Category Archives: Jazz

Outdoor Spoleto Headliners Beat the Heat

Review: Spoleto Jazz at the Cistern Yard

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Under the circumstances, a graceful save.

Torrid Times on Charleston Streets and Spoleto Stages

Reviews: Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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What’s hot at Spoleto Festival USA this year? By far the hottest is the Charleston weather, stringing together multiple record-breaking 100℉ days, absolutely unprecedented for the month of May. Upstaged by the heat, the next hottest trend is theatre.

Hard to say why, but at this year’s Spoleto, the trend is toward more theatre presentations and less opera. Even the lone opera, Richard Strauss’s edgy Salome, has a theatrical flair. We hear German sung in a modernized production that transports us from King Herod’s biblical-era palace to a swank rooftop soiree at a luxury high-rise. Yet the libretto adheres faithfully to the original tragedy, so it’s like reading the Oscar Wilde text on supertitles while the action unfolds. More about the body heat later.

When all is done on June 9, six different companies will have presented eight different stage works at various venues across Charleston, including two world premieres and a US premiere. From what we could see, the expanded number of choices was spurring ticket sales rather than diluting them, for at Gaillard Center, Memminger Auditorium, Dock Street Theatre, the Emmett Robinson Theatre, and the Woolfe Street Playhouse, my wife Sue and I encountered sellout or near-capacity houses. Even during midweek.

That applies even more intensely to the one production we couldn’t see, Target Margin Theater’s Pay No Attention to the Girl. All six performances of that show were sold out weeks before it arrived.

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World premiere or not, 1927’s Roots was hardly a leap of faith, since Spoleto has featured writer Suzanne Andrade and her company’s work before, beginning with Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in 2008 and more recently with The Animals and Children Took to the Streets in 2012 and Golem in 2016. If you’ve never seen Andrade and 1927 at work before, it will be helpful to know that silent film and Lemony Snicket are their creative lodestars.

If Andrade wanted you to know that, she would have titled her new show A Series of Unfortunate Folktales, Anecdotes, and Myths. She couldn’t be nearly as coy about her silent film inspiration, for Paul Barritt’s animations, projected onto the upstage wall at Emmett Robinson, were charmingly integrated into each of the 10 stories that Andrade told – using unseen storytellers’ voices rather than the silent actors we see onstage.

Blocking was very precise when Andrade and the other three actors stood in front of the upstage wall, synchronizing their actions with Barritt’s silent movie. Integration is easier when actors walk through doorways cut into the wall or peep through boxy little windows. The latter effect was probably most enjoyable in the opening tale of a Fat Cat who begins his cosmic rampage by eating a maid’s porridge in her absence – and goes on to bigger, badder things. While the feline’s body is Barritt’s domain, Andrade or the equally adorable Esme Appleton peeps through the wall to become its conspicuously unferocious face.

Both Andrade and Appleton don 1927’s customary whiteface, making it difficult to tell them apart. Neither of them has much use for facial expression, their silent style favoring Buster Keaton more than Charlie Chaplin.

Students of literature could recognize two of Andrade’s other tales, for the King and his pathologically loyal wife Griselda are clearly on loan from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale. The tale of the two copulating snakes and their surprising effect on the person who observes them dates back to Greek myth and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Andrade’s cover was blown on that source when a chamber music program over at Dock Street Theatre featured Doug Balliett’s Echo and Narcissus, where all was revealed about how Teiresias happened to become the world’s best judge of whether men or women enjoy sex more.

Andrade’s concluding tale could itself be called “Roots,” since what happens to two siblings plotting to escape grandma’s dominion is clearly a vegetative intervention. 1927 Doug Balliett’seems to take a wicked delight in showing us that fairy tales aren’t always fair or happily-ever-after. The straight-faced soulfulness of the company made that delight fatally and deliciously contagious.

Shakespeare’s Globe, long an outdoor theatre fixture on the London scene, made their Spoleto debut at Dock Street in 2015 with the most affecting Romeo and Juliet that I’ve ever seen. Sadly, none of the actors or directors involved in that triumph have returned. What’s most recognizably Globe is the feel of their eight-person troupe and their approach to the Bard. They aren’t merely actors, for before our plays begin, they prove to be reasonably capable musicians!

Eleven of the 20 performances are pre-ordained, divvied up between the three plays that Globe has brought to Dock Street this year – Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Pericles. The other nine shows of Globe’s run are “Audience Choice,” with the troupe at the service of the ticketholders’ will, expressed in a voice vote. Like the London Globe, scenery doesn’t change much. But costumes definitely do.

As Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, moves from Antioch to Tarsus to Pentapolis to Ephesus and to Mytilene, costumes become very useful in keeping us informed on where we are, whether we’ve landed at someplace new, or we’ve circled back to a previous king and country. Pericles’ troubles and wanderings begin when he ventures to solve a riddle to win the hand of the King of Antioch’s daughter. Death is the stated penalty for failing to solve the riddle, and death would be equally inevitable if Pericles proclaimed the solution in public – revealing that King Antiochus is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

Since most people aren’t as familiar with Pericles as they are with Romeo and Juliet, when Pericles flees for his life from Antioch to Tyre, then sails on to Tarsus to elude Antiochus’s hired assassin, our hero may not only be leaving his pursuer in the dust but also newcomers to the story. Why does Prince Pericles flee from a country he himself rules after so clearly showing his bravery in Antioch? And why does he then leave Tarsus, and where does he think he’s going?

Pericles can be rough sailing during the Prince’s early travels, and players changing costumes and nationalities can further jostle perceptions. As fine as Colin Campbell is in the title role, even he pops up in different guises, once as a Pirate who kidnaps Pericles’ daughter. The one constant in the cast, Natasha Magigi as Gower, wasn’t as clear and relaxed as she could be as our narrator. Many among us had left at intermission before Magigi redeemed herself during the epic resolution of Pericles’ woes.

Much of the hurly-burly settles down after the chief catastrophes, when Pericles believes he has lost his daughter Marina and his wife Thaisa, the king’s daughter he won in Pentapolis. Silly man, they’re merely scattered across the seas, one of them revived in a coffin. Mogali Masuku has an imposing dignity as Thaisa before and after her coffin sojourn, and Evelyn Miller as Marina has a saintly luminosity, suffering every bit as much as her dad. Tears flowed during both of the long-delayed reunions for those of us who had persevered.

Apportioning multiple roles to most of your actors usually works better in Shakespeare’s comedies, so I expected to be better pleased with The Comedy of Errors. What surprised me here was director Brendan O’Hea’s unusually dramatic approach to the action. With Mark Deselbeck as Egeon and Masuku as the Duke of Ephesus, the agony of Egeon’s trials, seeking his long-lost son, and the severity of his oncoming punishment – death for merely visiting Ephesus – take on a little more weight.

While the two servile Dromios of the story, Beau Holland visiting from Syracuse and Eric Sirakian residing in Ephesus, are comical enough in their confounded confusion, the slapstick aspect of their repeated thrashings by their masters is conspicuously toned-down. O’Hea is taking the candy wrapping off the abuses meted out by the twin Antipholuses upon their obedient Dromios. Campbell, as the Antipholus from Syracuse, is the more benign of the identical twin masters, getting comical mileage out of his absurdly familiar reception throughout Syracuse, especially from his twin’s wife Adriana.

But he has no patience with his Dromio’s apparent misconduct, and the slaps and kicks he delivers to her might appear a bit Three Stooges at first, but only if we’re conditioned by Comedy of Errors productions we’ve seen before. We are soon disabused. This is a master objectionably mistreating his slave. Bigger point: Shakespeare’s Globe, apparently, is no longer the grand museum it once was, where you simply go to see how the Bard’s works were presented during the Elizabethan Era. Updates and reconsiderations are now possible.

Antipholus of Ephesus was always a meaner piece of work, cheating on his wife Adriana and devaluing her virtues, but Anthony Gaučas takes this master’s unsavoriness further. There’s nothing comical about his reaction to being locked out of his own house, nothing comical about his resulting enmity toward Adriana, and we see a wildfire of jealousy break out when he learns that it was his twin brother who “dined” with her earlier in the day. Mistakenly taken into custody for an unpaid debt, Gaučas earns the presumptions from onlookers that he has gone insane. Nor does this Antipholus instantly reconcile with Adriana once all the mistaken identities have been cleared – and he has absolutely no welcome for his long-lost twin brother.

Amid all of these alterations – none of them violating Shakespeare’s text – Miller as Adriana emerges as the most admirable master or mistress that we see. She is clearly not a dainty pushover. Miller wears a larger cape than either of the identically clad Antipholuses, and she swishes it around in far more swashbuckling style. Hers is the noblest rage at this performance. Fully digesting the brothers’ origins and biographies on your ride home, you might find yourself realizing that Antipholus of Ephesus probably owes all of his fortune and property to this formidable, beautiful lady, making him an even more despicable heel.

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People still talk about the Salomé that directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser brought to Spoleto back in 1987, and it’s clear that the directing duo was bent on duplicating that éclat in their current reimagining of Strauss’s sizzling opera. They’ve succeeded – and you only have a couple of more chances to witness it on June 2 and 5.

The singing from the cast is rich and strong, allowing conductor Steven Sloane and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra to fill beautiful Gaillard Center with the sounds of Strauss’s score without drowning out the vocalists. Teaming up with set designer Christian Fenouillat and lighting designer Christophe Forey, Caurier and Leiser deliver a spectacular visual experience.

Looking out on night-time Jerusalem from a swank high-rise, we can’t expect the divine prophet Jokanaan to be imprisoned in a dingy dungeon. No, he’s confined in an apartment below. But after hearing Jokanaan’s powerful denunciations and imprecations from offstage during the opening scene, we first see baritone Erik Van Heyningen as the seer when his suite is lowered down from high above, far brighter than the surrounding night. Illumination and severe simplicity come with him.

What Caurier and Leiser bring to this holy sanctuary – and later, back at Herod’s rooftop – is wickedly, sensationally profane. They don’t merely ask soprano Melanie Henley Heyn to open her heart to Jokanaan in Salomé’s attempt to seduce the prophet. They also call upon her to bare her breasts in his bedroom. Nor was that necessarily the most shocking episode of the night, for when tenor Paul Groves as Herod prevailed upon Salomé to dance for him, he did more than join in. He dropped his pants, and Strauss’s famed “Dance of the Seven Veils” became the dance of the 10 thrusts. Or maybe that’s where I stopped counting.

Since Salomé knows she will be rewarded before her dance begins, you might say she isn’t abused here. But if she is, we feel uncomfortably supportive toward the horrific price she names – over and over, stretching the name of Jokanaan to seven syllables each time she demands his head. Even with all this salacious business, Heyn isn’t the most wanton or alluring Salomé that I’ve seen. The audacity of her overture to Jokanaan seems fueled by privilege more than vanity, so there’s enough youthful simplicity left in her to make Herod’s advances a stunning violation.

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Yet I’ve never heard more powerful demands for Jokanaan’s head, wickedly seconded by Edna Prochnik as the jealous and vengeful Herodias. Caurier and Leiser are somewhat remiss in not attempting to make an ultimate horror out of Salomé’s love song to the decapitated Jokanaan, but Heyn is also supreme in those moments. We expect the mighty righteousness of Van Heyningen lashing out at the “daughters of Babylon” who assail him, and Groves is a perfect fit for the powerful, conscience-stricken, and infatuated Herod. The most surprising vocal exploits came from tenor Zach Borichevsky as Narraboth, the captain of the guard who unwisely grants Salomé her visit with Jokanaan.

But it’s the production concept by Caurier and Leiser that will live longest in my memory – and Heyn’s performance that crowned it.

 

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Other highlights of Spoleto’s first week start with the jazz lineup – including Esperanza Spalding, the Dafnis Prieto Big Band, David Virelles, and an all-star tribute to Geri Allen from Terri Lyne Carrington, Craig Taborn, and Ravi Coltrane.

 

Meanwhile, the Chamber Music series hosted by Geoff Nuttall keeps getting edgier and wackier. Aside from Balliett’s hip refresh of Ovid, Stephen Prutsman’s new score for Buster Keaton’s old silent film, College, was smashing – when I was able to stop laughing at Keaton’s antics and pay attention to Prutsman’s.

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You have plenty of time – and multiple opportunities – to catch Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson (June 5-8) at the Simons Center Recital Hall, but jazz fanatics must hurry or they will miss Carla Bley Trio (May 31) at Cistern Yard. Six more programs and 18 performances remain in the BofA Chamber Music series, twice daily through June 9. After making a delightful surprise appearance earlier this week singing a piece by Henri Duparc, tenor Paul Groves returns for Program VIII, headlining Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings.

The range, power, and delight of the lunchtime concerts is best illustrated by the concluding Program XI, slated for next weekend. Members of the band warm up with an 18th century bassoon sonata by Georg Philipp Telemann, followed by a recent Disco-Toccata for clarinet and cello by Guillaume Connesson. Then a deep dive into Beethoven’s “Ghost” Piano Trio with Inon Barnatan at the keyboard, Joshua Roman behind the cello, and Karen Gomyo on violin. All of the musicians heard thus far – and more – gather for the finale, a merry chamber music reduction of Rossini’s “Overture from Barber of Seville,” arranged by clarinetist Todd Palmer.

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In the dance realm, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s five-day sojourn in Charleston concludes this Saturday with repeats of all three parts of their Analogy Trilogy. For more lavish spectacle, stand by for Caracalla Dance Theatre’s One Thousand and One Nights (June 7-9), as the Lebanese company fuses Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Ravel’s Bolero with traditional Arabic instruments, melodies, and costumes. Expect this hottie to be a tough ticket.

Plenty more excitement awaits theatergoers, headlined by two Israeli and two Palestinian actors onstage together in the multimedia world premiere of Letters to a Friend in Gaza (May 30-June 2) at the Emmett Robinson. Up at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, 600 Highwaymen brings on The Fever (June 4-9), exploring group dynamics with audience participation. Cora Bissett’s What Girls Are Made Of (June 4-8) keeps it just as real at Memminger Auditorium, with the rock star bringing her teen diaries to life. Backed by a live rock band, of course!

There’s more. Find out what Circa, I’m With Her, Music in Time, St. John Passion, Westminster Choir, and the Festival Finale are all about at spoletousa.org.

 

Miller, Muldaur, and JLCO Highlight Charlotte Jazz Fest

Review: Charlotte Jazz Festival 2019

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Presented by the Leon Levine Foundation and staged by Blumenthal Performing Arts, the Charlotte Jazz Festival is continuing to grow incrementally in its fourth season. Despite some egregious rookie mistakes – the opening two-day fest in 2016 fell on the first two nights of Passover! – this year’s model ran like a Cadillac. Or perhaps it’s better to say a Lincoln, since the influence of Wynton Marsalis and members of his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has permeated this young-and-growing celebration since the beginning.

Rising vocalist and JLCO saxophonist Camille Thurman headlined the 2019 festival’s kickoff event at Romare Bearden Park with the Darrell Green Trio and a guest appearance by Marsalis. Hanging around for a second night, Marsalis and some other venerable vets meshed with The Future of Jazz Orchestra at Knight Theater in a lively Duke Ellington retrospective. Marsalis was gone on the following night at the Knight, but his melodies lingered on in a concert-length performance of Spaces by the JLCO and two featured dancers, Jared Grimes and Myles Yachts.

Then on the final night, while Tony Award winner Patina Miller was delivering an electrifying tribute to North Carolina icon Nina Simone, three aces from the JLCO sidled over to the Jazz Tent at Romare Bearden Park, each leading his own combo in a straight-ahead marathon that played on for nearly five hours. That immersion, collectively titled “The Gentlemen of Jazz,” was preceded the previous evening by “Ladies Sing the Blues” – ladies first, right? – which had nothing to do with either Lady Day or JLCO but plenty to do with the blues.

Bracing for the evening-long immersions on the last two nights, we began with The Future and the Duke, a new show that was headed to the Big Apple the following night. From the outset, with three horns – including Wycliffe

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Gordon’s slide – launching “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and plunger mutes sprouting everywhere, the show was ready for primetime. Among the elders, it would be Dan Block who would get the most solo space, particularly when he put down his tenor sax and picked his clarinet, as he did early on in “Stompy Jones.”

With his customary cool, Marsalis mostly contented himself with narrating the proceedings from his seat in the back row with the other top brass. He stood up from that perch just once during his hosting chores, and interestingly enough, set off his signature trumpet pyrotechnics during “Old Man Blues,” with Gordon engaging in battle and the whole trumpet section whipping out two-tone derby hats to wah-wah the out-chorus. Anchoring the rhythm section, bassist Rodney Whitaker played the most notes among the blue bloods, but the he split his time behind the upright with Endea Owens, one of the most promising of the young bloods.

Appropriately referencing Duke’s first bassist in his introductory remarks, Marsalis programmed showcases for both Owens and Whitaker in “Portrait of Wellman Braud” and “Dancers in Love.” Covering the ‘20s through the ‘40s before intermission, the band mostly stuck with familiar titles like “The Mooche,” “Caravan,” “Cottontail,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” and – after an apt anecdote about young Billy Strayhorn – “Take the A Train.” Great intro to the Duke for newbies in arrangements suffused with authenticity.

Dealing with the ‘50s through the ‘70s after intermission, The Future was more eclectic and adventurous. Here we had “Royal Ancestry” from Duke’s tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, “Anitra’s Dance” from his adaptation of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, and a couple of samplings from his film score work, including “Almost Cried” from Anatomy of a Murder. Rarest and most unexpected of all, the concert ended with a dip into The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse and, after the hip reference to Marshall McLuhan as the Duke’s inspiration,  “Chinoiserie.” Young Julian Lee excelled here on tenor sax, his second triumph of the evening after evoking memories of Ben Webster in “Cottontail.”

Other standouts among the young lions included Patrick Bartley doubling on alto sax and clarinet, Ben Cohen on bari, trumpeters Jumaane Smith and Noah Halpern, and trombonist Jeffrey Miller. Gabe Schnider mostly strummed rhythm but when he got the chance to solo on “Caravan,” the guitarist delivered, and whether it was the “Dancers in Love” duet or the iconic “A Train” intro, Sean Mason was a consistent delight at the piano.2019~Charlotte Jazz Fest-037

With Donna Hopkins, Deva Mahal, and Maria Muldaur playing title roles, the “Ladies Sing the Blues” triple header proved that the blues can be a very mixed bag. Hopkins and her youthful rhythm section took us down a “Dirty Alabama Road” in one song that was bluesy in a Joplinesque sort of way – Janis, not Scott – and mostly kept a torch-song tempo for her most distinctive originals, “Keep Talking Love” and “Heart Full of Love.” Her guitar licks also had an edge that kept her blues-rock groove burning. Muldaur came to the Jazz Tent with a bigger sound and naughtier intentions. Except for the flower that still adorns her hair, most people who remember Muldaur from her hit 1973 single, “Midnight at the Oasis,” would be surprised at how the years have altered the artist. Her entire set distilled the spirit of her most recent album, the Grammy Award-nominated Don’t You Feel My Leg (The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker) – until the obligatory “Oasis.”

The irony is that, if you had explored the eponymous album where “Oasis” first appeared, you would have found Muldaur singing the very same Blue Lu and Danny Parker “Feel My Leg” blues at the dawn of her recording career, backed by a battery of horns and Dr. John twiddling the keys. So the real evolution is in the singing voice, evident in the first notes of “Georgia Grind,” starting off her Barker family tribute. Considerable grit there, with the full mileage of all those years.

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Going with the flow of her gravellier sound, Muldaur is less about the elegant, exotic innuendo of “Oasis” these days and more about such brash blues-singer declarations as Danny Barker’s “Loan Me Your Husband,” Vernon White’s “Leave My Man Alone,” Andy Razaf’s “Handy Andy,” and Blu Lu and Danny’s “Never Brag About Your Man.” In her robust intro to the Barkers’ opus, Muldaur made the connection between its advice and Sippie Wallace’s “Don’t Advertise Your Man,” with the appropriate nod to Bonnie Raitt.

On the bandstand, special dimensions emerged in live performance that don’t come through your earbuds via your iPhone. The heat and drama of “Loan Me Your Husband” were exponentially increased when Muldaur aimed her pleas directly at a matron seated in the second row of cabaret tables, maybe eight feet from the stage, and to watch David L. Harris solo2019~Charlotte Jazz Fest-062ing on “Trombone Man Blues” was way more than sexually suggestive when you saw the instrument’s sliding actions and heard its powerful moan. The audience definitely got the thrust.

Between Hopkins and Muldaur, we had to pass on Mahal in order to catch the Marsalis suite at Knight Theater. It was an early-evening, family-friendly concert that contrasted wholesomely with the risqué after-dark fare that was awaiting us back at the Jazz Tent. Each of the 10 segments was modeled on the sounds and movements of animals. Marsalis and his orchestra presided over the music while two dancers, tapster Jared Grimes and jook meister Myles Yachts, served up the moves – and, in Grimes’ case, additional percussion.

Yes, it had the elemental qualities of the LolliPops children’s concerts that Charlotte Symphony performs, and you can make a superficial comparison with Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of Animals, a staple at such concerts. An equally apt analogy can be drawn between Spaces and Serge Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. While there isn’t a narrative binding the creatures of the Marsalis menagerie together, there is definitely a tasty script introducing each of the critters.

Beginning with the observations on the chicken – most prevalent creature on the planet (if you count eggs), complexity of expression, ability to achieve REM sleep, closest living relative to T-Rex – you could tell that Marsalis and/or his ghostwriter had meticulously and whimsically researched their subjects, not pausing to dumb things down for the small fry in the audience. Surrounded by these pithy intros and the marvels performed by Grimes and Yachts, the JLCO struggled to capture our attention, even when their charts proved to be clever and resourceful.

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When a brass player reared up with a sousaphone for “Pachydrem Shout,” Yachts danced circles around the whole band, making elephantine silhouettes on the upstage curtain along the way. Uncannier were Yachts’ backlit wrigglings during “Like a Snake,” the jook artist’s outstretched arms looking like a serpent slithering through the dancer’s body. The dance duets may have been the most formidable barriers to band recognition, especially when the most kid-friendly of them for “Leap Frogs” was followed by a surprise costume change, tux jackets and bowler hats for a waddling “Mr. Penguin, Please.”

The levity was leavened with a lyrical interlude. Tranquility overtook “Those Sanctified Swallows” long enough for Dan Nimmer’s piano, Carlos Henriquez’s bass, and Ted Nash’s piccolo to make an impression. Then for the Marsalis ode to “A Nightingale,” described as not only the most tuneful of birds but also the most akin to jazz musicians in their nocturnal habits, the dancers laid out so the band could shine. It was also an opportunity for Grimes and Yachts to rest up for the sunnier, more upbeat closers.

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Grimes drew the solo spot for “King Lion” (actually about a lioness) with plenty of roaring from the brass, but the best moments in his dance were the percussion battles with drummer Charles Goold. Marsalis pushed the hoofers even harder for the concluding “Bees, Bees, Bees,” as the hornmen brought out kazoos to get a frothy hum going. When muted horns took up the drone, both Grimes and Yachts kept up with the frenetic pace, easily their best-coordinated duet of the night.

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Three of the JLCO guys hung around the Queen City as headliners in the “Gentlemen of Jazz” concerts on the last night of the festival. It promised to be a revealing test for the Jazz Tent, since thunder and lightning were already prowling the metro area when we hit the highway. By the time we arrived for saxophonist Paul Nedzela and his quartet, it was evident that we weren’t going to gauge the effects of rumblings in the skies or rain on the roof. It was probably the weather, though, that was messing with the electronics.

Something was obviously wrong with the lights onstage, since Nedzela, on baritone for a luscious “Portrait of Jenny,” seemed to be in shadow compared with the ladies on centerstage the night before. Thanks to the miracle of acoustic instruments, we didn’t learn that the sound system wasn’t working until my wife Sue and I were exiting for the concert at the Knight. The last three compositions we heard before then were stellar, especially “Third Quartet,” where Nedzela switched from soprano back to bari for a ruminative duet with pianist Dan Nimmer, another holdover from the previous night. Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty,” with Nedzela blazing on baritone, sent me out smiling.

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When we returned, the bandstand was teeming with musicians, and the juice was back on for lights and sound. Like Spaces and the Ellington retrospective, Carlos Henriquez’s Dizzy Gillespie tribute, Dizzy Con Clave had Jazz at Lincoln Center fingerprints all over it. The entire set of Gillespiana, in fact, replicated titles released on the RodBros label last year under Henriquez’s name – and recorded at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.

Except for trumpeter Michael Rodriguez and trombonist Marshall Gilkes, the octet joining Henriquez on the bandstand were not the same, so they brought fresh – and different –energies to the music.

This was especially true of Jeremy Bosch, who not only added his flute to the instrumental palette but also served as prime voice on the vocals, beginning with the opener, a spirited “Manteca” that demonstrated Henriquez’s con clave approach.This was especially true of Jeremy Bosch, who not only added his flute to the instrumental palette but also served as prime voice on the vocals, beginning with the opener, a spirited “Manteca” that demonstrated Henriquez’s con clave approach.

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Numerous times, conguero Marcos Torres and drummer Marc Quinones clashed and bashed in spirited percussion orgies. Rodriguez and Gilkes were predictably prodigious in the horn section, but the ringers got their licks in as well. The seemingly diffident Jonathan Powell suddenly began exchanging trumpet volleys with Rodriguez in “Con Alma,” always sounding like he was playing a fifth higher, and Felipe Lamoglia rose up with a mighty tenor sax rant in “A Night in Tunisia.”

In a set that also included “Groovin’ High,” it was hard to pick a favorite, but “Kush” was easily the most revelatory piece I heard. Where has this gem been hiding out? Nor was there any arguing with the leader’s choice of “Bebop” as his closer. Fast, exhilarating and brassy, the chart provided Henriquez and pianist Robert Rodriguez with ample spaces to shine before the rousing out chorus.

To catch Patina Miller in concert, we had to sacrifice Kenny Rampton’s octet and the suite the trumpeter has crafted from the music for a recent off-Broadway production of Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue. Understanding that Rampton partisans might feel just as strongly about their choice, we did not regret ours. There was a special homecoming vibe to the occasion, especially for Miller, who hails from nearby Pageland, SC. Lusty whoops gushed forth from the orchestra seats when Miller mentioned her hometown, and she invited her mom onstage to sing a duet on one number.

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Heightening that warmth – and enthusiasm – was the tribute to Tryon, NC, native Nina Simone. From the outset of “Feeling Good,” it was plain, despite the disparity between Miller’s silvery voice and Simone’s husky contralto, that the two-time Tony Award nominee for her leading roles in Sister Act and Pippin (winner) had an affinity for the gospel-folk-blues icon and an appreciation of her legacy. The question of whether it took contralto depth to plumb the emotional depths of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was quickly settled in Miller’s favor.

Backed by a quartet that included James Sampliner at the Steinway, Perry Smith on guitar, Gregory Jones behind the upright, and Joe Nero at the drums, Miller also proved she could swing some jazz in “My Baby Just Cares for Me” before the gospel-flavored duet on “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.” Astutely, Miller lightened the mood after Mom’s exit with “Marriage Is for Old Folks” before dialing the intensity back up – way up – with “Wild Is the Wind.”

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That was our first glimpse of the summit of Simone essentials that Miller would ascend at the end of her journey. Meanwhile she roamed among less intense fare like “See-Line Woman” and “Love Me or Leave Me.” It was when she slowed the pace for “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” that you could sense Miller was headed for the high country. We were already in rarefied air when she sang “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” but then came a trilogy of Simone affirmations at the heart of her legacy.

In a breathtaking rush, “Mississippi Goddam” reached the pinnacle, followed by “Four Women” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” No reaction at this year’s festival came close to the thunderous applause and the standing ovation that greeted Miller’s final emphatic “Goddam!” Her rage was so raw and, after more than 50 years, Simone’s words still rang so true – defiantly addressing this historical moment. Adding to the awesome spontaneity of this ovation was a lightning bolt of discovery: so many of the people, young and old, who sprang to their feet, galvanized by “Mississippi Goddam,” were hearing it for the first time in their lives.

Obviously, they needed to.

Swinging and Singing Summits Highlight SMF Jazz Week

Review:  Savannah Music Festival’s Annual Jazz Week

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Call it the Jazz at Lincoln Center influence, but the Savannah Music Festival’s annual Jazz Week had a little bit more of an educational tinge this year. Not only was the Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Big Band one of 12 finalists in the annual Swing Central playoffs, SMF’s nationwide high school big band competition, some of the jazz headliners took an overtly pedagogical approach to their sets at the Charles H. Morris Center.

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Warming up for Kat Edmonson on Sunday afternoon, pianist Jon Cleary offered a personal primer on New Orleans piano style, with pithy disquisitions on – and evocations of – Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, and Mac Rebennack. The following evening, Chris Pattishall and his quintet crossed the frontier into jazz piano with a full-length presentation of Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite. On the second half of that bill, Aaron Diehl dipped into Dick Hyman’s Jazz Etudes in the Styles of Jazz Masters with his trio, a foretaste of a complete traversal that would cap his solo set the following afternoon.

Since Swing Central already includes intensive workshops and clinics with such luminaries as Marcus Roberts, Wycliffe Gordon, Stephen Riley, Jim Ketch, Dave Stryker, Jason Marsalis, and Pattishall, concerts like these further enrich the program’s academic nourishment. Toss in an additional three yet-to-be-mentioned vocalists and the Grammy-winning Dafnis Prieto Big Band, and you may assume that non-student jazz enthusiasts had plenty to enjoy over the first six days of SMF 2019.

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Havana native Daymé Arocena led off the jazz lineup, backed by a fine trio headed by keyboardist Jorge Luis Lagarza. Prompted by Arocena’s recent recordings, Cubafonía and Nueva Era, I expected to see a singer who aimed mainly for Latin audiences with side glances toward R&B and jazz. With backup singers, brass sections, and overdubbing stripped away, quite a different artist emerged in live performance. The R&B dimension surfaced with a drive and vitality to her vocals that reminded me of Stevie Wonder’s breakthrough years. Her scat singing on “Maybe Tomorrow” no longer sounded like four bars sight-read in a studio but more like the free flights of Flora Purim, and there was more to come in “Mambo No Ma.”

More surprisingly, thanks to the wide spectrum of sounds offered by percussionist Marcos Morales, there were times when the full-throated beauty of Arocena’s voice – never really captured at all in the studio recordings I’ve heard – took me back to the sound of John Coltrane’s quartets during his early Impulse years. Adding to Arocena’s live electricity, she’s an engaging and involving entertainer, compelling us all to clap or sing along with her and holding her encore hostage unless we all got up and danced to “La Rumba Me Llamo Yo.”

Paying the ransom was definitely worth it, for the encore, “Don’t Unplug My Body,” began with an electric bass solo from Rafael Aldama and heated up to an intensity that you wouldn’t have thought possible on her tame recording – nothing short of an Cuban orgasm. Lagarza widened the palette of the backup trio when he turned away from the house Steinway and played his portable electric, bringing a rock guitar vibe to “Minuet Para un Corazon” and a B3 organ-like soul to “Negra Caridad.”

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Dafnis Prieto Big Band drew the coveted Saturday night slot, playing two sets at the Morris. Remembering past Latin Dance Parties at the Morris, the deafening Eddie Palmieri of 2009 and the still uncomfortable Palmieri encore in 2014, I was wary of sitting too close for this year’s Best Latin Jazz Album winner. So I’m truly gratified to report that, handling this 17-man ensemble, the Morris sound crew had decibel levels dialed in to perfection. Or so it felt from the side of the hall opposite to the four trumpets, four trombones, and five reeds.

The winning CD, Back to the Sunset, supplied five of the six tunes that the band performed at their second set. “Una Vez Mas” was certainly a very rousing, very Latin way to start both the album and the concert. More colorful and adventurous charts lay ahead, especially in the second half of the program. Expanding upon his recorded intro to “Danzonish Potpourri,” Prieto unleashed an awesome display at the drum kit. After some nicely blended saxes and an Alex Brown fill at the keyboard, Michael Thomas swooped in with a majestic soprano sax solo that eased its tempo after being partially inundated by the brass. A tasty Brown piano solo gave way to some pithy work from Michael Blake on melodica, not well-heard until the band dropped out.

Switching to flute and then alto, Thomas was even more impressive on the ensuing “Song for Chico.” At the crest of this chart, Thomas stood with his sax and counted out two successive sudden stops to the horns behind him. Then out of the second silence, he crafted a beautiful acapella solo, with numerous multiphonics strewn along the way. “Two for One” closed out this magnificent set, with high-energy exchanges between the brass and reeds, extended solos by Blake on tenor and Thomas on alto, and heavy workouts for Prieto and percussionist Roberto Quintero. Brown tucked in his loveliest piano solo in the calm before the leader’s parting shots.

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There are plenty of retro elements in Edmonson’s singing style, a pinch of Peggy Lee sultriness, the occasional Lady Day phrasing, and abundant echoes of Blossom Dearie. In the songwriting style, you might instantly recall the utmost despondency of Joni Mitchell – but you suddenly realize that Edmonson time travels farther back, dabbling in verses! If that weren’t enough, Edmonson testified to hearing the voice of Nancy Wilson when she composed “What Else Can I Do,” a song she proceeded to perform with an extended scat outro.

Like Arcena, Edmonson often verges on pop when she’s embellished at recording studios – and transitions effortlessly to jazz at Savannah with the right backup. If you feel her singing on recordings is too precious, coy and calculated, your opinion would likely improve seeing her live. The Blossom Dearie parallels certainly emerged quickly as Edmonson reined in her studio style for her opening “Champagne.” “Old Fashioned Gal,” the title tune on her latest release, was a frank and quirky instance of a verse that seemed to last the full length of the song.

Kat’s spoken intros took us to Europe, through a despondent breakup, on tour and at the studio with Lyle Lovett – dishy reveals that meshed well with her less-mannered live singing. Despite the Nancy Wilson channelling, “Nobody Knows That,” the song Edmonson sang immediately after “What Else Can I Do,” was the more diva-worthy composition, with drummer Aaron Thornton’s brushes and Al Street’s guitar adding gravitas. Admitting that the duet she wrote for Lovett was modelled after “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” before that hit became a toxic template, Edmonson did a solo version of “Long Way Home” that had a cheery post-party feel, slightly buzzed, with some solo space carved out for bassist Bob Hart.

Though “Sparkle and Shine” can be credited with an authentic verse, the best of the rest was definitely “Whispering Grass,” with an intro and outro that were no less outré and spacey than the studio version, and glimmering work from Roy Dunlap at the Steinway. Dunlap doubled on electric piano in “Lucky,” and Hart whipped out a guitar from behind his bass, turning Kat’s band for “All the Way” into a two-guitar quartet – remember The Ventures? – with a more novel electric sound than the studio cut.

While a songwriter who moans “if I had a voice” must be speaking for somebody else when her own top 10 songs on Spotify have been streamed over 22 million times, Edmonson’s rendition of “A Voice,” prefaced by another touching intro from Dunlap, was suffused with breathtaking beauty. “Summertime,” Kat’s most-streamed cut, was her encore, the Gershwins’ original comfort replaced by downcast commiseration. With nearly nine million plays, it’s working for her.

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It’s been nearly five years since Pattishall brought a quintet to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola and played Williams’ Zodiac Suite with the same frontline, Alphonso Horne on trumpet and Ricardo Pascal on reeds. The 1944 composition, first recorded by Williams and her trio in 1945 and reissued in 1995, does not suffer from overexposure: Dizzy Gillespie brought the pianist to the stage at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957 and played three of the 12 astrological signs with his big band, comprising one track on the resulting Verve CD. in 2006, Geri Allen recorded a Zodiac Suite: Revisited tribute with her trio.

So it’s safe to assume that the sheet music strewn across Pattishall’s piano and distributed among his cohorts was penned by the pianist for his quintet. Doubling back to the YouTube videos from the 2014 Dizzy’s gig, I’m even more sure that head arrangements have been in flux. Horne plays with far more individuality and self-assurance now than he did at the Dizzy’s date, where he looked so young, but he was supplanted at the Morris by Pascal on tenor in the volatile “Virgo” section.

Choosing to begin with “Taurus” instead of “Aries,” which he saved for his closer, Pattishall immediately shone the spotlight on Horne, trading full solos twice with the young trumpeter, who put plenty of growl into his Bull with and without his plunger mute before yielding to Roland Guerin and his five-string bass. “Leo” was the next true burner after Pattishall’s ruminative soloing figured prominently in the next two signs. Bryan Carter launched “Leo” with a fine drum solo and fired another fusillade later in the piece after the horns. Pascal, who had roared moments on “Cancer,” switched from tenor to soprano on “Leo,” a nice prelude to Horne and his first extended unmuted solo.

With a walking bassline in his piano intro that reached under the horns when they layered on, “Scorpio” became the sign where Pattishall most intently replicated the Williams style, though a listen to Dizzy Gillespie at Newport will convince you that Williams was pretty eclectic herself, with plenty of chops. Starting off by introducing each astrological sign – and asking us to make noise if we were born under it – Pattishall thankfully tired of this routine and played through. That’s why the “Capricorn” segment, adding two or three other signs before coming to a halt, was the most satisfying in the set, with tasty parts for Horn, Guerin, and Carter.

Somebody should sign these guys besides SMF, which lists all five quintet members as Swing Central faculty. A studio recording would help more people to catch up with Mary Lou’s chef d’oeuvre – in a full-throated style that would make Dizzy and Wynton proud.

Quite a composer and technician in his own right, Diehl proved more exciting performing his own compositions and interpretations than in curating others’. The pianist’s interplay with drummer Quincy Davis got “Uranus” off to a provocative start, releasing into an Oscar Peterson-like romp than ended with a playful “In a Small Café” quote before each of the three trio members took turns in the spotlight. During Diehl’s meditative intro to “A Story,” Davis switched to brushes and layered on. Then bassist David Wong made his entrance and soloed gorgeously, setting the stage – and maybe the tone – for the leader.

Gillespie’s “Con Alma” was another prime delight after the long immersion into Hyman’s Etudes, heavily inflected with Latin rhythm and percussion when we released into the familiar line. But the double layer of pedagogy when Diehl delved into the Etudes was distracting for me. Unlike the signs of the Williams Zodiac, which might be dedicated to such non-jazz heroes as FDR, each of Hyman’s exercises was an homage to a seminal 20th century jazz pianist.

So when “Portrait,” taken at a nice lively tempo, sounded more to me like Hyman in Diehl’s hands than the original dedicatee, John Lewis, my response was conflicted. Nor did I see much point in the “Ivory Strides” homage to Fats Waller, way too close to “Ain’t Misbehavin’” for comfort. Much better was “Onyx Mood,” dedicated to Art Tatum. After a couple of obligatory Tatum runs, Diehl administered a torrid pounding and just went off, no confusion at all about whose style was on display.

Two other problems often plagued the project, one of which carried over to the lunchtime solo concert the following afternoon. Hyman’s Etudes are noticeably shorter than Chopin’s, sometimes less than a minute on Hyman’s own renditions – so Davis and Wong tended to disappear in the trio versions, especially since Diehl usually refrained from embellishment.

Both problems were neatly solved when Diehl ended with “Passage,” dedicated to Bill Evans, and followed with a huge surprise, Philip Glass’s “Etude No. 16.” Not only did Diehl expand on this piece as he had previously with the Tatum etude, he showed an unmistakable affinity for Evans that enhanced the tribute vibe. No less important, Davis became newly involved – against the grain of Diehl’s playing, occasionally dropping bombs on the Glass and applying both sticks and brushes to his inspired efforts.

Diehl’s solo disquisition, “Blues & the Spanish Tinge,” ended in very much the same fashion as the trio gig, with a complete traversal of the Hyman Etudes and the Glass 16. But it began very much on-topic, tracing a lineage of piano styles starting just before the turn of the 20th century with Ignacio Cervantes’ Six Cuban Dances, published in 1899, followed by samplings of Jimmy Yancey and – after circling back to Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a New Orleans native who actually taught Cervantes – Jelly Roll Morton.

The antique simplicity of the Cervantes suite, with hints of Chopin waltz and premonitions of Scott Joplin rag, grew livelier in the fourth dance, nearly a march in Diehl’s hands. Other highlights in the set included Diehl’s take on “Jelly Roll Blues” and the frenzied stride romp he applied to Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag” before its customary élan became discernible. In a more formal vein, Diehl’s rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Piano Blues for John Kirkpatrick” was a charming little bonbon.

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Riding high on top of Jazz Week’s airplay charts, Catherine Russell didn’t return to Savannah to promote Alone Together, her current release. Instead, she joined in a concept concert, “Billie & Blue Eyes,” with the John Pizzarelli Trio – a concept that wasn’t far distant from the “Ladies Sing the Blues” sets she sang in 2014 with Charenée Wade. As Pizzarelli pointed out in his warmup segment, Sinatra and Billie Holiday pretty much traversed (some might say defined) the Great American Songbook between them with many overlaps.

Of course, Pizzarelli is well-known in Savannah, his appearances at SMF dating back to at least 2011. Singing in a relaxed style, Pizzarelli is also a personable, self-deprecating, and humorous host – and he has obviously gotten to know Savannah well. After starting out in Sinatra’s effervescent postwar style with “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “You Make Me Feel So Young,” Pizzarelli carved out a segment devoted to Savannah’s iconic songwriter, Johnny Mercer. While the first Mercer tune, “Goody Goody,” remained squarely on the Sinatra Highway, the two scat choruses Pizzarelli added on signaled that he didn’t feel obliged to stay there. Both the beloved “Skylark” and the outré “Jamboree Jones” took the offramp, never recorded by either Ol’ Blue Eyes or Lady Day.

Cy Coleman’s “Witchcraft,” on the other hand, brought us emphatically back to recognized Sinatra hits, though Pizzarelli’s singing style still chimed best with “Skylark” collaborators Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. “The Way You Look Tonight,” a solo with John’s own simple guitar accompaniment, was a nice way to segue into Russell’s regal entrance. There were still 14 songs to go in the 21-song set, so Russell’s brassier contributions felt quite ample as Pizzarelli and his trio stuck around.

Naturally they started off together really big with “All of Me,” Russell singing two choruses, Pizzarelli on a scat vocal and pianist Konrad Paszkudzki splitting the next chorus, and Russell harmonizing with John to take it out. Handoff accomplished, Russell took over for three songs in Billie’s bag, Pizzarelli relegating himself to a half chorus on guitar for “You Go to My Head” while both Paszkudzki and bassist Mike Karn took full choruses between the vocals on “Love Me or Leave Me.”

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Pizzarelli’s return to the vocal mic was even more rousing than Russell’s initial arrival, as the whole ensemble dug into “Them There Eyes,” both singers pushing the tempo, John strumming four-to-the-bar and Karn laying down two choruses of calm before Russell and John roared home together. Back and forth the vocalists went, almost in medley style, for the next five songs. Pizzarelli’s best in this cluster was his lithe and nonchalant account of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” which nearly stood up to the Russell gem that preceded it. Evoking Billie’s 1952 session recorded for Verve, Russell’s “Everything I Have Is Yours” was suffused with sufficient ache to have me in tears.

Yes, this was truly a taste of what Billie was all about. More treats were in store as Russell and Pizzarelli hooked up on one last burner, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” which Catherine refrained from kicking into high gear until midway through the opening chorus. John’s scat vocal then led a barrage of single choruses by his trio, and the guitarist comped furiously under Russell’s outchorus. The most exquisitely soulful moment followed as Pizzarelli duetted with Russell on “God Bless the Child,” tucking a pensive instrumental between the diva’s two vocals.

Both sets at the Morris were sellouts on the night I attended. With good reason. SMF knew what they were doing when they brought them back for another pair the following night.

Spoleto Festival USA Widens Its Jazz Playing Field

Reviews: Jon Batiste & The Dap-Kings, Jazzmeia Horn, Artifacts, Trio 3 Plus Vijay Iyer, and Chucho Valdés Quartet

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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 his 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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!

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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.

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“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.

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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.

 

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

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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.

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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.