he lingered onstage to add some extra tang to the Johnny Mercer tune, where he’s absent on the studio cut. With all hands on deck, including Corey Wallace on trombone, Horn’s live rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice/Moanin’” was the most enhanced – and improved – sampling of A Social Call. For starters, the James Weldon Johnson anthem wasn’t as lame and humdrum as it is on the recording, but it was the Bobby Timmons standard, with the late Jon Hendricks’ lyrics, that really perked things up, drawing lively solos from everyone, including a bowed gem from Stephenson.

The cumulative excellence of the band prodded Horn to surpass herself, no mean exploit, as she weighed in on the last of the horn solos by Wallace and jubilantly traded licks with him. Nor was she done after this crossfire, for after the rhythm section folk took their solos, Horn did special things with the “Lord, I’ve tried” release in the Hendricks lyric, playing with it, ascending to the stratosphere of her vocal range, and turning it into a personal chant that hearkened back to the “Lift Ev’ry Voice” theme. It was quite stunning. Uplifting.

Three things seemed to incline my wife toward favoring Artifacts above all other jazz groups we saw at Spoleto this year: the trio was mostly women, they brought music stands with them to the Simons Center Recital Hall, and we had front row seats. After watching their Jazz Talk with Blumenfeld, also from front row seats, we could also feel a rapport with the artists before they played the last of their six concerts in this cozy, somewhat clinical space.

Interaction between the trio members was quite special, Nicole Mitchell on flute the benevolent leader, drummer Mike Reed the earnest provocateur, and cellist Tomeka Reid the serene mellowing agent. Or so you might have described their chemistry after witnessing their symposium with Blumenfeld. At the beginning of their set, each of the players had a chance to sparkle, Reid setting the tone for Reed’s “Pleasure Palace” with a plucked intro, Mitchell navigating the tune, and Reed returning friendly fire before the leader had the final say. Reid pulled out her bow for the next tune, playing together with Mitchell at the outset, and the hypnotic vamp that ensued might be the primary reason Mitchell named this composition “Reflections.”

Reid’s “Song for Helena” had the most interesting texture in the set, the composer partnering with Mitchell in laying down a medium groove and later shedding her bow. Meanwhile Reed shuttled from brushes to sticks, winding up with one in each hand. Steve McCall’s “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting,” more fully explored here than on the 2013 Artifacts recording, also brought out some interesting texturing as Mitchell vocalized while she played, both Reid and Reed agitating against her tranquility to poignant effect. They closed with Ed Wilkerson’s “Light on the Path,” the same infectious line that was the Artifacts finale, with Mitchell exploring her mix of flute and vocalese far more extensively. Intensity ricocheted between the musicians, Reed working himself into a lather and pushing tempo behind his kit and Reid radiating the joy that bound them all together.

The initial vibe at Gaillard Center as Trio 3 Plus Vijay Iyer strode onto the stage might be described as defiance. Not only did the group start late, they had no intentions of easing us into venerable saxophonist Oliver Lake’s toolbag low barks, midrange squonks, and high squeals. Although the Charleston City Paper rightly railed against walkouts at a wide spectrum of Spoleto events, I have to admit that fears of a mass exodus began mushrooming in my gut after just 20 seconds of listening to Lake on “Flow.” Pounding on the keyboard after Lake desisted, Iyer seemed intent on being equally offputting at the piano.

Maybe the leaders were disgruntled because of the sound setup. There are grating moments on the group’s 2014 Wiring recording, to be sure, but the sound captured in the studio was far sweeter and better balanced. Reggie Workman’s bass, so forward and integral in the studio, was virtually lost in the hall, treble was on leave at Andrew Cyrille’s drums, and the overmiking of Lake’s sax was further underscored because Iyer was relegated to the background, volume and flavor not picked up from his keyboard. Acoustically speaking, Simons Center would have been much kinder to this group.

The assault didn’t let up, for the most strident track on the Wiring CD, Workman’s “Synapse,” would come third on the playlist, a performance that triggered the first sizable defections. “Ode to Von” was more quietly weird, Lake at his most fluid so far, Vijay reaching under the piano’s lid, with Reggie and Andrew thoughtfully taking time off from timekeeping. With Lake laying out, “Navigator” abruptly sounded rather tame, as Iyer inserted something different at the start – chords!

Accessibility was back for the remainder of the evening as the quartet meditatively leaned into Workman’s “Willow Song,” inspired by Desdemona’s lament in Othello. Iyer was relatively quiet, layering onto a Cyrille solo, Lake showed his soulful side at last, and the composer eloquently used the space carved out for his bass solo. The stage belonged entirely to Cyrille as he played his drum fantasia, “For Girls Dancing,” further reviving audience enthusiasm. Then Vijay stepped forward and introduced what would be the pinnacle of the evening, the third movement “Adagio” from his Suite for Trayvon (and Thousands More). This time, Iyer struck a chord within the audience, referencing the carnage perpetrated by a white supremacist at the A.M.E. Church, just a block away, in 2015. The performance must have struck many as a peace offering, sanctifying what had often been a raucous program.

Too bad so many who came, perhaps hoping for such balm and healing, had bailed and wound up missing it.

Founder of the seminal Irakere band in the early 1970s, Chucho Valdés was way overdue for a Spoleto debut, whatever musical category you might pigeonhole him in. All those voices, all those horns, all that percussion, and all that jazz/rock electric guitar and bass on the early Irakere CDs tended to conceal the prodigious beast who sat at the keyboards. Valdés’ own talents as a composer and arranger were additional diversions, along with his light touch on electric piano. A brief glimpse of the monster occurred in Chucho’s “Misa Negra (The Black Mass),” when the composer dug in for a solo at the acoustic piano.

Without the likes of Arturo Sandoval’s trumpet on hand – or Paquito D’Rivera’s reeds – Valdés was inclined to fill in the blanks as he led the Chucho Valdés Quartet into Gaillard. Any expectations of a purely Latin-flavored evening or of frequent rock infusions were swiftly dispelled in the opening “Obatala.” After a meandering intro, Valdés built to a dense fantasia with textures worthy of McCoy Tyner before cuing the drums, finishing later with a snatch of Brubeck’s “Blues a la Turk.” In between, there was a light-fingered rumination that could remind you of Red Garland’s treble delights – except that Valdés had a second melody line percolating at the same time in his left hand.

“Son 21” took an approach that we’ve seen from European artists at past Spoletos, moving from one tune to another during the space of a single piece. This medley was of styles as well as melodies, starting off in a jazz groove and, after a Slam Stewart-style bass solo from Yelsy Heredia (accompanying himself vocally an octave higher than he played), returning in a classical rhapsodic vein that flowed into Latin territory. In both of these latter modes, Valdés showed the chops to turn up the heat and make them more torrid and turbulent.

“Ochun” started out a bit like a gospel tune or a jazzy spiritual, and Valdés’ “Chopin Adaption” further widened the palette, veering towards a samba sway before circling back to classical, more like Rachmaninoff than Chopin, over Heredia’s bowed bass. “Mambo in Heaven” was as Latin as you could ask from its opening keyboard vamp onwards, moving towards a pounding piano solo and culminating in a pitched percussion battle, with drummer Dafnis Prieto and percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles both getting lathered up at the kit and on the congas.

Our true jazz audience with Valdés came in the concert finale as the 76-year-old treated us to his personal Tin Pan Alley travelogue. We didn’t land at “But Not for Me” until Chucho spent some quality time with “If I Should Lose You,” “Night and Day,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “Waltz for Debby.” Even when we kicked into the Cole Porter tune with full rhythm, there were cameo appearances from Duke Ellington’s “A Train” and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Swinging on a Star.” For anyone who felt he or she hadn’t heard enough Latin sounds, the “El Cumbanchero” encore provided plentiful consolation, with one more epic drum battle.

With Arturo O’Farrill, Pedrito Martinez, and now Chucho Valdés, there has been a welcome infusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms into the jazz lineup at Spoleto, and with Artifacts and Trio 3, there has been what some might view as an unwelcome addition of experimental jazz. Taking the long view, however, I have to say it’s about time – even for people who hated the new sounds. Ever since the festival began in 1977, there have been many theatre, dance, chamber music, opera, orchestral, and contemporary music performances that have drawn the ire of audience members and sent people fleeing to the exits. Perhaps because festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti was so famously jazz-averse, programming has hewn to a safe mainstream, occasionally pushing the envelope but never too hard.

Not anymore. At Spoleto, jazz has joined the club.

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Dee Dee and Charles Do It Their Way

Review:  Spoleto Festival USA Jazz

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dee Dee Bridgewater didn’t exactly say that a diva can sing any damn thing she pleases. But she came damn close. Kicking off the Wells Fargo Jazz concerts at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA, Bridgewater told the crowd at Cistern Yard that it was tough luck if we didn’t get the memo: now that she has been named among the NEA Jazz Masters for 2017, she feels like she’s earned the privilege to take a break from jazz and move in a new direction.

As she introduced her supporting cast, six pieces plus two backup singers called the Memphis Soulphony, Bridgewater told us that her detour was taking her back to the soul and blues of her hometown. So there were golden oldies by Big Mama Thornton, B.B. King, Al Green, Otis Redding, solos by each of the backup singers, and a purple Prince encore. The last two numbers, a Redding-styled “Try a Little Tenderness” and a communal “Purple Rain,” with many in the audience firing up their smartphone flashlights to simulate the good old butane lighter days, were distantly connected with jazz.

But if you were looking for the kind of vibes on such CDs as Dee Dee’s Feathers or Dear Ella, Bridgewater and her Soulphony weren’t ready to oblige. Or if you were expecting the coy and cooing sounds that dominate Dee Dee’s recordings, you needed to open your heart to a raunchy and raspy side of this vocalist that record execs may have muted in past years. B.B.’s “The Thrill Is Gone” and Big Mama’s “Hound Dog” both had an authentic zest of their own, raw at the core, affirming a true busting loose. You can judge for yourself when Bridgewater and Soulphony drop their Memphis CD later this year.

I was fearing a similar non-jazz experience from Sofía Rei when a couple of people who caught one of the transplanted Argentinian’s earlier sets asked me to get back to them after I’d seen her. As it turned out, each of Rei’s sets was different – with different titles and mixes of personnel until her final day at Spoleto. Even then, when the same trio backed her at 5:00 and 7:00pm, each set had its own title. I caught the earlier “Cursed Heaven” program, favoring that over Rei’s “Quartet” finale.

Most of the “Cursed Heaven” songs can be heard on El Gavilán*, Rei’s tribute to Chilean songwriter and folklorist Violeta Parra issued earlier this year; but with free jazz pianist Leo Genovese anchoring the rhythm section, textures were radically different from those on the CD. With Rei’s vocals, loops, and charango mostly backed by an acoustic guitar, that studio “*Hawk” is relatively tame.

The divergence and the excitement began immediately with “Arriba Quemando el Sol.” Underscored by the repetition of the loops that Rei laid down as backup and backbeat, the juxtaposition of Rei’s on-the-beat vocals with Genovese’ out-of-time accompaniment made for a burning restlessness, with percussionist Franco Pinna taking the keyboardist’s side in the conflict and bassist Jorge Roeder hedging his allegiances.

Genovese did some hedging of his own on “Mazúrquica Modérnica,” his initial accompaniment very trad with a carnival flavor, followed by a Monkish solo on his electric keys. When Rei returned for her second spot, accompanying her own vocalese on charango, Genovese was as out on piano as he had been before – only this time with an explicit Monk “Misterioso” quote.

Both Pinna and Roeder sat out “El Gavilán,” Rei and Genovese becoming a powerful duo. Rei was simply majestic here, alternating intense outbursts with soft or anguished interludes. After a bodacious electric solo from Genovese, he and Rei went beyond intense together before easing into ballad mode. The saga wasn’t quite done – it runs over 14 minutes on the CD – as Genovese ripped the first part of his sheet music off his stand to access his final jottings.

Nothing that followed matched this majesty, even after Roeder and Pinna returned to their posts, but “Rin del Angelito” was brimful of color and charm, with Genovese tooting on a melodica for one of his solos and Rei actually swinging on one of her vocals, prodded by Roeder. The finale, “Casamiento de Negros,” proved that the quartet could tap into an orgiastic Flora Purim-Airto level of intensity. Loops, vocals, and vocalese poured from the joyous Rei, and Pinna absolutely sizzled behind her on percussion.

The Pedrito Martinez Group commanded a larger venue at Cistern Yard and expended plenty of energy on a hot and humid night for an appreciative audience that enjoyed the Latin beat. My enthusiasm was tempered by Martinez’s lead vocals, hardly less generic than the backup vocals from his band, and the total absence of brass to spice up the salsa.

Martinez hails from Cuba, I get that, but I much preferred Arturo O’Farrill and his 17-piece band, last year’s Latin headliners. True, the Mexican-born bandleader wasn’t universally popular: when he announced, after affirming that his countrymen aren’t rapists, that his next piece was titled “Trump, Fuck Trump,” a number of ticketholders headed for the exits. A year later, the timing was more propitious for Martinez and his congas. Our tweeter-in-chief’s executive orders on Cuba came after the festival, so Apprentice fans were spared from a Martinez reaction.

Joined by Edgar Pantoja on keyboard, Jhair Sala on percussion, and Sebastian Natal on electric bass, the Martinez Group was basically a slightly augmented rhythm section – plus a lead vocalist who could hardly compete with Rei’s individuality and fire. His best came at the end of the concert in the conga groove of the thrusting “Mambo Influenciado,” with the tastiest group vocal, and in the “Dios Mio” finale, where he took on the Herculean tasks of teaching us the lyrics, aligning us with the rhythm, and getting us all to stand.

While Martinez was mixing with the audience, Pantoja shed his sportshirt in the evening humidity and had his best moments at the keyboard with a long solo. Quoting a snippet of “Night in Tunisia,” Pantoja’s other highlight had come in “La Ballerina.” This is a solid band, but a charismatic singer or horn player fronting them would have helped them to more adequately fill the big stage.

I had first seen Henry Butler perform in 2009 at the Savannah Music Festival in 2009, his power as prodigious as his virtuosity, so I suspected that he could command the Cistern Yard stage all by himself – if the poor piano they put up there could stand up to the punishment. Backed by Steven Bernstein & The Hot 9, there was no doubt that the group was up to the challenge of wowing the outdoor crowd under the live oaks and the Spanish moss.

When Butler and Bernstein came out with their Viper’s Drag recording in 2014, I considered it one of the top 20 releases of the year, and JazzTimes critics elevated the newly formed ensemble to the top 5 big bands and large ensembles in their annual polling. So the fit and the polish of this collaboration – Butler’s bravura and Bernstein’s arranging artistry – are well-established. Rather than making that instantly apparent, Bernstein mostly yielded the stage for the first two selections to the man he proclaimed as a national treasure, allowing him to perform his prodigies with minimal accompaniment.

Most of what followed was territory covered on Viper’s Drag, including the title tune. Having already shown his chops, Butler reciprocated and allowed more of the spotlight to shine on the Bernstein 9 in “Viper’s Drag” and “Dixie Walker” than we hear in the Impulse recording. Soloing was shifted to Erik Lawrence on baritone and Matt Munisteri in live performance of “Wolverine Blues,” and Butler once again abbreviated his input.

Butler can be an impressive vocalist when covering material like “Great Balls of Fire,” “Riders on the Storm,” and most things New Orleans. Not only was he clicking vocally on “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” he was establishing a template for the rest of the set, unleashing more of his keyboard powers on numbers that he sang.

The two vocals that followed “Buddy” were begun with awesome preludes that gave no hint of what was to come. A piano fantasia over Donald Edwards’ drums would have swamped the “Iko Iko” that was coming if Butler weren’t such a commanding and personable performer. “Dr. John on steroids” doesn’t come close to describing the preternatural contrast in moods that was resolved when Butler finally broke into song.

More of the Bernstein 9 was integrated into the closer, including the leader soloing on trumpet and Peter Applebaum on tenor sax. When I detected wisps of Dr. John in 2009, I thought I also caught the scent of Billy Preston when I first heard Butler play, confirmed on his PiaNOLA Live album. Yet the epic intro to the band’s closer began as a meditative solo, sped up to stride, returned to restless brooding, grew darker in mid-tempo, and skittered into a helter-skelter cacophony – when the Bernstein 9 joined him in Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles?”

Out of the darkness and confusion, a Mardi Gras party had suddenly broken out in Charleston, with the best singing and playing of the night. You can bet Preston’s hit will be on the playlist the next time this excellent big band makes a recording.

Charles Lloyd’s appearance at the marvelously made-over Gaillard Center reminded me how Spoleto Festival USA flips the script with its jazz programming. Other festival planners will try to attract audience with familiar, bankable names – and indeed, people come to see the stars. But Charleston and the Spoleto imprimatur often come first here, prodding non-fans into trying unfamiliar names out. If Spoleto books Sofía Rei and Evan Christopher,  they must be worth a listen.

So the beautiful Gaillard, with acoustics that had already proven perfect for Randy Weston and René Marie last year, wasn’t universally crammed with Charles Lloyd believers. Though the first two ballads, “Dream Weaver” and “Defiant,” reinforced the notion that the tenor saxophonist – still vital and wailing more than 50 years after his first recordings – hasn’t radically changed his tune, a trickle of people began heading for the exits just past the midway point of the concert when Lloyd’s quartet had played “Monk’s Mood.”

Lloyd hadn’t turned against mainstreamers. If anything, I found the core of Lloyd’s new quartet, with Gerald Clayton on piano and Larry Grenadier on bass, more accessible than the combo I saw with Jason Moran and Reuben Rogers at Lloyd’s Jazz @ Lincoln Center concert in 2011.

Those new to the vintage sound of “Dream Weaver” and “Defiant” could be referred to John Coltrane’s Crescent if they liked these Lloyd compositions. The way that Lloyd broke into a 4/4 groove in “Weaver” and lathered up into a primal wail was particularly lovely, though the ominous “Defiant” intro was more Trane-like. Clayton began to shine most brilliantly when we transitioned to uptempo with “Nu Blues,” where Eric Harland, the one holdover from Lloyd’s 2011 rhythm section, launched into an epic drum solo after trading licks with the leader.

“Monk’s Mood” is signature Coltrane, of course, since he recorded it with Thelonious himself, but Harland’s chameleonic changes at the kit helped Lloyd lyrically make Monk’s tune his own. With Lloyd getting into his flute groove, Clayton working under the piano’s hood, and Harland donning a ballcap, the band seemed to be having fun plunging into the leader’s “Tagore,” though much of the mystery of the 2005 live recording remained. Clayton shattered the quietude with an astonishing solo as Lloyd fed a wisp of impromptu percussion into one of the piano mics.

Another of Lloyd’s flute classics, “Third Floor Richard” from way back in 1966, was a genial transition to the powerhouse finale, “Passin’ Thru.” Talk about a staple in Lloyd’s career, young Charles brought this line to a Chico Hamilton date in 1963, and it’s the title cut of Lloyd’s upcoming Blue Note release. Like so many formidable classic performances, this one began with an impressive bass intro. Clayton layered onto Granadier’s foundation, quickening the pace before Lloyd laid out the line. Then Clayton really amped up the intensity – and Lloyd rode onto that conflagration, turning it into a raging firestorm, capped by a blistering outchorus.

Except for his Louie’s Dream duets with pianist Eli Yamin in 2013, I’ve mostly slept on recordings by Evan Christopher, steering clear of his Clarinet Road series with the assumption that they would be old-timey tribute albums. Example: Volume 3: In Sidney’s Footsteps. Yet here he was, playing at Spoleto, sufficient reason to find whether my assumptions needed adjustment. Oh my, did they ever.

No piano here. No drums. Only one familiar title. Brian Seeger on guitar and Roland Guerin on bass fill out the new edition of Clarinet Road, and right out of the gate in “Bayou Chant,” the group was easily as edgy as it was New Orleans traditional. Bass and guitar layered onto Christopher’s unaccompanied rant, deflecting it into a 4/4 orbit, where Seeger took a thoughtful first solo. The clarinetist blazed back to the forefront, subsided into quietude before a spasmodic cadenza, and softly faded out.

With Christopher linking his next three originals to New Orleans in his spoken remarks, he made it clear that this Road was aiming toward a nouveau Dixieland. “Surrender Blue” insinuated itself with a tango, and “The Old Sober March” ignited from Seeger’s strummed intro. Edgiest by far was “Creole Wild West,” which quietly asserted its wildness when Christopher managed to integrate the sound of his clarinet keys into his a cappella preamble. Both Seeger and Guerin found paths to equal eccentricity, completing a very unlikely percussion trio before Christopher unveiled the melody.

Unsheathing one of the most familiar glisses in jazz, Christopher’s single dip into recognized rep was Ellington’s “The Mooche,” which the clarinetist has already recorded twice. He still tends to take the line too fast, but after a swiftly strummed intro from Seeger and a hurried half chorus, Christopher reined it in, varying tempos, registers, and dynamics more effectively live than on record, with Seeger providing more wacky percussion under Guerin’s solo.

“Buffalo Trace,” the one Seeger original, provided the most outré of Christopher’s intros, a brooding rumination begun with only the top half of his clarinet. The closer, “Congo in the Square,” came closest to what fans of the Clarinet Road series came for. Yet another Christopher original, it locked into some fine straight-ahead blowing after the leader’s last musical soliloquy, with a slice of “Maple Leaf Rag” embedded in the licorice. From the sound of this concert, Volume 4 of Christopher’s Road saga will be radically different from the previous three.

Anat Cohen Brings Her Magic to College

2017~Anat Cohen @ Davidson-36

Review: Anat Cohen and the Davidson College Jazz Ensemble

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve known for a long time that Anat Cohen can electrify audiences whenever she picks up her clarinet and plays. After her recent residency at Davidson College, we can now proclaim that she has a similar effect on jazz students – and faculty. At the public concert that concluded the residency, Professor Bill Lawing, after leading the Davidson College Jazz Ensemble behind Cohen, struggled to find sufficiently effusive words to describe what she had achieved in a few short days.

To adequately measure it, Lawing said, we would need to have heard what his band had sounded like when they began rehearsals.

The concert itself followed an arc similar to the one hinted at by Lawing, with some fairly radical advances along the way as the band’s confidence grew and their soloists had more space to shine. Before Cohen made her entrance, the Jazz Ensemble made theirs with an arrangement of Slide Hampton’s “Go East, Young Man” where scanty spots were doled out for pianist Tyler Holman and guitarist Matthew Bell to play on. Even when Cohen appeared with her clarinet, the impulse to showcase band members continued in the first two arrangements by Oded Lev-Ari.

Anat’s solos were both cool and hot on Ernesto Lacuona’s “La comparsa” in between Ensemble interludes. Then Cohen picked up the tenor sax that was pre-set at centerstage near her mic and played a bunch of solos on Johnny Griffin’s “Do It” that never quite gathered momentum, as the collegians’ intervening solos swept from one side of the five-person sax section to the other.

It was a good time for Cohen and the band to get more relaxed as she spoke briefly about working with the students earlier in the week and tested our familiarity with Julie London by way of moving on to Lev-Ari’s arrangement of “Cry Me a River.” Returning to clarinet, Anat gave us our first really deep swig of her soulfulness in a chart that confined the Ensemble to taking the first half of the bridge – both during the first pass through the melody and during the clarinetist’s solo. She opened up even more compellingly with a cadenza to cap off the out chorus.

2017~Anat Cohen @ Davidson-12

By some sort of alchemy, the band became more articulate in their soloing after Cohen told the story about how she and her combo were jamming one night on Luiz Bonfá’s “Samba de Orfeo” and found themselves playing Satchmo’s vintage “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” Referring to the Lev-Ari medley that resulted, Anat said, “So we decided to make it official.” Perhaps the spontaneity crept into the band by osmosis through Cohen’s anecdote, but as we went into intermission, the band finally seemed to be enjoying the jolt of playing with their celebrated new mentor.

It seemed cruel to pare the Ensemble down to combo size at the moment that everyone was rounding into top form, but there was a density to the arrangements of Ellington’s “The Mooche” and Cohen’s “Tfila” that lifted the concert to a higher, tighter level. On Cohen’s arrangement of Duke’s composition, we finally heard Anat’s full magic on clarinet for the first time. “Tfila” was by far the superior foray by Cohen onto her tenor sax with a couple of nice spots by Ken Lee, switching here from alto to soprano. There was a distinctive part written for trumpet embedded in the out chorus after Cohen’s sublime solo and a superb coda for trumpet and a pair of saxes.

A new infusion of jubilation spread through the hall as the remainder of the Ensemble returned, mainly to add muscle to the backup as Cohen dominated the soloing more completely. In her spoken intro, she promised to combine the traditional “Tiger Rag” with some Israeli falafel, and there were indeed some klezmer flavorings in the prelude before Cohen and the band launched into the tune with its lusty trombone glisses. Dylan Hyman on baritone and Lee, back on alto, had some nice moments here.

Cohen saved her most stunning trad explorations for last. Though she shot encouraging looks to the band and even praised bassist Tom Champion for mastering the difficulties of the bass-line and keeping it in three, Cohen herself owned Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” and took it to exultant new places. Anybody who had come doubting Cohen’s power was likely converted by her amazing work here, but she had one last marvel to reveal.

Invoking the names of arranger Tommy Newsom, diva Billie Holiday, and King of Swing Benny Goodman in her remarks, Cohen softly wriggled into an epic arrangement of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” over the drums and then Holman’s spare piano. The intensity of Anat’s playing seemed to draw the rest of the band into the accompaniment magnetically, and the energy of the band seemed to spark a quicker tempo from the soloist, along with an onrush of inspiration and virtuosity. Softer, louder, and softer again, Cohen wailed on until the band mostly peeled away so she could blaze through a final cadenza. It felt like everyone had stopped to watch something primal and sacred. Everyone except Anat, of course: standing, crouching, and writhing at the vortex of it all.

Trumpet and Organ Summits Top Jazz Week at Savannah Music Festival

Review:  Savannah Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

Jazz is always prominent when the Savannah Music Festival cranks up its eclectic springtime assortment of classical, country, Americana, rock, folk, and world music vibes. But diehard jazz fans will want to land at the festival during Jazz Week, culminating in the epic Swing Central Finale celebration and concert at Lucas Theatre of the Arts. Before the top three ensembles lead off the festivities, 12 high school bands play for a panel of jazz notables, once at the Lucas and once along the Savannah riverfront.

Workshops and clinics make Swing Central as much an educational experience as a competitive one. In the second half of the Finale, the awesome array of mentoring musicians gets to come out – after the winners’ placings are announced and the supersized checks presented – and strut their stuff. With the likes of Marcus Roberts, Ted Nash, Terrell Stafford, Stephen Riley, Ron Westray, Jason Marsalis, and Marcus Printup in their number, you can bet it’s a glorious march.

Celebrating the centenaries of both Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, Swing Central 2017 was particularly splendid.

Until that culmination happened, the Charles H. Morris Center was the workhorse venue for jazz concerts. On successive nights, SMF executive and artistic director Rob Gibson pleasurably introduced a pair of organ and trumpet aces. Ike Stubblefield and Joey DeFrancesco presided over the rare sight of two vintage Hammond B-3 organs on the same stage. Next night, on the eve of the Swing Central Finale, Rodney Whitaker and MSU Professors of Jazz showcased the estimable Etienne Charles blowing his horn after Printup teamed up with a quintet of Youngbloods.

Festivalgoers could choose between pairs of sets beginning at 5:30 or 8:30. If you missed the back-to-back organists at night, you could partially atone with a set by the Ike Stubblefield Trio the following afternoon at 12:30, while Printup & Youngbloods did the afternoon honors the following day. With a little creativity – and a media pass – I was able to negotiate a 6pm classical piano recital on organ night, stop out for dinner, and arrive at the Morris Center just before intermission so I could scope out empty seats for my wife Sue and me when Joey DeFrancisco took over the stage.

DeFrancesco isn’t a shy or contemplative personality, and I first heard how he wails in live performance shortly after his first Columbia recording, at the tender age of 17, in 1989. So I thought I knew what to expect from him and The People who back him up. But Joey has piled an electronic keyboard on top of his B-3 console, and he brings a trumpet with him these days when he comes onstage.

A new electronic bent manifested itself immediately in DeFrancesco’s percolating intro to “So Near, So Far,” nodding to the middle acoustic and later electronic periods of Miles Davis at the same time. Yet that track remains fairly mellow on the new Project Freedom recording, while here Troy Roberts signaled on tenor sax that it was time to fasten our seatbelts as he finished playing the line. DeFrancesco turned up the heat to a temperature that surpassed the studio version, and Troy kept the flame high – while Joey and drummer Jason Brown became very busy underneath. For anybody who might be sleeping on Roberts: he is not your generic sideman, and both of his most recent recordings as a leader are well worth checking out. Dan Wilson was also a treat on guitar taking his choruses, never distorting his silky tone, and Roberts roughened his outro with a pedal I hadn’t noticed on the floor near his mic.

There was no reprise of the floor pedal as the quartet reverted to the trad grooves usually heard at the Morris. “Bluz ‘n’ 3” brought to mind the funky flavoring Cannonball Adderley brought to hard bop when Bobby Timmons played with him – except on the opening solo when Wilson’s crystalline work on guitar conjured up Kenny Burrell. Roberts took us into rough turbulence with his solo, though there was a calm eye to the storm at its center where he quoted Monk. DeFrancesco seemed to relish the challenge of following in the wake of this bravura, prudently dialing back the intensity as he began. As he reached what seemed to be full throttle, Joey snuck in a sustained bass chord to play over, so he could take his two-fisted attack to an even greater sizzle. Brown quieted things down at the start of his solo, ably shuttling from sticks to brushes in the ebb and flow of his solo.

Compared to this eruption, the next two selections were relatively light – but with plenty of fresh colors. “Better Than Yesterday,” another track from the new CD, also shed its studio mellowness, taking on a “Parisian Thoroughfare” élan in live performance with more rim work from Brown at the kit, more intense crosstalk between Joey and Troy, and more quirky rhythms all around. Then a DeFrancesco spot like none I’d seen live before: he sang “Around the World” in a surprisingly effective hipster style and, after the choruses by Wilson and Roberts, returned with a trumpet solo, the first half of which he played with a mute. Not content with these novelties, Joey D traded fours with Troy, firing scat lines on all his vocal salvos.

As caught in the studio, the intro and outro of the righteous “Lift Every Voice and Sing” caught in the studio were very much like what we heard live, with Wilson and Roberts splitting the opening chorus. Roberts and Brown added a little extra lift to the release into the solos and there was more real blowing in the middle. Toward the end, just before the last gospel explosion, Wilson drew a little more space to clear the way with an unaccompanied rumination. Enough funk was added to the live version of “Karma” for DeFrancesco to solicit audience hand claps behind his own solo and those by Wilson and Roberts.

We seemed to be building to a predictable finale, but DeFrancesco surprised us by calling Ike Stubblefield back onto the stage to join in on the second B-3. Two organ giants then paid tribute to a third as the ensemble dug into Jimmy Smith’s “The Sermon.” Things became loose and joyous like a jam session when Stubblefield’s drummer, Herlin Riley, slid into Brown’s chair midway through the tune. Yet there was additional polish to the backup behind Ike as Joey picked up his trumpet for a second time and formed a horn section with Roberts, playing harmonized riffs.

A longtime sideman who has gigged with storied rock and R&B bands, Stubblefield is equally comfortable in backup or take-charge modes. Like the earth before an earthquake, he is always there, with no compelling need for finger-busting displays, but always capable of them. In his afternoon gig at the Morris, Ike broke loose most memorably on Richard “Groove” Holmes’s “Groove’s Groove,” a tune very much in the vein of “The Sermon” with perhaps a little more hop in its step. First his guitarist, Detroit Brooks, worked the tune from a relaxed groove to such a lather that, for the one time in the entire set, he felt compelled to stand up while he played. Stubblefield also stirred the line upwards from a simmer, until he was wailing, clawing at the sky before an abrupt halt giving way to Riley.

Like Holmes and Jimmy Smith, Stubblefield has a winning way with pop tunes whose tempos might seem set in stone. Back in 2011, he put some extra jump in “Misty,” as Holmes was fond of doing, but this time he took on Little Willie John’s “Fever,” which has resisted loudness, speed, and even instrumentation since Peggy Lee waxed her chart-topping cover in 1959. After Ike grooved on it, Detroit showed there’s plenty to be done with this line at a peppy pace. Then Ike proved there’s joy at the very heart of it.

Excitement always peaks for the second set on Thursday night of Jazz Week, because the house is filled to overflowing with an influx of Swing Central high schoolers – most of them enthusiastic jazz fans – on the eve of their final competition. With two sextets crammed with instruments you actually find teens playing (no B-3’s here), the festival was definitely keeping their audience in mind. Featuring arrangements with heads that always blended two or three horns, Marcus Printup & Youngbloods served up music the young crowd could identify with.

“Peace in the Abstract” kicked off jubilantly, featuring entirely different personnel behind Printup from those behind him in his 2006 CD with that same title. Nor were there any holdovers from Printup’s 2015 Young Bloods recording on Steeplechase. The group label lingers, but the personnel move on, a la Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Printup roared into his opening solo as if this were the first time he was playing on this tune, and young trombonist Corey Wilcox brought equal fire to his follow-up. Alto saxophonist Mercedes Beckman dialed it back a little before rapidly ramping up, but pianist Michael King aimed unerringly for a change of pace, almost Monkish in his initial relaxation. Yet drummer Henry Conerway III implacably picked up the intensity underneath King’s action, and the pianist’s solo soon swelled to rhapsodic density. This in turn was a perfect launching pad for Conerway’s pyrotechnics.

“Soul Vamp” was another trip back to 2006, but Printup gave the catchy tune a choppier, more energetic arrangement and added some vocal call-and-response to the out chorus. I was beginning to wonder whether the leader would be promoting his newer work when the next two selections, Printup’s own “The Bishop” and Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” were plucked from the Young Bloods disc. Of all the tunes on this set, “The Bishop” probably showed off the whole group best, with Beckman blowing her finest solo and King unveiling a tasty Basie quality, again acting as a mellowing agent. Yet King was most distinctive, pointedly not Brubeck, in his freaky solo on “Your Own Sweet Way.”

With the finale, “The New Boogaloo,” the tune became something of a family heirloom as Wilcox had one more chance to shine in taking the first solo after the three-horn head. Wilcox’s father, Wycliffe Gordon, was the trombone sideman on the 2002 CD that was named after this Printup composition. Hidden in plain view for the last two years among the Swing Central mentors, Wilcox announced he was a force to contend with at the 2016 latenight jam, dueling with his dad and other greats. He’s be at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a five-night stint – also latenight – on April 18-22 if you care to judge for yourself.

Printup and Beckham would follow the same basic path as the 2002 arrangement, soloing over a shuffle pattern laid down by Conerway until he provided a stop-time break for them to blow on. It was Wilcox – with King’s spikier accompaniment – who actually cooked up something new for “New Boogaloo.” After the horns, King took a modest but tasty solo, revving up his momentum with the first stop-time break and yielding gracefully on the second to bassist Eric Wheeler, who knew exactly what to do. Wheeler got into such a compelling groove that the audience spontaneously joined in clapping it out.

I loved the way that Rodney Whitaker and his drummer, Dana Hall, casually took the stage for the MSU Professors set, jamming quietly together as if they were doing a soundcheck. Before we knew it, Etienne Charles and tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera were in place, wailing out the melody of “In Walked Bud.” Twenty-four hours ahead of schedule, the Monk celebration had begun with an all-Thelonious songlist.

Unlike most of the Monk selections announced for the following evening, none of these were rarities, and all of Whitaker’s colleagues proved to be able professors of the repertoire. Randy Napoleon broke out on “Bud” with the first solo on guitar, pianist Bruce Barth demonstrated that the line could turn in a barrelhouse direction, and Hall returned with a series of explosions from the drum set before the horns took the out chorus.

Charles was no doubt the most powerful of the frontliners, but he didn’t really start firing off his arsenal until the ensuing “Monk’s Dream.” Rivera charged hard in his solo, but Charles’s had more arc and build, ending with an elegant handover to Napoleon. Solos by Whitaker and Hall established a similar mold, regularly marking each measure – until Hall broke that mold, mixing things up and splattering them like a textbook Max Roach fireworks display.

You couldn’t ignore Charles on the final three tunes, each of his stints halved in a different way. Quieting things down after a Rivera roar on “Evidence,” Charles meandered softly for a while before abruptly turning up the burners. On “Ask Me Now,” he took two pieces of the opening chorus, one muted after Rivera kicked things off and another wide open after Barth handled the bridge. Not only did Charles play quite tenderly in his solo, but Rivera also proved to have an affecting soft side to complement his hard-charging mode – underscored later when he delivered a mellow coda.

The two sides of Charles in the closing “Blue Monk” were both irresistibly ebullient as the trumpet ace started off with a mute plunger, expostulating the line in tandem with Rivera. Napoleon delivered his most burning work of the set and Rivera reverted to his leonine mode before Charles cooled the bluesy blowing down, fanning the low flame with his plunger. The plunger work became progressively louder and more playful until the time was ripe to Charles to discard the rubber and go all-exclamatory in Dizzy Gillespie style.

MSU’s rhythm section was a constant delight. Barth was the most chameleonic among them, channeling Dave McKenna in “Bud,” Thelonious in “Monk’s Dream,” and Horace Silver in “Evidence” before coolly quoting a mess of Monk in the bluesy closer. Aside from their stellar work on “Monk’s Dream,” Whitaker and Hall asserted themselves most memorably on their intros, whether it was Hall clunking on wood blocks leading us into “Evidence” or Whitaker misdirecting us at the top of “Blue Monk,” invoking the familiar bass-line of “A Love Supreme.”

Nothing was routine or hackneyed about the big band performances by Swing Central finalists Byron Center Jazz Orchestra (Byron Center, MI), Agoura High School (Agoura Hills, CA), and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts (Jacksonville, FL) – not when the titles included “Easy Money,” “Buddha,” and the winning Douglas Anderson’s “At the House, In Da Pocket” by Jason Marsalis. So I didn’t grow impatient for the all-star team to take the stage after the winners’ checks were distributed. The playing was consistently precocious and the vibe at Lucas Theatre, with so many young musicians and their families in attendance, was special.

The Monk-Diz centennial celebration lifted the evening even higher. Music directors Marcus Roberts and Ted Nash, both of whom with longtime links to Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, split emceeing chores while their set list took a singular approach to each of the honorees. Long acknowledged as a bandleader, showman, and innovative instrumentalist, Gillespie hasn’t gotten nearly as much recognition as a composer. So it’s altogether fitting that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is taking a compendium of Diz’s greatest hits on the road and making the case at selected concerts.

On the other hand, albums by younger artists devoted completely to Monk’s works are not so hard to find. It makes sense, then, to reprise Monk pieces we hear too rarely or to unearth new gems – expanding our appreciation of his compositional range. While shuttling between familiar and unfamiliar tunes, we also zigzagged between big band charts and tight combo presentations, always with plenty of space for band members to blow.

Signaling that this would all be fun, the band started out with Diz’s “Oop Bop Sh’ Bam,” a pretty grand display of the composer’s exuberance and the musicians’ firepower. You couldn’t say it was the full orchestra because there were two rhythm sections, starting out with pianist Bill Peterson, bassist Whitaker, and drummer Bryan. When we shifted to small combo mode for Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High,” the Marcus Roberts Trio took over the rhythm, Rodney Jordon on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums, while David L. Harris on trombone, Ricardo Pascal on tenor, and Terrell Stafford on trumpet stepped forward to form an impromptu horn section. With the flare and assurance of his solo, Stafford gave us our first indication that he would be the designated stand-in for Diz on this night.

Nash returned, alto in hand, with trumpeter Alphonso Horne and the Peterson rhythm to do “Con Alma.” From this third iconic Diz title, we switched to lesser-known Monk and big band format as the Roberts Trio took its first turn with the full ensemble on “Blues Five Spot.” While it isn’t Monk’s most familiar work, “Five Spot” is obviously a Roberts fave, since he has now played it three years in a row in Savannah. The piece certainly distills Monk’s essence and lent itself to nice round of blowing, with Roberts, Stafford, and trombonist Ron Westray standing out.

Roberts and his rhythm stayed aboard for the next two Monk morsels, “Coming on the Hudson” and the delicious “Little Rootie Tootie.” Two of my favorite Gillespie compositions followed as we reverted to combo format: “Manteca,” the fine co-composition with Chano Pozo, and “Woody ‘n’ You.” As Peterson returned to the keyboard, Marsalis switched to vibes on “Manteca,” making for an interesting new palette when altoist Joe Goldberg and trumpeter Jim Ketch came down to join them. Perhaps because the Cuban percussion and vocal shouts were missing from “Manteca,” I was more pleased when Wilcox, trumpeter Randall Haywood, and tenorist Stephen Riley lit into “Woody ‘n’ You.”

They found two more opportunities to put four rhythm players onstage at the same time, featuring both of the bassists on Monk’s “Light Blue” and fielding Marsalis on vibes once more for “Ugly Beauty,” a pretty ballad that served nicely to clear the way for a rousing finish. That one-two-three punch began with “Two Bass Hit,” Gillespie’s collaboration with John Lewis, with Printup and his plunger mute making a punchy cameo.

Monk’s “We See,” and “A Night in Tunisia,” Diz’s most familiar piece, closed things out. “Tunisia” was particularly potent on this night. One by one, the solos poured forth from the band members, a effervescent anthology of bebop. Surprisingly, we were able to scale one more pinnacle. After all the glorious blowing, after the whole band had repeated the anthemic theme, Stafford launched into a lonely cadenza, working it until he ended on a long, jubilant high note that could make a grown man weep.

It was emblematic of all that jazz can say and do.

Jazz Greats Brave Steamy and Stormy Weather at Spoleto

© WILLIAM STRUHS 2015

Jazz Roundup: Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

Weather veered to extremes during the first week of Spoleto Festival USA this year. Thunderstorms forced Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra to abandon the great outdoor Cistern Yard concert venue on Saturday night for another College of Charleston facility, the TD Arena. But René Marie, with a sextet that boasted Wycliffe Gordon and Etienne Charles, was untroubled by the elements the following evening as she became the first jazz headliner to perform at the totally rebuilt Gaillard Center.

By the time Randy Weston brought his African Rhythms Sextet to the Gaillard on the following Thursday, heat and humidity had risen to summertime levels, firing a shot of Africa right back at the musicians. Opening night of the 40th annual festival set the tone, as Spoleto celebrated the new Gaillard with a dazzling new production of Porgy and Bess, the Gershwin Brothers’ folk opera that has been a wellspring of inspiration for American jazz.

Spoleto~Porgy and Bess

To tell the truth, the grand new hall proved to be better suited to amplified jazz than to grand opera. Alyson Cambridge, as Bess, was often unintelligible to those sitting deep in the house, and at the last two Spoleto performances of the festival, supertitles were added to combat the problem. Loudspeakers didn’t make their way into Gaillard until the second night of the festival at the 40th-Season Celebration Concert. Marie appeared briefly, singing two arias from Heiner Goebbels’ Surrogate Cities (originally presented at the 1999 festival), and it was obvious that the amplified acoustics would be marvelous the following evening.

From the outset, so was Marie, beginning with “Be the Change,” a powerful song that she wrote as a tribute to the victims of last year’s shootings at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church – across the street from the Gaillard. Inspired by her father, Lester, “The South Is Mine” was nearly as apropos for the occasion. While all the songs that followed were from her new The Sound of Red album, when she arrived at “Blessings,” Marie turned her original song into another opportunity to offer her love to Charleston.

© WILLIAM STRUHS 2015

All the songs on the program were, in fact, Marie originals, but the headliner gave her distinguished sidemen and her working trio ample space to shine. Though unacknowledged in the Festival’s prepublicity – or its lavish program book – altoist Sherman Irby was certainly a force to be reckoned with among the soloists, taking two spots in the arresting opener. Focus shifted to Charles and Gordon in “The South,” the trumpeter muted before the trombonist worked his customary magic with his plunger.

“Lost,” a musical portrait of Marie’s sister, and “If You Were Mine” narrowed the focus to Marie and her working trio, particularly pianist John Chin and bassist Elias Bailey, who both soloed admirably. Somewhat abbreviated compared with the album versions, both of Marie’s vocal performances were epic – delivering all of the scat and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” pyrotechnics from “Lost” (minus the drums) and more edge on the conversational parts of “Mine.”

Time borrowed from these arrangements was added onto a far more lavish version of “Colorado River Song” as the concert slipped into a more relaxed groove. Everybody chipped in solo spots, including drummer Quentin Baxter, who traded 4’s with all the horns after their solos. Marie herself replaced the recorded whistling chorus with a healthy helping of scat before the blowing began. “Blessings” sounds like a pop anthem on the new CD and retained its kinship with Dylan’s “Forever Young” in live performance but with a more fervid sanctified flavor as the horns joined in.

Chin, Gordon, Irby, and Charles all took tasty solos in the concluding “Joy of Jazz,” adding new fire to the piece and transforming the celebratory dance of the studio version into an exuberantly dancing celebration. People who are listening to The Sound of Red as it gets increasing airplay are getting the flavor of Marie’s new compositions, but at the Spoleto concert, we heard their power.

Marie was performing for the fourth time at Spoleto in the past 10 seasons, having already achieved Gaillard prestige at the old Auditorium back in 2009, but Weston appeared at the Gaillard for the first time this season, returning to the festival 35 years after his 1981 debut at Cistern Yard, where he and his sextet shared the bill with Taj Mahal. Weston’s return was a doubly auspicious occasion, since no purely instrumental jazz combo had headlined at the Gaillard since 1996-98, when Sonny Rollins, Ahmad Jamal, and George Shearing performed in successive years.

© WILLIAM STRUHS 2015

While the name was slightly different from the Randy Weston & African Rhythms with Billy Harper group that I saw at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in 2011, the personnel were nearly the same, omitting only trombonist Robert Trowers. The one common thread running through the two sets was Weston’s “Blue Moses,” aptly referencing the 1972 album with that title, a more exotic release than other CTI recordings of that era. With Neil Clarke on African percussion, Lewis Nash on drums, and T.K. Blue occasionally on flute, the soundscape vividly echoes what Airto, Weston’s son Azzedin, and Hubert Laws etched so memorably into vinyl.

The ensemble seemed grander, more seasoned, and more African at the Gaillard than they had at Columbus Circle. On “Moses,” where Blue had soloed on soprano sax in New York, he now played flute over Harper’s tenor before breaking into his solo, heavily flavored with “Wade in the Water.” After Harper wailed, Clarke went to work slapping his African drums with answering claps from the audience cued by bassist Alex Blake. Then Blake, as he is so prone to do, upstaged everyone with his rich soloing, zestfully plucking and slapping and pouring out vocalese as he had done on two previous tunes. But the delight of it hadn’t worn thin.

As for Weston, he contented himself with long ruminative intro to “Moses” that nearly had me in tears before we finally arrived at the melody. The man has just passed 90, and he still plays marvelously well. He drew a direct connection between his African music and the sounds of nature, so in that respect the opening piece, “The Healer,” was the most successful of the night, culminating in group improv that conjured up a rainforest with Blue’s flute providing a glint of sunlight and birdsong. Weston led it off with a moody intro followed by Blake and his percussive work on bass. Flute and tenor layered on before Harper established his sax as king of this jungle.

© WILLIAM STRUHS 2015

“African Sunrise,” one several African Weston titles that is now 60 years old, still sounds pristine, though Blue’s alto solo hasn’t stopped quoting “Manteca” and other Gillespiana heard on Weston’s live 2010 Storyteller album. Weston’s outro, over Blake’s scatting bass, was a fresh wrinkle. “Little Niles” sounded surprisingly raw, Harper’s tenor and Blue’s alto screaming back and forth at each other, more agonized than waltzing – perhaps because, as Weston mentioned in his preface, he had outlived the son it was written for. The closer, “Niger Mambo,” brought more focus to Weston’s muscular playing but really served as a belated showcase for Nash, equally impressive with sticks and brushes.

While the Gaillard reconstruction was going on through the past three festivals, Marie, Béla Fleck, and Angelique Kidjo were among the performers who proved that TD Arena was a serviceable music venue. But longtime festivalgoers had to wonder whether we would return to the thrilling days of yesteryear when the old Gaillard served as the backup for outdoor concerts at the Cistern when they were forced to seek shelter from springtime storms. Ticketholders for O’Farrill’s concert were informed by email more than eight hours in advance that the concert had been moved to TD. With just one other Spoleto event scheduled at the basketball arena during the entire festival, the concert would not have to be delayed as usually happened at the Gaillard.

Leading from a keyboard or from behind a centerstage mic where he also introduced tunes, O’Farrill brought a brassy 17-piece band with him, including four trombones, four trumpets, and five saxes. Brash music that moved restlessly through Latin and South America, the first two-thirds of the set list came from the three Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra albums released over the past five years, beginning with “Rumba Urbana” from the 40 Acres and a Burro compilation of 2011 and zigzagging afterwards between that album, The Offense of the Drum (2014) and Cuba: The Conversation Continues (2015).

“On the Corner of Malecón and Bourbon” was the most exciting and majestic of the arrangements, shuttling from ragtime to Latin to “St. James Infirmary” on an epic path blazed by multiple piano and baritone sax spots, blaring brass ensembles, a four-trumpet free-for-all, and a bowed bass solo. “Guajira Simple” offered a greater variety of moods as O’Farrill played a dreamy intro as the stage lights were dimmed, with trombone, soprano sax and trumpet layering on as the bandleader quickened the tempo. Then came a quiet interlude as Ivan Renta soloed soulfully on tenor, followed by Bobby Porcelli on flute before O’Farrill triggered a huge orchestral build from the keyboard.

Like Marie and Weston, O’Farrill had a message for Charleston, only it wasn’t consolation for murdered churchgoers or a benison of nature and healing. After he and his band rocked the house with Emilio Solla’s “Llegará, Llegará, Llegará,” O’Farrill strode up to the microphone and declared that he was a proud Mexican American – and not a rapist, a murderer, or a drug dealer. To make sure that the target of his remarks was not misunderstood, O’Farrill apologized in advance for his language in advance and announced that the title of the next piece would be “Trump, Fuck Trump.”

Not surprisingly in South Carolina, one of the states that The Donald won during the Republican primaries, more than a couple of people responded by walking out amid the general approval for what O’Farrill was saying. There were some purposeful anti-musical moments in the composition, to be sure – and a brief, pitch-perfect Trump impersonation by trumpeter Seneca Black, judiciously (and cryptically) limited to a single word: “China!” After this memorable episode, the concert ended with “Obsesion,” with Rafi Malkiel offering the last of his fine trombone solos and tenor saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, heretofore anonymous, getting a chance to shine.

Spoleto~Cécile McLorin Salvant_Julia Lynn Photography

Time seems to stand still when Cécile McLorin Salvant comes to sing with her tight trio. You can listen to Salvant’s lightly dramatized versions of “The Trolley Song” or “Wives and Lovers” and imagine that she is subverting their archaic attitudes with a subtle feminist archness. Or you could just as easily conclude that she’s wholeheartedly immersing herself in Judy Garland’s pop Cinderella or Burt Bacharach’s domesticated Barbi.

Fortunately, there always seems to be a modicum of restlessness in the way Salvant selects her material. While I’ve heard her treatments of Bob Dorough’s “Nothing Like You,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming,” and her own original “Fog” before, it was interesting to see that Salvant’s new excavations include “Somehow I Never Could Believe.” Introduced as an aria from Kurt Weill’s 1947 Street Scene, Salvant transformed the Langston Hughes lyric into an urban odyssey.

“What’s the Matter Now?” swiped from the Bessie Smith songbook had some of the friskiness Salvant fans crave, with a tasty solo from bassist Paul Sikivie that far outshone his work on “So in Love” and a splashy solo from pianist Aaron Diehl that nicely set up Salvant’s honky-tonk reprise and his own outro. “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” offered much of the same earlier in the set, but there was never a fully seismic Salvant eruption of “Growlin’ Dan” or “You Bring Out the Savage in Me” proportions, if that was among your expectations.

No, Salvant’s lava flow was relatively under control this time with titles like “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Wild Is Love” on the set list. Lawrence Leathers never really had the opportunity to stand out on his own on drums, but he mixed it up tellingly on “I Get a Kick” and “Something’s Coming.” What Diehl and Leathers did on “The Trolley Song” was more of a marvel than a mere accompaniment, for their intro and their interjections became part of the storytelling ride.

You probably heard about Jason Moran’s All Rise tribute to Fats Waller a couple of years back, but that CD was actually the studio version of a live event that Moran had conceived for the Harlem Stage Gatehouse in 2011. The event, a Fats Waller Dance Party, features Moran at both acoustic and Fender Rhodes pianos, often wearing a huge papier-mâché mask created by Didier Civil as he plays. Moran has taken the event all over the country, and the amount of dancing and partying that he, his combo, his dancers, and his vocalists have been able to spark has varied from city to city.

High humidity persisted at Spoleto into its second weekend, and the temperature still hovered above 80°F for Moran’s Cistern Yard concert. So I was not at all eager to rise from my seat and dance, no matter how heartily vocalist Lisa E. Harris or trumpeter Donvonte McCoy urged us on. Most of the audience shared my disinclination, Moran himself frequently couldn’t take the heat under his mask, and even the ebullient Harris removed her chapeau for a spell of relief.

Spoleto~Jason Moran_Julia Lynn Photography

How much you might have liked this Waller Party – and how much I tended to dislike it – can be sampled by streaming the “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” tracks from All Rise. I’m not on board with thinking these are inspired re-imaginings of Waller’s music befitting a MacArthur genius. They strike me as listless, simplified, bridge-averse descents into stultifying Motown doo-wop. Above this norm, “Yacht Club Swing” and “I Found a New Baby” had genuine spark; and Moran’s newer additions, his original “Fat Lick” and a Wallerized version of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” won me over.

But while “Honeysuckle” and “Misbehavin’” may indeed fulfill Moran’s “joyful elegy” concept for some, I couldn’t find a flicker of mirth in the lugubrious dirge that Harris made out of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” Compounding my frustrations with Harris, trumpeter McCoy not only looked a lot like Waller, he sounded like him as well in his only vocal on “Two Sleepy People.” More McCoy would have meant more Waller at the party.

The pluses didn’t end there for those of us susceptible to the precocity of 12-year-olds. Right before “Yacht Club Swing,” Moran introduced his twin sons, Malcolm and Jonas, saying he had only recently witnessed the results of their tutelage at the Alvin Ailey School. Whether or not the lithe moves they proceeded to cut were part of the Ailey curriculum, they certainly added youthful energy to Moran’s fitfully eventful vamp. But party lift-off didn’t occur until the unexpected invasion of cast members from Grace Notes, a curious blend of music, poetry, and dance that had premiered earlier in the evening a block away.

Dancers from that production streamed onto the stage during “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” not only dancing with Harris and the Moran twins but also forming a whirling dance circle around the musicians. Topping off the invasion, trombonist Craig Harris, part of the Grace Notes jazz band, came up onstage and soloed with righteous conviction. While this explosion didn’t turn the tide out in the audience, a substantial number of people migrated off to the side of the stage and turned it into a dance floor – once the funereal “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” was done – proof that Moran’s brand of Waller was connecting with younger listeners.

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While shuttling back and forth between Africa and Latin America for his wondrous Grammy-nominated New Throned King music, saxophonist-composer Yosvany Terry was also on an alternate path. His Bohemian Trio was formed at about the same time that the Afro-Latin album was in production, with Cuban-born pianist Orlando Alonso and Franco-American cellist Yves Dharamraj. The music they play isn’t as exuberant or raucous as the tracks on New Throned King, calmer for its classical and European elements, so the intimate Simons Center Recital Hall was a more fitting place for them to perform than the Cistern or the Gaillard.

The eclecticism of the trio’s approach was evident from the outset as Terry on alto sax, Dharamraj, and Alonso brought out the classical flavor in the fugue-like opening of Pedro Giraudo’s “Push Gift.” Past the midpoint of this arrangement, Terry broke through its formality with an extended solo. Giraudo was a composer who might naturally be expected to be represented in a Terry concert, but the next two offerings took us to works by André Previn and Sonia Jacobsen.

The Trio’s performance of “White Raven” from Jacobsen’s Fables Macabres was a radical transformation, turning an orchestral piece with strings into chamber music, with Terry once again taking charge in the middle. Playing the fifth prelude from Previn’s “The Invisible Drummer,” Alonso may not have played on the piece but he surely played with it, making the “invisible” drumming quite audible with his insistent pounding. That repurposed prelude became an introduction for Terry’s original, “Punto Cubano de Domingo,” where cello and soprano sax launched the piece in canonical fashion and both Terry and Dharamraj took solos.

Compositions in the latter part of the program didn’t drift away from the Western Hemisphere, with second helpings of works by Terry and Argentinian bandleader Giraudo, plus an additional dose of Argentina from Emilio Solla. The Bohemian version of Solla’s “Llegará, Llegará, Llegará” didn’t have the epic build of the composer’s recent Second Half album (or the firepower of O’Farrill’s cover at the Cistern), but it was a fine showcase for Alonso, whose piano solo revealed definite Chick Corea inclinations with Terry backing up on chékere.

Terry’s sound is most distinctive on soprano, and “Tarde en La Lisa” was the best example of the exuberance and plenitude of his ideas. Alonso’s backing had steely force as the composer played the line, a perfect launch pad for the soprano rant that followed. Then the piano was an island of calm, setting us up for a full round of vigorous Bohemian solos before Terry circled back to the melody. “Hiroshima,” the placid finale on the Giraudo Jazz Orchestra’s 2009 El Viaje release, was not radically altered at all as the Bohemians’ valedictory. Dharamraj eloquently played the line before Alonso and Terry, still on soprano, paid their soulful, subdued respects.

© WILLIAM STRUHS 2015

Yielding in seniority at this Spoleto only to Weston, Freddy Cole and his quartet still sounded fresh although the leader is nearing 85. Cole’s voice isn’t as rich and rounded as it was when he cut his first album in 1964, but there are still moments when he sounds like his elder brother Nat in his prime. Thanks to the exploits of guitarist Randy Napoleon, there are also moments when the new quartet sounds instrumentally like the vintage King Cole Trio of the 1940’s, for little brother can still solo deliciously at the keyboard.

Although Cole’s set list included a healthy number of familiar titles, they weren’t necessarily those you’d expect: “Cottage for Sale,” “Love Walked In,” and “Easy to Remember” slipped in with the more predictable “Pretend,” “Route 66,” and “L-O-V-E.” Before we reconnected with these songs, Cole walked us down less-trodden paths, beginning with “Wonder Why” and continuing with “Where Can I Go Without You?” “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening,” and “How Little We Know.”

Even when Cole began stirring up old memories, there were rarer gems mixed in, “I Just Found Out About Love” after “Pretend,” then “Maybe It’s Because” and “To the Ends of the Earth” after “Route 66.” Cole sings with such simplicity and assurance that the rather bland Simons space was transformed into a moody nightclub as he performed. With solos by Napoleon on 11 of the 13 tunes – and occasionally two on a single arrangement – to go along with six piano solos from the leader, it seemed like there was all the time in the world for each song, old or new, to etch its way into memory.

There seemed to be no end to the number of familiar and unfamiliar songs Cole knew and could effortlessly sing – with a familiarity that reached their depths, along with a hip swing that must be a family heirloom. Under Cole’s spell, the old songs seemed as new as the ones I’d never heard. Getting acquainted with the Jimmy Van Heusen lyrics for “How Little We Know,” where “two tingles intermingle” and we find “how ignorant bliss is,” was like a first visit to a garden of delight.

Shy Folk Charm and Dazzle at Savannah Music Fest

By Perry Tannenbaum

Monty Alexander and Cécile McLorin Salvant (Photo: SMF/Frank Stewart)

Two things I can say after witnessing a good chunk of the 27th Savannah Music Festival: they’re still making it a better experience for jazz lovers, and thank heavens they’ve created such a haven for shy performers. This year’s cavalcade of luminaries included star turns by Freddy Cole and René Marie on opening night; Joey Alexander, Julian Lage, and Dr. John in the closing week; and Etienne Charles, Catherine Russell, The Hot Sardines, Monty Alexander, Eric Alexander, Marcus Roberts, Terell Stafford, and Wycliffe Gordon in between.

But I’ll remember the shy folk most fondly. First there was Cécile McLorin Salvant admitting she had always wished to sing with Monty Alexander but was too shy to ask, even when they were headlining the same double bill. So the pianist in her trio, Aaron Diehl, had asked on her behalf. Near the end of Salvant’s set, Diehl eased away from the piano and brought Alexander in from the wings, and the wish was fulfilled – with one last touch of suspense.

“What do you want me to play?” Monty asked.

“Do an E-flat blues,” Cécile coyly responded.

So what emerged, from a haze of tantalizing mystery, was an epic version of “Fine and Mellow.” It wasn’t destined to achieve the legendary status of the TV version sung by its composer, Billie Holiday – with solos by a string of immortals including Ben Webster, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, and Roy Eldridge – but it unfolded in the same majestic vein, with multiple solo spots by both Salvant and Alexander.

And then, the following afternoon and evening, there was Harold Mabern. Just past his 80th birthday, the versatile pianist professed to be uncomfortable when his peers make a fuss over him when he tallies another year. Not an easy claim to swallow when Mabern delivered some of the most engaging introductions and anecdotes you’ll hear at an afternoon solo concert; when he solicited and answered questions from his audience at length; and when, as a sideman in Eric Alexander’s quartet, he pretty much took over emceeing chores. With no complaints.

My guess is that Harold will be invited back.

I always show up in Savannah when the jazz scheduling is most intense, so my first taste in 2016 was the “Swing that Music” double bill featuring Russell and The Hot Sardines, their last performance in a two-shows-a-night, three-day run. Russell’s definition of swing may have been of a slightly more ancient vintage, but it certainly wasn’t any less hot, risqué, or sassy than the Sardines’. Her set was a little more blues-tinged, taking us back nearly a century with “Darktown Strutters’ Ball”; nodding to her own father, Luis, with the “Lucille” he wrote for Satchmo; and sending us out with the legacy of Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man” and its wicked Andy Razaf lyric.

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Catherine Russell (Stewart)

 

Before that final “he can use my sugar bowl” bravura, Russell checked in with a couple of Lady Day delights, “Swing! Brother, Swing!” and “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” She leapt out of the era of swing, stride, and rags entirely with nods to Dinah Washington (“My Man’s An Undertaker”), Esther Phillips (“Aged and Mellow”), and her special reclamation, Wynonie Harris. Feeling ran deepest in Harris’s “Quiet Whiskey,” a late-night blues that seems to have acquired new relevance.

With so much going on with the Sardines, it was wise not to follow them. Not many jazz bands throw a tap dancer at you who doubles on ukulele. Or a trumpet paired with a cornet. Or a bass player who doubles on sousaphone. Or a hot singer who can do serious percussive damage with a washboard. Plus the old-timey costumes and attitude – Dixie, honky-tonk, or vaudeville, label it as you choose.

One of the things that made the Sardines’ self-titled 2014 CD the best vocal album of the year for me was its live, spontaneous looseness and playfulness, even though it was a studio effort. Well, they were even looser and more playful live at the Morris Center in their Savannah debut following Russell’s high-energy set. None of the songs came off that 2014 CD and only “Summertime” was even in their discography. So a new batch of Sardines could in the can – or headed there soon.

Although she also turns out to be a personable emcee, it’s largely about what “Miz Elizabeth” Bougerol sings with her unique and alluring sense of style. Starting off with a French version of Louis Prima’s “I Wanna Be Like You” (yep, from Disney’s original Jungle Books) over “Fast Eddy” Francisco’s uke, Miz Elizabeth seemed to have a predilection toward the strumming sound of Django Reinhardt’s swinging combos. But there were other styles in the Sardines’ roux, for Jason Prover on trumpet, Mike Sailors on trombone, and Nick Myers on clarinet combined for some New Orleans-style chaos in the accompaniment.

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Elizabeth Bougerol – “Miz Elizabeth” – and her washboard (Photo: SMF/Elizabeth Leitzell)

The Hot Sardines, Savannah Music Festival 2016
By Courtesy of Savannah Music Festival/Elizabeth Leitzell

Miz E continued with another fascinating French concoction, “Weed,” that she called a Gallic variant of Peggy Lee’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Sure enough, the horns sounded like the Benny Goodman brand of swing behind her and in the instrumental jamming. The eclecticism was only beginning, for during Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Francisco stood up from his chair and showed us what he could do with those tap shoes, trading licks with pianist “Bibs” Palazzo. Underscoring the kitschiness of “People Will Say We’re in Love,” the brass had the temerity to emulate a mariachi band on the way to a “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” coda.

The final three pieces sidled back to establish common ground with Russell. Miz Elizabeth did her washboard business in the final ensemble of “Jelly Roll” after her vocal and a spray of solos, including Francisco’s flying feet. “Summertime” built from a quiet Palazzo intro on piano to a brassy roar with Sailors switching to cornet, and “Everybody Loves My Baby” was pure jubilation, all the soloists including Francisco strutting their stuff one last time and Miz Elizabeth pulling out a tambourine.

After this colorful profusion of swing, the Aaron Diehl Trio was bound to seem comparatively mundane the following afternoon. While the heart of the set was a triptych of tracks from Diehl’s fine new Space Time Continuum recording – “Flux Capacitor,” “Organic Consequence,” and “Broadway Boogie Woogie” – the live performances were barely a shadow of what was achieved in the studio.

Aaron Diehl (Stewart)

Shrunk by the absence of the horns that livened the studio sessions, sapped of the drive and exploratory energy of Diehl’s recorded solos, and numbed by the listless vamping of the leader behind bassist Paul Sikivie – hoping he’d suddenly morph into Scott LeFaro? – “Organic Consequence” was especially diminished. Even “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” a trio arrangement on the album, lacked the same fire from Diehl, with his current drummer, Lawrence Leathers, outshining the leader where an exchange of 4s was tacked onto the chart.

Toward the end, Diehl perked up somewhat in a two-tune Horace Silver tribute. “Opus de Funk” swung for three or four choruses, with a strong Leathers solo and a tasty Ellingtonian outro. Best of all was “Melancholy Mood” and its ruminative piano intro over Sikivie’s bowed bass before Diehl broke into a mid-tempo lope, with the bassist sheathing his bow and digging in. A moodiness echoing the intro took us out as Sikivie retrieved his bow and Leathers switched to his mallets.

With a recording career that spans more than 40 years – and impressive jazz, pop, and reggae outings – Monty Alexander shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, listening to his trio set – with Hassan Shakur on bass and Jason Brown on drums – I found it hard to believe the native Jamaican ever had more enthusiasm for music and more restless energy than he has now.

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Monty Alexander isn’t slowing down (Stewart)

Onto the spare framework of Ahmad Jamal’s “Night Mist Blues,” Alexander wove an epic solo that included threads of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and a swatch of Bach that I didn’t have time to jot down before he was onto – improbably – “It Takes a Worried Man.” Then you wouldn’t have suspected that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was a separate item on his set list, for Alexander drifted into that finale so smoothly that it seemed like just another prank played on the Jamal line.

Alexander was more apt to change moods on his own originals rather than troubling to drape new clothes on them. “Look Up” tried on “Take the A Train” momentarily but was more notable for its sojourns in the realms of ballad, Latin, and boogie-woogie on its odyssey. The trio heated up “You Can See Me” from a Garner-esque lope to a full-fledged boil before Alexander faded it out. There was even some experimentation in the lab during “Hope,” with Monty reaching under the lid of the Steinway during this most delicate piece, as Brown checked in with his strongest work, coaxing atmospheric pings and metallic washes from his kit.

With her heavy emphasis on drama, Salvant doesn’t instantaneously line up with the shy profile she suggested. But there’s something to it when you scrutinize her songlist, with choices that included “The Trolley Song,” “Nothing Like You Has Ever Been Seen Before,” “Mad About the Boy,” and “Jeepers Creepers.” All of these are awestruck, admiring, and a bit giddy. There was a coy and flirtatious take on Bob Dorough’s “Nothing Like You” and touches of Sarah Vaughan as Noël Coward’s “Mad About the Boy” heated up.

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Cécile McLorin Salvant is “Growlin'” (Stewart)

Far more histrionics were lavished upon the “Trolley” that Judy Garland made famous, starting off with the verse sung over a sympathetic Diehl vamp and Leathers’ puttering drums. But we didn’t reach deep waters until Salvant exhumed the traditional “John Henry” – with a gravitas you won’t find on the 2013 WomanChild album. The live vocal began without her microphone, with Diehl more about foot stomps than piano when Cécile went back on mic and Leathers marking time with handclaps. Cuteness discarded and pace slowed to a more solemn gait, Salvant’s low notes bore a previously unsuspected resemblance to the great Odetta.

After the magnificent hookup with Alexander, Salvant closed with the two opening tracks from latest CD, For One to Love, my pick for best vocal album of 2015. Her original “Fog” came off with notably more confidence and depth as Salvant took herself more seriously, and “Growlin’ Dan” was a high comedy tour de force. Salvant explained the whole lineage of this song that Blanche Calloway wrote as a sequel to little brother Cab’s famed “Minnie the Moocher.” Diehl’s solo has grown into a more emphatic jazz march, and Salvant’s singing – it’s hard to fathom how her long drawn-out growling could be the match for anything Wycliffe Gordon does on trombone when she’s pouring out all that sound and volume at the tail-end of her second set of the evening.

Harold Mabern (Leitzell)

When he talks about Lee Morgan, Phineas Newborn, Frank Strozier, Clifford Brown, the Philadelphia jazz scene, or his students at William Paterson University, Mabern seems like a pretty mellow soul. But it’s usually a different matter, even at the age of 80, when Harold attacks the keyboard. So a solo concert makes for a nice balance, rigorous playing interspersed with relaxed storytelling.

There was so much finesse in Mabern’s interpretations of “Moody’s Mood for Love” and “Dahoud,” so much soulfulness in his rendition of “It’s a Wonderful World,” that I found it somewhat odd that this genial man would be explaining the difference between his style and McCoy Tyner’s. Then he finished with “My Favorite Things,” and the pounding majesty of it made the comparison inevitable.

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Mabern and Eric Alexander evoke the Coltrane songbook (Stewart)

More Tyneresque moments occurred during  the evening’s “Tenor Titans” double bill, though you could call it Harold being Harold behind a powerful tenor saxophonist, Eric Alexander. The beast came out in Mabern’s first solo on “Summertime,” and after Alexander and bassist John Webber had their say, the pianist dropped another snippet from the Coltrane songbook, “My Shining Hour,” into his second solo, as drummer Joe Farnsworth went to his brushes. Mabern’s original, “Rakin’ and Scrapin’,” probably swung the hardest, Alexander dipping into “Fever” during his frenetic solo, but the most beautiful piece – of the whole evening, really – was Jule Styne’s “I Guess I’ll Hang My Teardrops Out to Dry.”

With a much softer sound and a far more unassuming manner, tenor man Stephen Riley was the antithesis of Alexander’s suave command and bold playing style. Backed by a rhythm section that was none other than the Marcus Roberts Trio, the similarities and contrasts between the two tenor sets were pretty cool. Not at all imitating the Coltrane sound, Riley opened and finished with Trane compositions, “Moment’s Notice” for starters and – more impressively – “Bessie’s Blues” to close.

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Stephen Riley and the Marcus Roberts Trio (Stewart)

There was a Monk composition in the middle of the set, “Blues Five Spot,” but Roberts couldn’t wait that long to do his Thelonious impression. Right after the opener, Robert’s applied a Monk fantasia to “Lulu’s Back in Town,” virtually stopping the tune – and clearly stopping the show as Jason Marsalis cracked up behind his drum set. Riley and Marsalis collected themselves enough to follow with their solos, but Roberts returned to take it out at a snail’s pace. Was he perhaps telling Riley that he’d taken “Moment’s Notice” too slowly?

Whatever the message, Riley proceeded to return fire on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” slipping some “Bemsha Swing” into his solo. When the Monk line actually came up, only bassist Rodney Jordan messed with it, dousing his solo spot with “Old Man River.” The “Bessie’s Blues” was truly fine sending us home, but Riley himself clicked best just before that in “Takin’ a Chance on Love,” carving out a solo intro over Marsalis’s deft brushes, diving into three gorgeous choruses, and appending a lovely cadenza after the all-star rhythm section had its say.

With a late night ahead of me, I skipped out on the Brianna Thomas Quartet concert the following afternoon. I’d never heard of her. Well, I learned my lesson that night at Lucas Theatre. Thomas turned up in Wycliffe Gordon’s big band as the trombonist’s original score for Oscar Micheaux’s Within These Gates, the oldest known film by an African American director, was presented for only the second time. Thomas and Milton Suggs, another singer I‘d never heard of, were both exemplary.

Brianna Thomas gets on my radar (Stewart)

But the band was fairly star-studded, with a trumpet section that included Terell Stafford and Etienne Charles, chairs for Adrian Cunningham and Riley among the reeds, and Diehl at the keyboard. Quite a pit band for a silent movie, and Gordon’s score doled out plenty of opportunities for all the prime horns to rise and shine. Forgive me if I didn’t catch every one of the instrumental exploits – hey, I was watching a movie!

Yet all these stars would emerge from the darkness and contribute to the Late Night Jam hosted by Gordon back at the Morris Center. Stafford got the featured billing and pretty much ruled over anyone who shared the stage and vied for supremacy. Suggs was only briefly in the spotlight, but he got my pulse racing with his driving vocal on Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” Thomas created no less of a sensation with her riffs on “All of Me.”

Kudos also go out to the flawless SMF sound crew. All during the week, I saw just one or two musicians discreetly asking the guys to tweak their monitor settings, imperfections that were remedied in the blink of an eye.

Jazz: The Best CDs of 2015

New Releases

Terell-Stafford-BrotherLee-Love

  1. Terell Stafford – Brotherlee Love (Capri)
  2. Harold Mabern – Afro Blue (Smoke Sessions)
  3. The Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble – Circulation: The Music of Gary McFarland (Planet Arts)
  4. Matt Mitchell Quintet – Vista Accumulation (Pi)
  5. Arturo O’Farrill – Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motéma)
  6. Cécile McLorin Salvant – For One to Love (Mack Avenue)
  7. Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – Live in Cuba (Blue Engine)
  8. Charles Lloyd – Wild Dance (Blue Note)
  9. Maria Schneider Orchestra – The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare)
  10. Kurt Elling – Passion World (Concord Jazz)
  11. Jack DeJohnette – Made in Chicago (ECM)
  12. Dave StrykerMessin’ With Mister T (Strikezone)
  13. Rudresh Mahanthappa – Bird Calls (ACT)
  14. Scott Hamilton – Hamilton & Hamilton Live in Bern (Capri)
  15. Alexis Cole & Bucky Pizzarelli – A Beautiful Friendship (Pony Canyon)
  16. Joe Locke – Love Is A Pendulum (Motéma)
  17. London, Meader, Pramuk & Ross – The Royal Bopsters Project (Motéma)
  18. Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project – Lines of Color: Live at Jazz Standard (ArtistShare)
  19. Snarky Puppy – Sylva (Impulse)
  20. Chris Potter Underground Orchestra – Imaginary Cities (ECM)
  21. Karrin Allyson – Many A New Day (Motéma)
  22. Harris Eisenstadt – Canada Day IV (Songlines)
  23. Richard Nelson Aardvark Jazz Orchestra – Deep River (Heliotrope)
  24. Dee Dee Bridgewater – Dee Dee’s Feathers (OKeh)
  25. David Chesky /Jazz In The New Harmonic – Primal Scream (Chesky)
  26. Dafnis Prieto Sextet – Triangles and Circles (Dafnison Music)
  27. John Fedchock Quartet – Fluidity (Summit)
  28. Vincent Herring – Night and Day (Smoke Sessions)
  29. Chico Freeman & Heiri Känzig – The Arrival (Intakt)
  30. William Parker – Great Spirit (Aum Fidelity)
  31. Hayden Chisholm – Breve (Pirouet)
  32. Heads Of State – Search for Peace (Smoke Sessions)
  33. Pablo Held Trio – Recondita Armonia (Pirouet)
  34. Amina Figarova – Blue Whisper (In+Out)
  35. Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder)
  36. Myra Melford – Snowy Egret (Enja)
  37. Mathias Eick – Midwest (ECM)
  38. Anat Cohen – Luminosa (Anzic)
  39. John Scofield – Past Present (Impulse)
  40. Marta Sánchez Quintet – Partenika (Fresh Sound New Talent)
  41. Hadar Noiberg – From the Ground Up (Dot Time)
  42. Charles McPherson – The Journey (Capri)
  43. Marcus Miller – Afrodeezia (Blue Note)
  44. Joshua Redman – The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch)
  45. Joey Alexander – My Favorite Things (Motéma)
  46. Oded Tzur – Like a Great River (Enja)
  47. Carol Saboya/Antonio Adolfo/Hendrik Meurkens – copaVILLAGE (AAM)
  48. Charenee Wade – Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron (Motéma)
  49. Mostly Other People Do The Killing – Mauch Chunk (Hot Cup)
  50. Branford Marsalis Quartet – Coltrane’s A Love Supreme Live in Amsterdam (Sony Masterworks)

 

Best of the Rest, Alphabetically

Gabriel Alegria Afro-Peruvian Sextet – 10 (Zoho)

Peter & Will Anderson – Déjà vu (Gut String)

Don Braden – Luminosity (Creative Perspective)

Joshua Breakstone – 2nd Avenue (Capri)

Ron Carter – My Personal Songbook (In+Out)

Alex Conde – Descarga for Monk (Zoho)

Matt Criscuolo – Headin’ Out (Jazzeria)

Steve Davis – Say When (Smoke Sessions)

Aaron Diehl – Space, Time, Continuum (Mack Avenue)

Duo Doyna – Sammy’s Frejlach: Modern Klezmer (Pool Music)

Yelena Eckemoff – Everblue (L & H)

Sinne Eeg – Eeg-Fonnesbæk (Stunt)

Essiet Okon Essiet – Shona (Space Time)

Oran Etkin – What’s New? Reimagining Benny Goodman (Motéma)

Expansions: The Dave Liebman Group – The Puzzle (Whaling City)

John Fedchock New York Big Band – Like It Is (Mama)

Nick Finzer – The Chase (Origin)

George Freeman/Chico Freeman – All in the Family (Southport)

Charlie Haden & Gonzalo Rubalcaba – Tokyo Adagio (Impulse)

Eddie Henderson – Collective Portrait (Smoke Sessions)

Fred Hersch – Solo (Palmetto)

Jon Irabagon – Behind the Sky (Irrabagast)

The Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra – Joyful Noise: The Music of Horace Silver (SoulPatch)

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – Big Band Holidays (Blue Engine)

Jacques Lesure – Camaraderie (Wj3)

Allegra Levy – Lonely City (SteepleChase)

Mack Avenue SuperBand – Live from the Detroit Jazz Festival (Mack Avenue)

Nilson Matta – East Side Rio Drive (Krian)

Josh Maxey – Celebration of Soul (Miles High)

Christian McBride Trio – Live at the Village Vanguard (Mack Avenue)

Paul Motian – Standards Plus One (1201 Music)

Christian Muthspiel/Steve Swallow – Simple Songs (In+Out)

William Parker – For Those Who Are, Still (Aum Fidelity)

Gary Peacock Trio – Now This (ECM)

Lucas Pino – No Net Nonet (Origin)

Powerhouse – In An Ambient Way (Chesky)

Prism Quartet – Heritage / Evolution, Vol. 1 (Innova)

Aki Rissanen – Aki Rissanen // Jussi Lehtonen Quartet With Dave Liebman (Ozella)

The Rodriguez Brothers – Impromptu (Criss Cross)

Adam Rogers – R&B / Rogers & Binney (Criss Cross)

Emiliano Sampaio / Mega Mereneu Project – Tourists (Sessionwork)

Antonio Sanchez – Three Times Three (Camjazz)

Christian Scott – Stretch Music: Introducing Elena Pinderhughes (Ropeadope)

Matthew Shipp Trio – The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear)

John Stowell – Live Beauty (Origin)

Symphonic Jazz Orchestra – Looking Forward, Looking Back (Mack Avenue)

Steve Turre – Spiritman (Smoke Sessions)

Michael Waldrop Big Band – Time Within Itself (Origin)

Johannes Wallmann – The Town Musicians (Fresh Sound New Talent)

Steve Wilson & Wilsonian’s Grain – Live in New York: The Vanguard Sessions (Random Act)

John Wojciechowski – Focus (Origin)

Kemasi Washington_The_Epic

Best Debut Recording

Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder)

Best Vocal Recording

Cécile McLorin Salvant – For One to Love (Mack Avenue)

Best Latin Recording

Arturo O’Farrill – Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motéma)

 

Reissues or Historical Recordings

  1. Thelonious Monk – The Complete Columbia Live Albums Collection (Columbia)
  2. Red Garland – The Quota (MPS)
  3. Erroll Garner – The Complete Concert by the Sea (Columbia/Legacy)
  4. Thelonious Monk – The Complete Riverside Recordings (Riverside/Concord)
  5. Horace Silver Quintet – June 1977 – Livelove Series, Vol. 2 (Promising/ HGBS)
  6. Art Pepper – Neon Art: Volume One (Omnivore)
  7. Sam Most – From the Attic of My Mind (Elemental)
  8. Miles Davis – Miles Davis at Newport: 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4 (Columbia/Legacy)
  9. Barry Harris – Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron (Elemental)
  10. Keith Jarrett / Charlie Haden / Paul Motian – Hamburg ’72 (ECM)
  11. Jimmy Heath – Picture Of Heath (Elemental)
  12. Cassandra Wilson – Introducing M-Base (1201 Music)
  13. Various Artists – Detroit Jazz City (Blue Note)
  14. John Abercrombie – The First Quartet (ECM)
  15. Buddy Rich – Birdland (Lightyear)

 

Cyrus Chestnut and the Quirky Music of Monk Transform the Turtle Island Quartet into a Jazzy Piano Quintet

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Cyrus Chestnut

By Perry Tannenbaum

Among contemporary crossover string quartets, Kronos and Turtle Island stand out as the most accomplished, commercially successful, eclectic, well-connected, and adventurous touring groups. Both are committed to proving that string quartet repertoire is anything but antique, that ensembles are capable of far more sonic variety than we hear on recordings of Beethoven and Haydn, and that the aggregation can meaningfully engage all musical idioms.

Notwithstanding these heroic exploits over the last 30+ years, I must confess that I’d rather hear a piano trio, a violin sonata, or chamber music where the blending of strings is spiked with the intrusions of wind or brass instruments. The dominance of string quartets in chamber music repertoire is as inexplicable to me as landscape-oriented computer monitors. So when I heard that Turtle Island Quartet was rolling into Halton Theater, opening Charlotte Concerts’ 2015-16 season with the wondrous Cyrus Chestnut along for the ride, it was music to these jazz-loving ears. More than one of chamber music’s greatest cathedrals is a piano quintet, and Chestnut’s pedigree includes stints at the keyboard of combos headed by Wynton Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard, and Betty Carter – jazz giants all. The program, entitled “Jelly, Rags, and Monk,” promised to deliver intriguing collaborations and excavations.

There was more variety to the program than its title embraced, including compositions by Debussy, Bob Mintzer, Jimmy Van Heusen, Bud Powell, Chestnut, and Turtle Island founder David Balakrishnan. Showing laudable deference to their guest, the Islanders preceded him onstage – Balakrishnan and Mateusz Smoczynski carrying violins, Benjamin von Gutzeit toting a viola, and Mark Summer schlepping a cello – playing a couple of tunes from their vast songbook in rather tame arrangements. The presumption seemed to be that the sound of string quartets lay in their audience’s comfort zone, so Turtle Island would deftly navigate a voyage beyond.

From a classical standpoint, the arrangements for Bob Mintzer’s “Windspan” and Balakrishnan’s “Rebirth of the Holy Fool” (an homage to Miles Davis’s landmark Birth of the Cool recording) lay in familiar waters, with occasional episodes of improvisation from each of the players making waves. From a jazz perspective, these were tighter arrangements than either Birth of the Cool or those played by the hard-bop combos piloted by Horace Silver, who set the gold standard for balancing the foundations of written scores with the flights of improvisation they should inspire. Summer and Smoczynski impressed me most with their first licks, Summer because jazz improvisation is such a rare commodity on cello and Smoczynski because his sound put me in mind of jazz fusion master Jean-Luc Ponty.

I wasn’t immediately encouraged when Chestnut made his entrance and explained the title of the program. It was to be a selection of tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, and – for knowledgeable folk, the only part of the title needing explanation – Scott Joplin. “Jelly, Joplin, and Monk” would have been more euphonious, but it would have bred disappointment from Janis Joplin fans expecting to hear “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Ball and Chain.”

Even with Chestnut aboard, we still weren’t weighing anchor with the two pieces that followed – Morton’s “Jungle Blues” and Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk.” Morton’s “Blues” was encouraging for demonstrating von Gutzeit’s ability to swing with his viola, and Balakrishnan tossed in some funky flavor that established his mettle, but Chestnut was content to lurk in the background, and our visit to Debussy’s Children’s Corner was pure transcription without improvisatory exploration.

Then, to paraphrase the most beloved eccentric in jazz, in walked Monk. The glow that came to Chestnut’s eyes as he narrated how he first encountered Monk’s music was very much the same glow that illuminates Marsalis’ face whenever he speaks of the great bebop guru. You really don’t have to go into the many-splendored weirdness of the man, beginning with his habitual trancelike dancing around the stage whenever he performed in concert; you just need to hear the music.

Everything became looser after Chestnut called the first tune, “Little Rootie Tootie.” After Summer began the soloing, von Gutzeit played his viola solo over spirited percussion from Smoczynski – chucked on the body of his violin. When Chestnut began to solo, we were decisively adrift in a sea of jazz, reveling in the wrong notes that always seem so jubilantly right in Monk’s world. Von Gutzeit embraced the weirdness with a pithy solo, closing the piece over Chestnut’s accompaniment.

The Turtle Islanders smuggled some classical cargo onboard for the voyage so that the next two pieces, Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear” and Powell’s “Bouncin’ With Bud,” bore a kinship with the Third Stream Music of the late 1950s that sought to fuse jazz and classical music. Both arrangements began with traditional string quartet intros, the one for “Bouncin’ With Bud” so elegantly antiquated that I had to laugh. While Chestnut didn’t change the tempo when his turn to solo came on “Ruby,” he gave that impression by playing sixteenth notes – and a sprinkling of trills – instead of the quarters and eighths we were hearing from von Gutzeit and the two violinists.

When Smoczynski took his second solo, he was even looser than he’d been in “Rootie Tootie,” laying down his bow and plucking his violin as if it were a guitar, his quartet cohorts playing pizzicato accompaniment. Taking us to intermission, “Bouncin’ With Bud” probably swung the hardest of any tune at this concert. Yet the piece abruptly changed after each of the jazz solos with composed quartet interludes that served as launchpads for the next solo. In fact, the arrangement was more like those on the Birth of the Cool album than the tune Balakrishnan dedicated to it.

There was still one more configuration to see after the break – and one more promised composer. Chestnut came out by himself to solo on Van Heusen’s “It Can Happen to You,” but so much of the piece was spent noodling, half seriously and half comically, on “Yankee Doodle” that it could be justifiably labeled a medley. The only real doldrums in the second half occurred when the quintet finally came around to Joplin with “Pineapple Rag.” On his second soloing attempt, Chestnut managed to swing lightly, but the string players couldn’t manage to do much with the quaint theme in this humdrum arrangement.

On the other hand, our second sampling of Morton in “Turtle Twist” was more pleasurable than the first, Balakrishnan presenting the melody with a bluesy zest and von Gutzeit taking the first solo over Summer’s cello percussion before Chestnut doused the tune with rollicking beer hall spasms. From there, we unexpectedly turned to a pizzicato solo from Summer that looked and sounded like those you hear from a jazz bassist. Monk’s “Bye-Ya” was a delightful case of role reversal. Beginning with von Gutzeit’s weird harmonics on the viola, it was the Turtle Islanders who sounded more like the jazz artists and experimenters, for when they fell silent, Chestnut’s solo was more like the cadenzas we expect in classical concertos.

I had no objections to sticking with Monk’s music for the final selection, “Rhythm-a-ning.” The loose arrangement, providing ample opportunity for all the band members to improvise, was typical of arrangements that conclude jazz concerts or nightclub sets, including a spirited exchange of four-bar salvos that gave everyone a last chance to shine at the end of the performance. Even musicians who haven’t improvised all evening long – say the drummer or the bassist – traditionally get a moment in the spotlight, often as the leader calls out their names. So it was quite appropriate to see Balakrishnan unveil one last tool in the ensemble’s toolkit when the group was trading fours, playing a mini percussion solo on the body of his violin.
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