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Charismatic Jazz Singing and Hard Swinging at the 2014 Savannah Music Festival

March 20-April 5 in Savannah, Georgia

Catherine Russell in "Ladies Sing the Blues," Savannah Music Festival 2014
Christian Sands, Savannah Music Festival 2014
Christian Sands, Savannah Music Festival 2014
Charenee Wade, Catherine Russell in "Ladies Sing the Blues," Savannah Music Festival 2014
Christian McBride Trio (Christian Sands, Christian McBride, Ulysses Owens Jr., Savannah Music Festival 2014
Christian McBride Trio, Savannah Music Festival 2014
Cecile McLorin Salvant, Aaron Diehl, Savannah Music Festival 2014
Aaron Diehl, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Paul Sikivie, Peter Van Nostrand, Savannah Music Festival 2014
Cecile McLorin Salvant, Savannah Music Festival 2014

For 17 days, Savannah Music Festival is an omnivore’s delight, what Thelonious Monk might call four-in-one. SMF isn’t merely a classical music festival, a folk and Americana festival or a jazz and blues festival – it’s all of these, with prestigious associate musical directors on hand for each musical genre, including Marcus Roberts for jazz. Plus a hefty helping of world music.

Under the leadership of executive and artistic director Rob Gibson, whose jazz creds include Jazz at Lincoln Center, it’s jazz that reaches most deeply into the fabric of Savannah. Concerts by such notables as Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Eddie Palmieri, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Christian McBride, Taj Mahal, Cyrus Chestnut, Catherine Russell and Charenee Wade lit up the night at the 2014 Festival, with a fine scattering of matinees from Branford Marsalis, Christian Sands, Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo, Aaron Diehl, McBride and Salvant.

In the midst of this plenty, there’s a whole second layer. Twelve handpicked high school jazz bands converged on Savannah for three days of annual clinics and competition. A six-hour marathon of free big band concerts on March 27 serenaded squatters, promenaders and nearby diners at the Rousakis Plaza on the riverfront, where each of the 12 entrants performed a 25-minute set. This big band showcase overlapped a 2.5-hour combo showcase for smaller groups at Reynolds Square, a short walk from Lucas Theatre, the festival’s big jazz venue.

The young musicians gave the Lucas a workout the following day as the competition ran from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. (with a one-hour lunch break for the judges). Meanwhile, behind the scenes, students were treated to clinics led by such notables as Etienne Charles, Terell Stafford, Joe Goldberg, Wycliffe Gordon, Dave Stryker, Jason Marsalis and Rodney Whitaker – plus the previously mentioned McBride, Sands, Diehl and Roberts. All of these worthies emerged at the unique Swing Central Jazz Finale. The first half of this concert is traditionally given over to the awards presentations made to the top three bands, accompanied by a sampling of their handiwork. All the mentoring luminaries take over after intermission, with an all-star set of 12 tunes played by variously configured combos.

Most of the jazz headliners perform at the Charles H. Morris Center, which normally has a hybridized concert hall and nightclub feel, with both cocktail tables and folding chairs to choose from. With brick walls and a high ceiling, the Morris is oversized for a true jazz club, which is why it occasionally takes on another dimension, clearing the space in front of the bandstand and becoming a dancehall. In this configuration, the Morris hosted a Latin Dance Party as the Eddie Palmieri Salsa orchestra made its first SMF appearance since 2009.

Remembering that experience vividly, when the sheer volume drove my wife and me out of the building, I once again sat myself at one of the rear tables. This time, lead vocalist Herman Olivera didn’t overpower the sound system or my eardrums. Nor did the complete 12-man ensemble in full cry with two trombones, two trumpets, and four percussionists cross over the borderline of intolerable decibels. So the dance floor filled more readily with people in front of the bandstand. Yet it was always refreshing when the onslaught of brass, percussion, and vocals subsided and Palmieri chimed in with one of his ever-surprising piano solos with their provocative oddball syncopations. Aside from those moments when Palmieri or Olivera was offering personable intros and remarks, those spare solos were among the few times that I might have heard myself talking.

We ventured closer to the bandstand for the SMF Original Production called Ladies Sing the Blues, featuring Catherine Russell and Charenée Wade. Neither of the vocalists sported a gardenia in her hair, our first reassurance that we weren’t going to witness a wholesale raid on the Billie Holiday songbook. Equally auspicious, a seven-man ensemble joined them onstage, fronted by trumpeter Warren Vaché, trombonist Curtis Mataw Fowlkes, reedman Mark Lopeman and pianist/arranger Mark Shane, a stride specialist who has recorded on numerous occasions with Russell.

The program was formatted so that when Wade came on after Russell’s opening “Goin’ to Town,” it felt like Wade was guesting on Russell’s show, but Russell made three exits and three returns. My first impression was replaced with the sense that the veteran Russell was introducing us to Wade, who took runner-up honors in the 2010 Thelonious Monk vocal competition.

Russell, Wade, Shane and Lopeman were the common threads connecting the Savannah edition with a similar Ladies Sing the Blues concert hosted by Jazz at Lincoln Center last November-and Lopeman and JALC are the links between both concerts and After Midnight, the Cotton Club confection now running on Broadway. Only one of the songs in Savannah replicated the songlist I encountered in New York, Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise,” but Lopeman receives credit for transcribing that novelty in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre playbill, and it pretty much typified the blues tack taken at the Morris.

These weren’t going to be the “I Cover the Waterfront” or “I Must Have That Man” brand of blues we associate with Billie. No, we were getting the smart, sassy and salacious blues of Wallace, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Margaret Johnson, Ida Cox and Virginia Liston-served up with a citified relish. Compared with the liveliness that Vaché, Fowlkes, guitarist Chris Flory and the enthusiasm of the Savannah crowd brought to the ensemble, November’s performances from the Van Allen Room that you’ll find preserved on YouTube are pallid, sluggish museum pieces.

Sad songs like “Am I Blue” or “St. Louis Blues” merely punctuated the spunky cavalcade of innuendo and double entendre that included covers of Cox’s “One Hour Mama,” Liston’s “You’ve Got the Right Key, But the Wrong Keyhole,” Johnson’s “Who’ll Chop Your Suey” and a double helping of Hunter with “Handy Man” and the dirtiest defense of virginity I’ve ever heard, Wade singing “Take Your Big Hands Off.” Even those numbers that weren’t dishing dirt could be downright ornery and spiteful, as with “After You’ve Gone,” “I Found a New Baby” and Waters’ “You Had It Coming to You.”

While Wade’s “Big Hands” and Russell’s “Handy Man” were certainly highlights on the 16-song playlist, the concert excelled most when the two vocalists collaborated and we found ourselves transported to a freewheeling jam session. “I Found a New Baby” boasted the most harmony work between Wade, who sang the verse, and Russell, but a wilder effect was evident in “Women Be Wise,” when Lopeman on clarinet, Vaché, and Fowlkes all soloed together in Dixieland style behind the singers.

Along with a foretaste of his work with the Christian McBride Trio, pianist Christian Sands delivered the best solo concert I’ve seen since Kenny Barron swung out at the Morris during the 2012 Festival. The 24-year-old phenom showed his mastery of various styles, opening with a rendition of Billy Taylor’s “Uncle Bob” that was deftly partitioned into three distinctive sections, with boogying octaves and runs giving way to a more swinging rhythm infused with honky-tonk flavoring, culminating in a rampage that rumbled home with the heavy insistence of a locomotive. Teddy Castion’s “Lonesome Lover,” another hand-me-down from Dr. Taylor, was even more impressive, blowing away the trio version that appears on Sands’ Risin’ CD. Over block chords and a plodding bass line, Sands ran amok in the treble, seemingly playing with three hands and undoubtedly doing justice to his late mentor.

In his other five pieces, Sands ranged from mambo to Monk, but the most emotional and outré pieces were two of the pianist’s own works, with pre-recorded texts mixed into the performances. “Drum Major Instinct,” interlaced with excerpts from Martin Luther King’s sermon on that subject, had a gospel feel to it until the tape kicked in with its exhortations, and Sands became bluesier and more reflective. Dedicated to his mom, who was in the audience, “Southern Song” was more meditative and reflective at first, perking up to solemnity before cresting like a mighty loving river and subsiding into placid affirmation. The impact of this piece might have rivaled the MLK piece if poet Margaret Walker’s reading of her “Southern Song” had been potted loudly enough for its eloquence to register.

The freshness, variety, inventiveness, and sheer virtuosity of Sands’ playing made Mark Shane’s set the following afternoon seem bland and monochromatic by comparison. Waller’s “Ain’t You Glad,” Ellington’s “A Blues Serenade,” and Arlen’s “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” were the most familiar titles in the first half of the concert, but none of Shane’s stride stylings really grabbed me until we arrived at the more improvised treatment of “She’s Funny That Way.” Following up with James P. Johnson’s “Jingles,” a work that takes stride in stride, Shane was on a roll, pushing the tempo. He kept it fresh with his only vocal on “219 Blues” before reverting to predictability with Waller’s “Functionizin’.” All was not lost thereafter. Shane’s escape to ballad mode with Ellington’s “A Single Petal of a Rose” offered some nice light refreshment, and Shane’s closer, James P’s “Carolina Shout,” bloomed early with its strong bass line and sprightly tempo before it withered on the vine.

Originally Published