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Review: Spoleto Festival USA 2014

The divas dominate in South Carolina

Charenee Wade at the 2014 Spoleto Festival USA
Aca Seca Trio at the 2014 Spoleto Festival USA

Another eclectic international jazz lineup graced the city of Charleston, S.C., May 23-June 8 at the 38th annual Spoleto Festival USA. Two of the festival’s traditional venues hosted the concerts, the outdoor Cistern Yard and the indoor Simons Center Recital Hall, plus another College of Charleston facility, the handsomely converted TD Arena, which has been subbing for the big headliners’ concerts for the past two years while the Gaillard Performance Hall undergoes a radical makeover.

Attractions from South America, Europe and America converged on Spoleto, mustered by Wells Fargo jazz director Michael Grofsorean with his customary virtuosity. After her fine outing early this spring at the Savannah Music Festival, my anticipation was especially keen for Charenée Wade’s booking at the Cistern. The set that Wade had sung in Savannah, paired with Catherine Russell, was strictly themed as a blues survey, though “Ladies Sing the Blues” skewed more toward the raunchy than the broken-hearted.

Would Wade simply revert to the tunes she put out on her 2011 debut CD, Love Walked In? Might she carry over some of the saucy blues licks she served up in Savannah? Or might she expand on the two nuggets from the Monk songbook she had previously recorded, freshly reminding us of her credentials as runner-up at the 2010 Thelonious Monk Competition?

Wade brought out three of the sturdiest standards from Love Walked In, “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” “Mood Indigo” and her closer, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” The only other standard Wade unveiled was “Blue Moon,” not likely to appear on her next CD, since she confirmed that the 2015 release will be devoted to the late Gil Scott-Heron. Wade only slightly tipped her hand on that project, singing Scott-Heron’s “Essex” as her penultimate number.

None of the lasciviousness or double entendre that Wade showed so much aptitude for in Savannah made the trip to Charleston, nor was her backup quartet as seasoned and colorful. Wade veered toward a different kind of looseness, showing her scatting chops on her opener, “I’m Movin’ On,” and more bodaciously on “Blue Moon,” jamming with-and thoroughly upstaging-saxophonist Bruce Williams. Until Wade had done her scatting on “The Object of My Affection,” we didn’t get the full flavor of what Williams can do, after he had swapped out his alto for a soprano sax.

Everyone was in top form for Duke’s “Indigo,” including the audience, encouraged by Wade to chip in with hand claps every fifth beat. Wade levitated over that floating tempo with a scat outbreak between two conventional vocals, Williams continued his hot streak as we grooved into 4/4, and pianist Oscar Perez caught fire. The fun wasn’t over until Wade took another half chorus and jammed with Williams. Culled from Scott-Heron’s From South Africa to South Carolina, “Essex” featured an alto rant from Williams that evoked the intro to the 1976 recording, but Perez’s machinations under the hood of the piano, abetted by Alvester Garnett’s puckish percussion, was an altogether new touch.

This was the only selection on which the quartet, including bassist Dezron Douglas, seriously threatened to upstage Wade, boding well for the whole Scott-Heron project. Wade may also be mulling over a Joni Mitchell tribute, for the arrangement of “Tin Angel” had a similar excellence and originality, with Garnett switching to mallets, Wade giving a chanting flavor to her opening vocal and Perez leading a tasty outro. Getting back to some more dirty blues and channeling less Ella would also be welcome new directions.

Welsh-born pianist Gwilym Simcock didn’t wait nearly as long to alert the audience at Simons Center that he was planning to delve under the hood of the onstage Yamaha. He went there for the coda of “These Are the Good Days,” just as he did to kick off his Good Days at Schloss Elmau release in 2011. Then he wasted no time in charming the entire house with his account of the origins of “Antics,” off his latest Reverie at Schloss Elmau recording. Assorted premieres on 50 junk pianos around London, a foray into a rough neighborhood and some friendly advice from a tough guy to never come back were all woven into the narrative.

From then on, Simcock could have played any way he wished, but his style was hardly radical at all. “Antics,” besides its taunting n-yeah n-yeah motif, settled into a stride groove that wasn’t quite the familiar stride piano style, colored with Bill Evans chords. Simcock’s style on his “Exploration on Mvt II of the Grieg Piano Concerto” was wholly individual, and definitely exploratory, perhaps best approximated by the ethereal touch of Richie Beirach on his Hubris album, a distillation of pure eloquence. “Jaco and Joe,” on the other hand, reminded me more of Chick Corea’s My Spanish Heart compositions than I expected from a tribute to half of the Weather Report quartet.

Another of Simcock’s inimitable anecdotes led us into “Little People,” a piece that began, predictably enough, at a scurrying tempo with plenty of treble. But then the music actually began to swing a little amid a thick rhapsodic wash, flitting from one unforeseen episode to another before circling back to another sprinkling of treble. Working under the hood far more percussively than at the start of the concert, Simcock performed “On Broadway,” like the preceding three pieces, culled from his Blues Vignette playlist. In live performance, the playing had more bluesy intensity, not unlike Marcus Roberts’ or Keith Jarrett’s virtuosic work, with an added reference to “Every Time We Say Goodbye” tucked into the intro. Shrewdly calculated to have us clamoring for an encore, “On Broadway” had its intended effect. “Barber Blues,” an homage to Samuel rather than neighborhood, bore a catchy baseline and a treble that nearly trespassed into bluegrass.

René Marie has become so identified with Spoleto, having now performed there as a key headliner three times in the past seven years, that she has also served as the festival’s ambassador, headlining a chichi fundraiser in the Carolinas’ biggest burg, Charlotte, North Carolina, back in January. The concert in Charleston, the diva informed us, had a special meaning for her because it was the last on her national tour. It also had a special energy for a wildly appreciative audience at TD Arena.

Everyone who had been enticed to TD by the festival brochure knew what Marie and her all-star band were going to play, since her blurb was topped with a notice of her I Want to Be Evil tribute to Eartha Kitt along with co-conspirators Wycliffe Gordon, Etienne Charles, Adrian Cunningham, Kevin Bales, Quentin Baxter and Elias Bailey. Before she got into the business of showcasing her Evil CD, one of best vocal discs of the past year, Marie threw us a curve, launching her set with a medley of “When You’re Smiling,” “Smile” and “Make Someone Happy.”

So after introducing the formidable horns augmenting Marie’s customary rhythm section, the plunge into Evil was very much a U-turn, particularly when it began with the singer’s wicked cackle on “I’d Rather Be Burned as a Witch.” Billed as a 90-minute concert, it quickly became evident that the ensemble would be breaking free of the constraints imposed by a studio session, often throwing solos at us by all three horn players-Gordon on trombone, Charles on trumpet and Cunningham on tenor-plus the occasional explosion from the witty-yet-formidable Bales at the keyboard.

If that was predictable enough, the ferocity and the friskiness of all that filler was a welcome jolt. Equally welcome was the concert granting a full 20-minute overtime. Charles and Cunningham both came to play, upstaging Gordon in the early going as the trombonist seemed content to run through his plenteous inventory of growls and plunger-mute effects. Yet there was no arguing that Gordon was ready for his closeup when Marie came around to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” given a fresh R&B beat in Marie’s vocal and plenty of salacious attitude in Gordon’s plunger interjections. If the orgasmic shape of the CD “Do It” performance, where it’s clear they dunnit by the time we reach the end, was dissipated in the live version, the subsequent Marie-Gordon hookup on “Oh, John” more than compensated for the discrepancy.

Where Gordon displayed his mischievous virtuosity on his mouthpiece in response to Marie’s coy cooing, giving way to a clarinet solo on the CD, the onstage tryst saw him fitting the mouthpiece onto his slide mid-solo and continuing full-bore without missing a beat. Seeing the diva play out her dramas, here and on “Peel Me a Grape” (where Charles sat himself down with a bongo drum), added new electricity, a definite win for the live audience. Nor was there anything to grieve over when Marie did her more genial arena versions of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “Come on-a My House,” but those audience members who seek out the CD and don a decent set of headphones will be rewarded with fresh sensual nuances.

Launching their first North American tour at Spoleto, the Aca Seca Trio is sure to be received as a breath of fresh air wherever they play. With Juan Quintero on guitar, Andrés Beeuwsaert on keyboards and Mariano Cantero on percussion, Aca Seca is a vocal as well as an instrumental trio. You probably haven’t heard anything like this Argentinean outfit unless you’ve heard the best of Airto in his youth. The songs Quintero writes-and the covers the trio performs of other South American composers-have the same infectious drive and similar harmonies. The sound isn’t quite as dense or electrified and Quintero’s vocals aren’t as zesty as Airto’s, but you can tell these guys studied choral conducting together in college, and that they’ve been together since 1999.

Beginning with Carlos Aguirrre’s “La Musica y la Palabra,” the title song of Aca Seca’s 2009 CD, the 19 songs on the Spoleto set list included 10 titles from that recording. For those of us who slept on that recording, not the easiest to obtain, the concert became an increasingly loud wake-up call as Cantera layered on his percussion over Quintero’s typically understated vocals. The sound became even less intimate and generic when Beeuwsaert brought into play his electronic keyboard perched on the piano, providing a harpsichord-like sound behind his own lead vocal on Javier Cornejo’s “Cueca de Agua,” followed by a celesta cloning toward the end of Justiniano Torres Aparicio’s festive “Clavelito Blanco.”

Cantera was marginally more proficient with his English as he introduced Hugo Fattoruso’s “Monte maíz,” where he had the lead vocal. But the first of the twin peaks of this concert came when Cantera supplied the fierce, driving accompaniment to Jorge Fandermole’s “Carcará,” with Beeuwsaert chipping in on electric keyboard and all three trio members combining in ecstatic vocal harmony. “Puerto Pirata,” another spirited Fandermole cover, came within hailing distance of the éclat of “Carcará,” but nothing really equaled it until the final Fandermole gem, “Huayno de Diablo.” Between the jubilant waves of vocal harmony, Quintero ventured a rare guitar solo, and as the trio lifted off into vocalese, Beeuwsaert’s voice soared above the others’.

You wondered how Aca Seca would follow that second peak, but they found a way in their encores after finishing with “Paloma,” the last of six Quintero originals. Instead responding to their ovation by returning to their seats and retrieving their instruments, they gathered at the lip of the stage and sang a traditional folksong, “Pobre mi negra,” completely a cappella. They looked and sounded like weary victorious brothers singing a drinking song. Then they picked up various percussion instruments and sang us out with another traditional song, “Domingo i chata.” This livelier farewell had us clapping along with the trio, almost as if we had joined their fraternal circle.

Originally Published