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.