Review: Jazz @ Spoleto Festival USA
By Perry Tannenbaum
It’s difficult to imagine what the stage and the audience would have looked like at Gaillard Center if Rhiannon Giddens’ new opera, Omar, had premiered as scheduled at Spoleto Festival USA in May 2020. #BlackLivesMatter and the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the trajectory of our lives since then, also deflecting the course of the Festival. Leadership of the Festival has changed, with Mena Mark Hanna replacing retired general director Nigel Redden, while Giddens added a half hour to her new work and ditched her stage director over artistic differences.
So when we saw more masks and dashikis in the audience than we had ever seen at Gaillard before – and more Arabic script on the scenery and costumes of Omar than I could remember in all my previous 29 years at Spoleto – it really felt like the Festival had taken a hairpin turn under Hanna’s leadership. But if you look at the past three Festivals dispassionately, including the canceled 2020 edition, you must also realize that the past two years have also been, to a large extent, a timed-release rollout of the Festival that didn’t happen two years ago.
At the abbreviated Festival last year, held mostly outdoors, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Cookers, and the Two Wings retrospective on The Music of Black America in Migration produced by Jason and Alicia Moran were all rainchecks from the previous year. Similarly, this year’s concerts by Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almazan, Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, and The War and Treaty were all holdovers from 2020, as were the appearance of Machine de Cirque and the staging of Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood.
If the back-to-back appearances Youssou N’Dour and Nduduzo Makhathini during the Memorial Day weekend at The Cistern seemed like a spirited invocation of Mother Africa in response to #BlackLivesMatter, it should be remembered that Abdullah Ibrahim and Eyaka were also signed up for Spoleto 2020 months ahead of their scheduled June 2 concert, which would have happened a mere eight days after George Floyd’s murder.
Since Redden had cited #BlackLivesMatter as a key reason why he had decided to resign after Spoleto 2021, it really did feel like opening weekend in 2022 – with the opening of Omar followed by back-to-back-to-back concerts by Giddens, N’Dour, and Makhathini – was both an endorsement of that movement and a delayed, but still powerful, denunciation of the 2017 Muslim Ban. Giddens’ Omar dramatized The Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, the only known account by an African slave written in Arabic, placing special emphasis on Omar’s Islamic faith, his spirituality, and the Christian proselytizing he was subjected to by even his most benign master.
Another layer of Black spirituality graced the Festival during its second weekend when Ravi Coltrane paid tribute to his mother, Alice Coltrane, and her pathfinding Universal Consciousness album of 1971. That universality embraced India, Egypt, continental Africa, and the Holy Land according to the original Turina Aparna (Alice Coltrane) liner notes, and the all-star quintet assembled by the son included harp sensation Brandee Younger and keyboardist David Virelles as the chief conjurers of the mother.
What a wondrous concert that was at Cistern Yard, concentrating on the seminal works the elder Coltrane composed and released in the 1970s, including the title pieces from Universal Consciousness and Journey in Satchidanada (1971) served up with prime cuts from Ptah, The El Daoud (1970) and Eternity (1976). Perhaps the summit of that experience was when Ravi extended his mom Alice’s ethereal “Journey in Satchidanada” with a reverent excursion into John Coltrane’s “Alabama” from 1963, saluting his dad.
Younger was a constant delight, especially sublime when she was spotlighted in Alice’s “Turia & Ramakrishna,” while Virelles at the piano reminded us that the Coltrane matriarch’s sound at the acoustic keyboard was not that distant from McCoy Tyner’s, the pianist in her husband’s famed quartet. While there was no organ onstage to fully replicate the range of instruments that Alice played on Universal Consciousness, Virelles did double with an electric piano, occasionally playing both keyboards simultaneously.
Raindrops kept falling intermittently during the concert, becoming an issue near the end, when Ravi allowed the audience to coax him into playing an encore, “Los Caballos.” Stagehands did not appear panicked about the sound system, but it looked like Virelles turned off his electric to be extra careful. Meanwhile, Coltrane switched from tenor to soprano sax for the closer and gave the other members of his rhythm section, bassist Rashaan Carter and the ebullient Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, extra space for some fine soloing. Carter cooled us off after Ravi and Virelles brought their fire, and then Watts turned back the heat.
It was Younger, of course, who made the concert experience so unique, the sprinkling of her runs and glisses more refreshing than the raindrops.
There was no downpour the following night when we showed up early at Cistern Yard, but this time Spoleto officials decided to be more cautious with percussionist/composer Tyshawn Sorey, the second big star at the Festival – and, following Giddens, the second MacArthur Genius. Two days after his jazz gig, Sorey was slated to conduct a symphony orchestra at Sottile Theater in a program completely devoted to his classical compositions, so the abundance of caution was warranted, and the backup site, TD Arena, proved to be perfectly calibrated sound-wise.
Sorey’s jazz trio, featuring bassist Matt Brewer and the estimable Aaron Diehl on piano, linked the pieces on their program together more frequently than Coltrane had done the night before. For those of us who didn’t pick up Sorey’s new Mesmerism release after the concert, already sold-out in its first limited vinyl edition, we can only guess whether the performance differed significantly from the recording in its length and nearly seamless format. Diehl marked the borderline between Horace Silver’s “Enchantment” and Bill Evans’ “Detour Ahead” clearly enough, but the hand-offs between Diehl and Brewer, who took an epic-length solo, piled detour upon detour, so it was difficult to determine when – or if – we had crossed over to “Autumn Leaves.”
Diehl barely grazed the familiar Joseph Kosma melody, so it was helpful that, after Sorey paused – “Are you still with us?” – he let us know where we were amid the titles he had announced at the start. The boundary between Paul Motian’s “From Time to Time” and Muhal Richard Abrams’ “Two Over One” was far more easily discerned, yet the onset of Duke Ellington’s “REM Blues” was like coming out of an impressionistic tunnel into sunshine, Diehl reveling in his mastery of a totally different idiom and Sorey at last unleashing his full artillery.
Linda May Han Oh had actually recorded with Sorey on a Vijay Iyer session for ECM just before Spoleto’s 2020 slate was announced, so the separate appearances of bassist and the percussionist over the same weekend could be seen as serendipitous. Or merely premature, for they will be touring with Iyer in Europe – and playing Newport – during July. It sounded like parenthood happened for Oh and her pianist husband Fabian Almazan sometime between the date their debut was supposed to take place and when it actually did. Oh described herself and Almazan as new parents – just not brand new.
While their household might have been changing, the venue where they would perform – six sets over five days – definitely changed, moving them from the Simons Center, on the College of Charleston campus, to Festival Hall. A welcome shift for most festivalgoers, since the setup now included cocktail tables, changing the vibe from clinical to cabaret.
Bracing myself for the “postmodern sonic disruption” touted in Spoleto’s 2020 season brochure, in its pull quote from The Boston Globe, I happily found – attending two of the six sets – that NPR’s description in the 2022 preview, citing Oh’s “gift of liquid dynamism” was far more apt. Though Almazan had installed some electronics on Spoleto’s house piano that could alter the sound, it would be a gross exaggeration to declare that they were employed more than 5% of the time – or that the disruptions he created were more virulent than the sounds of a growling ogre the first time we heard him playing on “Una Foto.”
Almazan proved to be rather charming and self-deprecating as he introduced another of his originals, “Pet Steps Sitters Theme Song,” freely admitting that it was rejected within his own family for advertising purposes, “and for good reason.” That good reason turned out to be the ample chops he lavished upon his melody in embroidering it, not as dark or thundering as McCoy Tyner but definitely devoid of saccharine.
Playing electric bass as well upright, Oh would have surprised those on hand who were only familiar with her through tracks that are readily searchable on Spotify. YouTube followers are more likely to have experienced Oh’s liquid on her Fender Jazz Bass and her original songs. Oh’s notably vibrato-less vocals certainly covered a broad topical spectrum, ranging from anchovy innards in “Ikan Billis” to “Jus ad Bellum,” dedicated to people who find themselves caught up in the Ukraine conflict.
Almazan’s compositions were mostly instrumental, which Oh usually played on acoustic bass, “Sol Del Mar” and “The Vicarious Life” impressing me as much as the composer’s abortive foray into advertising. He also challenged Oh with an original song of his own, “Everglades,” which resulted in a pleasing overall balance of Oh vocals and instrumentals.
Programmed midway during the Memorial Day weekend celebration of Africa and Islam, Youssou N’Dour was closer in spirit to the true jazz of pianist-composer Nduduzo Makhathini, who followed him the next night, than he was to Rhiannon Giddens singing and playing banjo, with the spare accompaniment of Jason Sypher on bass and her husband Francesco Turrisi on accordion and piano. Nearly 40 years into his career, N’Dour’s voice is still sensational and strikingly expressive. The interplay between his incantatory chants and the mbalax rhythms of his percussion-heavy 12-man band often paralleled the sound of Latin jazz vocalists volleying back and forth with their orchestras – minus the brass.
With Lonnie Plaxico filling in as his bassist on short notice, Makhathini and his quartet seemed buoyed and refreshed rather than tentative or nervous, bringing noticeably more energy to their performances at Cistern Yard than you’ll hear on his recent studio recording, In the Spirit of Ntu, which isn’t exactly tame. The percolating Bitches Brew aspects of that new release, along with the coolness of Robin Fassie-Kock’s flugelhorn and trumpet, were dispelled by this more compact combo, with alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw vying for dominance with the leader’s powerful keyboard style, a meshing of Ibrahim and Tyner.
No less than three tunes came from Spirit of Ntu, including “Emlilweni,” “Amathongo,” and “Unonkanyamba.” Going back a couple of years, Makhathini unearthed “Umyalez’oPhuthumayo,” a jagged gem from Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworld, and gave it a fresh polishing so that it no longer sounded influenced by Ornette Coleman, though Francisco Mela’s pounding and thrashing on drums retained plenty of bite.
Tenderest of the selections was “For You,” reaching back to Makhathini’s 2015 album, Listening to the Ground, and offering Plaxico his best opportunity to shine. Among the three vocals in the set, “Amathongo” was probably the leader’s most impressive, his quicksilver soloing on piano as delightful as his incantatory singing while Shaw switched briefly to soprano sax. As for the most prodigious face-off between Shaw on alto and Makhathini, that was “Ithemba” from the 2017 Ikhambi album, a groovy powerhouse noticeably influenced by the John Coltrane Quartet.
In. the wake of last year’s abbreviated jazz lineup, headlined by Preservation Hall and The Cookers, this year’s not only felt vaster but also younger, more audacious. Spoleto was resoundingly back in 2022, appealing to a newly energized audience, with Sorey, Ravi, and Makhathini especially demonstrating they have more to give us in years to come.