Tag Archives: Dafnis Prieto Big Band

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.

 

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.