Review: Spoleto Jazz at the Cistern Yard
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!!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mischief 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.”
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.