Two things can be said after witnessing a good chunk of the 27th Savannah Music Festival: They’re still making it a better experience for jazz lovers, and thank heavens they’ve created such a haven for shy performers. This year’s cavalcade of luminaries included star turns by Freddy Cole and René Marie on opening night; Joey Alexander, Julian Lage and Dr. John in the closing week; and Etienne Charles, Catherine Russell, the Hot Sardines, Monty Alexander, Eric Alexander, Marcus Roberts, Terell Stafford and Wycliffe Gordon in between.
But I’ll remember the shy folk most fondly. First there was Cécile McLorin Salvant admitting she had always wished to sing with Monty Alexander but was too shy to ask, even when they were headlining the same double bill. So the pianist in her trio, Aaron Diehl, had asked on her behalf. Near the end of Salvant’s set, Diehl eased away from the piano and brought Alexander in from the wings, and the wish was fulfilled-with one last touch of suspense.
“What do you want me to play?” Monty asked.
“Do an E-flat blues,” Cécile coyly responded.
So what emerged, from a haze of tantalizing mystery, was an epic version of “Fine and Mellow.” It wasn’t destined to achieve the legendary status of the TV version sung by its composer, Billie Holiday-with solos by a string of immortals including Ben Webster, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge-but it unfolded in the same majestic vein, with multiple solo spots by both Salvant and Alexander.
And then, the following afternoon and evening, there was Harold Mabern. Just past his 80th birthday, the versatile pianist professed to being uncomfortable when his peers make a fuss over him when he tallies another year. Not an easy claim to swallow when Mabern delivered some of the most engaging introductions and anecdotes you’ll hear at an afternoon solo concert; when he solicited and answered questions from his audience at length; and when, as a sideman in Eric Alexander’s quartet, he pretty much took over emceeing chores. With no complaints.
My guess is that Mabern will be invited back.
I always show up in Savannah when the jazz scheduling is most intense, so my first taste in 2016 was the “Swing That Music” double bill featuring Russell and the Hot Sardines, their last performance in a two-shows-a-night, three-day run. Russell’s definition of swing may have been of a slightly more ancient vintage, but it certainly wasn’t any less hot, risqué or sassy than the Sardines’. Her set was a little more blues-tinged, taking us back nearly a century with “Darktown Strutters’ Ball”; nodding to her own father, Luis, with the “Lucille” he wrote for Satchmo; and sending us out with the legacy of Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man” and its wicked Andy Razaf lyric.
Before that final “he can use my sugar bowl” bravura, Russell checked in with a couple of Lady Day delights, “Swing! Brother, Swing!” and “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” She leapt out of the era of swing, stride and rags entirely with nods to Dinah Washington (“My Man’s An Undertaker”), Esther Phillips (“Aged and Mellow”), and her special reclamation, Wynonie Harris. Feeling ran deepest in Harris’ “Quiet Whiskey,” a late-night blues that seems to have acquired new relevance.
With so much going on with the Sardines, it was wise not to follow them. Not many jazz bands throw a tap dancer at you who doubles on ukulele. Or a trumpet paired with a cornet. Or a bass player who doubles on sousaphone. Or a hot singer who can do serious percussive damage with a washboard. Plus the old-timey costumes and attitude-Dixie, honky-tonk or vaudeville, label it as you choose.
One of the things that made the Sardines’ self-titled 2014 CD one of the best vocal albums of that year was its live, spontaneous looseness and playfulness, even though it was a studio effort. Well, they were even looser and more playful live at the Morris Center in their Savannah debut following Russell’s high-energy set. None of the songs came off that 2014 CD and only “Summertime” was even in their discography. So a new batch of Sardines could be in the can-or headed there soon.
Although she also turns out to be a personable emcee, it’s largely about what “Miz Elizabeth” Bougerol sings with her unique and alluring sense of style. Starting off with a French version of Louis Prima’s “I Wanna Be Like You” (yep, from Disney’s original Jungle Books) over “Fast Eddy” Francisco’s uke, Miz Elizabeth seemed to have a predilection toward the strumming sound of Django Reinhardt’s swinging combos. But there were other styles in the Sardines’ roux, for Jason Prover on trumpet, Mike Sailors on trombone and Nick Myers on clarinet combined for some New Orleans-style chaos in the accompaniment.
Miz E continued with another fascinating French concoction, “Weed,” that she called a Gallic variant of Peggy Lee’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Sure enough, the horns sounded like the Benny Goodman brand of swing behind her and in the instrumental jamming. The eclecticism was only beginning, for during Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Francisco stood up from his chair and showed us what he could do with those tap shoes, trading licks with pianist “Bibs” Palazzo. Underscoring the kitschiness of “People Will Say We’re in Love,” the brass had the temerity to emulate a mariachi band on the way to a “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” coda.
The final three pieces sidled back to establish common ground with Russell. Miz Elizabeth did her washboard business in the final ensemble of “Jelly Roll” after her vocal and a spray of solos, including Francisco’s flying feet. “Summertime” built from a quiet Palazzo intro on piano to a brassy roar with Sailors switching to cornet, and “Everybody Loves My Baby” was pure jubilation, all the soloists including Francisco strutting their stuff one last time and Miz Elizabeth pulling out a tambourine.
After this colorful profusion of swing, the Aaron Diehl Trio was bound to seem comparatively mundane the following afternoon. While the heart of the set was a triptych of tracks from Diehl’s fine new Space Time Continuum recording-“Flux Capacitor,” “Organic Consequence” and “Broadway Boogie Woogie”-the live performances were barely a shadow of what was achieved in the studio.
Shrunk by the absence of the horns that livened the studio sessions, sapped of the drive and exploratory energy of Diehl’s recorded solos and numbed by the listless vamping of the leader behind bassist Paul Sikivie-hoping he’d suddenly morph into Scott LeFaro?-“Organic Consequence” was especially diminished. Even “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” a trio arrangement on the album, lacked the same fire from Diehl, with his current drummer, Lawrence Leathers, outshining the leader where an exchange of 4s was tacked onto the chart.
Toward the end, Diehl perked up somewhat in a two-tune Horace Silver tribute. “Opus de Funk” swung for three or four choruses, with a strong Leathers solo and a tasty Ellingtonian outro. Best of all was “Melancholy Mood” and its ruminative piano intro over Sikivie’s bowed bass before Diehl broke into a mid-tempo lope, with the bassist sheathing his bow and digging in. A moodiness echoing the intro took us out as Sikivie retrieved his bow and Leathers switched to his mallets.
With a recording career that spans more than 40 years-and impressive jazz, pop and reggae outings-Monty Alexander shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, listening to his trio set-with Hassan Shakur on bass and Jason Brown on drums-it was hard to believe the native Jamaican ever had more enthusiasm for music and more restless energy than he has now.
Onto the spare framework of Ahmad Jamal’s “Night Mist Blues,” Alexander wove an epic solo that included threads of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and a swatch of Bach before he was onto, improbably, “It Takes a Worried Man.” Then you wouldn’t have suspected that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was a separate item on his set list, for Alexander drifted into that finale so smoothly that it seemed like just another prank played on the Jamal line.
Alexander was more apt to change moods on his own originals rather than troubling to drape new clothes on them. “Look Up” tried on “Take the ‘A’ Train” momentarily but was more notable for its sojourns in the realms of ballad, Latin and boogie-woogie on its odyssey. The trio heated up “You Can See Me” from a Garner-esque lope to a full-fledged boil before Alexander faded it out. There was even some experimentation in the lab during “Hope,” with Alexander reaching under the lid of the Steinway during this most delicate piece, as Brown checked in with his strongest work, coaxing atmospheric pings and metallic washes from his kit.
With her heavy emphasis on drama, Salvant doesn’t line up instantaneously with the shy profile she suggested. But there’s something to it when you scrutinize her songlist, with choices that included “The Trolley Song,” “Nothing Like You Has Ever Been Seen Before,” “Mad About the Boy” and “Jeepers Creepers.” All of these are awestruck, admiring and a bit giddy. There was a coy and flirtatious take on Bob Dorough’s “Nothing Like You” and touches of Sarah Vaughan as Noël Coward’s “Mad About the Boy” heated up.
Far more histrionics were lavished upon the “Trolley” that Judy Garland made famous, starting off with the verse sung over a sympathetic Diehl vamp and Leathers’ puttering drums. But we didn’t reach deep waters until Salvant exhumed the traditional “John Henry”-with a gravitas you won’t find on the 2013 WomanChild album. The live vocal began without her microphone, with Diehl more about foot stomps than piano when Salvant went back on mic and Leathers marking time with handclaps. Cuteness discarded and pace slowed to a more solemn gait, Salvant’s low notes bore a previously unsuspected resemblance to the great Odetta.
After the magnificent hookup with Alexander, Salvant closed with the two opening tracks from latest CD, For One to Love, one of the best vocal albums of 2015. Her original “Fog” came off with notably more confidence and depth as Salvant took herself more seriously, and “Growlin’ Dan” was a high comedy tour de force. Salvant explained the whole lineage of this song that Blanche Calloway wrote as a sequel to little brother Cab’s famed “Minnie the Moocher.” Diehl’s solo has grown into a more emphatic jazz march, and Salvant’s singing-it’s hard to fathom how her long drawn-out growling could be the match for anything Wycliffe Gordon does on trombone when she’s pouring out all that sound and volume at the tail-end of her second set of the evening.
When he talks about Lee Morgan, Phineas Newborn, Frank Strozier, Clifford Brown, the Philadelphia jazz scene or his students at William Paterson University, Mabern seems like a pretty mellow soul. But it’s usually a different matter, even at the age of 80, when Mabern attacks the keyboard. So a solo concert makes for a nice balance, rigorous playing interspersed with relaxed storytelling.
There was so much finesse in Mabern’s interpretations of “Moody’s Mood for Love” and “Dahoud,” so much soulfulness in his rendition of “It’s a Wonderful World,” that it seemed somewhat odd that this genial man would be explaining the difference between his style and McCoy Tyner’s. Then he finished with “My Favorite Things,” and the pounding majesty of it made the comparison inevitable.
More Tyneresque moments occurred during the evening’s “Tenor Titans” double bill, though you could call it Harold being Harold behind a powerful tenor saxophonist, Eric Alexander. The beast came out in Mabern’s first solo on “Summertime,” and after Alexander and bassist John Webber had their say, the pianist dropped another snippet from the Coltrane songbook, “My Shining Hour,” into his second solo, as drummer Joe Farnsworth went to his brushes. Mabern’s original, “Rakin’ and Scrapin’,” probably swung the hardest, Alexander dipping into “Fever” during his frenetic solo, but the most beautiful piece-of the whole evening, really-was Jule Styne’s “I Guess I’ll Hang My Teardrops Out to Dry.”
With a much softer sound and a far more unassuming manner, tenor man Stephen Riley was the antithesis of Alexander’s suave command and bold playing style. Backed by a rhythm section that was none other than the Marcus Roberts Trio, the similarities and contrasts between the two tenor sets were pretty cool. Not at all imitating the Coltrane sound, Riley opened and finished with Trane compositions, “Moment’s Notice” for starters and, more impressively, “Bessie’s Blues” to close.
There was a Monk composition in the middle of the set, “Blues Five Spot,” but Roberts couldn’t wait that long to do his Thelonious impression. Right after the opener, Roberts applied a Monk fantasia to “Lulu’s Back in Town,” virtually stopping the tune, and clearly stopping the show as Jason Marsalis cracked up behind his drum set. Riley and Marsalis collected themselves enough to follow with their solos, but Roberts returned to take it out at a snail’s pace. Was he perhaps telling Riley that he’d taken “Moment’s Notice” too slowly?
Whatever the message, Riley proceeded to return fire on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” slipping some “Bemsha Swing” into his solo. When the Monk line actually came up, only bassist Rodney Jordan messed with it, dousing his solo spot with “Old Man River.” The “Bessie’s Blues” was truly fine sending us home, but Riley himself clicked best just before that in “Takin’ a Chance on Love,” carving out a solo intro over Marsalis’ deft brushes, diving into three gorgeous choruses and appending a lovely cadenza after the all-star rhythm section had its say.
Brianna Thomas, whose own quartet I’d missed, turned up in Wycliffe Gordon’s big band as the trombonist’s original score for Oscar Micheaux’s Within These Gates, the oldest known film by an African-American director, was presented for only the second time. Thomas and singer Milton Suggs were both exemplary.
But the band was fairly star-studded, with a trumpet section that included Terell Stafford and Etienne Charles, chairs for Adrian Cunningham and Riley among the reeds, and Diehl at the keyboard. Quite a pit band for a silent movie, and Gordon’s score doled out plenty of opportunities for all the prime horns to rise and shine.
Yet all these stars would emerge from the darkness and contribute to the Late Night Jam hosted by Gordon back at the Morris Center. Stafford got the featured billing and pretty much ruled over anyone who shared the stage and vied for supremacy. Suggs was only briefly in the spotlight, but he got my pulse racing with his driving vocal on Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” Thomas created no less of a sensation with her riffs on “All of Me.”