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Review: Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, SC, 2012

International lineup flashes virtuosity and fire

Renaud Garcia-Fons by Jan Scheffner

Jazz at Spoleto Festival USA has retained its basic contours fairly well, changing less radically and less frequently, than the series name itself in recent years, which has morphed from First Union to Wachovia to the current Wells Fargo Jazz in accordance with blips in the banking world. About the most pronounced new wrinkle for Spoleto 2012 was the programming of two headliners at the festival’s biggest venue, Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, instead of the customary one. Perhaps the intent was to keep the average at one, since Gaillard is closing down for extensive renovations, reopening for Spoleto 2014. As it turned out, before Virgìnia Rodrigues and Mavis Staples gave the final Spoleto jazz concerts at the old Gaillard, the threat of bad weather brought David Peña Dorantes away from the outdoor Cistern Yard venue at short notice and into the Gaillard. Just half an hour before Jake Shimabukuro was slated to perform at the Cistern, a heavy downpour threatened to send Jake and his ukulele packing as well. But Mother Nature relented. Still, the old Gaillard was rung out in grand style.

The swinging began promptly on opening night of the festival, May 25, at Cistern Yard with Cécile McLorin Salvant backed by the Aaron Diehl Trio. She drove in hard after Diehl’s piano intro with three choruses of “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis,” sandwiched around another Diehl solo, and drove even harder in “John Henry” after drummer Lawrence Leathers set the hammering tone with clanging cymbals. The rawness of this approach was sustained, as Salvant would snarl a couple verses and Diehl would solo until the singer’s outro. A couple of judiciously spaced duets cooled down the fever during the rest of the set, first a hook-up with Diehl on “You Gotta Give Me Some” and later a more intimate parley with bassist Paul Sikivie on “Mean to Me.” More often, Salvant swung the standards with an engaging élan, including “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “From This Moment On,” a scat-filled update on Billie Holiday’s take on “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and for a rousing closer, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” peppered by Leathers’ fine brushwork. Yet the most crowd-pleasing number was the richly sassy “You Bring Out the Savage in Me,” with Leathers applying the mallets, Salvant evoking the orgasmic physicality, and Diehl adding the tropical notes, capped with a “Manteca” outro.

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