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Savannah Music Festival 2009

In its seventh year, the Savannah Music Festival continues to sharpen its personality, intent on quality, diversity, education and cross-pollination. With drawing cards such as Chick Corea, Marc-André Hamelin, Béla Fleck and Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, SMF 2009 enticingly covered jazz, classical, folk and blues over a leisurely span of 18 days, beginning on the last afternoon of winter and lingering through the first Sunday in April. Rob Gibson, one of the founding fathers of Jazz @ Lincoln Center, is the executive and artistic director in Savannah, ensuring that jazz isn’t an afterthought when the azaleas bloom.

Daniel Hope and Marcus Roberts, associate SMF directors respectively for chamber music and jazz education, give the festival much of its special zing. Hope not only performed in all six of the “Sensations” chamber concerts that he curated, he guested at the “Maestros in Concert” event featuring tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain and santoor guru Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, a memorable East-West summit of classical improvisation. Roberts was no less audacious in his boundary crossings, playing the Gershwin Concerto in F at the festival finale concert with the Atlanta Symphony. On the previous weekend, Roberts shared top-billing with Sebastian Knauer, a German pianist currently making waves in classical circles.

That “Gershwin Songbook” concert was where I began my six-day Savannah sojourn. Knauer treated us to Gershwin’s own piano versions of 14 familiar songs at the top of the program. Bookended by “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and “I Got Rhythm,” Knauer’s set provided interesting insights into the terse view the composer took of his own work: often diffident, yet sometimes jazzy or grandiloquent. Roberts attacked the keyboard with fewer constraints and astonishing technical resources, warming to the task with “A Foggy Day,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” The heavy artillery came out for “Someone to Watch Over Me,” luxuriantly introduced by the verse and embellished with some Tatum-like runs.

Roberts’ spirited assault continued on three of the songs Knauer had played, fairly demolishing those performances of “The Man I Love,” “Summertime” and “Lady Be Good.” Ella herself might have hesitated to follow in the wake of Roberts’ cataclysmic licks on “Lady,” but the stride-inflected “Man I Love” was nearly as joyful. Knauer did have a substantive answer after Roberts closed his set with “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Embraceable You” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” returning from the intermission break with Gershwin’s piano reduction of Rhapsody in Blue, hardly less awesome than Roberts’ exploits.

The Lucas Theatre for the Arts, where Roberts and Knauer scorched Gershwin on the afternoon of March 28, is the crown jewel of the festival: elegant, plush, with a warm acoustic glow. Around the corner on E. Broughton, Savannah’s main thoroughfare, is another gem, where Corea and John McLaughlin brought their Five Peace Band that evening. Like the Lucas, the Trustees Theatre was a floundering movie palace reclaimed and upfitted for the Savannah College of Art and Design. It’s a younger, larger facility, but with seating for 1,200, not too large, with a sleeker elegance and a fine sound system.

As a roadie in the lobby told me, everything Five Peace played at Trustees is on their forthcoming live two-CD set on Concord. The three pieces we heard up to intermission actually followed the playing order on the CD. McLaughlin’s “Raju” was a nice get-acquainted opener, with Corea on electric, Kenny Garrett on sax and the composer taking solos. Corea’s “The Disguise” brought us to a more contemplative mood, with Chick switching to acoustic and McLaughlin exploring mellower terrain on guitar. But the full power of the band only began to manifest itself in McLaughlin’s “New Blues, Old Bruise,” where drummer Brian Blade, briefly wielding mallets, asserted himself from the outset, and Corea began exploring on electric with a hunger belying his years. Garrett laid the cornerstone for his titanic build with quotes from “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” and McLaughlin cooked in a remarkably soulful groove.

Even more majesty followed when the quintet returned, opening its second set with an homage to Miles Davis, “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time,” marking the 40th anniversary of McLaughlin’s appearance on the In a Silent Way album and the launch of his career. Instead of circling back to the quiescence of his opening, as he did in his role as Davis sideman, McLaughlin went into his power mode and Garrett ratcheted up to an intensity we hadn’t heard from him before. Then came the longest, most epical and phantasmagoric voyage of the evening, Corea’s “Hymn to Andromeda,” which began with McLaughlin and Garrett taking a breather in the wings and Corea poking into the innards of his acoustic and wielding a mallet of his own. Obviously, it’s a long journey from such modernism to “On Top of Old Smoky,” but by the time McLaughlin and Garrett returned and soloed, we’d covered that distance and more, with some electric Corea and a magnificent bowed solo from bassist Christian McBride along the way. The 28-minute version on the new CD may have been shorter than the one we got. For the encore, Garrett led us the long way around to Jackie McLean’s “Dr. Jackle,” a dazzling solo by Blade emphatically punctuating the end of an electrifying evening.

Of course, electrified may not be what the Savannah audiences are most comfortable with, as women seated next to and behind me audibly hinted. Programming at SMF’s third jazz venue, a renovated warehouse now known as the Charles H. Morris Center, hews more closely to trad tastes. Ambiance is funkier and intriguingly flexible. For lunchtime concerts featuring boogie-woogie master Bob Seeley, cocktail tables and chairs covered the entire floor in front of the musicians’ platform, creating a club atmosphere. When Ellis Marsalis brought his quartet in for a pair of evening sets, long rows of wooden chairs were lined up nearest the stage, and the tables were squeezed closer together, a hybrid concert-club tableau. Later in the week, when Eddie Palmieri’s band came in for a pair of “Latin Dance Parties,” the chairs disappeared and, with a discreet rearrangement of the tables … ballroom!

Just two quibbles with the new venue, which reopened at last year’s festival. Those wooden chairs are only spaced comfortably for relatively thin folk like myself, but over the course of a Marsalis set, my wife and I found that we lacked the, um, cushioning to soften the up-front punishment. Learning our lesson, we chose the third row over the front two rows for the Bucky Pizzarelli Guitar Trio concert-plus Ken Peplowski-the night after our butt-burnout at the Marsalis Quartet. There we found padded chairs. The crew at the Morris also needs to be more fastidious about soundchecks. We were warned that the Palmieri set would be loud, and we were thoughtfully seated at a rear table. It was still unbearable. When lead vocalist Herman Olivera or flutist Karen Joseph approached full volume, there was unmistakable clipping, at decibel levels I shudder to think about.

Aside from that disappointment, concerts at the Morris were a sonic delight. The one that best fulfilled the series title, “Savannah Jazz Party,” was the “Piano Showdown” featuring Palmieri, Seeley, Aaron Goldberg and Henry Butler, where things got a little goofy. In a good way. With two pianos onstage, we could tell there would be plenty of hand-to-hand action. And if there’s a world of difference between Seeley and Palmieri, what about the distance between the light and graceful Goldberg and the dense and powerful Butler!?

Goldberg led it off with an unexpectedly fleet “I Mean You,” underpinned by an energetic walking bass. Then Seeley served up the “St. Louis Blues” about five different ways, including New Orleans style, stride and boogie-woogie, milking a succession of two-fisted climaxes for audience applause. Palmieri taught the crowd a handclap before his solo, building to a furious enough lather to silence us on an unannounced title.

And then came Butler. I suppose there may have been logistical reasons for placing the New Orleans player last in the lineup in deference to his blindness, but two other factors quickly emerged as Butler attacked the keys. The man has the monster power to hurt a piano, and he’s nearly impossible to follow. There was no teaching necessary when Butler launched into his own “Orleans Inspiration,” for the crowd was clapping out their own rhythm before he reached his highest gear and red-lined. Follow that? Butler did, layering on a heavy-duty vocal for “Somethin’ You Got” as he punished the ivories.

With flavorings of Billy Preston and Dr. John flashing though Butler’s thunderbolts, the party was definitely on. Goldberg joined it bravely, sitting down opposite Butler and initiating the hostilities of “Frankie and Johnny.” What followed was merciless as Butler dominated, solo-against-solo, like a heavyweight battering a welterweight. But there was plenty of spirited fight left in Goldberg as he rallied in subsequent exchanges, never forcing Butler to give ground but going toe-to-toe with him-and going the distance.

Solos by Seeley on “Amazing Grace” and by Palmieri on “Lambada de Serpente” preceded the final two duets. The ever-game, ever-gracious Goldberg let Palmieri begin a spacey, Latin-flavored line until he found a spot where he could enter the dialogue and kick up the tempo. Finally, Seeley demonstrated the mischievous spirit that makes him a special favorite for Gibson. Matched up improbably against Butler in a classic blues battle, Seeley made up in sheer chutzpah for what he lacked in chops. Seemingly tossing in the towel, Seeley rose from his bench and sidled over from his end of the stage to Butler’s. There he impishly sat down next to Butler and re-entered the fray, a losing game until Seeley got the idea to play around Butler. A big enough man to bounce Seeley to the floor, Butler wasn’t going to give ground to the opposition by hunching closer to the keyboard. Grinning with hearty good humor, he made it tough on the old man. When Seeley finally succeeded in playing anything with his arms around Butler, it was an octogenarian triumph.

No way to follow that inspired silliness. Wisely, nobody tried.

Originally Published