Tag Archives: Monty Alexander

Joy and Akinmusire Cap SeixalJazz 2022

Review:  Ambrose Akinmusire and Samara Joy at SeixalJazz 2022

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Portugal-190At SeixalJazz, across the graceful April 25th Suspension Bridge from Lisbon, Portugal’s renowned capital, the festival must go on. The last couple of pandemic editions, in annual two-meters-apart format, had been muted echoes of the expansive new direction SeixalJazz had taken in 2019, when Kenny Barron, Ralph Towner, Peter Bernstein, and the John Beasley Monk’estra had all been headliners – while afternoon and latenight concerts had been added at separate venues.

After a strategic retreat to an all-Portuguese lineup in 2020, the 2021 festival celebrated its 25th anniversary with a stellar smorgasbord for its socially-distanced audience, including Seamus Blake, Melissa Aldana, Ted Nash, and a high-powered Billy Hart Quartet that slipped in Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson. But it was SJ 2022 that turned on the burners full blast once again at the Municipal Auditorium of the Seixal Cultural Forum, discarding the social-distancing of previous years and restoring the alternate slate of free-admission “Clube” programming at the Sociedade Filarmónica Democrática.

2022~Portugal-186Monty Alexander, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Samara Joy were the big names ready to cook at the Municipal. Breaking our own personal travel bans, my wife Sue and I had already shortlisted Portugal as an attractive autumn destination. Seeing Joy perform with guitarist Pasquale Grasso in August, at Charlotte’s Middle C Jazz Club, pretty much cinched our decision. The opportunity to also see Akinmusire, whose albums I had supported on multiple JazzTimes Critics Picks lists in past years, made the closing weekend at SeixalJazz even more irresistible.

If that weren’t enough, the 10:00pm starting time for all Municipal Auditorium concerts left us free to tour as we wished during daylight hours without being rushed or constricted in our evening dining choices. Across the Tagus River from Lisbon, atop an imposing slope overlooking the shore, the Municipal sports a hillside parking lot that could likely accommodate an audience of 1000. We were rather surprised when the hall, unlike most festival spaces we’ve experienced, had a cozy capacity of 400 or less – completely sold out on both nights we attended.2022~Portugal-196

Akinmusire was actually more familiar with the Municipal than we were, having played on closing night of SeixalJazz 2014 with two other members of his current quartet, pianist Sam Harris and drummer Justin Brown. Missing in action from that gig eight years ago were tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and bassist Harish Raghavan, staples in the trumpeter’s formative years, replaced by Joe Sanders wielding the upright.

So the rapport between Akinmusire’s bandmates – and between the band and their festival audience – figured to be solid. Knowing each other for more than 20 years, the returning members of the Akinmusire Quartet could hearken back to the leader’s earliest recordings, play off on the tender spot of every calloused moment, Ambrose’s latest release, and even play a new composition for the first time. Adding to the band’s comfort level, no doubt, the acoustics and the sound crew at the Municipal quickly proved to be admirable, and the audience’s energy and courtesy were outstanding.2022~Portugal-066

While the sound of Akinmusire’s band put me in mind of the Miles Davis Quintet that astounded me at the Village Vanguard in the mid-1960s, with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock in the lineup, the shape of the compositions and the composer’s arrangements were freer in form. Meters, tempos, moods, and dynamics could all change abruptly during each piece on multiple occasions. Except perhaps for Sanders’ occasional bass solos, bars and choruses seemed to be an arcane concept when the soloing players took the spotlight.

Nor did Harris or Brown diligently withdraw into accompaniment when handing off the lead to each other – or even when Akinmusire was had the reins. Because Harris and/or Brown were so persistently expressive instead of subordinating themselves, the very definition of soloing was often in flux as each arrangement organically unfolded. It was as if all were so eagerly joining in on a narrative – and so comfortable with each other – that nobody ever hesitated to speak up or interrupt.2022~Portugal-072

Yet the Quartet’s volatile brew never gave any sign of devolving into cacophonous chaos. Most freely expressive was Akinmusire, growling, squealing, whining, sighing, or ranting – angrily or urgently or plaintively – with his horn. Nearly always, he had the last word, more like a soliloquy than a cadenza. Pieces often seemed to end after a moment of reflection when Ambrose decided he had said exactly enough.

The crowd was only thrown once by the Quartet, three pieces into the concert, when a cooldown Akinmusire offering was followed by a titanic solo by Brown. It was so epic that the hall burst into wild applause when the drummer simply paused for a breath and a mood shift – followed by a briefer trumpet solo crackling with fury. “Mr. Roscoe (consider the simultaneous),” for composer and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell, was the most cerebral and rigidly arranged nugget on the playlist, showcasing Harris in a wonderfully thoughtful vein.2022~Portugal-062

That provided a perfect segue to Akinmusire immersing us in his ballad mode with “Roy” for trumpet great Roy Hargrove, also from the most recent album but in a live version that was more extended and virtuosic. Not having seen Ambrose playing live before – or even on YouTube, I’ll confess – I was more than a little surprised that this brass player, unlike Wynton Marsalis or Wycliffe Gordon, didn’t bring a collection of mutes, plungers, or assorted doodads onstage to help him produce that wide array of signature sounds he perfected.

And of course, I was impressed. Even Miles had his famed Harmon mute in his arsenal.

Nestled at the bottom of the hilltop commanded by the Municipal Auditorium, a gaudy riverboat with a gangway leading down to it stood gleaming on the shore. Our first night at SeixalJazz, we mistook the riverboat for the ferry from Lisbon, which had its last run of the night when festival concerts began. As it turned out, the posh vessel was the Lisboa à Vista, a truly fine seafood restaurant where we had booked reservations for the following night – and where we first encountered Samara Joy and her band, already seated at the table next to ours.

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My wife recognized her first, but I soon felt compelled to confront jazz’s newest diva with a question that had been nagging at me all the way across the Atlantic. Since Joy had favored us back in August with a song she had written in French for a previous concert abroad, could I get a scoop on a new song she had written in Portuguese?

Not quite. Joy hadn’t written a song in Portuguese for tonight, but she assured us that she would be singing one.

Joy’s career has certainly been in high gear over the past few months, so I’ve needed to shift into overdrive just to keep up with the news. At Middle C, she was signing pre-release copies of Linger Awhile, and eight weeks later when she sang at Seixal, the new album was rapidly climbing the charts. By the time we returned stateside, Linger Awhile was #1 on the Jazz Week airplay chart. Two Grammy nominations came in shortly afterwards, including Best New Artist, and word of a seven-city Big Band Holidays tour with the Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra was posted online, to be followed with a stint on the 2023 Jazz Cruise.

At the Municipal, the contour of Joy’s set was very much as it had been back in North Carolina, about half of the songs from her two albums, leaving her plenty of space for pleasant surprises – and leaving us plenty of additional delights to discover in her new album if we hadn’t heard it. Unlike Akinmusire (one Grammy nom, we should mention), who started off full steam and never let up except for his well-placed but no-less-intense balladry, Joy started off at a high level, less chatty and playful than she had been at Middle C, but there was a gradual build in the second half of her set list.2022~Portugal-218

Once again, “Can’t Get Out of This Mood” was near the beginning of the program, unmistakably echoing the Sarah Vaughan arrangement from her landmark In Hi-Fi album of 1950. This time, pianist Ben Paterson instead of Grasso was Joy’s prime collaborator, so the performance was far closer to the sound of the Grammy-nominated studio version. On the other hand, Grasso – like Paterson, a major voice on Linger Awhile – had played the intro and instrumental solo on “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew)” where Joy has added fresh lyric to Fats Navarro’s 1947 solo on the Tadd Dameron original. So that tune got a fresh twist in Seixal, with a Euro edge as French bassist Mathias Allamane and Danish drummer Malte Arndal rounded out Joy’s rhythm.

“’Round Midnight” has a bigger horn arrangement in the studio version, so I preferred the intimacy that Joy established with her audience in both of her live performances here and abroad, though I’d be eager to hear a J@LC arrangement. The other Monk tune, with Joy’s vocalese on “San Francisco Holiday (Don’t Worry Now),” hasn’t been recorded yet. Both Grasso and Paterson were exemplary when I heard them, so it will be interesting to see which one Joy will choose for her studio take.

With his work on “If You Never Fall in Love With Me,” swung with Joy more confidently and energetically than “This Mood,” Paterson made his case that the vocalist’s eponymous debut album, cut exclusively with Grasso’s trio, could have benefitted from his presence. The lingering rush of adrenalin from that uptempo romp provided a perfect moment for Joy to spring her Portuguese surprise, a lyrical tribute to Lisbon’s own “Queen of Fado,” Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999).2022~Portugal-201

Not attempting to emulate the fadista’s oft-imitated style, Joy charmed her audience with her sincerity, humility, and individuality. Clearly, she was buoyed by their response, for after rocking the house with a newly-minted “Blues in Five,” Joy ripped my heart out with the best “Guess Who I Saw Today” I’ve heard from her, better than the cut on Linger Awhile and better than her Middle C encore. I can’t honestly say the same about her rendition of the title song: it flashes by so quickly every time, like lightning – ironically, the shortest track on both Joy’s and Sassy Sarah’s Linger Awhile albums.

The truest measure Joy’s growth over the past couple of years – she’s still only a tender 22! – was her valedictory rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” with multiple levels of depth beyond what you’ll hear on the opening track of last year’s Samara Joy debut. Coupled with her extraordinary voice and command, she seems to possess an unquenchable urge to seek out the purest essence of the music and the lyrics she sings.

Photos by Perry Tannenbaum

Shy Folk Charm and Dazzle at Savannah Music Fest

By Perry Tannenbaum

Monty Alexander and Cécile McLorin Salvant (Photo: SMF/Frank Stewart)

Two things I can say after witnessing a good chunk of the 27th Savannah Music Festival: they’re still making it a better experience for jazz lovers, and thank heavens they’ve created such a haven for shy performers. This year’s cavalcade of luminaries included star turns by Freddy Cole and René Marie on opening night; Joey Alexander, Julian Lage, and Dr. John in the closing week; and Etienne Charles, Catherine Russell, The Hot Sardines, Monty Alexander, Eric Alexander, Marcus Roberts, Terell Stafford, and Wycliffe Gordon in between.

But I’ll remember the shy folk most fondly. First there was Cécile McLorin Salvant admitting she had always wished to sing with Monty Alexander but was too shy to ask, even when they were headlining the same double bill. So the pianist in her trio, Aaron Diehl, had asked on her behalf. Near the end of Salvant’s set, Diehl eased away from the piano and brought Alexander in from the wings, and the wish was fulfilled – with one last touch of suspense.

“What do you want me to play?” Monty asked.

“Do an E-flat blues,” Cécile coyly responded.

So what emerged, from a haze of tantalizing mystery, was an epic version of “Fine and Mellow.” It wasn’t destined to achieve the legendary status of the TV version sung by its composer, Billie Holiday – with solos by a string of immortals including Ben Webster, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, and Roy Eldridge – but it unfolded in the same majestic vein, with multiple solo spots by both Salvant and Alexander.

And then, the following afternoon and evening, there was Harold Mabern. Just past his 80th birthday, the versatile pianist professed to be uncomfortable when his peers make a fuss over him when he tallies another year. Not an easy claim to swallow when Mabern delivered some of the most engaging introductions and anecdotes you’ll hear at an afternoon solo concert; when he solicited and answered questions from his audience at length; and when, as a sideman in Eric Alexander’s quartet, he pretty much took over emceeing chores. With no complaints.

My guess is that Harold will be invited back.

I always show up in Savannah when the jazz scheduling is most intense, so my first taste in 2016 was the “Swing that Music” double bill featuring Russell and The Hot Sardines, their last performance in a two-shows-a-night, three-day run. Russell’s definition of swing may have been of a slightly more ancient vintage, but it certainly wasn’t any less hot, risqué, or sassy than the Sardines’. Her set was a little more blues-tinged, taking us back nearly a century with “Darktown Strutters’ Ball”; nodding to her own father, Luis, with the “Lucille” he wrote for Satchmo; and sending us out with the legacy of Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man” and its wicked Andy Razaf lyric.

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Catherine Russell (Stewart)

 

Before that final “he can use my sugar bowl” bravura, Russell checked in with a couple of Lady Day delights, “Swing! Brother, Swing!” and “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” She leapt out of the era of swing, stride, and rags entirely with nods to Dinah Washington (“My Man’s An Undertaker”), Esther Phillips (“Aged and Mellow”), and her special reclamation, Wynonie Harris. Feeling ran deepest in Harris’s “Quiet Whiskey,” a late-night blues that seems to have acquired new relevance.

With so much going on with the Sardines, it was wise not to follow them. Not many jazz bands throw a tap dancer at you who doubles on ukulele. Or a trumpet paired with a cornet. Or a bass player who doubles on sousaphone. Or a hot singer who can do serious percussive damage with a washboard. Plus the old-timey costumes and attitude – Dixie, honky-tonk, or vaudeville, label it as you choose.

One of the things that made the Sardines’ self-titled 2014 CD the best vocal album of the year for me was its live, spontaneous looseness and playfulness, even though it was a studio effort. Well, they were even looser and more playful live at the Morris Center in their Savannah debut following Russell’s high-energy set. None of the songs came off that 2014 CD and only “Summertime” was even in their discography. So a new batch of Sardines could in the can – or headed there soon.

Although she also turns out to be a personable emcee, it’s largely about what “Miz Elizabeth” Bougerol sings with her unique and alluring sense of style. Starting off with a French version of Louis Prima’s “I Wanna Be Like You” (yep, from Disney’s original Jungle Books) over “Fast Eddy” Francisco’s uke, Miz Elizabeth seemed to have a predilection toward the strumming sound of Django Reinhardt’s swinging combos. But there were other styles in the Sardines’ roux, for Jason Prover on trumpet, Mike Sailors on trombone, and Nick Myers on clarinet combined for some New Orleans-style chaos in the accompaniment.

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Elizabeth Bougerol – “Miz Elizabeth” – and her washboard (Photo: SMF/Elizabeth Leitzell)

The Hot Sardines, Savannah Music Festival 2016
By Courtesy of Savannah Music Festival/Elizabeth Leitzell

Miz E continued with another fascinating French concoction, “Weed,” that she called a Gallic variant of Peggy Lee’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Sure enough, the horns sounded like the Benny Goodman brand of swing behind her and in the instrumental jamming. The eclecticism was only beginning, for during Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Francisco stood up from his chair and showed us what he could do with those tap shoes, trading licks with pianist “Bibs” Palazzo. Underscoring the kitschiness of “People Will Say We’re in Love,” the brass had the temerity to emulate a mariachi band on the way to a “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” coda.

The final three pieces sidled back to establish common ground with Russell. Miz Elizabeth did her washboard business in the final ensemble of “Jelly Roll” after her vocal and a spray of solos, including Francisco’s flying feet. “Summertime” built from a quiet Palazzo intro on piano to a brassy roar with Sailors switching to cornet, and “Everybody Loves My Baby” was pure jubilation, all the soloists including Francisco strutting their stuff one last time and Miz Elizabeth pulling out a tambourine.

After this colorful profusion of swing, the Aaron Diehl Trio was bound to seem comparatively mundane the following afternoon. While the heart of the set was a triptych of tracks from Diehl’s fine new Space Time Continuum recording – “Flux Capacitor,” “Organic Consequence,” and “Broadway Boogie Woogie” – the live performances were barely a shadow of what was achieved in the studio.

Aaron Diehl (Stewart)

Shrunk by the absence of the horns that livened the studio sessions, sapped of the drive and exploratory energy of Diehl’s recorded solos, and numbed by the listless vamping of the leader behind bassist Paul Sikivie – hoping he’d suddenly morph into Scott LeFaro? – “Organic Consequence” was especially diminished. Even “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” a trio arrangement on the album, lacked the same fire from Diehl, with his current drummer, Lawrence Leathers, outshining the leader where an exchange of 4s was tacked onto the chart.

Toward the end, Diehl perked up somewhat in a two-tune Horace Silver tribute. “Opus de Funk” swung for three or four choruses, with a strong Leathers solo and a tasty Ellingtonian outro. Best of all was “Melancholy Mood” and its ruminative piano intro over Sikivie’s bowed bass before Diehl broke into a mid-tempo lope, with the bassist sheathing his bow and digging in. A moodiness echoing the intro took us out as Sikivie retrieved his bow and Leathers switched to his mallets.

With a recording career that spans more than 40 years – and impressive jazz, pop, and reggae outings – Monty Alexander shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, listening to his trio set – with Hassan Shakur on bass and Jason Brown on drums – I found it hard to believe the native Jamaican ever had more enthusiasm for music and more restless energy than he has now.

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Monty Alexander isn’t slowing down (Stewart)

Onto the spare framework of Ahmad Jamal’s “Night Mist Blues,” Alexander wove an epic solo that included threads of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and a swatch of Bach that I didn’t have time to jot down before he was onto – improbably – “It Takes a Worried Man.” Then you wouldn’t have suspected that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was a separate item on his set list, for Alexander drifted into that finale so smoothly that it seemed like just another prank played on the Jamal line.

Alexander was more apt to change moods on his own originals rather than troubling to drape new clothes on them. “Look Up” tried on “Take the A Train” momentarily but was more notable for its sojourns in the realms of ballad, Latin, and boogie-woogie on its odyssey. The trio heated up “You Can See Me” from a Garner-esque lope to a full-fledged boil before Alexander faded it out. There was even some experimentation in the lab during “Hope,” with Monty reaching under the lid of the Steinway during this most delicate piece, as Brown checked in with his strongest work, coaxing atmospheric pings and metallic washes from his kit.

With her heavy emphasis on drama, Salvant doesn’t instantaneously line up with the shy profile she suggested. But there’s something to it when you scrutinize her songlist, with choices that included “The Trolley Song,” “Nothing Like You Has Ever Been Seen Before,” “Mad About the Boy,” and “Jeepers Creepers.” All of these are awestruck, admiring, and a bit giddy. There was a coy and flirtatious take on Bob Dorough’s “Nothing Like You” and touches of Sarah Vaughan as Noël Coward’s “Mad About the Boy” heated up.

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Cécile McLorin Salvant is “Growlin'” (Stewart)

Far more histrionics were lavished upon the “Trolley” that Judy Garland made famous, starting off with the verse sung over a sympathetic Diehl vamp and Leathers’ puttering drums. But we didn’t reach deep waters until Salvant exhumed the traditional “John Henry” – with a gravitas you won’t find on the 2013 WomanChild album. The live vocal began without her microphone, with Diehl more about foot stomps than piano when Cécile went back on mic and Leathers marking time with handclaps. Cuteness discarded and pace slowed to a more solemn gait, Salvant’s low notes bore a previously unsuspected resemblance to the great Odetta.

After the magnificent hookup with Alexander, Salvant closed with the two opening tracks from latest CD, For One to Love, my pick for best vocal album of 2015. Her original “Fog” came off with notably more confidence and depth as Salvant took herself more seriously, and “Growlin’ Dan” was a high comedy tour de force. Salvant explained the whole lineage of this song that Blanche Calloway wrote as a sequel to little brother Cab’s famed “Minnie the Moocher.” Diehl’s solo has grown into a more emphatic jazz march, and Salvant’s singing – it’s hard to fathom how her long drawn-out growling could be the match for anything Wycliffe Gordon does on trombone when she’s pouring out all that sound and volume at the tail-end of her second set of the evening.

Harold Mabern (Leitzell)

When he talks about Lee Morgan, Phineas Newborn, Frank Strozier, Clifford Brown, the Philadelphia jazz scene, or his students at William Paterson University, Mabern seems like a pretty mellow soul. But it’s usually a different matter, even at the age of 80, when Harold attacks the keyboard. So a solo concert makes for a nice balance, rigorous playing interspersed with relaxed storytelling.

There was so much finesse in Mabern’s interpretations of “Moody’s Mood for Love” and “Dahoud,” so much soulfulness in his rendition of “It’s a Wonderful World,” that I found it somewhat odd that this genial man would be explaining the difference between his style and McCoy Tyner’s. Then he finished with “My Favorite Things,” and the pounding majesty of it made the comparison inevitable.

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Mabern and Eric Alexander evoke the Coltrane songbook (Stewart)

More Tyneresque moments occurred during  the evening’s “Tenor Titans” double bill, though you could call it Harold being Harold behind a powerful tenor saxophonist, Eric Alexander. The beast came out in Mabern’s first solo on “Summertime,” and after Alexander and bassist John Webber had their say, the pianist dropped another snippet from the Coltrane songbook, “My Shining Hour,” into his second solo, as drummer Joe Farnsworth went to his brushes. Mabern’s original, “Rakin’ and Scrapin’,” probably swung the hardest, Alexander dipping into “Fever” during his frenetic solo, but the most beautiful piece – of the whole evening, really – was Jule Styne’s “I Guess I’ll Hang My Teardrops Out to Dry.”

With a much softer sound and a far more unassuming manner, tenor man Stephen Riley was the antithesis of Alexander’s suave command and bold playing style. Backed by a rhythm section that was none other than the Marcus Roberts Trio, the similarities and contrasts between the two tenor sets were pretty cool. Not at all imitating the Coltrane sound, Riley opened and finished with Trane compositions, “Moment’s Notice” for starters and – more impressively – “Bessie’s Blues” to close.

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Stephen Riley and the Marcus Roberts Trio (Stewart)

There was a Monk composition in the middle of the set, “Blues Five Spot,” but Roberts couldn’t wait that long to do his Thelonious impression. Right after the opener, Robert’s applied a Monk fantasia to “Lulu’s Back in Town,” virtually stopping the tune – and clearly stopping the show as Jason Marsalis cracked up behind his drum set. Riley and Marsalis collected themselves enough to follow with their solos, but Roberts returned to take it out at a snail’s pace. Was he perhaps telling Riley that he’d taken “Moment’s Notice” too slowly?

Whatever the message, Riley proceeded to return fire on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” slipping some “Bemsha Swing” into his solo. When the Monk line actually came up, only bassist Rodney Jordan messed with it, dousing his solo spot with “Old Man River.” The “Bessie’s Blues” was truly fine sending us home, but Riley himself clicked best just before that in “Takin’ a Chance on Love,” carving out a solo intro over Marsalis’s deft brushes, diving into three gorgeous choruses, and appending a lovely cadenza after the all-star rhythm section had its say.

With a late night ahead of me, I skipped out on the Brianna Thomas Quartet concert the following afternoon. I’d never heard of her. Well, I learned my lesson that night at Lucas Theatre. Thomas turned up in Wycliffe Gordon’s big band as the trombonist’s original score for Oscar Micheaux’s Within These Gates, the oldest known film by an African American director, was presented for only the second time. Thomas and Milton Suggs, another singer I‘d never heard of, were both exemplary.

Brianna Thomas gets on my radar (Stewart)

But the band was fairly star-studded, with a trumpet section that included Terell Stafford and Etienne Charles, chairs for Adrian Cunningham and Riley among the reeds, and Diehl at the keyboard. Quite a pit band for a silent movie, and Gordon’s score doled out plenty of opportunities for all the prime horns to rise and shine. Forgive me if I didn’t catch every one of the instrumental exploits – hey, I was watching a movie!

Yet all these stars would emerge from the darkness and contribute to the Late Night Jam hosted by Gordon back at the Morris Center. Stafford got the featured billing and pretty much ruled over anyone who shared the stage and vied for supremacy. Suggs was only briefly in the spotlight, but he got my pulse racing with his driving vocal on Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” Thomas created no less of a sensation with her riffs on “All of Me.”

Kudos also go out to the flawless SMF sound crew. All during the week, I saw just one or two musicians discreetly asking the guys to tweak their monitor settings, imperfections that were remedied in the blink of an eye.