06/25/08

Spoleto Festival USA

Alongside opera, theatre, dance and classical music, jazz has played an integral role in all 32 Spoleto Festivals since 1977, when Gian Carlo Menotti planted its New World offshoot in Charleston. The 17-day celebration has grown, in fact, to be the largest performing arts festival in the Americas, dwarfing its Old World parent, established by Menotti in Spoleto, Italy, in 1958. A who’s-who roster of jazz giants—from Dizzy and Ella through Chick and Wynton—has played a pivotal role in establishing Spoleto USA’s commanding prestige.

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Jimmy Katz

Cyrus Chestnut

That’s not to ignore the stormy episodes in the long marriage between jazz and Spoleto. The prominence of jazz in the stateside Spoleto was often given as a reason for Menotti’s dissatisfaction with the festival and his ultimate dismissal from its artistic directorship in 1995, until it was revealed that the real sticking point was the founder’s wish that his adopted son, Francis Menotti, should succeed him in that post. Then there was an artists’ boycott of the Festival in 2000, led by Dianne Reeves, before the Confederate Flag was removed from the dome of the State Capitol.

Reeves has returned to the Charleston revels twice since then, Menotti has passed away, and his son has been dismissed from his post as artistic director at the Italian Spoleto. A renewed relationship between the two Spoleto festivals has already begun, and jazz has arguably a more central role at the 2008 Spoleto Festival USA than ever before.

This year’s festival swelled to 18 days in order to accommodate the renovation of Memminger Auditorium, where a rewrite of Anthony Davis’ Amistad (specially commissioned by Spoleto) opened in festivities that spilled out onto Beaufain Street. Featured with his cousin, librettist Thulani Davis, in a couple of panel discussions about the fabled mutiny aboard the Amistad slaveship, and the composition of his opera, the jazz pianist/composer was not among the artists on this year’s Wachovia Jazz roster.

Instead, he hosted “Music of Anthony Davis,” the opening program in the annual Music in Time series, devoted exclusively to late 20th- and 21st-century music. He was joined by his wife, soprano Cynthia Aaronson-Davis, his son, Jonah Davis, and two members of his musical family: J.D. Parran, the reed player in his trio, and percussionist Gerry Hemingway.

Davis soloed on “Goddess Variations,” based on the climactic aria of Amistad sung by the African Goddess of the Waters. Here and in a clarinet concerto written for Parran, You Have the Right to Remain Silent, we were emphatically sailing the high seas of jazz. Hemingway, featured with Parran in the Amistad orchestra as well as in the Music in Time set, served as the combo’s emissary in the Wachovia Jazz series, performing a solo concert at the Simons Center on the College of Charleston campus during the final week of the festival. So despite the spotty availability of the Wachovia’s outdoor venue, the Cistern, this year’s series had a familiar balance.

The headline concert, “Sanctified Swing,” was staged at the biggest indoor venue in Charleston, Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. Cyrus Chestnut brought his trio and special guests—James Carter, Curtis Taylor and vocalist Carla Cook—to this jazz meeting. At the outdoor site, the usual one-artist-per-weekend formula was tweaked to allow a visit from the Nottingham Playhouse during the middle week of Spoleto. So there were two Cistern concerts over the Memorial Day weekend: Paula West brought the George Mesterhazy Quartet for Friday and Saturday evening sets, and the Stefano “Cocco” Cantini Quartet made its American debut on Sunday. As the final weekend at Spoleto swung around, classical flutist Paula Robison jammed with her Brazilian buds, guitarist Romero Lubambo and percussionist Cyro Baptista.

The West and Cantini groups were nearly polar opposites in one key respect. Where Cantini was buoyed by his sidemen, particularly pianist Ramberto Ciammarughi, West was occasionally let down, mostly by keyboardist Mesterhazy. The Italian soprano saxophonist Cantini, an unabashed disciple of Coltrane (his daughter’s name is Naima), quickly homed in on that late period of Trane’s career when his soprano horn became his voice. Once there (briefly quoting “My Favorite Things” in his opening piece), Cantini rarely varied his tempi or intensity, laying out fresh lines to launch each tune but never carving out an identity separate from the master’s. Ciammarughi fashioned a synthesis of Corea and Tyner all his own. Instead of improvising wildly over titanic Tyner block chords, Ciammarughi layered melody lines in his left hand and virtuosic embroideries in his right. Each solo was a welcome oasis, an escape from Cantini’s unwavering heat. Most impressively, when lights dimmed for a first encore, “Storia di un istante,” Ciammarughi succeeded in softening the leader’s angst in a tender duet.

West has a gorgeous instrument to sing with, and Mesterhazy is a resourceful arranger, allowing West to venture out into less-trodden jazz territory with “A Pocketful of Miracles” and a pair of Dylan staples, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” As an improviser, Mesterhazy lapsed into a couple of detached modes, a sort of syrupy block-chord mantra reminiscent of Red Garland at his worst, or in West’s encore, “Crazy Rhythm,” an uptempo idiom channeling Oscar Peterson on autopilot.

Until the eighth number in the set, Mesterhazy would have done better to yield his solo space to guitarist Ed Cherry. “Gimme a Pigfoot” marked the point where the pianist achieved lift off, and the combo clicked best on Oscar Brown’s “The Snake” and Luis Bonfa’s “Sweet Happy Life” from Black Orpheus. Closer in style to Roberta Flack than Ella or Billie, West was at her best in “Why Was I Born?” and “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” the rarely heard verses adding a special aura.

While famed artists like Hank Jones have preferred to play multiple sets at the Simons Center, either because of its fine studio-like acoustics or its intimate club-sized crowds, the venue is more often the proving ground for Spoleto jazz director Michael Grofsorean’s most venturesome programming. São Paulo pianist Heloísa Fernandes, making her American debut, was certainly the artist who best fit that description on the 2008 jazz roster. She was pure enchantment from the moment she entered, shook off her high heels, and delivered a rich whiff of Brazil—Villa-Lobos’ “Abril” transitioning into Jobim’s “Double Rainbow”—pedaling with her bare feet. There was an unexpected Corea-like simplicity to Fernandes’ interpretation of the Villa-Lobos and a rhapsodic grandeur to her Jobim. The Corea influence extended to his regal Spanish sound in the ensuing “Vôo,” the first of three Fernandes originals, leading into a balmier Chopinesque episode. Like Jarrett’s solo work, Fernandes’ improvisations have sections rather than choruses, this one ending in playfulness. We were now primed for the journey of Caetano Veloso’s “Trilhos Urbanos,” embarking with a funky, faintly primitive sound we hadn’t heard from Fernandes before. A wild explosion followed—Jarrett on acid?—giving way to episodes in Corea’s Spanish and childlike modes before circling back to the funky beginning of this “urban trail.” Programming deftly, Fernandes followed this volcanic eruption with relative quietude. “Fruto,” the least striking of her originals, began with spare introspective meditations before swelling up to her feistier Castilian crackle. Her delicate traversal of Hermeto Pascoal’s “Chorinho pra Ele,” caressed with playful staccatos, was her most conventional playing of the afternoon.

Although the audience might have expected a bouncy bossa nova as soon as it recognized “Desafinado,” Fernandes refused to settle into a dance groove. Rhythm and pulse shifted restlessly like an unaccompanied Joe Pass solo, never quite derailing as the Brazilian traversed two or three moods, beginning and ending in simplicity. Nor was there anything facile or jejune about “Criança,” a composition that Fernandes said was written to her children. It started predictably enough in that “Children’s Songs” mode handed down by Corea. But Fernandes didn’t linger there long. Have you ever seen a jazz artist weeping in the middle of a performance? The composition was so affecting—audaciously offering premonitions of love and death in its richest sections—that I was not at all surprised to see the tears forming in her eyes. We moved purposefully to that climax via playful, frisky, adventurous episodes. Then we moved gracefully past death in a dancing celebration.

While Fernandes’ tears may not have been visible past the second row at Simons, the power of “Criança” reached the back of the room. It wasn’t until after a protracted ovation, after Fernandes sat back down at the keyboard and began romping on Egberto Gismonti’s “7 Anéis,” that the tears must have blinded her. Abruptly, she stopped playing, reached down to pick up her dress, and daubed her eyes. It was as if she had realized that one of the key life passages she had sketched for her children had just happened to her.

Fernandes may have been the most unexpected Grofsorean gem at this year’s Spoleto, but accordionist Daniel Mille and his seasoned French trio are equally extraordinary finds. With its bellows surrounded by buttons on both sides, Mille’s personally modified Cavagnolo doesn’t even look like your father’s accordion. The sounds and effects Mille extracts from the instrument add to the sense of rediscovery. Mille can electronically alter the timbre of the instrument for starters. Mechanically, he prefers the sound of his Cavagnolo when its inner hammers are exposed, the accordion equivalent of a honky-tonk piano.

Mille also achieves a vibrato by waving his left hand over the sound vents, and he taps various parts of his accordion, aside from the buttons, for percussive effects when other members of the combo are soloing. By opening or closing the bellows, he can even vary the pitch of his taps. And like many a jazz artist before him, Mille spreads a vocalese layer over some of his solos.

If that weren’t enough uniqueness for the trio, cellist Eric Longsworth added more. Customarily, he plucks his instrument like an upright bass rather than grabbing for his bow. Even more frequently Mille, for perhaps a third of his music-making, taps percussively on the belly and neck of his instrument. So you’ve probably guessed that this trio is not rounded out by a drummer. It’s Stéphane Chausse, doubling on clarinet and bass clarinet. If all this strikes you as outré or bizarre, think Paris, the languid allure of cabaret, and how smoothly the accordion drops into the middle of that.

Like Desmond in the Brubeck Quartet, Chausse’s mission often seemed to be kicking Mille’s dreamy tempi into a swinging groove. Chausse strode boldly to the fore in “Place St. Catherine,” the second tune of the set, teaming with Longsworth’s bowed cello on a moody 3/4 opening before accelerating into 4/4. After slowing down again to 3/4, Mille jumped on board together with Chausse for a second 4/4 romp before subsiding to the opening drowse.

The full power of Mille’s trio only manifested itself in the final tune, fittingly named “L’ultimo giorno.” There was a stateliness to composer’s line akin to a sarabande as Mille opened with a long, gently keening solo over Longsworth’s plucked accompaniment. Chausse barged in suddenly on clarinet with an unaccompanied, extraordinarily raw and bitter utterance before Mille tossed a solemn, slightly soporific blanket of organ sound over it. More extraordinary still, Longsworth then launched into a majestic plucked solo sprinkled with a surprising Spanish duende, guitarlike, richly melodic, building as few bass solos ever do.

Amid this exquisite music, Mille began working the bellows of his Cavagnolo without pressing any of its keys. Before we knew it, Mille was perfectly replicating the sound of the ocean’s waves beneath Longsworth’s inspiration! Gradually, the accordion and Chausse’s bass clarinet swelled up from the sea-depths and rode us home.

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