Category Archives: Jazz

Spoleto Roars Back, Honoring Africa, Arabic, and Alice (Coltrane)

Review: Jazz @ Spoleto Festival USA

 By Perry Tannenbaum

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

It’s difficult to imagine what the stage and the audience would have looked like at Gaillard Center if Rhiannon Giddens’ new opera, Omar, had premiered as scheduled at Spoleto Festival USA in May 2020. #BlackLivesMatter and the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the trajectory of our lives since then, also deflecting the course of the Festival. Leadership of the Festival has changed, with Mena Mark Hanna replacing retired general director Nigel Redden, while Giddens added a half hour to her new work and ditched her stage director over artistic differences.

So when we saw more masks and dashikis in the audience than we had ever seen at Gaillard before – and more Arabic script on the scenery and costumes of Omar than I could remember in all my previous 29 years at Spoleto – it really felt like the Festival had taken a hairpin turn under Hanna’s leadership. But if you look at the past three Festivals dispassionately, including the canceled 2020 edition, you must also realize that the past two years have also been, to a large extent, a timed-release rollout of the Festival that didn’t happen two years ago.

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At the abbreviated Festival last year, held mostly outdoors, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Cookers, and the Two Wings retrospective on The Music of Black America in Migration produced by Jason and Alicia Moran were all rainchecks from the previous year. Similarly, this year’s concerts by Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almazan, Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, and The War and Treaty were all holdovers from 2020, as were the appearance of Machine de Cirque and the staging of Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood.

 

If the back-to-back appearances Youssou N’Dour and Nduduzo Makhathini during the Memorial Day weekend at The Cistern seemed like a spirited invocation of Mother Africa in response to #BlackLivesMatter, it should be remembered that Abdullah Ibrahim and Eyaka were also signed up for Spoleto 2020 months ahead of their scheduled June 2 concert, which would have happened a mere eight days after George Floyd’s murder.

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Since Redden had cited #BlackLivesMatter as a key reason why he had decided to resign after Spoleto 2021, it really did feel like opening weekend in 2022 – with the opening of Omar followed by back-to-back-to-back concerts by Giddens, N’Dour, and Makhathini – was both an endorsement of that movement and a delayed, but still powerful, denunciation of the 2017 Muslim Ban. Giddens’ Omar dramatized The Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, the only known account by an African slave written in Arabic, placing special emphasis on Omar’s Islamic faith, his spirituality, and the Christian proselytizing he was subjected to by even his most benign master.

Another layer of Black spirituality graced the Festival during its second weekend when Ravi Coltrane paid tribute to his mother, Alice Coltrane, and her pathfinding Universal Consciousness album of 1971. That universality embraced India, Egypt, continental Africa, and the Holy Land according to the original Turina Aparna (Alice Coltrane) liner notes, and the all-star quintet assembled by the son included harp sensation Brandee Younger and keyboardist David Virelles as the chief conjurers of the mother.

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

What a wondrous concert that was at Cistern Yard, concentrating on the seminal works the elder Coltrane composed and released in the 1970s, including the title pieces from Universal Consciousness and Journey in Satchidanada (1971) served up with prime cuts from Ptah, The El Daoud (1970) and Eternity (1976). Perhaps the summit of that experience was when Ravi extended his mom Alice’s ethereal “Journey in Satchidanada” with a reverent excursion into John Coltrane’s “Alabama” from 1963, saluting his dad.

Younger was a constant delight, especially sublime when she was spotlighted in Alice’s “Turia & Ramakrishna,” while Virelles at the piano reminded us that the Coltrane matriarch’s sound at the acoustic keyboard was not that distant from McCoy Tyner’s, the pianist in her husband’s famed quartet. While there was no organ onstage to fully replicate the range of instruments that Alice played on Universal Consciousness, Virelles did double with an electric piano, occasionally playing both keyboards simultaneously.

Raindrops kept falling intermittently during the concert, becoming an issue near the end, when Ravi allowed the audience to coax him into playing an encore, “Los Caballos.” Stagehands did not appear panicked about the sound system, but it looked like Virelles turned off his electric to be extra careful. Meanwhile, Coltrane switched from tenor to soprano sax for the closer and gave the other members of his rhythm section, bassist Rashaan Carter and the ebullient Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, extra space for some fine soloing. Carter cooled us off after Ravi and Virelles brought their fire, and then Watts turned back the heat.

It was Younger, of course, who made the concert experience so unique, the sprinkling of her runs and glisses more refreshing than the raindrops.

There was no downpour the following night when we showed up early at Cistern Yard, but this time Spoleto officials decided to be more cautious with percussionist/composer Tyshawn Sorey, the second big star at the Festival – and, following Giddens, the second MacArthur Genius. Two days after his jazz gig, Sorey was slated to conduct a symphony orchestra at Sottile Theater in a program completely devoted to his classical compositions, so the abundance of caution was warranted, and the backup site, TD Arena, proved to be perfectly calibrated sound-wise.

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Sorey’s jazz trio, featuring bassist Matt Brewer and the estimable Aaron Diehl on piano, linked the pieces on their program together more frequently than Coltrane had done the night before. For those of us who didn’t pick up Sorey’s new Mesmerism release after the concert, already sold-out in its first limited vinyl edition, we can only guess whether the performance differed significantly from the recording in its length and nearly seamless format. Diehl marked the borderline between Horace Silver’s “Enchantment” and Bill Evans’ “Detour Ahead” clearly enough, but the hand-offs between Diehl and Brewer, who took an epic-length solo, piled detour upon detour, so it was difficult to determine when – or if – we had crossed over to “Autumn Leaves.”

Diehl barely grazed the familiar Joseph Kosma melody, so it was helpful that, after Sorey paused – “Are you still with us?” – he let us know where we were amid the titles he had announced at the start. The boundary between Paul Motian’s “From Time to Time” and Muhal Richard Abrams’ “Two Over One” was far more easily discerned, yet the onset of Duke Ellington’s “REM Blues” was like coming out of an impressionistic tunnel into sunshine, Diehl reveling in his mastery of a totally different idiom and Sorey at last unleashing his full artillery.

Linda May Han Oh had actually recorded with Sorey on a Vijay Iyer session for ECM just before Spoleto’s 2020 slate was announced, so the separate appearances of bassist and the percussionist over the same weekend could be seen as serendipitous. Or merely premature, for they will be touring with Iyer in Europe – and playing Newport – during July. It sounded like parenthood happened for Oh and her pianist husband Fabian Almazan sometime between the date their debut was supposed to take place and when it actually did. Oh described herself and Almazan as new parents – just not brand new.

While their household might have been changing, the venue where they would perform – six sets over five days – definitely changed, moving them from the Simons Center, on the College of Charleston campus, to Festival Hall. A welcome shift for most festivalgoers, since the setup now included cocktail tables, changing the vibe from clinical to cabaret.

Bracing myself for the “postmodern sonic disruption” touted in Spoleto’s 2020 season brochure, in its pull quote from The Boston Globe, I happily found – attending two of the six sets – that NPR’s description in the 2022 preview, citing Oh’s “gift of liquid dynamism” was far more apt. Though Almazan had installed some electronics on Spoleto’s house piano that could alter the sound, it would be a gross exaggeration to declare that they were employed more than 5% of the time – or that the disruptions he created were more virulent than the sounds of a growling ogre the first time we heard him playing on “Una Foto.”

 

Almazan proved to be rather charming and self-deprecating as he introduced another of his originals, “Pet Steps Sitters Theme Song,” freely admitting that it was rejected within his own family for advertising purposes, “and for good reason.” That good reason turned out to be the ample chops he lavished upon his melody in embroidering it, not as dark or thundering as McCoy Tyner but definitely devoid of saccharine.

Playing electric bass as well upright, Oh would have surprised those on hand who were only familiar with her through tracks that are readily searchable on Spotify. YouTube followers are more likely to have experienced Oh’s liquid on her Fender Jazz Bass and her original songs. Oh’s notably vibrato-less vocals certainly covered a broad topical spectrum, ranging from anchovy innards in “Ikan Billis” to “Jus ad Bellum,” dedicated to people who find themselves caught up in the Ukraine conflict.

Almazan’s compositions were mostly instrumental, which Oh usually played on acoustic bass, “Sol Del Mar” and “The Vicarious Life” impressing me as much as the composer’s abortive foray into advertising. He also challenged Oh with an original song of his own, “Everglades,” which resulted in a pleasing overall balance of Oh vocals and instrumentals.

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Programmed midway during the Memorial Day weekend celebration of Africa and Islam, Youssou N’Dour was closer in spirit to the true jazz of pianist-composer Nduduzo Makhathini, who followed him the next night, than he was to Rhiannon Giddens singing and playing banjo, with the spare accompaniment of Jason Sypher on bass and her husband Francesco Turrisi on accordion and piano. Nearly 40 years into his career, N’Dour’s voice is still sensational and strikingly expressive. The interplay between his incantatory chants and the mbalax rhythms of his percussion-heavy 12-man band often paralleled the sound of Latin jazz vocalists volleying back and forth with their orchestras – minus the brass.

With Lonnie Plaxico filling in as his bassist on short notice, Makhathini and his quartet seemed buoyed and refreshed rather than tentative or nervous, bringing noticeably more energy to their performances at Cistern Yard than you’ll hear on his recent studio recording, In the Spirit of Ntu, which isn’t exactly tame. The percolating Bitches Brew aspects of that new release, along with the coolness of Robin Fassie-Kock’s flugelhorn and trumpet, were dispelled by this more compact combo, with alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw vying for dominance with the leader’s powerful keyboard style, a meshing of Ibrahim and Tyner.

No less than three tunes came from Spirit of Ntu, including “Emlilweni,” “Amathongo,” and “Unonkanyamba.” Going back a couple of years, Makhathini unearthed “Umyalez’oPhuthumayo,” a jagged gem from Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworld, and gave it a fresh polishing so that it no longer sounded influenced by Ornette Coleman, though Francisco Mela’s pounding and thrashing on drums retained plenty of bite.

Tenderest of the selections was “For You,” reaching back to Makhathini’s 2015 album, Listening to the Ground, and offering Plaxico his best opportunity to shine. Among the three vocals in the set, “Amathongo” was probably the leader’s most impressive, his quicksilver soloing on piano as delightful as his incantatory singing while Shaw switched briefly to soprano sax. As for the most prodigious face-off between Shaw on alto and Makhathini, that was “Ithemba” from the 2017 Ikhambi album, a groovy powerhouse noticeably influenced by the John Coltrane Quartet.

In. the wake of last year’s abbreviated jazz lineup, headlined by Preservation Hall and The Cookers, this year’s not only felt vaster but also younger, more audacious. Spoleto was resoundingly back in 2022, appealing to a newly energized audience, with Sorey, Ravi, and Makhathini especially demonstrating they have more to give us in years to come.

Black Lives Really Do Matter in Spoleto’s Stirring Counter-Crusade

Review: Opera, Chamber, and Orchestral Music @ Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Recognition of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and the We See You White American Theatre manifesto (issued by a coalition of BIPOC artists in 2020) were certainly on Nigel Redden’s mind when he decided that the 2021 Spoleto Festival USA would be his last as general director. White and long-tenured at the Charleston arts fest, Redden saw himself personifying what needed to be changed, not merely in American theatre but across the nation’s arts.

Yet that wasn’t to say that Spoleto was backward in infusing diversity into its programming or in embracing contemporary, cutting-edge work in its presentations of music, theatre, and dance – which made Redden’s swan song, at a Festival that constricted and hamstrung by Covid-19, all the more poignant. But all Redden’s work was not truly done, even after he officially stepped down last October, for there was one grand project of his that had yet to be completed. Spoleto’s commission of Omar, the much-anticipated new opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels would at last be unveiled after being shelved for two years.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Based on the slim autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, the only known narrative by an American slave written in Arabic, Giddens’ new work was appropriately co-commissioned by the University of North Carolina, for Omar’s servitude began in Charleston before he escaped to a more benign slaveholder up in Fayetteville, NC. Rather than letting this world premiere stand as an isolated testament to Redden’s legacy – or a belated rebuke targeting the infamous Muslim ban of 2017 – incoming general director Mena Mark Hanna has emphatically made Omar the tone-setting centerpiece of his first Spoleto.

Predictably enough, Giddens and Abels sat for a public interview with Martha Teichner on the afternoon following the premiere, just a few hours before she and her husband, Francesco Turrissi, appeared in an outdoor concert at Cistern Yard. Five days after the world premiere at Sottile Theatre, the principal singers from Omar and the choir resurfaced at Charleston Gaillard Center for a “Lift Every Voice” concert, further affirming Black Lives. But that theme, as well as Ibn Said’s African origins and Islamic faith, suffused the Festival’s programming more deeply than that.2022~Spoleto-142

In the jazz sector, for example, two African artists were featured with their ensembles at the Cistern on successive night after Giddens’ concert, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and his orchestra followed by South African pianist Nduduzo Makhatini and his quartet. More importantly, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, three years after participating in a Geri Allen tribute, paid homage to his distinguished mom, harpist/organist/composer Alice Coltrane and her 1971 Universal Consciousness album, a spiritual landmark that defined Indocentric jazz, laced with flavorings of Africa, India, Egypt, and the Holy Land.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Unholy Wars was another Spoleto commission, with tenor Karim Sulayman as its lead creator, furthering the pro-Muslim thrust of the Festival’s opera lineup. Taking up Claudio Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, the 1624 opera that extracted its tragic love story from Torquato Tasso’s epic Jerusalem Delivered, Sulayman boldly flipped the First Crusade narrative. Sulayman, a first-generation American born in Chicago to Lebanese immigrants, conceived a counter-Crusade, attempting to render vocal compositions by Monteverdi, Handel, and others through the perspective of those defamed and marginalized by the prevailing white Western narrative.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Portraying the narrator, Sulayman chiefly championed the warrior woman Clorinda – who needed to be white-skinned and convert to Christianity for 17th century Europe to see her as worthy of Tancredi, the valiant Christian knight who mistakenly slayed his beloved in combat. Soprano Raha Mirzadegan as Clorinda outshone bass baritone John Taylor Ward’s portrayal of Tancredi, while dancer Coral Dolphin, devising her moves with choreographer Ebony Williams, upstaged them both. We could conclude, in stage director Kevin Newberry’s scheme of things, that Dolphin’s dancing silently represented the Black beauty that Clorinda was never allowed to be.

Known for directing such cutting-edge operas as Doubt, Fellow Travelers, and The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Newberry had no qualms about creating huge disconnects between his actors’ actions and the Italian they sang. Costume designer David C. Woolard was similarly liberated in attiring them, evoking Lawrence of Arabia more readily than Richard the Lion-Hearted. Water, sand, heavy rope, and four simple chairs supplanted onstage scenery at Dock Stage Theater, but Michael Commendatore’s steady stream of animated projection designs, coupled with the production’s supertitles, more than compensated for the sparseness onstage, keeping us awash in sensory overload. If you tried to keep pace with the supertitles on high, sometimes barely legible, you could easily be distracted from the action below.

Consulting your program booklet to determine what was being sung by which composer would only have compounded your confusion. Best to listen, look, and enjoy. For if this sensory-rich spectacle – laden with mysterious sand and water ceremony – strayed far from fulfilling Sulayman’s intentions, the music, the voices, and the dance yielded constant pleasure, wonder, and delight.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

More touted and deliciously marketable, Giddens’ Omar proved to be more treasurable and on-task, providing tenor Jamez McCorkle with a career-making opportunity in the title role. Directing this stunning world premiere, director Kaneza Schall is laser-focused on the most pivotal event in Said’s life in America when, imprisoned in Fayetteville, he is released from jail and purchased by a benign master because of he has – miraculously, in the eyes of local yokels – written in Arabic script on the walls of his cell.

Written and printed language, from the floor upwards to the Sottile’s fly loft, is everywhere in Schall’s concept: dominant in Amy Rubin’s set, Joshua Higgason’s video, even permeating the costumes by April Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown. If you ever believed the libelous presumption that Africans were all brought to America bereft of any literacy, maintained in their pristine backwardness by their benevolent masters, Schall’s vision of Omar was here to brashly disabuse you.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

And if you were under the impression that Africans came ashore in Charleston without any coherent Abrahamic religion, their poor souls yearning to be redeemed by the beneficence of Christianity, Giddens labored lovingly to enlighten you, the beauty and spirituality of her score enhanced by Abels’ deft orchestrations. As a librettist, Giddens could have benefited from some discreet assistance – and the challenge of scoring somebody else’s text. Melodious and religious as it is, Omar could stand to be a more dramatic opera, and as a librettist, Giddens could have usefully been more detailed.

Stressing Said’s spirituality, Giddens neglects his intellect, never referencing the range of his studies or the full spectrum of his manuscripts. Nor is there a full fleshing-out of why Said was imprisoned in Fayetteville or how it could be that Major General James Owen could take him home without returning the fugitive slave to his previous master, described in The Autobiography as “a small, weak, and wicked man, called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.”Screenshot 2022-06-27 at 16-55-14 Spoleto Opera Honors An Extraordinary Slave Whose Life Mattered Classical Voice North America

The embellishments that Giddens gives us are all gorgeous. Owen’s daughter, Eliza, has a beautiful aria sung by Rebecca Jo Loeb, entreating her dignified dad to see the providence in Omar’s coming to their city. Further mentoring our hero, soprano Laquita Mitchell was Julie, a fellow slave in Fayetteville who will vividly remember her previous meeting with Omar at a Charleston slave auction. More majestically, mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis is a recurring presence as Omar’s mother, Fatima. Long after she is slain by the marauders who enslave Omar, she comes back to her son in a dream, warning him that Johnson is fast approaching to murder him. Mitchell and Lewis subsequently team up to urge Omar to write his story, a summit meeting with McCorkle that is the clear musical – and emotional – high point of the evening.

Plum roles also go to baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, who gets to sing both of Omar’s masters, the cruel and godless Johnson before intermission and the benign, bible-toting Owen afterwards. The question of whether Said sincerely converts from Islam to Christianity is pointedly left open. Notwithstanding his utter triumph, we probably have not seen the full magnificence that McCorkle can bring to Omar, for he was hobbled in the opening performances, wearing a therapeutic boot over his left ankle that I, for one, didn’t notice until he resurfaced as the highlight of the “Lift Every Voice” concert, bringing down the house with a powerful “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Scanning the remainder of Spoleto’s classical offerings, I’m tempted to linger in the operatic realm, for Yuval Sharon’s upside-down reimagining of La bohème at Gaillard Center, despite its time-saving cuts to Act 2, completely overcame my misgivings about seeing Puccini’s four acts staged in reverse order. Yet there were more flooring innovations, debuts, and premieres elsewhere.52126095047_f231ab5e32_o

Program III of the chamber music series epitomized how the lunchtime concerts have evolved at Dock Street Theater under violinist and host Geoff Nuttall’s stewardship. Baritone saxophonist Steven Banks brought a composition of his, “As I Am,” for his debut, a winsome duet with pianist Pedja Muzijevic. Renowned composer Osvaldo Golijov, a longtime collaborator with Nuttall’s St. Lawrence Quartet, was on hand to introduce his Ever Yours octet, which neatly followed a performance of the work that inspired him, Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet, op. 76 no. 2.

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Upstaging all of these guys was the smashing debut of recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus, playing three different instruments – often two simultaneously – on German composer Moritz Eggert’s Auer Atem for three recorders and one player. Equally outré and modernistic, More or Less for pre-recorded and live violin was a new composition by Mark Applebaum, customized for Livia Sohn (Nuttall’s spouse) while she was recuperating from a hand injury that only allowed her to play with two fingers on her left hand. If it weren’t bizarre enough to see Sohn on the Dock Street stage facing a mounted bookshelf speaker, the prankish Applebaum was on hand to drape the speaker in a loud yellow wig after the performance was done.

On the orchestral front, two works at different concerts wowed me. Capping a program at Gaillard which had featured works by György Ligeti and Edmund Thornton Jenkins, John Kennedy conducted Aiōn, an extraordinary three-movement work by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Hatching a soundworld that could be massively placid, deafeningly chaotic, weirdly unearthly, or awesome with oceanic majesty, Aiōn decisively quashed my urge to slip away to The Cistern for Coltrane and his luminous harpist, Brandee Younger. We were forced to arrive a full 30 minutes after that religious rite began.2022~Spoleto-260

My final event before saying goodbye to Spoleto 2022 treated me to sights I’d never seen before. On an all-Tyshawn Sorey program, Sorey ascended to the podium at Sottile Theatre and took us all to a pioneering borderland between composition and improvisation that he titled Autoschiadisms. Instead of a baton, Sorey brandished a sharpie beating time, sheets of typing paper with written prompts, or simply his bare hands making signals. Sometimes Sorey simply allowed the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra (splendid as usual) to run on autopilot while he huddled over his score, writing new prompts with his sharpie on blank pages before holding them high.2022~Spoleto-273

And the music was as wonderful as it was exciting, clearly an advance upon the other compositions on the bill, For Roscoe Mitchell and For Marcos Balter, conducted respectively by Kennedy and Kellen Gray. In the surreal aftermath of his triumphant premiere, Sorey had reason to linger onstage during a good chunk of the intermission. Musicians from the Orchestra swarmed him, waiting patiently for Sorey to autograph the sheets of paper that the composer had just used to lead them. The ink was barely dry where the MacArthur Genius of 2017 was obliged to write some more.

Donald Harrison Launches a New Jazz Room Season, Heralding a New Big-Name Era

Review: JazzArts Charlotte Presents Big Chief Donald Harrison

By Perry Tannenbaum

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April 8, 2022, Charlotte, NC – With teeming pedestrians, barhoppers, diners, and operagoers overflowing Uptown sidewalks, Charlotte’s nightlife was livelier and more exuberant than I’d ever seen it on a Thursday night when we went to see the opening performance of Opera Carolina’s Aïda. Excitement among jazz fans, meanwhile, was ramping up to unprecedented levels as Middle C Jazz Club continued its surge, after seeing its initial momentum blunted by the pandemic within months of its launch in late 2019, and JazzArts Charlotte began its 16th Jazz Room season, clearly its most high-profile lineup to date. NEA Jazz Master – and second-generation Big Chief of New Orleans’ Congo Square – Donald Harrison headlined the opening of Jazz Room’s new season on Friday with a two-night stand at the Stage Door Theater, setting up a rather awesome jazz evening around Charlotte as Kat Edmonson makes her Charlotte debut on Saturday with a couple of seatings at Middle C.

Never have two jazz stars of such magnitude performed at the same time in the Queen City on multiple stages, nor have we ever seen such big names simultaneously in two small venues. That’s not all. Jazz at the Bechtler, piloted by saxophonist Ziad Rabie, has regained its stride, recently featuring Grammy-nominated vocalist Nnenna Freelon; and pianist Lenore Raphael, North Carolina’s bebop bubby, will be playing at the Coffey Thompson Art Gallery on the same night that Harrison and Edmonson hold forth. Nor have the big venues been vacated, with Chris Botti performing at Knight Theater last month and Diana Krall slated for April 19 at Belk Theater.2022~Donald Harrison-29

Blowing his alto sax, Harrison proved to be as prodigious as any of these other headliners – and with some vocalese, hip-hop, and dance moves tossed into his gumbo, maybe the most eclectic and unpredictable. After his opening “Free to Be,” a herky-jerky, stop-and-go performance ranging from Duke Ellington to James Brown, Harrison rambled into ragtime, bebop, smooth jazz, Latin, and New Orleans funk. Having mentored such diverse artists as Esperanza Spaulding, Jon Batiste, Trombone Shorty, and The Notorious BIG, Harrison splashed rather than tiptoed into all of these waters.

He spoke with ease about Sidney Bechet (1897-1959), the great New Orleans soprano saxophonist and clarinetist whose arrangement of “Maple Leaf Rag” hipped him to the intricacies and difficulties of Scott Joplin’s music. Harrison played with nearly unrelenting fire all evening long, so the fine solos by pianist Dan Kaufman and guitarist Detroit Brooks were, relatively speaking, islands of calm and order between the sax’s stormy tirades. New to the group, drummer Brian Richburg quickly proved he was capable of returning fire, his solo on “Free to Be” evoking memories of Max Roach (1924-2007).

2022~Donald Harrison-08Everybody in the group, including bassist Noriatsu Naroaka, had a chance to trade four-bar salvos with Richburg at the end of Harrison’s impressive tribute to bebop, “One for Bird.” Perhaps because has staring straight at a famous photo of Charlie Parker hanging at the rear of the house, Harrison sounded more like the immortal Yardbird than he did on his 2004 studio recording of the tune, spraying numerous quotes from Parker’s compositions into his driving solo before yielding the stage to Kaufman, Brooks, and Naroaka, gearing up for the climactic free-for-all with Richburg.

More often tinged with the sound and style of John Coltrane, Harrison’s customary timbre returned as his quintet dug into “Take the Coltrane,” the original that Ellington brought with him to the revered Duke Ellington & John Coltrane recording session in 1962 (for the same Impulse label that Harrison would later sign with). After a long interlude introducing his bandmates, starting with some shtick and proceeding with digression after digression, Harrison still had enough left for an epic, breathtaking rant, another tribute to a towering sax giant. This would have been the apex of a normal set as Kaufman and Brooks were able to follow their leader with some of their best work.2022~Donald Harrison-27

Yet despite a seeming lull as Harrison shuffled into “Mr. Cool Breeze,” a smooth jazz confection that the NEA Master had written in response to a sobriquet bestowed upon him by Lena Horne, Big Chief had plenty more. The sound was akin to all those Grover Washington hits, effortlessly spun over a steady backbeat, very much like the instrumental Harrison had recorded for the first time in 1998, maybe even nodding to Washington’s famous “Mister Magic” as guitarist Brooks got to share some of the spotlight – but the version at Stage Door suddenly spouted a stream of vocalese from Harrison, climaxing in a proclamation that was nearly a lyric.

Before coming home to New Orleans with a performance of “Hey Pocky Way” that looked like a funky sax shout wedded to a street dance, Harrison went on a spicy excursion to Puerto Rico with a tune by pianist Eddie Palmieri (1936- ), a Latin icon with whom Big Chief has recorded at least five times since the mid-90s. I didn’t catch the titles of the closer, best rest assured that it was laced with more Harrison vocals and virtuosity. Even before his encore, Harrison’s triumph was assured, and after, we all rose to our feet without the slightest urging.

Kat Edmonson Brings Latenight Chic to Middle C

Review: Kat Edmonson at Middle C Jazz Club – Charlotte, NC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Kat Edmonson tended to look on the bright side of things when I interviewed her a few weeks ago. Confined to her home for long stretches when the pandemic hit, halfway through a 40-city tour promoting her 2019 Dreamers Do album, she eventually cranked out 66 podcasts, learning how to improvise to canned soundtracks while singing to a cellphone camera. She’s learned as an artist “to love my limitations” and perform at her best in spite of them.

No, her last two albums have been the Dreamers Do concept album, largely of Disney songs, and Holiday Swingin’, subtitled “A Kat Edmonson Christmas, Vol. 1.” So you wouldn’t expect Edmonson’s patter, when she appeared here in Charlotte at the Middle C Jazz Club, to address any of the wars troubling our world – cultural, political, or military. But I didn’t expect her to begin her latenight set with a song as woeful as “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” either, the song that concluded her debut album of 2009, Take to the Sky, in a cappella style.Kat Live Show

She did, accompanied only by her pianist Roy Dunlap on this gig, and it seemed subtly appropriate for this troubled spring. While COVID is temporarily kicked to the curb, there are more than a couple of reasons not to feel cheery and upbeat as the seasons flip. And for a late show, sparse accompaniment and a reflective, rueful mood seemed perfect for the occasion. A surprisingly large percentage of the hundreds of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up” recordings have been made with sparse backing, including my favorite by Carmen McRae, criminally out-of-print for well over 35 years.

I became familiar with the song on Carmen’s 1964 Bittersweet recording, never suspecting that part of its immediate allure could be traced to its inspiration, the opening line of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – “April is the cruellest month” – so revered in my high school and college days. Kat gets points for singing the verse, like Carmen and Ella, and for managing a fresh and pertinent variation on Tommy Wolf’s melody each time the title repeats.

Live at Middle C, Edmonson stretched her recorded arrangement by giving Dunlap a half-chorus interlude midway, but like most interpreters, she didn’t sing the complete song, leaving out three or four of Frances Landesman’s quatrains and discreetly transposing one or two lines. Less of a deep dive into bitterness that way, with Edmonson adding And the Eliot tie-in with her anecdotal epilogue.

Abbreviating the bitterness also made it easier to transition – and flip back a season – to Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “Let It Snow!” from her recent Holiday album. Kat lightened the mood here with a conventional, upbeat arrangement, Dunlap providing the intro and another intermediate half chorus, and the vocalist was obviously in no rush to resume promoting Dreamers Do after more than two years away from touring.

Instead, we seemed to be getting an impromptu concept concert. Once again, Edmonson went way, way back in her discography for “Summertime,” the opening track on her 2008 debut album, Take It to the Sky – yet another seasonal choice. The slimmed-down arrangement began with pretty much the same brooding piano vamp we hear on the studio recording, with Kat sounding markedly less like Billie Holiday in her live version. Freed from merely lurking in the background, Dunlap was able to bring more gravitas to his solo interlude, ably filling in where trombonist Ron Westray played trombone on the CD. Yet after taking her second vocal from the bridge, Edmonson veered into vocalese as she did in the studio, and the duo’s ending was noticeably less funereal.Kat-Edmonson-02192020-7601

Dropping the season concept, Kat still kept her distance from Dreamers Do, but leaping past the two albums that followed her debut, edged us much closer to starlit Disney. “How’s About It Baby” was a surprisingly lighthearted choice from the Old Fashioned Gal release of 2018, retaining much of its tropical island flavor in the singer’s lyric, but Dunlap on piano went fairly wild in near-stride style, replacing the charming swaying-palm charm of the recording’s ukulele with the honkytonk sound of the jazz age.

If this led Kat fanatics to conclude that selections from Dreamers Do were now inevitable, our star made a U-turn, dipping into Take It to the Sky one last time for “Just Like Heaven.” Edmonson’s opening was as discursive as a verse, the bridge seemed to drop us dreamily off-road, and Dunlap’s solo willfully kept us in Dreamland.

Yes, now came the magical moment for Disney. A couple of songs from Dreamers Do – “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “The Second Star to the Right” – made for a worthwhile stay but not a protracted sojourn. Delightfully enough, Edmonson took the tempo up a bit in “A Dream,” giving it a swinging jazzy edge – and giving Dunlap the opportunity to playfully solo in an Errol Garner vein. Even without a rhythm section behind him, Dunlap managed to sound even more rhapsodic here on “Second Star” than he did in the studio on his solo, cresting grandly just as Kat reprised the melody.

Doubling back to Old Fashioned Gal, Edmonson sang two more of her originals, “If” and “Canoe,” in the same order that they appear on that album. Most transformed in her live performance was “If,” a tune inspired by the sound of the Ink Spots, now stripped of the backup vocals on the album – and the old-fashioned flavor of a crooning vocalist breaking through a harmonic haze. Surprisingly enough, the serene reverie of “Canoe” was mischievously disrupted by Dunlap’s stride piano solo, which nearly caught fire before Kat reclaimed control. A little more rowdy and we may have imagined something passionate happening on that little boat!

Maybe half of the remaining songs seemed to be planned as Edmonson opened the show to requests. Folks in the audience weren’t necessarily Kat aficionados or, as devotees of her podcasts dubbed themselves, Dreamers. So, unexpectedly, we heard her sing “My Funny Valentine” and, since she felt insecure with the lyrics of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” aimed to please with “Stardust,” including the verse. Lerner & Loewe’s “On the Street Where You Live” was a sunny excavation from the ‘50s that Kat has never recorded, but Dunlap absolutely reveled in it with a raggy solo that reminded me of Dave Hanna.

Three of Edmonson’s most delicious originals still remained, all from her Way Down Low album of 2012 – and all included in the live set I heard Kat sing at the Savannah Music Festival in 2019. Lowest of these by far was “Nobody Knows That,” with beautifully impressionistic work from Dunlap, which drew a laugh from the audience when the singer disclosed that she wrote the song after a breakup. Maybe I wasn’t the only audience member who found that to be an epic understatement in view of the song’s sweetly forlorn sadness. “Champagne,” looking back on the end of a far briefer and more casual relationship, was that much lighter and more sparkly.Kat Edmonson

A couple of the requests we could hear called at our table, “What a Wonderful World” and “Lucky,” were coyly deferred as Kat shuttled between honoring requests and singing the songs she had planned on for the latter half of her set. Maybe the hesitation on “What a Wonderful World” stemmed from how differently it would emerge live without the celesta and strings that surrounded her in the studio, where it served as the morning awakening at the end of her Dreamers Do scenario.

But the deaf ear she seemed to turn to “Lucky” can likely be attributed to the fact that this audience favorite had been preordained as the closing song before Kat Edmonson first strode onto the Middle C bandstand nearly 90 minutes earlier. Edmonson has repeatedly said that songs come to her wrapped up in other singers’ voices, like The Ink Spots, Nancy Wilson, or Sinatra. For me, “Lucky” is in that special category of really special songs – along with “Rainy Day Woman,” “You Said Enough,” and “What Else Can I Do?” – that are hard to imagine being sung by anyone else but Edmonson.

Charlotte’s Jazz Scene Takes a Big-Name Leap

Review: Bigger Names Are Invading Our Smaller, Club-Sized Venues, Bringing an Overdue World-Class Vibe

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Singer-songwriter Kat Edmonson has performed on Austin City Limits, A Prairie Home Companion, and Letterman. She has sung at Carnegie Hall, the Montreux Jazz Festival, and Blue Note in Japan. Her 2020 concept album, Dreamers Do, topped Billboard’s traditional jazz chart, and she is not a stranger to the Southeast. Edmonson was a featured performer at Spoleto Festival USA in 2014, and I caught her gig at Savannah Music Festival in the spring of 2019.

Amazingly enough, Edmonson has been to the QC on numerous occasions – but not with her band.

“My greatest link to Charlotte,” she tells me in an exclusive interview, “is that my childhood friend – best friend – lives there, and I’ve often been to Charlotte to visit her. But not for any other reason, and I haven’t been to any jazz clubs in town.”

That is changing in a big way. Offering two sets on April 9, Edmonson is near the front of a grand parade of big-name jazz artists who will be marching in and out of the Middle C Jazz Club, playing to newly unmasked, capacity-sized audiences, newly liberated from the pandemic.Delfeayo-Marsalis

We’ve seen some of these players, like Kirk Whalum and Delfeayo Marsalis, before – at special events dating back to JazzCharlotte in the late ‘80s and, more recently, at Charlotte Jazz Festivals presented by Blumenthal Performing Arts. Jazz fans had to satisfy themselves with hoping that these special events, held indoors and outdoors at large venues, would return to us annually with such groovy cargo as Diane Schuur, Dave Brubeck, the Harper Brothers, Maria Muldaur, Renée Marie, and the Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra.Kirk Whalum

Now the big names are playing our smaller venues, creating a more intimate jazz club vibe. Headliners following in Edmonson’s wake at Middle C include Nicole Henry (April 15-16), Joey DeFrancesco (May 20), Jonathan Butler (June 3-4), Delfeayo Marsalis & The Uptown Jazz Orchestra (June 10), Kirk Whalum (July 15-16), Jeff Kashiwa (July 22), Jeff Lorber (September 9-10), and Euge Groove (November 11-12).

“We just had Gerald Albright, and then we just had Norman Brown, and they sold out,” says Middle C club owner Larry Farber. “We’ve got Brubeck Brothers (April 7) coming in, I mean it’s been really, really good. February and March have been our two biggest months since we opened in November 2019. Knock on wood, we’re on an upward trajectory.”

And in case you hadn’t noticed, the Jazz Room just announced their Season 16 – and boy, have they ever upped their game, bringing in such luminaries as Donald Harrison (April 8-9), Emmet Cohen (May 20-21), Jeff Tain Watts (July 8-9), and Pedrito Martinez (September 2-3) to their monthly series at the Blumenthal’s Stage Door Theater.Joey-DeFrancesco

A couple of these headliners, Henry and Martinez, can claim recordings that have now lingered for at least two months on Jazz Week’s chart of most-played albums on jazz radio, both peaking in the top 5; and a couple more, DeFrancesco and Cohen, are in the cumulative top 50 for the past year, with Joey D at the top of the heap.

Who could have imagined such a bounty of talent heading our way, such an upward trajectory, and such jazz jubilation just a year ago? We were smack in the middle of our COVID tribulations, more spikes in illnesses and deaths still on the horizon, with so many businesses around the country gasping for air.

“We were off and flying before the pandemic,” Farber recalls. “I think the pandemic became a catalyst. Because people then had to wait months and years to get back out, so I think now all this pent-up demand, in addition to what we already knew was going to be a demand in the market, gave us a double boost, and it’s really propelled us in a big way.”

Everywhere, artists and presenters were in survival mode after the abrupt shutdowns of March 2020. Farber and his business partners, including sons Reid and Adam, were forced to shut down completely for two months. When Middle C reopened in May, it was because they were the only jazz venue in town that could be classified as a restaurant.

Even so, state guidelines only allowed the Farbers to seat 60-70 patrons, a far cry from the inventory of 170-180 tickets they’re pre-selling now for their highest-profile attractions. To keep their doors open, they would have to delay booking big-name talent – and defer their dream of giving Charlotte the world-class jazz club they felt we deserved.

Edmonson, meanwhile, had been in the middle of a 40-city tour promoting Dreamers Do when everything shut down. Her hibernation was even more stifling professionally, but eventually, she was able to open an amazing window to bridge the gulf between the petite singer and her devoted fans. It was a weekly podcast, The Kat Edmonson Show, and it ultimately logged 66 episodes through last December, when her valedictory Christmas show, tethered to her latest Christmas album, drew an arena-sized crowd of 12,000 viewers.

With a barebones production originating in her living room in front of a cellphone camera, Edmonson found that her show not only sustained her connection with her fans, it actually strengthened it. The new medium offered unexpected advantages.

“I was able to reach them more readily and more regularly than I did even when I toured!” Edmonson exults. “On a tour, I go to one place and maybe I’ll come back two years later. In this case, I was able to reach my people once a week for an hour and a half.”

If you watch any of the archived episodes on YouTube, you can see Kat’s secret sauce working in real-frozen-replayable time. Many, many of the people tuning in to her show leave their marks in a column of chats, varying in length, that frequently scroll down the right side of the screen while Edmonson sings – and Kat interacts with these texts, acknowledging her followers by name and city, responding randomly, between songs and in the middle of them, to people who are new to the show and to those she recognizes from previous powwows.

“We all got to know one another in a really wonderful way, and eventually we were all remarking about how much it was like going to camp or something – like a campfire!” Edmonson recalls. “We would look forward to the Sunday meeting where we could all reconvene and talk about our week, on what’s ahead, and what was going on in our lives. The group that would tune in ultimately voted to name themselves because they felt like we were all part of a club. They suggested different names, and they voted for ‘The Dreamers.’ So when I go out now to play shows, people come up and say, ‘I’m a Dreamer!’ That’s really fun.”

Since Dreamers is largely a collection of Disney songs from the past century, obviously dating back all the way to Snow White (1937), maybe the Edmonson Show groupies should have named themselves the Kat-keteers, like Mickey Mouse Club members of yesteryear. Edmonson certainly hasn’t forgotten her fans’ loyalty, for in her mind, she is picking up the Dreamers Do tour that was abruptly halted two years ago. Dreamers who show up at 300 S. Brevard Street for one of Edmonson’s Middle C sets will hear plenty from that beloved album that has bonded them.

And they’ll be in two clubs at the same time. Watching multiple dreams come true.

Singing in a karaoke-like format to pre-recorded tracks set down by her long-time pianist Roy Dunlap, schmoozing between songs about her upcoming plans, dressed down and sporting a headset, Edmonson would often look away from viewers of The Kat Edmonson Show to catch up with her chat feed, taking requests as well as names, changing her prepared songlist on-the-fly. Definitely a funky, low-budget look and feel.Jeff_Lorber

Farber didn’t have the luxury of taking a low-budget road during Middle C’s semi-hibernation. A Charlotte native, his jazz memories go all the way back to Jonathan’s Jazz Cellar, which pre-dated the brief flowering of JazzCharlotte. After witnessing the recent success of the QC’s monthly jazz series, the Jazz Room series piloted by Lonnie Davis and the Jazz at the Bechtler Museum series led by saxophonist Ziad Rabie, Farber felt that Charlotte, a world-class city, deserved a full-time, for-profit, seven-shows-a-week jazz venue.

That was his bucket-list dream. Even before the pandemic, Farber sensed sufficient interest around town to make it all come true.

“We invested over $1 million to bring the best venue, the best sound system, and to make this all about music,” he says. “I’m lucky to have an investor group that’s not interested in seeking an 18 to 20% return as much as building for the future. And we’re doing that by reinvesting our profits in the talent.”

The model that the Farbers are activating is a schedule that will bring us 60-70% regional talent and 30-40% big names. So we’re probably talking 2-3 shows with big names in the weekly lineup of seven ticketed events. Like Edmonson, Middle C found that livestreaming was a useful tool in coping with COVID restrictions, opening a window that could potentially yield new recruits to their music.

“Best free marketing tool ever!” he quips.

As a revenue stream, streaming is only a trickle according to Farber, but it will provide fans of the big names a fresh avenue of access when tables and booths sell out. Middle C has been more preoccupied with enhancing the experience on site at the tables and making it appealing to a wider audience. Farber boasts a great bar menu and estimates 20 small plates and desserts to choose from on his menu – about triple what was being served before the 2020 shutdown.

That’s targeting a vibe like such Manhattan hotspots as Dizzy’s, the Blue Note, and Smoke – and not like the legendary Village Vanguard, the quintessential jazz cellar. Audacious and enterprising.

“What we’ve brought to Charlotte is unique,” Farber says, “and I think we’ve now become one of the biggest jazz names on the East Coast.”

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Edmonson has also gone beyond podcasting in widening her horizons over the past two years. Most of the songs she sang on her podcasts were originals she hasn’t recorded yet. There are drawers full of notebooks yet to be mined, and the songwriter claims to have written her first song at the age of nine, giving her about 28 years to pad her inventory. Some of those song will be in the mix at Middle C, along with others from Dreamers Do and recordings she made before 2020.

Kat dramatically broke out of her pop princess, Disney jazzer, and podcasting queen cocoons by appearing recently off-off-Broadway in The Hang, an edgy Taylor Mac musical, drawing reviews that parallel her past recording and concert triumphs. Aside from a year of study under the live oaks at the College of Charleston, Edmonson also graduated after two years at The William Esper Studio in New York City, where she studied the Meisner acting method.

So yes, Edmonson is eyeing possible opportunities in TV, film, and even straight plays. But no, when her style is described as absorbing the recordings of Blossom Dearie, Billie Holiday, or even country crooners like Patsy Cline, expect Edmonson to repudiate any such artifice – and to push back a little if you try to pigeonhole her as a jazz singer.

“It’s just me,” she says when accused of a persona. “I know that I’m forthcoming. I can be disarming. I know that about me. I come in this very petite package. I would seem demure, but I am actually very straightforward and opinionated, and I think I affect people in that way. Meanwhile, quite friendly. And I don’t mince words! I say what I mean, and I sing what I mean. Nothing ambiguous. You know, when I meet someone, I like to look them in the eye, and I think I perform that way.”

Yet after watching a full Kat podcast and speaking with her for over 40 minutes, I was able to find a label that Edmonson allowed to stick.

“Do you want to be Peter Pan someday on stage?”

“Oh, I’d love it!” she instantly exclaimed. “Yes, there is no mistaking – and incidentally, I’ll be performing a song from Peter Pan in my set! You know, in the play I was recently in, I was cast as a fairy, and I sort of have that persona. Yes, I do.”

“Women in Jazz” Bops and Enlightens, A Giant Step in Resuming the QC’s Nightlife

Review: JazzArts Charlotte Presents “Women in Jazz”

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 17, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Aside from the mix of masked and unmasked concertgoers, the revocation of social distancing, ushers who skipped over asking for my proof of vaccination, and the absence of masked musicians onstage, the most gladdening indication that nightlife in Charlotte is returning to normal may be the three-day Women in Jazz residency at the Stage Door Theater. The JazzArts Charlotte celebration of Women’s History Month, paused by the global pandemic in March 2020, emphatically hit the play button – with a completely new guest lineup – to the delight of a nearly full house. Memories of the isolation, quarantines, and lockdowns imposed upon us by COVID weren’t totally erased, since one of the musicians, Francesca Remigi, was a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled drummer, Allison Miller, absent due to illness.2022~Women in Jazz-07

My wife Sue and I were nearly absent as well, due to St. Patrick’s Day traffic and a 21-minute delay on I-77 induced by a crash, but radio personality Curtis Davenport, emceeing with his usual verve, had enough to say to prevent us from missing any of the music. Leading the female quartet, pianist Ellen Rowe had plenty to say in her own right, and persistently solicited questions from the audience, dispensing with the all-too prevalent assumption that people at a jazz concert must all be aficionados. Rowe was wonderfully in tune with the idea of a residency, not merely providing the title of every song but also some info about it. No hipster “of course that was…” codas after any of the tunes, a refreshing change.

This approach jibed with the discreetly educational vibe of the Jazz Room series and with the JazzArts mission. While the ambiance at the Stage Door is very much like a jazz club when JazzArts invades, the walls sport poster-sized photos of jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, and a big screen monitor suspended behind the bandstand presents a slideshow of other jazz greats – not so quickly that it becomes distracting. At Women in Jazz, hardly a man was onscreen, the slides presenting a potpourri of influential woman, from pianist Mary Lou Williams and trombonist Melba Liston, way back when, to today’s Artemis supergroup.2022~Women in Jazz-24

Downstage on the bandstand, saxophonist Sharel Cassity was a dominant presence, playing both alto and soprano. Yet she tilted toward alto, especially in the heritage and tribute pieces, bending toward the higher instrument when she played on Rowe’s originals. Upstage, bassist Marion Hayden didn’t simply make the trip to recede demurely into the background, as we could have assumed when all three bandmates drew solo space on the opening “Kenny’s Quest,” a bopping tribute to contemporary altoist Kenny Garrett. The be-bop continued on “All the Things You Are,” Rowe supplying its Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie context while explaining how she inverted Gillespie’s famed preamble in her arrangement. Here Hayden not only set the tone with the inverted intro, she actively lurked after Cassity launched the familiar Jerome Kern melody and, following the full three-chorus solos from Rowe and Cassity, added three eloquent choruses of her own, firmly establishing that she would be part of the evening’s conversation.2022~Women in Jazz-06

Hayden was part of the framework on the bop staple that followed as well, spelling Cassity at the bridge in introducing the melody and reprising that role in the out-chorus. By this time, it was apparent how brilliantly Cassity could burn on alto, drawing a few delighted exclamations from the crowd. So we were curious to learn what kind of flame she could ignite when she picked up her soprano sax. Unfortunately, the first two originals that she played on that instrument, Rowe’s “Sylvan Way” and “Defractions,” didn’t require her to turn up the tempo or the heat, and on Rowe’s “Phoenix” – proving, according to the composer, that she could write a happy tune – Cassity didn’t get enough blowing time to achieve lift-off. But her tone and lyricism on soprano were gorgeous, true to Rowe’s prevailing New Age flavor, sounding more comfortable when confined to the melody than she was on alto.

Rowe’s style was rather chameleonic when she played. On “Kenny’s Quest” and Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move,” her shuttling between light-fingered and heavily percussive passages hinted at a wisp of McCoy Tyner influence. After the latter gem, she hoped that at least the bandstand moved. When we reached Oscar Pettiford’s “Blues in the Closet,” where everyone excelled, including Remigi at her drumkit, Rowe seemed to be channeling a slew of ‘50s keyboard greats, Bud Powell or John Lewis when she frolicked with her right hand in the treble, Red Garland or Erroll Garner when she switched to two-fisted block chords. I was afraid that Cassity’s performance of the melody would go without the wonderful harmony Pettiford wrote for it, so I found myself singing it at one point. But Rowe came to the rescue, and thankfully, I could shut up.

Absent in 2020, Nnenna Freelon Offers a Heartfelt Raincheck

Review: Jazz @ the Bechtler Presents Nnenna Freelon

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 4, 2022, Charlotte, NC – We hadn’t seen or heard Nnenna Freelon singing in Charlotte for over four years before she returned for two shows with the Ziad Jazz Quartet last week, her latest Jazz at the Bechtler concert. The interval would have been just over two years if Freelon had appeared as scheduled at the Bechtler series’ all-star 10th anniversary celebration on January 3, 2020. While it’s tempting to assume that Freelon’s cancellation was part of her grieving process in the wake of her husband’s death of ALS the previous July, the six-time Grammy Award nominee had already gone into the recording studio in October 2019. The album that emerged from that stage of her grief processing, Time Traveler, was eventually released last May, so it could have come to us two years ago as the core of her canceled gig at the Bechtler, a nice little scoop for us.

Not to worry, after a bopping “Just Friends” warmup from his quartet, Ziad Rabie was now able to introduce Freelon as a seven-time Grammy nominee, with the outcome of her latest nomination for Time Traveler to be announced in Vegas on April 3. And there was also a scoop: Freelon will soon be inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, alongside such greats as Nina Simone, James Taylor, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Kate Smith, Loonis McGlohon, and Roberta Flack. The theme of Time Traveler was certainly evident in the concluding set we heard at 8:15, for it was doubly a time capsule, packaging songs we could have heard two years back at the originally-scheduled 10th anniversary gig alongside songs we did hear in November 2017.

There was nothing sneaky or accidental about the repeats, though Freelon didn’t point them out. As before, Freelon led off with her uptempo “Nature Boy,” rewriting the lyrics with a feminist twist the second time around after a searing soprano sax solo from Rabie. The ending was also the same, a “Moon River” that started off unusually mournful, hit a swinging midtempo, and eventually heated up to exultation. In a fascinating way, this questing read of “Moon River” merged Freelon’s time capsules together, for in 2017, she sang it as a tribute to two recently departed jazz greats, singer Al Jarreau and pianist Geri Allen, and she recorded it almost two years later as a tribute to her husband, famed architect Phil Freelon, who had designed Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro.

2022~Nnenna Freelon-01Did the audience give Freelon and bassist Ron Brendle a standing ovation for their deep, mesmerizing duet on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” because they recalled it fondly from 2017 – or because it was so achingly lovely and poignant now? Also back from 2017 was Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” with drummer Al Sergel navigating the transitions back and forth from Freelon’s waltzy 3/4 time to Rabie’s break-loose solo on tenor sax in a fleet 4/4 tempo. These non-lunar reprises were all from Freelon’s Homefree album of 2010, and so was her slowed-down and bluesy “I Feel Pretty,” complete with her 2017 exhortation to the men in the audience to sing out the title line, because we needed to answer for nearly all the ugliness in our world. Notwithstanding #MeToo, probably truer in 2022 than before.

Despite its aching moments striving to reach across “Moon River,” Time Traveler remembers and celebrates love far more than it bemoans loss. Aside from versions of the title composition, two tracks address the main theme, Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” and Jule Styne’s “Time After Time,” the one Freelon elected to bring to the Bechtler. Freelon repeated and obsessed over the title in a concluding cadenza that was every bit as ardent as her studio version, if not more so. Solos between the vocals, pianist Noel Freidline floating gracefully over Brendle’s bass, enhanced the soulfulness. But the album isn’t simply celebratory or sentimental, for Freelon gave Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” a performance that was as down-to-earth as her spoken intro, confessing that she had no idea what she had said “I do” to at the altar when she and Phil were wed.2022~Nnenna Freelon-11

Always gorgeous, Freelon’s voice seems to be acquiring more varied textures. Up high, the Ella Fitzgerald sass is often joined with a Dinah Washington grit; and below, the Roberta Flack sensuousness occasionally gives way to a Carmen McRae worldliness and wisdom. The Freelon original, “Just You,” lost a little of its righteous gospel flavor in transitioning from the studio, where an organ and a guitar imparted a churchly tang, to the Bechtler’s lobby, where neither instrument was in attendance, though Rabie supplied superb fills on soprano sax. But a dominant motif of Freelon’s Time Traveler tribute is simply a return to songs that recapture the 1970’s, when the Phil-Nnenna romance first bloomed. Aside from “Time in a Bottle,” which serves double duty, Freelon revisits the ‘70s with Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” the Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” and a Marvin Gaye medley.

Nnenna testified at the Bechtler to Phil’s adoration of “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” further evidence that he was a Stylistics fan, but he obviously wasn’t alone. Enhancing the studio version, Freelon was able to call upon the Bechtler audience to sing along with her on the refrain. Here the live instrumentation meshed almost perfectly with the studio performance as Freidline radically altered his piano timbre from acoustic to electric and Rabie more than ably substituted for Kirk Whalum in adding a smooth jazz vibe. As with “Moon River,” facets of Freelon’s concept came magnificently together. After remembering the 2017 Bechtler playlist by repeating some of it, she was giving us a raincheck on a hit she could have brought us in 2020, remembering her departed husband by singing a song they both loved. Through the mystery of music, we were singing along with Nnenna, joining her ritual of remembering Phil, while evoking memories of our own.

Noel Freidline and Jon Metzger Deftly Distill the Essence of MJQ

Review: Noel Freidline Jazz Quartet @ St. Alban’s

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celtic, classic, folk, and jazz – the Music @ St. Alban’s concert series at the acoustically splendid Episcopal church in Davidson has embraced a wide variety of music over the years. So it was interesting to observe their welcoming approach to resuming live performances after an abbreviated season of online events. For their first concert of 2021-22, the Noel Freidline Quartet’s tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, St. Alban’s requested that all audience members be fully vaccinated and wear masks throughout the performance. No vaccination cards were checked at the entrance, while the series website invited anyone who wasn’t vaccinated to enjoy the live-stream of the concert – a trusting, responsible, and inclusive approach.

Any exploration of the Modern Jazz Quartet must begin with the special MJQ instrumentation and sound. Formed in 1952, MJQ always centered around its pianist-composer-arranger John Lewis and vibraphonist Milt Jackson, whose interplay and musical rapport were legendary. By 1955, the formula and sound congealed as percussionist Connie Kay and bassist Percy Heath replaced their flashier, starrier predecessors, Kenny Clarke and Ray Brown. The Freidline combo featured Jon Metzger playing the vibraphone, Rick Dior on drums, Zack Page on bass, and the leader at the keyboard. Clearly, it was Freidline and Metzger who cooked up the program between them, since Dior replaced the drummer originally announced on our events calendar. As for Page, Freidline exposed his unfamiliarity with the bassist when he presumed that none of the other musicians onstage was familiar with “Rose Room”: Page not only knew the tune, he had played it with his twin brother, guitarist Andy Page, in a “Gypsy Jazz” tribute to Django Reinhardt less than two years ago at Charlotte’s Stage Door Theater.

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Freidline and Metzger were savvier in their sampling of the MJQ legacy, which stretched over 40 years and 50 recordings. They played compositions that are musts for anyone coming to this music for the first time, including Lewis’s classically sophisticated “Django” and “Vendôme,” offset by Jackson’s funkier “Bluesology” and “Bags’ Groove.” There were also discriminating choices like “Concorde,” perhaps Lewis’s most challenging composition, and standards such as “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” “All the Things You Are” and “Summertime,” that crystallized the pianist’s arranging genius. The rest of the selections were less expected, almost equally fresh for longtime MJQ fans as they were for neophytes, including “Afternoon in Paris,” “Autumn in New York,” “Delauney’s Dilemma,” and “Blues in C Minor.”

One of the characteristics that made MJQ so unique was their pioneering conservatism. They preferred outdoor festivals and concert halls to seedy clubs, dressed up for their performances in matching tuxedos like orchestra musicians, and insisted on being listened to rather than being taken for granted as dance or background music. For a long while, these practices, not terribly outré nowadays, were viewed as outlandish and pretentious. Less notorious, but no less innovative, was their practice of offering spoken intros to each of their pieces as they performed. Freidline, without self-consciously noting MJQ’s influence, adopted this practice himself.

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Beginning with “Afternoon in Paris,” probably Lewis’s earliest jazz standard, the Freidline Quartet made it evident that there would be some give-and-take in terms of their replication of the MJQ sound and style. If you had ever heard the quartet live – or spent hours and hours of quality time with their most revered albums – the sound of Metzger playing his Musser vibraphone repeatedly seemed to bring the playing of Milt “Bags” Jackson back to life. Metzger’s tremolo may not have been as slow, and his sustains may not have been quite as long or rich, but the Jackson swing and flow kept on coming – chiming – wave after luscious wave.

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As a leader, Freidline doled out far more spotlight to his supporting players than Lewis, trading four-bar improvisations with Dior toward the end of the opening piece and giving Page a solo on the ensuing “Bluesology,” where Metzger sounded even more like Jackson in playing on the legendary vibes master’s famed composition. Freidline, on the other hand, was nowhere near as trim or spare in his soloing as Lewis, sounding more like Dave Brubeck at the keyboard, full chords showering down at times from both hands rather than single note phrases. It wasn’t until we reached “Summertime,” whose silences Freidline extolled in his charming intro, that the pianist came near to echoing Lewis’s single-note soloing style, which always contrasted so beautifully with Jackson’s deluges.

Lewis was not at all discarded otherwise, for Freidline delighted in playing the pianist’s arrangements framing the MJQ’s interpretations of the standards, and when it came to “Concorde” and “Vendôme,” presenting Lewis’s own compositions as written. Perhaps the most eloquent moment in Freidline’s intro to “Concorde” was when he held out its nine pages of sheet music and allowed it to unfold down to the floor. So we heard the Bach-like layering that opens “Concorde,” the contrapuntal prelude that gives way to “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” and the solemn chiming that leads us in and out of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” The most outrageous heresy of the concert, when Dior brandished sticks and played a full-out solo on “La Ronde,” wasn’t a heresy at all, for the group wasn’t referencing the hallowed European Concert version of 1960, featuring bassist Heath. They were hearkening back instead to the first MJQ recording, when Kenny Clarke was behind the drum kit wailing away in “La Ronde” from beginning to end – and soloing – on December 22, 1952.

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The tribute within the tribute, Lewis’s “Django,” was the highlight of the concert for me, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member who was moved by the composer’s hushed and sacred framing of the solos. Metzger was perfection in handling the transition between the bittersweet melody and the accelerated improvisations lavished upon it, turning the lament into a quiet celebration and making the lament all the more poignant as the Romani guitarist’s signature swing was wistfully evoked. Page had his best moments of the afternoon as he eloquently soloed, and Freidline was no less perfect than Metzger in his soloing and decelerating back to the mournful melody. Every note of this fine concert is preserved on YouTube.

Maria Howell Torches the Triumphant Return of Jazz at the Bechtler

Review: Maria Howell and the Ziad Jazz Quartet

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Among music presenters in Charlotte, tenor saxophonist Ziad Rabie and his Jazz at the Bechtler series were among the first to swing back into action and move their concerts online, “virtually” intact, after the onset of the pandemic last March. Others, including Charlotte Symphony and JazzArts, have returned sooner to live performance, but the Bechtler has insouciantly kept chugging along, finishing its 2020-21 season of first Friday events back in May as they normally would – just before Symphony returned indoors and, like JazzArts, summered in the open air. Retaining his poise, Rabie has brought his quartet, along with popular guest artist Maria Howell, back to the Bechtler right on time for a new season. Ticketing was paperless, proofs of vaccination demanded outdoors before we entered the museum, and masks required unless you were eating or drinking. Lines to the bar, where assorted hors d’oeuvres were also offered, seemed longer than usual, clearly hinting that the audience knew an escape clause when they saw one.

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Starting off with a hot blues, with pianist Noel Freidline and bassist Ron Brendle soloing zestfully after him, Rabie hardly needed to tell us how happy he was to be performing for a live audience again after 18 months. Ripping aside a flame-red mask studded with glitter or rhinestones as she stepped onstage to join the quartet, Howell seemed simpatico with the quartet’s blazing opener, launching into Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” over Rabie’s obbligato. Turning up the wickedness a couple of notches from the Kinsey Report referenced in Porter’s lyric, Howell and the Ziad Quartet went for the jugular with “Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah),” a crowdpleaser since 1924, with Friedline and Rabie soloing between Howell’s ornery vocals.

After such a raunchy romp, the band must have figured that this was the best moment to ease down to a ballad tempo, and “My Ship” was the most luscious in the set, its wondrous Kurt Weill melody nearly matched by Ira Gershwin’s lyric. Friedline switched to a more precious electronic cocktail-hour sound at the keyboard, and Rabie contributed an eloquent half-chorus after Howell’s vocal, ferrying her back to the bridge. None of the songs that followed would be quite so slow, but Howell modulated deftly between mid and uptempo selections, increasing the pace for Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” to a genial lope and leaving plenty of space for Freidline and Rabie to frolic. The pianist pranced around on the keys in a manner that recalled Erroll Garner in his intro and solo, and Rabie seemed to catch the same vibe as I had, slipping a few notes from “Misty” into his solo.

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With fair warning that we would need to be alert to keep up with the blur of lyrics (by Johnny Mercer, it turned out), Howell and the quartet went willfully against the grain by red-lining Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned,” speeding through two choruses in quick order. Freidline and Rabie took two choruses apiece before Howell’s reprise, the pianist more mischievously by tossing in a snatch of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” to cement his old-fashioned credentials. Ably lurking behind and propelling the combo until this point, drummer Al Sergel asserted himself emphatically here, slowing the tempo for Howell’s winsome climax.

If you keep up with Howell’s discography, you know that Freidline is as much her collaborator as the Ziad Quartet’s, so it wasn’t shocking to see Rabie handing over the stage to Howell and the rhythm section for two or three songs. The first of these was customized by Freidline for Howell, a mashup of The Shirelles hit (by Carole King), “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and Chicago’s considerably less-distinguished “Love Me Tomorrow,” which the singer mercifully devoted less time to. Freidline himself seemed to be more inspired by Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” after Brendle triggered the groove on bass, and Howell did full justice to the Truman Capote lyric. The wit of Freidline’s quote from “Teach Me Tonight” was only faintly apropos four songs after Howell had referenced Nancy Wilson, but the connection between his snippet from “Honeysuckle Rose” and Howell’s “Bee” was plain enough.

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Rabie’s return coincided with the most orgiastic arrangement so far, a mashup of two Bill Withers hits, “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us.” Here the balance was quite exquisite, for Howell clearly relished “Lovely Day,” which framed the medley, while Rabie had far more to say on “Just the Two of Us,” with two fiery rants. From here, the concert moved to higher and highest ground for Howell’s final two selections. With Freidline switching to a more organ-like sound behind his Yamaha, Howells dug into “Unchain My Heart” as a tribute to Ray Charles, adding a little gospel tang to its rhythm-and-blues. Eager to take wing, Rabie and Freidline both played fills under Howell’s vocal, the saxophonist taking the first solo before the keyboardist sermonized. After Howell revisited the lyric, her entire congregation joined in a rousing concluding riff.

Famous as a James Bond theme song popularized by Carly Simon, Marvin Hamlisch’s “Nobody Does It Better” is so closely identified with Simon’s 1977 single that the power ballad, with lyric by Carol Bayer Sager, has scarcely spawned any jazz covers. Just by being markedly different from the chart-topping hit, Howell’s version was something of a revelation as she positively torched what is usually an aching anthem. Rabie’s solo also revealed the ripeness of this melody for jazz improvisation, and the incantatory ending tacked on by Howell, her quartet jamming behind her, brought her audience spontaneously to their feet. It was an auspicious evening at the Bechtler, a triumph we could joyously cheer.

JazzArts Crowns Summer at Victoria Yards With an Epic Triple-Tiered Concert

Reviews: Robyn Springer and Dreamroot

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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As the second year of the pandemic lumbers past the halfway mark and cultural life begins to migrate back indoors – along with our sacrificial schoolchildren – we can only wonder whether outdoor venues like Rivers Green in Charleston and Victoria Yards in Charlotte, pressed by necessity into emergency use, will ever be utilized again on the other side of our global nightmare. At first blush, Rivers Green might have seemed to hold more promise, nestled on a picturesque site behind the College of Charleston library. But with more flexible seating, picnic tables, and provisions for food trucks and restrooms surrounding concertgoers, the more urban Victoria Yards offers a more casual and welcoming experience – and a more sophisticated sound system.

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All of these factors came into play as JazzArts presented a three-tiered event as its 2021 outdoor finale. The JazzArts Youth All-Stars warmed up for the Dreamroot quintet from Durham, who in turn made way for hometown vocalist Robyn Springer – with saxophonist Adrian Crutchfield leading a mini-set before her regal entrance. Nearly three hours long, with two generous intermissions, this robust program was in no hurry to send us home, as so many misguided live and online events have been over the past 17 months. Instead of cowering from COVID, JazzArts offered us extra helpings of escape and joy.

 

Covering such standards as “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “On Green Dolphin Street” while mixing in a couple of originals, Holland Majors was the dominant member of the Youth All-Stars trio – and its spokesman from the keyboard. Holland’s younger sister, Lois Majors, accompanied on the upright bass, making her most impactful contribution as composer of the first original. Upstage behind his drum kit, Samuel David shone brightest in the latter portion of the set, on “Green Dolphin Street” and the original blues that served as the closer. That as-yet-untitled tune was unexpectedly swift and hard-driving for a blues, climaxed by an extended exchange of four-bar volleys from the drummer and the keyboardist. Holland’s sound on the electronic piano was also more satisfying at this point, preferable to the saccharine timbre he often opted for in the early portions of the set.

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Beginning with woodwind player Serena Wiley, who also sings and composes the band’s spoken word segments, Dreamroot is a richly gifted quintet, weaving between commercial and artistic aspirations rather than exploring their trailblazing potential. With less time to stretch out on her flute and tenor saxophone solos, Wiley wasn’t as impressive or technically advanced in her improvisations as Lynn Grissett on his honey-toned trumpet solos. While Grissett delivered the most satisfying individual playing, keyboardist Joe MacPhail frustrated me the most – with the sparsity of his output. After erupting into a spacey, cosmic solo and setting the tone in “Habits,” the second piece of the set, MacPhail only surfaced intermittently afterwards in the soloing.

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Most of the tunes were unannounced, but I filled in gaps with Dreamroot’s 2020 recording, Phases, thanks to Spotify and Wiley’s poetry. Positive ID and spelling were obtained in this manner for three of the songs, “Momentum 7,” “Stridin’,” and “Good Morning Afternoon.” Among the instrumentals, Wiley announced “2AM” from the stage, a mellow ensemble akin to “Good Morning Afternoon” with its slow tempo and rich harmonies. The bopping penultimate tune was “Phase Is,” the closing piece on their similarly named album. Since that studio date, they’ve improved the arrangement and given drummer Theous Jones a much greater opportunity to shine.

With less of a footprint on the major streaming services, Springer was more of an enigma before she performed. Previous blips of her on our radar were both part of JazzArts presentations, a couple of songs as a guest artist in a Matt Lemmler tribute to Stevie Wonder in 2019 and a prerecorded “Santa Baby” (with notably less distinguished backup) in an online Holiday Edition last December. What Springer would program when she was the headliner seemed to be completely up for grabs, though the introductory set led by Crutchfield and a quartet that included two percussionists and an electric guitar presaged a smooth jazz flavor. Our host, Curtis Davenport, priming us to greet the headliner with a rousing ovation, conveyed to us that Ms. Springer intended to “sang,” which implied that there would be some heat involved.

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Among the most familiar songs Springer and her bandmates covered were “Give Me the Night,” “Moondance,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Lovely Day,” “I Can’t Help It,” and “I Believe in Love,” all of which are over 40 years old. So it may have seemed odd to those in the crowd who reached puberty in the current millennium when Springer archly asked if it would be okay to sing an “old” song before launching into the more ancient “Fever,” in the revised version introduced by Miss Peggy Lee back in 1958. At this inopportune time, since the cat was already out of the proverbial bag, Springer hilariously insisted that it was the song and not she who was old. Sade’s “Keep Looking” soon followed, perhaps the youngest song in the set, released in 1988.

 

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True to her word, Springer made each of these standards her own. Particularly savvy were the inclusions of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’” and “Fever,” each of which comes equipped with stanza breaks that provided Crutchfield and guitarist Joe Lindsay convenient spaces to blow. Part of an all-star Jazz at the Bechtler anniversary celebration just a couple of months before the pandemic struck, Crutchfield blazed most memorably in the interstices of “Moondance” and “Fever.” There was no shortage of voltage from the alto sax on “Knockin’,” but Lindsay, whom I’d never seen or heard of before, absolutely upstaged him on a searing solo that even left Springer gasping in wonderment when he was done. Both soloists excelled equally on “Lovely Day” and afterwards supplied the familiar backup vocals as Springer scatted and vamped to the finish.

Under the lights, everyone onstage was enjoying the show as much as the audience, though the temperature remained in the 80s well after the sun set. Crutchfield was particularly loose by the time we reached “Keep Looking.” As Springer’s vocal gradually built to a boil over Lindsay’s intensifying lines and the seething percussion of Shamon Scull and Corey Johnson, Crutchfield spiced the festivities with capricious snippets from Bizet’s Carmen.