Tag Archives: Jason Sypher

Rhiannon Giddens Returns to Charlotte and Leaves Plenty of Music in the Air

Review: Rhiannon Giddens with Charlotte Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

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November 5, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Since the long-anticipated world premiere of her new opera, Omar, at Spoleto Festival USA back in May, composer-singer-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens has hopscotched the worlds of folk, jazz, and classical music. Her Spoleto apotheosis down in Charleston was embellished with a sit-down interview event and an outdoor concert with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, her collaborator on They’re Calling Me Home, the 2022 Grammy-Award-winner for Best Folk Album. Among Giddens’ many gigs since then, she has headlined at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and Carnegie Hall before entering downstage at Belk Theater for a rendezvous with the Charlotte Symphony and resident conductor Christopher James Lees. As you might presume of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, Giddens is not easily pigeonholed.

2022~Rhiannon Giddens-23Yet the Greensboro native co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, her first Grammy Award exploit, and now has an opera firmly rooted in the Carolinas to her credit, so an audience studded with black ties and tuxes had no difficulty embracing the polyglot Giddens as their own – even as she navigated a songlist that included Parisian and Celtic selections. They may not have realized that Giddens had played Charlotte before, as far back as 2008 when I caught her with the Chocolate Drops at Northwest School of the Arts. Turrisi and bassist Jason Sypher, who shared the Cistern Yards stage with Giddens at the College of Charleston in May, accompanied her once again, though Lees and Symphony lightened their load. Nor was it obvious that Turrisi would be playing piano until late in the concert when he insinuated himself upstage.

As soon as my QR code scanner brought up the evening’s program, I could see that the Symphony offerings would be more eclectic, accessible, and daring than the set Giddens performed at Spoleto. Even before Giddens led her trio onstage, Lees and the orchestra demonstrated that they would not be content to trot out the stale and familiar, following up on John Williams’ brassy Liberty Fanfare with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Overture to Hiawatha, referencing a half dozen episodes from the composer’s trilogy of Longfellow-inspired cantatas. In the wake of the fervid Fanfare, a little more finesse could have been applied to the opening of the African Britisher’s evocation of the primeval American classic, letting the harp sound more clearly, but Lees was certainly simpatico with the shifting moods and tempos afterward. Violins were gossamer-light in “The Wooing” section, the waltzing section that followed had admirable propulsion, and the cello corps warmed the tenderest episode, before the big build in the “Reunion” finale.2022~Rhiannon Giddens-31

The truly treasurable experiences began when Giddens strode onstage and picked up her banjo; for her first song, “Spanish Mary,” was co-written with Bob Dylan, with a fine orchestral arrangement for Lees and Symphony to luxuriate in. Shedding the banjo, Giddens followed up with “Julie’s Aria” from Omar, co-written with Michael Abels, reminding us of her own capabilities as an operatic soprano. Yet within minutes, Giddens was delivering a smoking-hot version of “Water Boy,” the pile-driving prison song immortalized in recorded versions by Paul Robeson, Odetta, and Harry Belafonte.

No doubt, Giddens has listened repeatedly to all three of these cultural touchstones, for the simple hammering arrangement was borrowed from Odetta and Belafonte while the lyrical clarity hearkened back to Robeson. The Odetta recordings of “Water Boy” are unparalleled, particularly when it caps a medley begun with “I’ve Been Driving on Bald Mountain,” shot through with explosive grunts and gasps from the hammer-wielding prisoner. But Giddens has found her own path toward heightening the intensity at the end, and the orchestra beats delivered by Symphony added jolts of electricity throughout the piece that simple guitar strums couldn’t match. Better still, Giddens’ preamble, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” was certainly a coupling with “Water Boy” that civil rights champion Odetta would have appreciated, repeatedly delivering a “you can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul” mantra.

2022~Rhiannon Giddens-19“Mouth Music” was all we needed to hear if we needed assurance that Giddens could make a credible showing at a jazz festival, and there would be more to follow. Lees ceded the stage to the guest trio, lightening the vibe, and Giddens picked up a viola and yielded some of the spotlight to her bandmates, especially Turrisi when he sizzled on his accordion during one of the fiddle tunes. The merriment faded when Lees returned to the podium, replaced by the romance of “Autumn Leaves” en français until Giddens favored us with the English lyric as well. If you hadn’t glimpsed the program, just the tropical sway of the violins was enough to announce our return to the Carolinas and “Summertime” from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, sweetly sung. Plenty of space was afforded to both Giddens and Symphony in the arrangement of “La Vie en Rose,” and the singer did not seem to be straining to sound like Edith Piaf, which was more than OK with me.2022~Rhiannon Giddens-15

Homing in on the end of the evening, Giddens and Symphony tacked toward the spiritual. With Turrisi at the keyboard, Giddens embarked on this final journey with “He Will See You Through,” followed by “Wayfaring Stranger,” opting to travel through this world “alone” rather than “below” or “of woe” as others have sung. These songs of faith certainly cleared the way for the affirmation and joy of Giddens’ final two selections, an irresistible pairing of “That Lonesome Road” and “Up Above My Head,” a perennial YouTube favorite that can’t be found on her albums. The last of these was memorably inspired. We all heard so much “music in the air” that we could leave more than satisfied, even without the planned encore.

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

Review: Jazz @ Spoleto Festival USA

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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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.2022~Spoleto-202

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.2022~Spoleto-139

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.

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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.Screenshot 2022-06-27 at 19-27-22 The Spoleto Festival USA Roars Back

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.”

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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.”

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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.

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

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.

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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.

Photos by Perry Tannenbaum and Leigh Webber