Live Review: Spoleto Festival USA 2019

Over a torrid stretch of South Carolina nights, outdoor headliners beat the heat

Esperanza Spalding at the 2019 Spoleto Festival USA
Esperanza Spalding at the 2019 Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, S.C. (photo: Leigh Webber)

There had never been anything like it before at Spoleto Festival USA—four consecutive days of 100-degree heat—and nothing like it before in Charleston, S.C., where temperatures that torrid had not previously been recorded in May. Fortunately, two of the three outdoor headliners in Spoleto’s jazz lineup skirted the worst of the heat wave: bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, on the opening two nights of the festival (May 24 and 25), and pianist and composer Carla Bley, on the last night of the month, after the heat had broken. Somewhat.

Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, on the other hand, was caught smack in the middle of the cauldron (on May 30), leading a tribute to the late pianist and composer Geri Allen in Cistern Yard. “How do you people deal with this heat?” she cried out shortly after sitting down at her kit. “It’s like a sauna up here!” Carrington may have asked the question, but it was clear that her all-star quintet, fronted by pianist Craig Taborn and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, had the answer: They would fight fire with fire.

On “Unconditional Love,” for instance, an Allen original, an extended drum-and-bass improvisation segued into “Running as Fast as You Can,” with Taborn, both hands ablur, going entirely out, defying the heat as militantly as his bandmates. Carrington sang the newly revealed lyrics to “Your Pure Self,” which she’d received directly from Allen, and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut came onstage, driving the group to a new level of energy and joy. At the climax of the performance, there was a moment as touching as the spoken testimonials from Carrington and Coltrane: The group performed “Our Lady,” Allen’s bluesy tribute to Billie Holiday.

Craig Taborn, Ravi Coltrane, Robert Hurst, and Terri Lyne Carrington at the 2019 Spoleto Festival USA
Left to right: Craig Taborn, Ravi Coltrane, Robert Hurst, and Terri Lyne Carrington at the 2019 Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, S.C. (photo: Leigh Webber)

Alone on stage at the beginning of her set, Spalding scatted a few bars of Eric Dolphy and declared that she was thereby fulfilling her obligation to play jazz. Indeed, most of her performance was culled from her recently released, genre-defying album, 12 Little Spells, whose songs correspond with various body parts. Yet Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” and Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” were on her setlist too. Spalding also hearkened back to her debut jazz trio album, Junjo, accompanying herself on acoustic bass as she sang Manuel Castilla’s “Cantora De Yala.” Jazz or not, it was the loveliest vocal performance I’ve heard from her.

After her band appeared, Spalding changed from slacks and T-shirt to a more formal dress. The songs from 12 Little Spells were stripped of many studio trimmings—and reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s jazz-inflected ’70s albums. The resemblance was most striking when the versatile Morgan Guerin, camped behind keyboards most of the evening, abruptly picked up a tenor saxophone on “With Others,” the piece dedicated to the ears. Briefly, the Tom Scott/L.A. Express backup sound lived again.

Spalding’s lyrics usually drove the rhythm of her vocals, an approach that grew rather monochromatic. But there was one refreshing exception to this: the hips-driven R&B excursion “Thang.” By taking over the catchy backup vocal riff and bringing it to the forefront, she made the Cistern Yard performance far funkier than the studio version. Guitarist Matthew Stevens took a solid solo and Guerin took two hotter ones as Spalding capped the evening with Shorter’s “Species.” Ultimately, jazz prevailed.

All of the other performers in the Spoleto jazz lineup seemed comfortable enough with the notion of playing jazz, but those who played indoors—with blessed air conditioning—were no doubt the most comfortable. These included the Dafnis Prieto Big Band at the lavish Gaillard and two six-performance engagements at the Simons Center Recital Hall. The tenor sax/piano duo of Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson was onstage during wrap-up week of Spoleto, but I caught pianist David Virelles during his Simons stint, beginning on the festival’s opening weekend and stretching past Memorial Day.

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Virelles varied his format, flying solo during his first three concerts and teaming up with a fellow Cuban, master conguero and percussionist Román Díaz, for his final three gigs. Most of the titles went unannounced, and it wasn’t until after the duo had played Monk’s “Epistrophy” that Virelles indicated that the previous pieces had been exploratory, recently composed work—perhaps awaiting titles to be given after some more workshopping.

David Virelles at the 2019 Spoleto Festival USA
David Virelles at the 2019 Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, S.C. (photo: Leigh Webber)

From the opening moments, it was clear that this was a joint project. Virelles played a searching solo while the percussionist, armed with just a couple of congas and shaker bracelets, sat by. When Díaz made his entrance, it wasn’t merely to accompany. Instead, his congas gradually initiated a dialogue, at first with abrupt unrhythmic punctuations that seemed to be heeding voices other than Virelles’. The sudden strokes morphed into phrases, which became interpolations when the pianist paused to listen. As if the mutual feeling-out had ceased, the melody and rhythm between piano and congas became more integrated as the tempo quickened.

On the ensuing piece, Díaz switched back and forth from sticks to hands in striking his drums while Virelles began with a heavily percussive approach of his own, grew suddenly boppish for a stretch, and finished off with a cacophonous blast when his partner returned to sticks. On another work, the script was flipped for the most symmetrical performance in the set; Díaz started and ended the piece, framing Virelles outbursts that were darkly anchored at the bass side of the keyboard. In between, the conguero and the pianist each had a couple of spots where they held forth, Virelles almost bluesy in one, ruminative in the other.

 

Román Díaz at the 2019 Spoleto Festival USA
Román Díaz at the 2019 Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, S.C. (photo: Perry Tannenbaum)

I would be remiss not to point out that half of the groups in this year’s Spoleto lineup—notably the smallergroups—hailed from the ECM stable, as that distinctive label celebrates its 50th anniversary. The Carla Bley Trio, one of the most prestigious names in the ECM catalogue, typifies the classical solidity and chamber rapport we’ve come to expect from each new jazz, classical, folk, or world-music release that emanates from the Munich HQ.

Of course, Bley, saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and electric bass giant Steve Swallow have honed their wondrous synergy over the span of decades. The bassist, staying in his instrument’s upper range, gets his well-deserved space on nearly every tune. Sheppard, the youngster in the group at the age of 62, has been on board for a mere 24 years. He isn’t the glue in the outfit, since Bley and Swallow are cerebrally intertwined; beginning on “Copycat,” Sheppard’s smooth soprano sound was more like the emulsifying agent that kept the music flowing.

He took multiple solos on that opener and—switching to tenor—on the ensuing “Ups and Downs,” a line that harks back to the Bley-Swallow Duets album of 1988. A more topical edge sharpened “Beautiful Telephones,” which Bley told us was inspired by what impressed our incoming President when he first occupied the Oval Office in 2017.

Mischief was in the air. Before Sheppard picked up the pace and darkened his tone, Swallow and Bley both had their say, the bassist having a little more fun as he snuck a bit of “Beautiful Love” into his utterance. Bley asserted herself most emphatically in her lengthy summation at the end, weaving threads of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “Yankee Doodle” into her biting sarcasm before her final thrust, the kitschy conclusion of “My Way.”

With “Útviklingssang,” the mood lingered in mournful darkness without witty barbs or quickening tempo. It was the oldest Bley work on the program, dating back to 1980 but resurfacing on Trios, the group’s ECM debut in 2013. The leader stayed in the background, allowing Swallow and Sheppard to spread the gloom. After the White House prank, here was an onset of grim sobriety.

Carla Bley at the 2019 Spoleto Festival USA
Carla Bley at the 2019 Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, S.C. (photo: Perry Tannenbaum)

“Well, this is a sad way to end,” Bley suddenly told us. Unseen eyes had been keeping watch on the weather throughout the concert after a late-afternoon cloudburst had threatened the event. Now they emerged from the shadows at Cistern Yard and told Bley that there were approaching storm clouds. Festival officials were understandably concerned about exposing their Steinway to the elements and wanted to cover it immediately.

Bley pleaded for a few minutes of reprieve so she could end the evening on a more upbeat note. It was a pretty wild scene as many began fleeing to their cars, homes, and hotels while the rest of us stayed on as Bley reported her success and offered “Sex With Birds.” It’s the last of three parts in her “Wildlife” suite, first recorded in 1985 with an octet that included Swallow and reconfigured for Trios. Very likely, the group had planned on playing the whole triptych, yet the sampling we heard ended beautifully. Back on soprano, Sheppard faded out over a lovely Bley accompaniment, twittering happily.

Under the circumstances, a graceful save.

Perry Tannenbaum

Perry Tannenbaum has been covering the performing arts in Charlotte, the Carolinas, and beyond for over 30 years. Aside from JazzTimes, his work has appeared in AllAboutJazz, Backstage, Classical Voice North America, Dance International, BroadwayWorld, Queen City Nerve, CVNC.org, Creative Loafing, and American Record Guide. Since 1991, he has likely logged more reviews and features on Spoleto Festival USA than any other writer and is currently working on a fictionalized account of the festival’s founding and history.