Live Review: Spoleto Festival USA

The 17-day performing arts event in Charleston, S.C., widens its jazz playing field

JonBatistePhotobyLeighWebber
Leigh Webber

Jon Batiste (center) with Dap-Kings bassist Bosco Mann and guitarist Thomas Brenneck at Cistern Yard in Charleston, S.C., during the 2018 Spoleto Festival USA

Two years ago, there was a changing of the guard in Charleston, S.C, as Spoleto Festival USA brought jazz to the forefront of its 40th-anniversary celebrations. With Wells Fargo jazz director Michael Grofsorean replaced by jazz advisor Larry Blumenfeld, the lineup turned noticeably toward domestic and New World performers, a trend that’s continued since.

Blumenfeld’s programming this year expanded Spoleto’s stylistic range as well, departing from its customary straight-ahead groove. With Jon Batiste and the Dap-Kings, we moved into the pop music realm. At the other end of the spectrum, the Artifacts ensemble’s tribute to AACM repertoire, spearheaded by Nicole Mitchell, and the set by Trio 3 & Vijay Iyer threw the doors wide open to off-the-rails experimental jazz. Wells Fargo hung in with their sponsorship, but they didn’t increase the number of jazz concerts to accommodate Blumenfeld’s push. Seven remained the magic number, leaving the Fred Hersch Trio, Jazzmeia Horn, the Chucho Valdés Quartet, and Craig Taborn in the mainstream, a definite shift in the balance.

On the first weekend of the 2018 festival, Batiste played a two-night stand at Cistern Yard. The first night was a solo gig, including “St. James Infirmary,” “What a Wonderful World,” and “’Round Midnight.” For the second, he teamed up with the Dap-Kings, who turned the Cistern into a no-jazz zone. Fats Domino’s “Ain’t It a Shame” and Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” took me back to my youth, and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” was the Colbert bandleader’s bluesiest selection. Keenly ruing that I’d missed the solo concert, I found sizable solace in the revelation of Batiste’s singing prowess, which I’d never stumbled across during my occasional Late Night viewings. If you thought “Sunny Side of the Street” from his Jazz Is Now CD was anywhere close to Batiste’s outer limits, guess again.

No such surprises were forthcoming when Jazzmeia Horn took the stage at Gaillard Center, mostly singing tunes from her scintillating debut, A Social Call. The opening song for both the 2017 release and the concert was Betty Carter’s “Tight,” in pretty much identical arrangements. Pianist Victor Gould led the rhythm section and Marcus Miller (not the famous bassist and producer) stepped in to supply the alto sax solo. Both Gould and Miller traded potent fours with Horn before her out chorus. When she veered from the studio versions, she expanded on them. “East of the Sun” gave space to bassist Barry Stephenson for a solo, a chance for drummer Henry Conerway III to return fire after extra scat volleys from Horn, and an opportunity for the audience to go “East” and “West” in further exchanges.

“The Peacocks (A Timeless Place)” and “I Remember You” followed the same order as the album; trumpeter Josh Evans reprised his spots on the former and lingered onstage to add extra tang to the latter, which he’s absent from on the studio cut. With all hands on deck, including Corey Wallace on trombone, Horn’s live rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice/Moanin’” was the most enhanced—and improved—sampling of A Social Call. For starters, the James Weldon Johnson anthem wasn’t as humdrum as it is on the recording. But it was the Bobby Timmons standard, with the late Jon Hendricks’ lyrics, that really perked things up, drawing lively solos from everyone, including a bowed gem from Stephenson.

The cumulative excellence of the band prodded Horn to surpass herself, as she weighed in on Wallace’s solo and jubilantly traded licks with him. After the rhythm section took their solos, Horn played with the “Lord, I’ve tried” release in the Hendricks lyric, ascending to the stratosphere of her vocal range and turning it into an uplifting personal chant that hearkened back to the “Lift Ev’ry Voice” theme.

Artifacts Trio: Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed, Tomeka Reid
Artifacts (L to R): Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed, and Tomeka Reid at the Simons Center Recital Hall in Charleston, S.C., during the 2018 Spoleto Festival USA (photo: William Struhs)

Three things seemed to incline my wife toward favoring Artifacts above all other jazz groups we saw at Spoleto this year: The group was two-thirds women, they brought music stands with them to the Simons Center Recital Hall, and we had front-row seats. After watching their Jazz Talk with Blumenfeld, also from the front row, we could feel a rapport with the artists even before they played the last of their six concerts in this cozy, somewhat clinical space.

Nicole Mitchell, on flute, was Artifacts’ benevolent leader, drummer Mike Reed the earnest provocateur, and cellist Tomeka Reid the serene mellowing agent. At the beginning of their set, each of the players had a chance to sparkle, Reid setting the tone for Reed’s “Pleasure Palace” with a plucked intro, Mitchell navigating the tune, and Reed returning friendly fire before the leader had the final say. Reid pulled out her bow for the next tune, playing together with Mitchell at the outset, and the hypnotic vamp that ensued might be the primary reason Mitchell named this composition “Reflections.”

Reid’s “Song for Helena” had the most interesting texture in the set, the composer partnering with Mitchell in laying down a medium groove and later shedding her bow. Meanwhile, Reed shuttled from brushes to sticks, winding up with one in each hand. Steve McCall’s “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting” was more fully explored here than on the 2013 Artifacts recording. As Mitchell vocalized while she played, both Reid and Reed agitated against her tranquility to poignant effect. They closed with Ed Wilkerson’s “Light on the Path,” the same infectious piece that was Artifacts’ finale. Intensity ricocheted between the musicians, Reed working himself into a lather and pushing tempo behind his kit and Reid radiating the joy that bound them all together.

The initial vibe at Gaillard Center as Trio 3 & Vijay Iyer strode onto the stage might best be described as defiant. Not only did the group start late, but they clearly had no intentions of easing us into venerable saxophonist Oliver Lake’s toolbag of low barks, midrange squonks, and high squeals. I have to admit that fears of a mass exodus began mushrooming in my gut after just 20 seconds of listening to Lake on “Flow.” Pounding on the piano after Lake desisted, Iyer seemed intent on being equally offputting.

Maybe the leaders were disgruntled because of the sound setup. There are grating moments on the group’s 2014 album Wiring, to be sure, but the sound captured in the studio was far sweeter and better balanced. Reggie Workman’s bass, so forward and integral in the studio, was virtually lost in the hall, treble was on leave at Andrew Cyrille’s drums, and the overmiking of Lake’s sax was further underscored because Iyer was relegated to the background, volume and flavor not picked up from his keyboard. Acoustically speaking, Simons Center would have been much kinder to this group.

The assault didn’t let up; the most strident track on Wiring, Workman’s “Synapse II,” came third on the playlist, a performance that triggered the first sizable defections. “Ode to Von” was more quietlyweird, Lake at his most fluid so far, Vijay reaching under the piano’s lid, Reggie and Andrew thoughtfully taking time off from timekeeping. With Lake laying out, “Navigator” abruptly sounded rather tame, as Iyer inserted something different at the start—chords!

Accessibility was back for the remainder of the evening as the quartet meditatively leaned into Workman’s “Willow Song,” inspired by Desdemona’s lament in Othello. Iyer was relatively quiet, layering onto a Cyrille solo; Lake showed his soulful side at last; and the composer eloquently used the space carved out for his bass solo. The stage belonged entirely to Cyrille as he played his drum fantasia, “Girls Dancing,” further reviving audience enthusiasm. Then Iyer stepped forward and introduced what would be the pinnacle of the evening, the third movement, “Adagio,” from his Suite for Trayvon (and Thousands More). This time, he struck a chord with the audience, referencing the carnage perpetrated by a white supremacist at the A.M.E. Church, just a block away, in 2015. The performance must have struck many as a peace offering, sanctifying what had often been a raucous program. Too bad so many who came, perhaps hoping for such balm and healing, had already bailed and wound up missing it.

L to R: Chucho Valdés, Yelsy Heredia, Dafnis Prieto, and Yaroldy Abreu Robles at Gaillard Center in Charleston, S.C., during the 2018 Spoleto Festival USA (photo: Perry Tannenbaum)

Founder of the seminal Irakere in the early 1970s, Chucho Valdés was way overdue for a Spoleto debut. All those voices, all those horns, all that percussion, and all that jazz/rock electric guitar and bass on Irakere’s early albums tended to conceal Valdés’ own talents as a composer and arranger—and as a prodigious beast at the keyboards. But without Arturo Sandoval’s trumpet or Paquito D’Rivera’s reeds on hand, Valdés was inclined to fill in the blanks for himself as he led his quartet into Gaillard. Any expectations of a purely Latin-flavored evening or of frequent rock interludes were swiftly dispelled in the opening “Obatalá.” After a meandering intro, Valdés built to a dense fantasia with textures worthy of McCoy Tyner before cuing the drums, finishing later with a snatch of Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo àla Turk.” In between, there was a light-fingered rumination that could remind you of Red Garland’s treble delights—except that Valdés had a second melody line percolating at the same time in his left hand.

“Son 21” took an approach popular with European artists at past Spoletos: moving from one tune to another during the space of a single piece. This medley was of styles as well as melodies, starting off in a jazz groove and, after a Slam Stewart-style bass solo from Yelsy Heredia (accompanying himself vocally an octave up), transitioning into a rhapsodic classical vein that then flowed into Latin territory. In both of these latter modes, Valdés used his chops to torrid effect.

“Ochun” started out a bit like a gospel tune or a jazzy spiritual, and Valdés’ “Chopin Adaption” further widened the palette, veering towards a samba sway before circling back to classical, more like Rachmaninoff than Chopin, over Heredia’s bowed bass. “Mambo in Heaven” was as Latin as you could ask from its opening keyboard vamp onwards, moving towards a pounding piano solo and culminating in a pitched percussion battle, with drummer Dafnis Prieto and percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles both getting lathered up at the kit and on the congas.

In the concert’s finale, the 76-year-old Valdés presented a Tin Pan Alley travelogue. We didn’t land at “But Not for Me” until Chucho spent some quality time with “If I Should Lose You,” “Night and Day,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “Waltz for Debby.” Even when we kicked into the Cole Porter tune with full rhythm, there were cameo appearances from Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Swinging on a Star.” For anyone who felt he or she hadn’t heard enough Latin sounds, the “El Cumbanchero” encore provided plentiful consolation, with one more epic drum battle.

With Arturo O’Farrill, Pedrito Martinez, and now Valdés, there has been a welcome infusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms into the jazz lineup at Spoleto, and with Artifacts and Trio 3, there has been what some might view as an unwelcome addition of experimental jazz. Taking the long view, however, I have to say it’s about time—even for people who hated the new sounds. Since the festival began in 1977, there have been many theatre, dance, chamber music, opera, orchestral, and contemporary music performances that drew listeners’ ire and sent patrons fleeing to the exits. By contrast, perhaps because festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti was so famously jazz-averse, programming in that genre hewed to a safe mainstream, occasionally pushing the envelope but never too hard.

Not anymore. At Spoleto, jazz has officially joined the club.