Review: Spoleto Jazz May 25 to June 9 Charleston, SC
By Perry Tannenbaum
Two years ago, there was a changing of the jazz guard in Charleston as Spoleto Festival USA swung into its 40th anniversary celebration – with a revival of Porgy and Bess distilling the essence of the city and the festival, bringing jazz to the forefront. With Wells Fargo jazz director Michael Grofsorean replaced by jazz advisor Larry Blumenfeld, the lineup turned noticeably toward more domestic, New World performers, and the trend has continued for the two seasons after the big celebration.
Meanwhile Blumenfeld’s programming is pushing the envelope in two directions away from Spoleto’s former mainstream, straight-ahead groove. With Jon Batiste and the Dap Kings, we moved to the pop music realm. At the other end of the spectrum, the Artifacts ensemble’s tribute to AACM repertoire spearheaded by Nicole Mitchell and the set by Trio 3 + Vijay Iyer threw the doors wide open to off-the-rails experimental jazz. Wells Fargo hung in with their sponsorship, but they didn’t increase the number of jazz concerts to accommodate Blumenfeld’s push. Seven remained the magic number, leaving the Fred Hersch Trio, Jazzmeia Horn, the Chucho Valdés Quartet, and Craig Taborn in the mainstream, a noticeable shift in the balance.
Of course, there was a move towards pop last season, seemingly unanticipated, when Dee Dee Bridgewater strode onto the stage at Cistern Yard with the Memphis Soulphony and declared that we were out of luck if we expected a jazz concert from the newly anointed NEA Jazz Master. But there was nothing coy or unanticipated about Batiste appearing with the Dap-Kings on the first weekend of the 2018 festival, teaming up with the funk royals on the second night of his two-night stand at the Cistern.
Contrasting with solo gig the night before, when Batiste included “St. James Infirmary,” “What a Wonderful World,” and Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” on his set list, the Daps turned the Cistern into a no-jazz zone. Fats Domino’s “Ain’t It a Shame” and Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” took me back to my youth, and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” was the bluesiest selection from the bandleader on The late Show With Stephen Colbert. Keenly ruing that I’d missed the solo concert, I found sizable solace in the revelation of Batiste’s singing prowess, which I’d never stumbled across during my occasional viewings of Colbert. If you thought “Sunny Side of the Street” from his Jazz Is Now CD was anywhere close to Batiste’s outer limits, guess again.
No such surprises were forthcoming when Jazzmeia Horn took the stage at Gaillard Center, mostly singing tunes from her scintillating debut CD, A Social Call. The opening song on both the 2017 release and the concert was Betty Carter’s “Tight” – in pretty much the identical arrangement, with Victor Gould leading the rhythm section and Marcus Miller stepping in to supply the alto sax solo. Both Gould and Miller traded potent 4’s with Horn before her outchorus. When she veered from the studio versions, she expanded on them. “East of the Sun” gave space to bassist Barry Stephenson for a solo, an opportunity for drummer Henry Conerway III to return fire during after extra scat volleys from Horn, and for the audience to go “East” and “West” in further exchanges.
“The Peacocks (A Timeless Place)” and “I Remember You” followed the same order as the album, but with trumpeter Josh Evans on hand to reprise his spots on the Jimmy Rowles line, he lingered onstage to add some extra tang to the Johnny Mercer tune, where he’s absent on the studio cut. With all hands on deck, including Corey Wallace on trombone, Horn’s live rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice/Moanin’” was the most enhanced – and improved – sampling of A Social Call. For starters, the James Weldon Johnson anthem wasn’t as lame and humdrum as it is on the recording, but it was the Bobby Timmons standard, with the late Jon Hendricks’ lyrics, that really perked things up, drawing lively solos from everyone, including a bowed gem from Stephenson.
The cumulative excellence of the band prodded Horn to surpass herself, no mean exploit, as she weighed in on the last of the horn solos by Wallace and jubilantly traded licks with him. Nor was she done after this crossfire, for after the rhythm section folk took their solos, Horn did special things with the “Lord, I’ve tried” release in the Hendricks lyric, playing with it, ascending to the stratosphere of her vocal range, and turning it into a personal chant that hearkened back to the “Lift Ev’ry Voice” theme. It was quite stunning. Uplifting.
Three things seemed to incline my wife toward favoring Artifacts above all other jazz groups we saw at Spoleto this year: the trio was mostly women, they brought music stands with them to the Simons Center Recital Hall, and we had front row seats. After watching their Jazz Talk with Blumenfeld, also from front row seats, we could also feel a rapport with the artists before they played the last of their six concerts in this cozy, somewhat clinical space.
Interaction between the trio members was quite special, Nicole Mitchell on flute the benevolent leader, drummer Mike Reed the earnest provocateur, and cellist Tomeka Reid the serene mellowing agent. Or so you might have described their chemistry after witnessing their symposium with Blumenfeld. At the beginning of their set, each of the players had a chance to sparkle, Reid setting the tone for Reed’s “Pleasure Palace” with a plucked intro, Mitchell navigating the tune, and Reed returning friendly fire before the leader had the final say. Reid pulled out her bow for the next tune, playing together with Mitchell at the outset, and the hypnotic vamp that ensued might be the primary reason Mitchell named this composition “Reflections.”
Reid’s “Song for Helena” had the most interesting texture in the set, the composer partnering with Mitchell in laying down a medium groove and later shedding her bow. Meanwhile Reed shuttled from brushes to sticks, winding up with one in each hand. Steve McCall’s “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting,” more fully explored here than on the 2013 Artifacts recording, also brought out some interesting texturing as Mitchell vocalized while she played, both Reid and Reed agitating against her tranquility to poignant effect. They closed with Ed Wilkerson’s “Light on the Path,” the same infectious line that was the Artifacts finale, with Mitchell exploring her mix of flute and vocalese far more extensively. Intensity ricocheted between the musicians, Reed working himself into a lather and pushing tempo behind his kit and Reid radiating the joy that bound them all together.
The initial vibe at Gaillard Center as Trio 3 Plus Vijay Iyer strode onto the stage might be described as defiance. Not only did the group start late, they had no intentions of easing us into venerable saxophonist Oliver Lake’s toolbag low barks, midrange squonks, and high squeals. Although the Charleston City Paper rightly railed against walkouts at a wide spectrum of Spoleto events, I have to admit that fears of a mass exodus began mushrooming in my gut after just 20 seconds of listening to Lake on “Flow.” Pounding on the keyboard after Lake desisted, Iyer seemed intent on being equally offputting at the piano.
Maybe the leaders were disgruntled because of the sound setup. There are grating moments on the group’s 2014 Wiring recording, to be sure, but the sound captured in the studio was far sweeter and better balanced. Reggie Workman’s bass, so forward and integral in the studio, was virtually lost in the hall, treble was on leave at Andrew Cyrille’s drums, and the overmiking of Lake’s sax was further underscored because Iyer was relegated to the background, volume and flavor not picked up from his keyboard. Acoustically speaking, Simons Center would have been much kinder to this group.
The assault didn’t let up, for the most strident track on the Wiring CD, Workman’s “Synapse,” would come third on the playlist, a performance that triggered the first sizable defections. “Ode to Von” was more quietly weird, Lake at his most fluid so far, Vijay reaching under the piano’s lid, with Reggie and Andrew thoughtfully taking time off from timekeeping. With Lake laying out, “Navigator” abruptly sounded rather tame, as Iyer inserted something different at the start – chords!
Accessibility was back for the remainder of the evening as the quartet meditatively leaned into Workman’s “Willow Song,” inspired by Desdemona’s lament in Othello. Iyer was relatively quiet, layering onto a Cyrille solo, Lake showed his soulful side at last, and the composer eloquently used the space carved out for his bass solo. The stage belonged entirely to Cyrille as he played his drum fantasia, “For Girls Dancing,” further reviving audience enthusiasm. Then Vijay stepped forward and introduced what would be the pinnacle of the evening, the third movement “Adagio” from his Suite for Trayvon (and Thousands More). This time, Iyer struck a chord within the audience, referencing the carnage perpetrated by a white supremacist at the A.M.E. Church, just a block away, in 2015. The performance must have struck many as a peace offering, sanctifying what had often been a raucous program.
Too bad so many who came, perhaps hoping for such balm and healing, had bailed and wound up missing it.
Founder of the seminal Irakere band in the early 1970s, Chucho Valdés was way overdue for a Spoleto debut, whatever musical category you might pigeonhole him in. All those voices, all those horns, all that percussion, and all that jazz/rock electric guitar and bass on the early Irakere CDs tended to conceal the prodigious beast who sat at the keyboards. Valdés’ own talents as a composer and arranger were additional diversions, along with his light touch on electric piano. A brief glimpse of the monster occurred in Chucho’s “Misa Negra (The Black Mass),” when the composer dug in for a solo at the acoustic piano.
Without the likes of Arturo Sandoval’s trumpet on hand – or Paquito D’Rivera’s reeds – Valdés was inclined to fill in the blanks as he led the Chucho Valdés Quartet into Gaillard. Any expectations of a purely Latin-flavored evening or of frequent rock infusions were swiftly dispelled in the opening “Obatala.” After a meandering intro, Valdés built to a dense fantasia with textures worthy of McCoy Tyner before cuing the drums, finishing later with a snatch of Brubeck’s “Blues a la Turk.” In between, there was a light-fingered rumination that could remind you of Red Garland’s treble delights – except that Valdés had a second melody line percolating at the same time in his left hand.
“Son 21” took an approach that we’ve seen from European artists at past Spoletos, moving from one tune to another during the space of a single piece. This medley was of styles as well as melodies, starting off in a jazz groove and, after a Slam Stewart-style bass solo from Yelsy Heredia (accompanying himself vocally an octave higher than he played), returning in a classical rhapsodic vein that flowed into Latin territory. In both of these latter modes, Valdés showed the chops to turn up the heat and make them more torrid and turbulent.
“Ochun” started out a bit like a gospel tune or a jazzy spiritual, and Valdés’ “Chopin Adaption” further widened the palette, veering towards a samba sway before circling back to classical, more like Rachmaninoff than Chopin, over Heredia’s bowed bass. “Mambo in Heaven” was as Latin as you could ask from its opening keyboard vamp onwards, moving towards a pounding piano solo and culminating in a pitched percussion battle, with drummer Dafnis Prieto and percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles both getting lathered up at the kit and on the congas.
Our true jazz audience with Valdés came in the concert finale as the 76-year-old treated us to his personal Tin Pan Alley travelogue. We didn’t land at “But Not for Me” until Chucho spent some quality time with “If I Should Lose You,” “Night and Day,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “Waltz for Debby.” Even when we kicked into the Cole Porter tune with full rhythm, there were cameo appearances from Duke Ellington’s “A Train” and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Swinging on a Star.” For anyone who felt he or she hadn’t heard enough Latin sounds, the “El Cumbanchero” encore provided plentiful consolation, with one more epic drum battle.
With Arturo O’Farrill, Pedrito Martinez, and now Chucho Valdés, there has been a welcome infusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms into the jazz lineup at Spoleto, and with Artifacts and Trio 3, there has been what some might view as an unwelcome addition of experimental jazz. Taking the long view, however, I have to say it’s about time – even for people who hated the new sounds. Ever since the festival began in 1977, there have been many theatre, dance, chamber music, opera, orchestral, and contemporary music performances that have drawn the ire of audience members and sent people fleeing to the exits. Perhaps because festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti was so famously jazz-averse, programming has hewn to a safe mainstream, occasionally pushing the envelope but never too hard.
Not anymore. At Spoleto, jazz has joined the club.