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Live Review: Spoleto Festival USA 2013

An eclectic mix in Charleston

Gregory Porter, Spoleto USA, 2013

Since the first day of 90 degree weather for 2013 didn’t hit Charleston before the last note was played, this year’s Spoleto Festival USA may have literally been the coolest ever. Jackets were worn primarily for warmth rather than to make a fashion statement when Gregory Porter sang among the live oaks at Cistern Yard on the opening weekend. A week later, the mercury lingered over the 80 degree mark past sundown, but the laminated paper fans handed out with program booklets for the André Mehmari concert hardly came into play unless you needed it to swat a pesky insect.

Not to worry, in the absence of torrid Charleston temperatures, the lineup assembled by Spoleto jazz director Michael Grofsorean generated some serious heat. Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala made his Spoleto debut with six sets during a four-day stand at the Simons Center Recital Hall, where the duo of guitarist Alessandro Penezzi and clarinetist Alexandre Ribeiro took over a week later for a three-day run, playing five sets. Arguably the hottest of all was Israeli tenor man Eli Degibri, who played the Cistern after Porter’s two-night stint.

Coming to Spoleto for the first time on the heels of being named the Jazz Journalists Association’s best male vocalist three weeks earlier, Porter wasn’t exactly laid-back as he and an instrumental quartet performed under the stars. The voice is rich and deep, sprinkled with appealing graininess, and the outdoor acoustic, paired with the fine electronic setup, added more poignancy or jagged thrust, depending on where the music took him. Porter’s playlist was a good mix of material from his two CDs, Water and Be Good, plus a few tunes that he hasn’t recorded, and a fine work-up of a recorded cover for live performance.

That work-up added a blues shout, “Oh, Alberta,” done as a call-and response with the Charleston audience, at the front end of Nat Adderley’s “Work Song,” with a slowed-down intro of its own after a portentous drum fill by Emanuel Harrold. The trade-off, losing the horn arrangement from the Be Good album, worked well. Otherwise, when the tunes shed their horn arrangements, the traveling versions took up the slack by giving alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato and pianist Chip Crawford more space for stretching out.

All of the quartet members, even bassist Aaron James, are core players on both CDs, so the feel of the concert was very much like the studio recordings. The first three tunes, beginning with “Painted on Canvas,” were the same three that begin the disc, the title song and all its suggestive lion imagery switching positions with “On My Way to Harlem.” Sato proved to be the fierier soloist, Crawford the more unique and varied. Porter has obviously learned from the vocals of Kurt Elling, but when he moved from his own originals to the bluesier Adderley line, it was clear that he’d also profited from listening to Stevie Wonder, Joe Williams and a long line of bluesmen.

Porter involved the audience in rhythmic clapping on “Liquid Spirit,” but fans of Be Good are likely to be more enamored with “No Love Dying” and its typically associative lyrics. On the heels of “Skylark” from Water, Porter unveiled an as-yet unrecorded standard, “Bye Bye Blackbird,” featuring James’ finest work of the evening on bass. The concert wound down with the passionately swinging “Mother’s Song,” followed by the mellow “Imitation of Life”-so mellow with its intimations of Nat Cole that it was hard to believe that Porter wasn’t planning an encore.

He was indeed, training the entire band’s heavy artillery on the incendiary “1960 What” and its vivid images of riot-torn Detroit. Crawford’s eloquence set up the piece and Porter’s vocal ignited it. Then Sato blazed white-hot, abetted by Harrold’s most assertive pounding of the night. Stripped of its horn arrangement, the concert “1960” actually generated more heat and electricity as the whole band joined in on the protest. The second Porter vocal, backed only by James, built majestically, passionately, horrifically as the other instruments and voices layered on and then quieted one last time for a sobering, satisfying finish.

No less personable than Porter, though markedly less famous here in the States, Iiro Rantala brought his mordant wit to bear on a set list that didn’t lean quite as heavily on his newest CD, My History of Jazz, as his sometimes scathing, sometimes self-deprecating introductions made it sound. As you might guess, Rantala’s tastes are eclectic, ranging from Gershwin to Ellington to Monk and to Corea in his discography. But jazz, architecturally at least, begins for Rantala with Bach, so that’s where his set began-and soon returned.

Rantala played on the first Kyrie from Bach’s Mass in B Minor, but his rhythmic approach didn’t push the music into syncopation or modernity, so it was easy to imagine the pianist channeling Bach or Mozart as he spun out this theme-and-variations. Obviously wishing to speak to music buffs in general, rather than exclusively to jazz fans, Rantala addressed the audience while playing his first piece, announced that he was about to shift to his own “Thinking of Misty,” and added that he would try to raise his hand to signal the beginning and end of his improvisations.

“Try” proved to be an accurate modifier as the concert proceeded, particularly as applied to signaling the end of Rantala’s ruminations. Equally apt was his declaration that “Thinking of Misty,” with a blend of rhythmic suppleness and technical rigor carrying it into Keith Jarrett territory, wasn’t at all like the Erroll Garner tune. Then the quirky chronological journey through jazz history commenced with Rantala’s interpretation of the aria and first variation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Hand-raising notwithstanding, there were notable alterations already in evidence while Rantala played Johann Sebastian’s lines, with the first variation-and what he played on it afterwards-accelerated to a manic pace, somehow culminating with Jerome Kern’s bop basic, “All the Things You Are.”

Gershwin’s “Liza,” with a heavy emphasis on ragtime and stride piano styles, didn’t altogether let go of Bach, which is probably Rantala’s historical point. Three originals followed, two of them-“Americans in Paris” and “Uplift”-from the History project. Like “Goldberg,” which is spread across seven tracks and played with a trio on the CD, “Americans” drew more intensive playing from Rantala without accompaniment, on a ballad with a bitter sweetness resembling “Days of Wine and Roses.” The next two, “Freedom” and “Uplift,” saw Rantala messing with the piano’s innards. As yet unrecorded, “Freedom” was rigged to sound like a harpsichord before “Uplift” took on some paper in the strings in order to give Rantala what he fancied was a synthesizer sound as his history lurched forward into fusion. It was fascinating fusion, with a disconnect between the percolating line and the Finn’s tango-like solo that hearkened back to Bach.

Rantala had a couple of final bon mots before he concluded with “Pekka Pohjola,” his homage to the fellow Finnish composer. He promised that he or a stunt double would be available afterwards to autograph CDs in the Simons Center hallway and proclaimed solidarity with all other Scandinavian jazzmen, who are not truly happy unless they are wallowing in misery. The mournful tone of “Pohjola,” of course, was not at all forbidding, containing at its core a melody very close to Ravel’s beloved “Pavane pour une infante défunte.” Very lovely.

For jazz aficionados with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or even Stan Getz channels on their Pandora accounts, the Eli Degibri concert was a godsend. The opening “8 Ball” had a mean freight-train thrust to it that remained untapped on One Little Song, Degibri’s duo recording with Kevin Hays in 2006. Degibri and pianist Aaron Goldberg both had torrid solos on the line before they and drummer Gregory Hutchinson put a fresh twist on the title with a rousing trade of 8-bar volleys that Hutchinson broke open with an explosive solo of his own.

That hard-bop greeting was followed with an excursion to Degibri’s samba side in “The Spider,” where the tenor took on a more Getz-like tone, not at all a deterrent to an incendiary Goldberg rampage before the leader returned and steered the piece into a slowed-down, chamber-like ending. Elements of Trane and Rollins returned with a vengeance in “Pum Pum,” with Goldberg and bassist Reuben Rogers layering onto Degibri’s tirade for added sound and fury before the Charleston version refreshingly revealed the same surprisingly groovy midsection that was captured in the club recording with organist Gary Versace released on Live at Louis 649 in 2006. Degibri and the full quartet roared back, and now it was Goldberg’s turn to cool things off and then turn the heat back up-in a solo so majestic that Hutchinson was compelled to cue up the audience applause before sustaining the fireworks behind the kit. Clearly the chef d’oeuvre of the evening.

It was a good time for Degibri to catch his breath, tell us how he came to write “Liora mi Amore” to his devoted girlfriend in Tel Aviv, and luxuriate in a more tender mood. With Rogers taking a solo, the tune took on a palpitating intimacy. Nor did the quartet come back full blast for the penultimate tune of the night, taking a midtempo tack in “Mika,” a rather pleasant and routine number that lost some of its spark and distinction when Degibri stuck with his tenor instead of switching to soprano sax as he did on his Emotionally Available CD. He more than made up for that slight lapse by closing with the title tune from that same disc. Here we had Degibri and Goldberg both surpassing themselves in a stronger instrumental mix-tenor and piano instead of soprano and Fender Rhodes-and Rogers reaffirming his eloquence. The saxophonist added extra poignancy with his spoken intro, frankly confessing that “Emotionally Available” was now a misnomer in view of his devotion to Liora. That wasn’t exactly how he phrased it, but a review shouldn’t land a boyfriend in hot water.

Like guitarist Alessandro Penezzi, pianist André Mehmari had last been seen at Spoleto as a sideman for Nailor “Proveta” Azevedo in 2010, but Mehmari had brought his own trio to the Festival in 2005, before Azevado’s debut. It was the same trio now, with eight more years of seasoning, playing a songlist that was heavily freighted with selections from their new CD, Afetuoso. Listed on drums, Sérgio Reze merited a percussionist title since he actually played the line on Jobim’s dew-dappled “Chovendo na Roseira” on a set of chimes, and Zé Alexandre Carvalho completed the combo on double-bass.

A master of shifting moods and tempos, Mehmari wasn’t going to play his original compositions in the same order-or even in the same configuration-as they appear on the CD. So his “Choro da Continua Amizade” was newly coupled with Oscar Hammerstein’s “The Song Is You” while his “Lachrimae,” closing the set, was decoupled from another tune that he played in the studio. By adding Mehmari’s “Um Anjo Nasce” to the “Suite Clube da Esquina,” the string of Milton Nascimento tunes that opens Afetuoso, the trio produced their most epic statement of the night-shifting tempos, moods that ranged from stately to delicate, brilliant solos from Mehmari and Carvalho, and luminous colorings from Reze.

Of the works that don’t appear on the new release, the most compelling came out of Mehmari’s heightened interest in the works of Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934). “De Tarde,” introduced by Mehmari as his own completion of a Nazareth opus, was easily the loveliest piece of the night, played on in a couple of nicely judged tempos by the leader with another fine solo from Carvalho. Aside from the “Nasce/Esquina” blend-and perhaps the closing “Lachrimae” (even more imposing on the CD’s 10-minute cut)-“Suite Nazareth” was the most impressive work, elegantly weaving in an allusion to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.

Wandering off into an impressionistic realm, Mehmari’s “Que Falta Faz tua Ternura” was certainly memorable. But if you came to the pianist’s concert hoping to be caressed by the cool essence of Brazilian music, the trio’s take on Jobim, which actually took on some grandeur during Mehmari’s solo, provided the most appealing melodic, and coloristic, voyage of the night. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to hear Reze turning more frequently to those chimes in the future.

Originally Published