05/03/11

Savannah Music Festival: An All-Star Galaxy

Review of performances during festival on March 24-April 9, 2011 in Savannah, Georgia

As grey as she looked during all five days of our 2011 visit, Savannah never lost her springtime allure, and as unseasonably cool as the temperatures turned after dark, the jazz and blues at Savannah Music Festival remained pretty darn hot. If you swooped into town for the first Monday of the 17-day celebration, noonday jazz concerts awaited you through Thursday at the clubby Charles H. Morris Center, with two or three sets those same evenings at the same place—by different mixes of artists. And if your horizons stretched into classical music, SMF beefed up their chamber music offerings with a string of 11am concerts at the cozy Unitarian Universalist Church, so the complete lineup included a three-part traversal of Beethoven’s violin sonatas and recitals by such notables as Daniel Hope, Christine Brewer, and Simone Dinnerstein.

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Bill Charlap and Houston Person at 2011 Savannah Music Festival
By Frank Stewart
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Jason Marsalis, Rodney Jordan, Béla Fleck, and Marcus Roberts at 2011 Savannah Music Festival
By Ayano Hisa
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Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes at 2011 Savannah Music Festival
By Ayano Hisa
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Grant Green, Jr., Ike Stubblefield, and Marcus Williams at 2011 Savannah Music Festival
By Ayano Hisa
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Grant Green, Jr., Wycliffe Gordon, Ike Stubblefield, and Marcus Printup at 2011 Savannah Music Festival
By Ayano Hisa

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Norwegian percussionist Hans-Christian Kjos Sørenson’s horizons certainly stretched that far, for he was scheduled to appear at a Music at 11 concert with sterling violinist Catherine Leonard right before his “Percussion Summit” meeting with Jason Marsalis and Joe Craven. But Sørenson bailed on Leonard in favor of the Noon 30 concert at the Morris. Perhaps everyone realized that, after he partnered with Leonard on Bright Sheng’s “Hot Peppers,” Sørenson might make it across town to the Morris easily enough but his marimba would pose a problem. Whatever the reason, it looked like Sørenson was having far more fun at the Marsalis-Craven gig than he would have had at the church.

Craven, in particular, was not dressed up in his Sunday-best. Nor was has instrumental arsenal yielding much ground to formality. Decked out in a casual style that made it unsurprising to learn that he would be reprising his shtick for an auditorium full of schoolchildren the following morning, Craven worked the crowd on his way to the stage with a user-friendly lecture on the nature of music. Onstage he proceeded to play the bottom of a trashcan, the shoelace on a boot, his own face, a pair of squeeze balls, a pot cover, a contraption made from exhaust pipes, and (in a Bach partita!) a dead donkey’s skull. There was more: Craven’s third of the stage looked like a messy kindergarten, and a couple of times, he selected youngsters from the audience to come up and play. Predictably, his piece de resistance combined comedy and virtuosity as he played a lute-like instrument he called a “commodium”—among other choice nicknames—because its most notable component was a bedpan.

Amazingly enough, Sørenson was able to follow Craven’s puckish buffoonery with a disarmingly relaxed disquisition of his own on his background in classical percussion, managing not to trample on his collaborator’s staunch know-nothing stance on reading music, and transitioning smoothly to a delightfully mellow performance of Gordon Stout’s “Mexican Dance.” Sørenson unfurled some surprising versatility of his own as the concert proceeded. He contributed some very Nordic vocalese to an ECM-ish group improv and then, in another untitled caprice, played a dangerously inflated balloon. Showing musical aforethought, Sørenson had a spare balloon at-the-ready when the first one burst.

While Craven appeared in a silk top that could have been extracted from a pair of Japanese pajamas, and the shirt Sørenson chose marked him as a Monte Carlo grifter, Marsalis was the contrarian in the group, disdaining casual wear and opting for white shirt and tie. Marsalis’ sartorial rectitude was mirrored in his slightly veiled contempt for the crowd-pleasing presentations that preceded his, extending, by uncomfortable implication, to anybody who found them amusing. An abrasive edge remained as Marsalis patiently demonstrated the difference between the rigid Old World concept of the march and the looser New Orleans beat. Then he spread his contempt to fellow jazz drummers and their furious cannonading solos, which he contrasted with his own “Rhythm Is the Thing” solo. Now we could smile if we found the brash percussionist’s contempt universal enough—or if we remembered how elder brother Wynton also knew everything back when he was greener in years and judgment. The arrogance is a hand-me-down! When Jason moved over to a vibraphone, he was frankly dismissive of his own prowess on the instrument, enabling us to warm to him a little more.

There were some doldrums when Craven, given back the stage, had difficulty deciding what he wanted to do. But all was well at the end—even Marsalis was smiling—when Sørenson introduced a final surprise guest: a battery-powered Duracell Bunny that played its own little snare drum. We not only heard an authoritative recap of the entire Duracell-Energizer bunny saga, we learned that this mechanical marvel played in a swingin’ 5/4!

Happily, other concerts were more conventional and less discursive. Bill Charlap was undoubtedly the workhorse among the jazz artists, playing seven sets over the span of 52+ hours—with three different lineups. Most predictable of these, after the resounding success of their first joint CD last year, was the piano duo of Charlap and his wife, Renee Rosnes. Of the ten tunes they performed at their opening set, seven came from the Double Portrait playlist. The two absentees were replaced by Chick Corea’s “Tones for Joan's Bones,” Monk’s “Eronel,” and Jerome Kern’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” giving the concert a lighter, less contemplative patina overall than the album—while fueling hopes for a sequel.

The couple flipped their CD script somewhat, saving the opener, Lyle Mays’s “Chorinho,” for last and moving Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry” up to the top. Tempo was noticeably faster than the recorded version, indicative of the friskiness to come, with a hilarious quote from Wagner’s wedding march in the coda—smack on the last note of the “till I’m dead” refrain. The Gershwins’ “My Man’s Gone Now” remained lachrymose, but the live version of “Dancing in the Dark” threw off what few remnants of late-night intimacy remained on the disc in an all-out uptempo romp.

Unlike past years, when two Steinways filled the Morris stage for “Piano Showdown” events, this was more like a piano embrace. One of the keenest pleasures was untangling the sonic embrace of the Double Portrait album and distinguishing who was soloing and who was accompanying. If anything, including an audience in the experience seemed to increase the joy they shared.

Sitting at a café table two days later, Rosnes looked on supportively at the Morris as her husband strayed to another duo partner, tenor man Houston Person. It wasn’t exactly a first date, since Person’s CD with Charlap, You Taught My Heart to Sing, actually preceded Rosnes’ by over three years. Although Charlap emceed, a telltale sign that their recorded hook-up had been on Person’s label popped up after the duo opened with a tune off that album, Gene de Paul’s “Namely You” from Li’l Abner. Person almost winced when he had to correct Charlap on the lyricist, Johnny Mercer—Savannah’s favorite son. To his credit, Charlap instantly grasped the magnitude of his gaffe and turned it personably to his advantage.

The relaxed rapport between the players was perfect for a noontime concert, and the live setting—as it had for the Rosnes duo—brought out the pair’s sunniest colors. After the Daisy Mae ditty closed with a spirited trading of 4s, “Star Eyes” swung handsomely with Person handling the head and the outchorus, followed by a surprisingly uptempo rendition of “What’s New,” with Person taking an extra half chorus before another volley of 4s transitioned back to the line. Following that with the Gershwins’ “’S Wonderful” wasn’t keeping the tempo too resolutely fast, because Charlap began it by playing lyrically on the verse, enhancing the dash when Person jumped on the head.

That was the only other song reprised from the duo’s 2006 CD, as they entered a “You” zone, gorgeous covers “Why Did I Choose You?” “It Had to Be You,” and “Memories of You.” Then a pleasant surprise as Charlap singled out the woman seated next to his wife—his mom, Sandy Stewart—and invited her to the stage for a couple of songs. The first, “Somebody Loves Me” with the rarely sung verse, replicated the charms of the 2005 mother-son recording, Love Is Here to Stay, but Stewart’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” may have been better than anything she has recorded to date, a magnificent interpretation enhanced by Person’s gruffly tender half-chorus. Hard act to follow as Stewart returned triumphantly to her daughter-in-law, but Charlap and Person boldly swung out with “I Only Have Eyes for You.”

Later on Wednesday, the two guys teamed up for three more sets, but the rest of Charlap’s trio, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, flew down from New York for the gig, and Person remained backstage until the last three tunes of the opening set. This gave the pianist a little more space to frolic on a mid-tempo “I’ll Remember April” and Thad Jones’s delightful “Little Rascal on a Rock.” Then came what Charlap announced as a Monk tune but may actually have been Milt Jackson’s “Tahiti” from the classic Jackson-Monk hookup on Blue Note. Whoever wrote the line (it could have been “Eronel” again), Charlap managed to cram a good chunk of the Monk catalog into his lively solo before trading 4s and 8s with Kenny. The pace slowed – but only momentarily – for Cole Porter’s “In the Still of Night” as Charlap upped the tempo twice for his solo, with a dash of Puccini somewhere in the flurry. Dave Frishberg’s “Our Love Rolls On” started out in its customary ballad mode until Charlap kicked it up to a swing tempo in his second chorus, but “The Lady Is a Tramp” zoomed all the way, quieting for two choruses from Peter before Charlap scorched three. A contemplative “Spring Is Here” rounded out the trio segment.

Everybody got into the spotlight as Person returned to the bandstand, yet the tenorist’s impact was electric as this quartet swaggered into the funkitude of Horace Silver’s “Juicy Lucy.” After Person snarled the head, he, Charlap, and Peter Washington feasted on two choruses of the juice, before Kenny W and Person exchanged volleys on another. Then on “These Foolish Things,” we had a more leisurely listen to Person’s gruff tenderness, with a creamy Charlap chorus in the middle before the tenor took us home from the bridge. A rather generic blues was the finisher, pretty much following the “Juicy Lucy” format, except for a more extended trading 4s orgy between Kenny W and the headliners calculated to leave a glow of satisfaction throughout the room.

While Charlap sailed along his musical odyssey, banjo icon Béla Fleck was appearing in a couple of the intriguing settings that SMF artistic director Rob Gibson revels in presenting. In a ballyhooed first, Fleck guested with the Marcus Roberts Trio in two sets at the Morris on Tuesday; and on Wednesday, Fleck and bassist-composer Edgar Meyer teamed up with tabla master Zakir Hussein for a full-length concert at Lucas Theatre. That trio will be performing Meyer’s Triple Concerto with the Colorado Symphony in late May, so they were obviously not thrown-together. Unfortunately, the concert by The Avett Brothers at the mammoth Johnny Mercer Theatre offered more room in our schedule for dinner, so we skipped that Fleck performance. Bad move. We left the Avetts after no more than 20 minutes. Call us spoiled, but when we get to our seats, we prefer to sit in them rather than standing with the Avetts’ maniacal fans all evening long. We also prefer an ambiance where turning off our cell phones might make a difference.

Fleck playing with Roberts might strike their respective fans as a shotgun marriage, but in practice, it worked out quite well with no major glitches. There was a sprinkling of standards in their nine-tune playlist, including a duet on “Maple Leaf Rag,” Fleck’s bold but ill-advised attempt to yank “Lullaby of Birdland” into waltz time, and a closing free-for-all on Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Blues.” Most of the set was comprised of tunes by Roberts and Fleck, bespeaking a healthy amount of mutual respect and quality rehearsals. Fleck doesn’t dabble much in balladry, and the set started off at a blistering pace with his “Monkey See.” Béla and Marcus took the main solos, but by the time Jason Marsalis had finished trading 4s alternately with Roberts and Fleck, he’d logged nearly a chorus on the drums himself. “That Old Thing” kept the set leaning toward the banjoist’s bluegrass idiom, but Roberts set the tone for “A Servant of the People” and Joplin’s “Rag,” the quietest spot in this irrepressible program.

Wisely, the balance tilted back toward bluegrass before the final touchdown in the Delta, for the sound of Fleck veering toward blues and ragtime didn’t deliver quite the kick of following Roberts into fleet-fingered Fleck country. “Servant” had tasty input from Marsalis and a gleaming solo from bassist Rodney Jordan, but Béla was clearly more comfortable in his own “Cheeseballs in Cowtowns” and the newly-minted “Small Potatoes,” and Marcus looked—and sounded—like he was having a blast keeping up the frantic pace. Roberts and Jordan resisted the whole 3/4 thing in Shearing’s “Birdland,” saving it from disaster, but the Fleck-Roberts hookup probably worked best in another new composition from the five-string master, “Prickly Pear.” A couple of rousing group jams surrounded the brilliance of a Fleck stop-time solo in this burner and concluded with some fine filigree from Jordan.

The Clayton Brothers, Dianne Reeves, and an all-star Swing Central convocation—with Ted Nash, Slide Hampton, Terell Stafford, and Dave Stryker among the notables—still lay ahead on the SMF schedule, but the road beckoned. Enough time remained for a double-dose of Hammond B3 master Ike Stubblefield and his trio. For anyone unfamiliar with recordings in Stubblefield’s name, the discography is negligible, but he’s been hiding in plain view for over 40 years, backing up a long, long list of blues, rock, and Motown greats on keyboards—including The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, The Pointer Sisiters, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, and George Benson. Memories of Richard “Groove” Holmes were instantly evoked when Stubblefield launched into a rousing rendition of “Misty,” a hit for Holmes back in the ‘60s, to kick off his Noon 30 set at a brisk pace. So if the bulk of the résumé isn’t jazz, Stubblefield quickly and effortlessly proved he has the chops.

Nor was he the only powerhouse in the trio, for the lefthander on the stool slinging the bluesy guitar solos—with a funkier edge than his famed dad—was Grant Green, Jr. There was controlled combustion as he took up Stubblefield’s galloping “Misty” and the fullness of the composer’s approach in Wes Montgomery’s “Road Song,” before Green added some fatback of his own. Drummer Marcus Williams also had some tasty ideas here, aggressively backed by Stubblefield. Further evidence that the guitarist had some say about the playlist surfaced later on when Green introduced the line and surrounded Stubblefield’s fine mid-tempo work with two smoothly shuffling solos on Michel Legrand’s “Summer of ’42,” a tune memorably covered by Benson on his White Rabbit album. The best moments of this exceptionally winsome set came last as Green strung out a long, lovely Latin ballad intro for “Brazil” with Williams pouring on the percussive color. Stubblefield finally introduced the melody, kicking the tempo into high gear, giving way to another Green tirade over a Williams stampede. Williams had some generous solo space here as well, punctuating a Stubblefield fantasia. It was all about the leader—gushing a profusion of spicy ideas—from then on, signaling that the old campaigner was not to be upstaged.

Time-sharing with the Claytons as well as expanding to a quintet with two distinguished guests, Stubblefield wasn’t quite as engaged or rambunctious in the last set that same evening at the Morris. On the other hand, Green obviously relished trading licks with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and trumpeter Marcus Printup, and came out firing on all cylinders even before the brass players joined the trio on the bandstand. The quintet jelled most convincingly on the traditional “Deep River.” Stubblefield confined himself to the bridge as Grant laid out the line—and peeped in for a half-chorus on the B3 organ to finish out the guitarist’s third chorus, a scintillating response to the brass fireworks in between. In the blowing contest between the two guests, Gordon was more gimmickry than substance on his slide but still scored well with the crowd. Repeating his triumph at last year’s Swing Central showdown, Printup inspired with the soaring tone of his horn and dazzled with the fecundity of his fast-flowing phrases. It wasn’t quite as deep or majestic as his exploits last year on “Amazing Grace,” but it was pleasurably close.

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