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Savannah Music Festival

Jazz was a modest component of the 17-day Savannah Music Festival that straddled the last 11 days of March and first five of April in the Historic District of the old port city in Georgia. It constituted 11 events (actually six concert programs, three repeated), plus a national Swing Central big band competition featuring a dozen high schools, as part of a schedule of close to 100 events featuring everything from classical to bluegrass, world music to blues and rock.

The finale of the festival was a jazz concert featuring a new program from “The One and Only Wycliffe Gordon,” a Georgia native, plus a selection apiece from the top three high school bands in the Swing Central competition, held at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts, a refurbished movie/vaudeville palace. It was a more than adequate space for jazz, but the real revelation, and the attraction that made the festival this year a delight for jazz fans, was the Charles H. Morris Center, where the other jazz concerts were held.

Every jazz festival needs an identity, and while programming provides some, the setting and ambience are equally as important. And in Savannah, the Morris Center, as a historically integral part of the old city, supplied that ambience in spades. A newly renovated former barn/warehouse in what was once the experimental Trustees Garden on the northeast corner of the historic district near the river, the architecturally detailed brick rectangular building (3,600 sq. ft.) with a peaked roof-metal outside, wood-planked inside-was arranged with center theater seating surrounded by tables, accommodating about 300 listeners in a space evoking the feel of a hybrid jazz club/theater. Further enhancing the listening experience, the acoustics and sound system were seldom less than superb.

The programs at the Morris Center were perfectly scaled to fit the space, and curated with more than a nod to Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Savannah’s executive/artistic director, Rob Gibson, had been the executive director. Gibson tapped such former Wynton Marsalis-associated Lincoln Center alumni as pianists Marcus Roberts and Eric Reed, as well as saxophonist Walter Blanding, trumpeter Marcus Printup and drummer Jason Marsalis, plus Wycliffe Gordon. And the emphasis, like Wynton’s at Lincoln Center, was firmly on mainstream-modern, non-electronic, swing.

The first jazz day was devoted to a Piano Showdown, two pianos on stage, featuring the patriarch of jazz piano, Hank Jones, who turns 90 this summer, Roberts, Reed and the British boogie-woogie stylist Carl “Sonny” Leyland. Reed opened with lyrical standards, each done in a unique way, including “I Remember You” from Savannah’s own Johnny Mercer, plus some rousing gospel hymns. Leland joined him for more Mercer, “Blues in the Night” (Howard Arlen’s music), before his own boogie and blues set. Jones began his set with the most modern piece of the concert (unannounced but from his late brother Thad’s book), building hypnotic lines over a circular left-hand ostinato groove. Then he proved his swing is as resilient as ever with, among others, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” before being joined by Reed for a scintillating “I’ll Remember April” intensifying from alternated choruses to traded fours and twos. By contrast, Robert solo set was rhapsodic and/or historically orotund; his final duets with Jones (“Maple Leaf Rag” and “Monk’s Mood”) more loose and playful.

“Swinging Around the World” the next night brought Jones back in a quartet with Swedish guitarist Andreas Oberg (who’d also been featured in a noontime quartet concert) for “Comin’ Home,” Oberg toning down his overdrive speed to mesh well with Jones, who changed up moods with a gorgeous solo and trio caress of “Prelude to a Kiss.” The group became a quintet with Gordon’s trombone for the final quicksilver “Yardbird Suite,” proving again how multiple generations can find common ground in bebop.

But the highlight of the concert was a three-song set by the Italian vocalist Roberta Gambarini who, incredibly, has risen above the fertile promise of her past recordings. Singing with pianist Bill Peterson’s trio plus Blanding, Gambarini conjured up classic female vocal and tenor sax pairings with “I Hadn’t Anyone ‘Til You” and created an astounding scat and vocalese take incorporating Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins solos on “Sunny Side of the Street.” But most impressive was her exquisitely detailed, dramatically-modulated-to-perfection “Lush Life,” a revelatory performance.

The last event at the Morris Center, West Coast Jazz Meets Southern Swing, billed quartets led by Reed and Roberts, although the latter was joined by Blanding to make it a quintet. Reed’s quartet featured West Coast alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton (of the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra) and tunes by West Coast musicians. Moods ranged from soulful hard-bop (“Groove Yard”) to lushly lyrical (Benny Carter’s “Souvenir”). The Roberts quintet dug into blues-based material from the leader and Thelonious Monk, full of meaty solos from Roberts, trumpeter Printup and tenor Blanding. A final “Caravan” featured Jason Marsalis’ drums and Blanding’s snaky soprano sax.

Gordon’s portion of the finale at the Lucas Theatre was billed as a musical auto-biography and included the premiere of the suite, “Welcome to Georgia Town,” incorporating a septet (Printup, Clayton, Blanding, Reed, bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Willie Jones III, plus Gordon on tuba as well as trombone) and the Sweet Singing Harmony Harmoneers vocal quintet. The music ranged from gospel/spirituals to blues to marches to swing, with vocals interspersed, including some from Gordon and the musicians. There was an infectious, almost joyous appeal to the music, as well as evidence that Gordon is now as comfortable as a lyricist as he is as a composer.

Three winning high school bands opened the show, demonstrating that big-band jazz is alive and well at the academic level. New World School of the Arts Jazz Ensemble from Miami, as overall winner, played Gordon’s “Savannah Trails,” a commission of the festival, with the composer as guest soloist. Dillard Center for the Arts Jazz Ensemble of Fort Lauderdale rocked out on “The Groove Merchant,” joined by trumpeter Printup. And Agoura High School Studio Jazz Band of Agoura Hills, California, nailed Duke Ellington’s “Such Sweet Thunder,” with Clayton joining them on alto.

Originally Published