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Review: Spoleto Festival USA 2015

Amid a potent lineup, triumphant Reeves stands out

Rita Marcotulli and Luciano Biondini. Spoleto Festival USA 2015
Carlos Aguirre, Spoleto USA Festival 2015
Madeleine Peyroux, Spoleto USA Festival 2015
Mônica Salmaso, Spoleto USA Festival 2015
Musica Nuda, Spoleto USA Festival 2015
Dianne Reeves, Spoleto USA Festival 2015

Keeping an international flavor at Spoleto Festival USA, jazz impresario Michael Grofsorean constantly makes sure that Europe and South America are represented at the annual 17-day revels alongside jazz artists from the home country, where the music was born. This year’s lineup was a mixture of the new, the familiar, and the unique. Three formidable vocalists represented the host country: Madeleine Peyroux, Kate Davis, and Dianne Reeves, who made her fourth appearance since 2002.

Brazilian diva Mônica Salmaso returned to Charleston for the first time since her festival debut in 2003, singing and playing in her trio at Cistern Yard just two days before Argentinian pianist-guitarist Carlos Aguirre arrived for a five-performance stand at the Simons Center Recital Hall. Europe was represented by two fascinating duos, Musica Nuda, who kicked off this year’s outdoor performances at Cistern Yard, and piano-accordion duo Rita Marcotulli and Luciano Biondini. The accordionist established a unique bond with Spoleto, for Biondini is a native of Spoleto, Italy, where Gian Carlo Menotti founded the Festival dei Due Mondi in 1958, 19 years before the opera composer fathered its New World sibling in Charleston.

Musica Nuda sprang up totally by accident in 2002. When vocalist Petra Magoni was scheduled for a gig in Tuscany, her guitarist was too ill to join her, so bassist Ferruccio Spinetti gallantly plunged into the breach, the first time they ever performed together. Chemistry came instantaneously, and six albums later, they made their Spoleto debut with one of the most outré, punk, and eclectic concerts the festival has ever hosted. Magoni’s voice ranged as impressively over the centuries as over the octaves, embracing such disparate songs as Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” traditional spiritual “I Wanna Be Ready,” Bob Marley’s “Is This Love?” Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” and an aria from G.F. Handel’s Rinaldo.

Sporting a side-swiped punk haircut, Magoni veered toward French cabaret in her black outfit just when you thought it might be Gothic, and her high heels were as much a percussion choice as a fashion statement. There were enough dips into the American songbook – “Speak Low,” “Nature Boy,” and “Over the Rainbow” – for her to claim to be a jazz artist. But Magoni frankly announced to her mesmerized, mystified, and delighted audience that she was beyond category – and as if to underscore the point, her rendition of the Harold Arlen anthem took a detour from rainbow to “Norwegian Wood.”

An extra element of S&M entered the mix when Magoni stamped her heel into her music. This was not nearly as outré as when she went down on all fours during “Nature Boy” and strummed on the double bass’s nether regions, while Spinetti insouciantly continued his soulful playing above her. The bassist also got in on the outré fun, sitting down at one point and strumming his instrument like a guitar. Purists might be wary about spending an evening with Musica Nuda, but anyone susceptible to continental charm was totally seduced by Magoni’s audacious originality.

There was far less steel and frost in Salmaso’s appeal and noticeably less range in her programming and her voice. Yet there was beauty, strength, sincerity, and warmth in every note. Dreamy ballads and sinuous sambas were the Brazilian singer’s bread and butter 12 years ago in her Spoleto debut, and not much seemed to have changed when she opened with Heitor Villa-Lobos’s “Melodia Sentimental” and Paulo Vanzolini’s “Samba Erudito.” Indeed, there was a generous samba sampling of the works of Antonio Carlos Jobim and an even more generous sampling from Jobim’s frequent collaborator, Vinicius de Moraes, who had a hand in no less than half of the songs Salmaso sang.

Highlights from the Moraes-Jobim songbook included the mesmerizing “Insensatez” and the achingly lovely “Olha, Maria.” But Salmaso was less circumscribed in her offerings this time around – and less shy about addressing her audience. It was not totally surprising when the Edu Lobo/Chico Buarque “Ciranda da Bailarina” sounded like a children’s song, because Salmaso was surrounded by a toyshop of percussion and began playing a cute thumb piano during the instrumental break. A wee bellows provided a droning undertone during the unsung interlude of the José Miguel Wisnik / Gregório de Mattos ballad, “Mortal Loucura,” and a kazoo appeared during the Carmen Miranda send-up, Herivelto Martins’ “Meu Radio Meu Mulato.”

A pint-sized tambourine, a metronome, and a mini bongo were also in Salmaso’s arsenal. Most adorable was the spectacle of the diva playing a floor-mounted instrument that could have been ripped off the neck of the Little Drummer Boy in the swingingest tune of the set, “Frevo de Orfeu,” an irresistibly festive Moraes-Jobim confection that drew some spirited vocalise from Salmaso. What the set lacked in musical variety vis-à-vis the Musica Nuda playlist was more than counterbalanced by the trio’s breadth of color. Pianist Nelson Ayres was subtly propulsive in accompaniment throughout the evening, most impressive in his long solo leading into his own original, “Veranico de Maio.” Teco Cardoso was incessantly inventive in his nest of woodwinds, including soprano sax and two flutes, one of them a wicked baritone.

All three trio members stood together at the center of the Cistern Yard stage for their final encore, Adoniran Barbosa’s “Trem das 11,” very reminiscent of the Aca Seca Trio’s a capella encore at last year’s festival. An even stronger echo of the Argentinian trio’s concert came from their countryman, Aguirre, in his concerts at the Simons Center Recital Hall. Aca Seca actually opened their Spoleto debut – and their first North American tour – with two Aguirre compositions, “La música y la palabra” and “Pasarero.” Those same tunes reappeared on the composer’s set list but not on top. Instead, he began at the keyboard with two of his more familiar titles, a vamping Jarrett-like version of “Pampa” and an impressionistic take on “Un pueblo de paso,” before surprising us with his first vocal on Chacho Muller’s “Sentir de otoño.”

“Música y la palabra” quickened the pace, and “Paserero” came off as refreshingly boppish, and the Spanish section toward the end had a Corea-like duende. Aguirre’s technique wasn’t nearly as dazzling when he switched to guitar for “Naúfrago en la orilla,” with lyrics by W. Heinze, and his own mid-tempo samba, “Milonga Gris,” but the vocals had an intimate warmth. Cementing his connection with the Simons Center audience, Aguirre offered a waltzing “Charleston Impressions” that he composed for the occasion. Then he closed at the keyboard singing his own “El Diminuto Juan,” with lyrics by the estimable Jorge Fandermole, coaxing the crowd to join in on the refrains.

After Aguirre’s three-evening engagement at the Simons Center, Marcotulli and Biondini took over the hall for the next three evenings. The only purely instrumental act in the 2015 jazz lineup, the Italian duo was a constant treat, drawing generously from the compositions on last year’s La Strada Invisibile album. Joyce Moreno’s “Essa Mulher” was a somewhat weepy opener, with Marcotulli introducing the line and playing on it as Biondini droned dolefully in the background until he checked in with a concise little coda.

With its harmonica-like timbre, an accordion can deal out some serious tedium in the wrong hands, but Biondini quickly won my confidence, seizing the melody and quickening the tempo on Marcotulli’s “L’amore fugge” (or “L’amour en fuite” on the recent CD), with the composer soloing before the accordionist returned with more bravura. Biondini’s own tune, “Aritmia,” was even more frantically paced, sporting plenty of exciting bi-play and back-and-forth action between the soloists – and some harder swinging than you might think an accordion capable of. Marcotulli reached under the hood and worked the strings, percussively slowing down the midsection of the piece before giving way to a Biondini solo that she had a lovely answer for. A hushed duet built into a joyous, romping finish.

The title tune from the duo CD, played after an intervening ballad, vied with “Aritmia” as the pièce de résistance of the concert. Marcotulli delved more intently into the innards of the piano, preparing it so that the keys made clattering sounds as she struck the keys. As Biondini layered onto the unaccompanied solo, Marcotulli unprepared the piano, paving the way for another scintillating joyous exchange before the piece resolved reflectively. Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” was the springboard for the duo’s sweetest ballad performance, and the closer, Marcotulli’s “In Between,” was the most genial of the uptempo numbers after a helter-skelter beginning, with Biondini demonstrating his instrument’s percussive capabilities as his partner took the final solo.

Followers of Madeleine Peyroux who may have presumed that her most recent CDs signaled a shedding of her Billie Holiday mannerisms – along with Lady Day’s songbook – quickly collided with reality as the veteran songstress took the stage at Cistern Yard. She started off with the same two songs that open her 2014 Blue Room CD, Hank Williams’ monster hit of 1953, “Take These Chains from My Heart,” and the Everly Brothers’ breakout hit of 1957, “Bye Bye Love.” Accompanied by Jon Herington on guitar and Barak Mori on bass – and freed of the strings, steel guitar, and multi-tracking that sugarcoat the studio date – the Peyroux of old returned.

Peyroux’s kinship with Billie was unmistakable in “Take These Chains” throughout her vocals, more veiled in “Bye Bye Love,” where the guys layered on the harmony and traces of Patti Page lubricated her singing. A more virulent dose of Lady Day came later on when Peyroux embraced “Fun Out of Life,” fully capturing the distinctive sound of Billie’s vowels, her gliding timbre, her upturned syllables, and even “getting” the punctilious pronunciation of her double t’s. That was as heavily as Peyroux indulged in channeling Billie until her valedictory encore, “This Is Heaven to Me.” In between, there were lighter Holiday reminders – timbre, vowels, phrasing – in the two bluesy items on the program, “Easy Come, Easy Go” and “Careless Love,” and in her swingingest cover, Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

Even when Peyroux’s sound was more countrified and more her own, sisterhood with Billie was maintained in her reverence for the lyrics of Cohen’s “Half the Perfect World” and Randy Newman’s “Guilty.” About the only indication we had that Peyroux is contemplating new directions was her inclusion of Jobim’s “Agua de Beber,” where Herington chipped in with one of his best guitar solos. Slowed down and with a fine bass solo, Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart” came off appreciably better than the recorded version, now the title song of her recently issued Best of CD.

If relaxation was the true litmus test for her authentic voice, Peyroux’s true individuality was to be found in her covers of “Got You on My Mind” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” – south and east of Bonnie Raitt and nearly as weathered. But if the knock on Peyroux is that her concerts are too glum, tame, and low-energy, maybe she should write more songs of her own. Her ode to a sweet young “Garbage Man” may not have been the sunniest song of the night, but it was certainly the sassiest.

Honoring the NAACP boycott of the Palmetto State in 2000 by canceling her scheduled festival debut, Reeves has done more than merely woven herself into the history of Spoleto over the past 15 years. As the grim aftermath of the Charleston festival has underscored, her refusal to sing in South Carolina until the flag was taken down from the Capitol dome in Columbia is engraved in the state’s history and forward progress. You could detect some wariness from Reeves during this tempest-tossed beginning, but the love and admiration from Spoleto subscribers has long since penetrated the diva’s defenses, and in subsequent festival appearances, she has returned the love more and more.

If anything was shocking about Reeves’ 2011 appearance at Gaillard Auditorium, it was how mellow and serene she was, seated on a stool during most of the concert accompanied by two guitars, Russell Malone’s electric and Romero Lubambo’s acoustic. With Gaillard still in the midst of renovations, Reeves came outside under the live oaks at Cistern Yard this year, with an altogether different quartet and an altogether different approach – standing, swinging, scatting, and wailing.

Warming up with “Summertime,” pianist Peter Martin, guitarist Peter Sprague, and drummer Terreon Gully all showed their mettle before the headliner made her regal entrance, dressed in dazzling white. She started off as relaxed as her previous Charleston visit, singing Stevie Nick’s “Dreams,” one of four tracks that Reeves would showcase from her latest Grammy Award-winning CD, Beautiful Life. Gradually ramping up the intensity, Reeves followed with her version of Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather,” omitting the second bridge and tinkering slightly with the Ted Koehler lyrics. Everything sounded quite delightful, more vibrant than the studio versions, with Sprague soloing in the middle of the Nicks cover and Martin providing a chorus-and-a-half of calm between Reeves’ two vocal storms.

In retrospect, these two songs seemed like a flight crew’s final checks before takeoff. Did the voice have its customary silken power? Check. Musicians totally in sync with the singer and the charts? Check. Audience aboard and appreciative? Check plus. From then on, Reeves and her quartet were simply incomparable.

She pushed it all into gear with “Tango,” turning toward Africa more dramatically than she did in 2011 at Gaillard when her original composition had yet to be recorded. At Cistern Yard, Reeves added a whole concerto of sinuous body movement to her Afro chanting. While there was no salsa section – or backup singers to give it spice – Sprague and Reeves took the piece to a bluesy region unexplored in the Beautiful Life version, and when Martin’s keyboard steered the piece into a Latin groove, the Afr0-Cuban brew was even hotter than the CD’s salsa, because Reeves’ voice pierced through the condiments so much more easily. And Reeves is simply magical when the beat drives her.

It’s been 10 years since Reeves appeared as the jazz singer in the Good Night and Good Luck docudrama with writer/director George Clooney, and nearly that long since the soundtrack recording was released. But no recorded version is adequate preparation for what Reeves is now doing with “One More for My Baby” in concert. The live version in Charleston hewed to the script at the outset, giving bassist Reginald Veal his best chance to shine under Reeves’ smoky after-hours vocal. Then it suddenly exploded into a groovy fantasia with solos by Martin and Sprague and a hairpin turn into “Every Day I Have the Blues.” There was nothing everyday about this rendition.

After spinning these astonishments, Reeves became positively frisky romping through Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain,” expelling all the studio syrup that makes the CD track so unpalatable until we reach the tasty scatting. Reeves was scatting with Martin before the pianist took his solo, and when she returned, she went into a scatting frenzy, veering from reggae to pop to Latin and back to the Caribbean. Even then, Reeves wasn’t done, for she mixed scat and improv together playfully doing her last intros of her bandmates before her majestic exit. It took a lot of prolonged cheering, applauding, and shouting to bring Reeves back to the Cistern Yard stage. As she stood at the edge, leading the crowd in a Mali confection she titles “Beautiful,” the effect was not so much an encore as a benediction.

Everyone who stood there – or rushed back in from George and St. Philip Streets – knew how special this concert had been. After the ensuing tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church just 10 days after Spoleto 2015 concluded, Reeves’ performance becomes even more precious in retrospect. Since President Obama has already raised his voice in song at the Charleston site, it’s reasonable to expect that Spoleto will also consider choosing the holy ground for one of its venues in 2016. Keeping with its traditions, the festival had three of Charleston’s churches among its venues this year, so adding the historic AME place of worship wouldn’t be a stretch. Quite the contrary.

Originally Published