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Jazz at Spoleto Festival USA

May 28-June 12 in Charleston, SC

Nailor Provetz Azevedo
Leszek Mozdzer
Leszek Mozdzer
Julian Lage

In its 34th season, Spoleto Festival USA exuded a fresh youthfulness. Dock Street Theatre, closed for renovations after the 2007 festivities, sported a modernized lobby, upholstered seating, and a quietly efficient air conditioning system as it coolly reassumed its position as hub of the festival. Once again, there was theatre, opera, and chamber music at the intersection of Church and Queen Street, where the first Dock Street Theatre was built in 1736. Young charismatic violinist Geoff Nuttall took over as host/director of the chamber music concerts from beloved octogenarian Charles Wadsworth, injecting a little more new and modern music into the programming – and a sprinkling of rock. Attendance perked up with over 70,000 tickets sold and a 22% increase in revenues.

Jazz director Michael Grofsorean was as eclectic as ever in selecting the 2010 lineup, gathering artists from as near as Georgia and as far as Poland and Brazil. All weren’t necessarily in the first blush of youth, but all were making their Spoleto debuts. Hanging out in Charleston during the first and last weekends of the 17-day festival, I was able to catch four of the six headliners, all of them in top form.

Norma Winstone’s trio certainly set the bar high at The Cistern, Spoleto’s outdoor site. Pianist Glauco Venier and reedman Klaus Gesing have recorded with Winstone on multiple occasions dating back to 2003 – with another release from ECM slated for later this year. Whether they were covering Harry Nilsson’s pop confection, “Everybody’s Talking at Me,” or embarking on a free-form exploration that mixed Winstone’s scatting with her original lyrics, the instrumental duo backed their lead vocalist with uncanny assurance. Or it seemed uncanny until a set list emailed by Gesing revealed that three of the 14 titles performed by the trio on May 28 had been composed or arranged by Venier and four more had similar input from Gesing himself.

With their opener, “The Mermaid,” arranged by Venier with lyric by Winstone, the trio quickly dispelled the notion that they were bereft of percussion and bass. The arranger, reaching into the innards of his piano and beating on the chassis, led the swampy percussion that preceded the vocal, but all three pitched in on creating the atmosphere. With the onset of the melody, Gesing chose his coloristic ax, the bass clarinet, and laid down a bass line. Only at the end of the first vocal, where the look of the mermaid’s eyes is described as “the color of seaweed and sky,” did Venier break into a conventional piano solo.

Early in set, Gesing’s curvy clarinet provided an outré background, adding a foghorn effect on the slowdown at the end of Tigran Manzurian’s “Cradle Song” and aping an upright bass behind the clever vocalese Winstone has coupled to Steve Swallow’s “Ladies in Mercedes.” Playing the horn on an instrument stand and slapping the staccatos enhanced the effect. Deeper into the set, Gesing soloed frequently on his bass clarinet. When the trio dug into Maria Schrieber’s “Among the Clouds,” Gesing gave us an inkling of his rapport with Winstone, but that turned out to be a foreshadowing of their climactic duet on Tom Waits’s “San Diego Serenade,” where the leader took as much delight accompanying as soloing and jamming. In between, the two sparred on a couple of Gesing originals, “Slow Fox” and “Rush.”

When Gesing had a notion to blow, soprano sax was usually his horn of choice. Some of his most driven work came when he splashed ashore after “Mermaid” with his own transformation of a Trane tune, “Giant’s Gentle Stride.” A soaring sea voyage was his answer to the vocal on the Nilsson melody – apt enough since Winstone mischievously prolonged the last line, “Skipping over the ocean like a stone,” to an oceanic four bars. Nor were Gesing’s clarinet exploits on the Schrieber and Waits tunes left without soprano statements as counterbalances.

Prominent in the moody intros and contributing solos that smoothed the terrain between the precipices provided by Gesing and Winstone, Venier could easily be underestimated. But the cohesiveness of the ensemble was largely the result of how beautifully the piano fit in, whether Venier’s hands were on the strings or on the keys. For sheer romantic melodicism, his best work was on Armando Manzanero’s “Just Sometimes.”

On the strength of this concert, that next Winstone Trio release on ECM figures to be as wonderful as their last.

After two nights of the edgy Winstone Trio, it was reasonable to expect softer, more undulant sounds at The Cistern from Nailor “Proveta” Azevedo, the Brazilian son – and grandson – of accordionists who built his reputation in the dance halls of Brazil’s interior. The nickname Azevedo has earned from his colleagues means “test tube” in Portuguese, a tribute to the full-formed purity and perfection of his utterances, as if they were meticulously prepared in a laboratory.

So it was hugely surprising when Azevedo, playing soprano sax, came out sounding more like a latterday Django Reinhardt Hot Club Quintet than any samba or bossa nova played by a Stan Getz combo. While there was percussion from Roberta Valente on pandeiro, the most insistent pulsations on the opening “Aguenta seu fulgencio” came from Danilo Brito on bandolin and Alessandro Penezzi on guitar. If you prevailed upon Stephane Grappelli to sit out a set and replaced the violinist with Sidney Bechet, you would have a fair approximation of the energy and pace sustained by Azevedo and his quintet.

Like Bechet, Azevedo favors a clarinet when he slows the tempo, but that wasn’t happening until after the quintet ignited another burner, Laércio de Freitas’ “Camondongas.” Finally in Pixinguinha’s “Os 5 Companheiros,” with Azevado’s licorice counterpoised against André Mehmari’s spare piano, we settled into a samba groove – but we took a U-turn back to the carnaval spirit (and the leader’s soprano sax) as Penezzi, Azevedo, Mehmari, and Brito soloed before the full ensemble roared to the end of Penezzi’s “São Brás.”

Just when it seemed the band might only have two gears, Mehmari joined Azevedo on the sidelines and the most rewarding section of the concert began with Valente shaking her tambourine thingy behind Brito and Penezzi on a Brito lay called “Sussuarana.” Then Valente peeled away for a bandolin-guitar summit on Lupérce Miranda’s “Quando me Lembro.” Azevedo was also keen on the duo format, presiding over a choro clinic that began with his clarinet opposite Penezzi on Pixinguinha’s “Acerta o Passo” and culminated with a powwow with Mehmari, first on soprano in the leader’s own “Choro em Cantareira” and afterwards on clarinet – in a more swinging style – on “Elogio ao Choro,” Mehmari’s line, but very complimentary to the boss. These explorations were so deeply satisfying precisely because “Proveta” tossed aside some of his usual polish with pleasingly jagged results.

Mehmari earned a breather as the rest of the quintet reassembled for another essay in the choro tradition, Jacob do Bandolim’s “Gostozinho.” While Azevedo’s attempts at English late in the set fell short of “Proveta” perfection, his musical showmanship was unerring as the full quintet finished with the two most rousing uptempo romps of the evening. Starting with a solo intro on soprano, Duda’s “Lucinha no Frevo” evolved into a stop-and-go feast with mellow tango trimmings, piano and bandolin jamming before a hot ride home. No, this was a good distance from the genial 1-2-3-4 thrumming that began the evening, and the finale, do Bandolim’s “Vôo da Mosca,” was even more crowdpleasing. The slow intro, clarinet and piano, was gorgeous and the onset of the strings pushed the tempo to a gallop, where Azevedo asserted his dominion one last time. Another slowdown set the stage for one last dash, with Brito matching “Proveta” note for note.

Reflecting the uptick in ticket sales throughout the Spoleto Festival, both of the first sets at the more intimate Simons Recital Hall were played to capacity crowds. At a pre-concert photo session on the opening weekend, Leszek Możdżer immersed himself in his own private musical cocoon behind the house Steinway, practicing for about 10 minutes before he graciously demonstrated how he doctors the inside of the instrument as he plays. The Polish pianist carries a little bag on his travels that contains a few heavy flat objects for repeatable effects, but he also picks up hotel towels to stuff into the gap between the tuning pins and the hammers at the low end of the keyboard, yielding a muffled marimba sound. For his harpsichord and toy piano effects in the treble, Możdżer picks up a few cylindrical drinking glasses at his lodgings that he places lengthwise on the strings. Since these glasses are inevitably imperfectly flat, each one has its own idiosyncrasies that Możdżer seems to relish for the pinch of randomness it brings to the music. Often the glass will move around during a performance; occasionally, Możdżer confided, even standing upright! As for those moments when he rolls a glass up the extreme bass strings for a unique clattering effect, the musical result is almost literally a crapshoot.

Although there was definitely a classical rigor to his playing – he has recorded compositions by Bach and his countryman Chopin in the past – unalloyed Możdżer sounded more like Corea than Jarrett on the first two pieces, his own “Fiojo” and a mash-up of Sammy Fain’s “Secret Love” and Chopin’s Prelude in A-flat, particularly when he drifted into a Spanish rhythm on the latter. A similar blend of Spanish and classical elements carried over, at a jumpier tempo, into Tymon Tymanski’s “Zdrowy Kollataj” as Możdżer introduced his marimba timbre in the bassline. Towel and glass were in the piano prep for a slow, delicate, and eventually twangy take on the Mazurka in C that was a healthy distance from Chopin at we know it.

Another of the pianist’s originals, “Incognitor,” had a Joplinesque frenzy to it, so the quiescence of Krzysztof Komeda’s “Svantetic” was very soothing in its wake as the timbres of marimba, harpsichord, and piano all figured in the meditation. Hitched up to Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” Możdżer’s febrile approach had the hard bop masterwork sounding positively raggy – but never ragged. There was plenty of Corea-like duende – with chops and inventiveness aplenty – in a midtempo version of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertitti” with the bass detonating like bombs between statements of the line.

The arsenal was truly impressive, and if Możdżer sometimes appeared like a mad scientist playing a laptop with all his manipulations on-the-fly, there was never even the slightest descent into gimmickry. Brief samplings of clattery clavichord, a random roll of the glass in the high treble, and an uncanny simulation of an electric guitar were all deftly woven into the fabric. Few in the audience had ever seen anything like it, and the rousing ovation at the end left no doubt whether they liked what they saw.

Adding to the surreal quality of Możdżer’s performance, the hair that Spoleto officials discreetly suggested he pull back during his photo session was set free during his concerts, totally obscuring his facial features as we viewed him at the keyboard in profile. In contrast, the atmosphere at Julian Lage’s opening set on the final weekend of Spoleto was down-home, genial, and relaxed. Disdaining the usual chair and footrest of guitarists, Lage stood before us with Grand Ole Opry informality. Nor was there any mistaking the sheer exhilaration Lage was feeling as the steel string player shared the Simons stage with Peruvian bassist Jorge Roeder, who astonished nearly as much as the headliner with his dexterous forays into the upper baritone register, his occasional percussion, and his ability to swing out on bass and percussion at the same time.

Only two of the nine tunes, “Clarity” and “Motor Minder,” were originals from Lage’s debut album, and the live duo versions were as wild and spontaneous as the studio quartet versions were tame and slick. Roeder’s importance in the duo as both soloist and accompanist was underscored in the first two selections as Lage stepped aside and gave the bassist opening solos on the leader’s “Hannelore” and the familiar “I Hear a Rhapsody.” Lage unleashed a barrage of folksy virtuosity on his own tune, shuttling abruptly between slow and fast sections, with an array of timbres that veered into banjo and mandolin territory when things got hot. Roeder packed plenty of his own heat in “Hannelore” amid the shifting rhythms and actually took a second solo on “Rhapsody.”

“Big Sciota,” an infectious mountain reel, drew forth Lage’s countrified mandolin mode and a fairly amazing solo by Roedus capped by some nifty glisses. The duo calmed down a little for Duke’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” where Lage uncorked some vintage Chet Atkins sentimentality that didn’t deter Roedus from working himself into another rapid-fire lather. But the wildest jamming was reserved for “Motor Minder,” where Roeder slapped percussion on the neck of his instrument with his left hand while plucking a quite serviceable solo line on open strings with his right. Lage indulged in some hambone of his own here, stomping his feet for percussive accompaniment – or simply tapping his guitar with his pick.

“Cocoon,” another Lage original, with Roeder accompanying on arco, provided one last mellow respite before the double-barreled finale. Pulling out all the stops one last time – and punching his ax a couple times for good measure – Lage executed an “Alone Together/Night in Tunisia” fantasia, as Howard Dietz’s bridge was invariably replaced by Diz’s. Nor was the encore, Lage’s bluesy “Ode to Elvin,” any less festive as the duo joined up after splitting solos, stomped out a spirited march, and sprinted to a mad finish.

Originally Published