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Review: The Savannah Music Festival 2015

Horns meet mallets for a new kind of showdown

Dave Stryker, Savannah Music Festival 2015
Houston Person and Warren Vache, Savannah Music Festival 2015
Jason Marsalis, Savannah Music Festival 2015
Marcus Roberts, Savannah Music Festival 2015
Marcus Roberts Trio, Savannah Music Festival 2015
Nicki Parrott, Savannah Music Festival 2015
Sean Jones, Savannah Music Festival 2015
Tardo Hammer, Savannah Music Festival 2015
Warren Vache Quintet, Savannah Music Festival 2015
Warren Wolf, Savannah Music Festival 2015
Wycliffe Gordon, Savannah Music Festival 2015

As associate artistic director of the Savannah Music Festival, Marcus Roberts is a formidable triple threat: he helps to produce a strong series of jazz concerts year after year, he teaches and mentors in the festival’s Swing Central Jazz workshop, and he performs in various settings, reaffirming his standing as one of the most prodigious pianists on the planet. During the 2015 edition of SMF, Roberts and members of his longtime working trio were more at the forefront of the programming.

Percussionist Jason Marsalis has been a core member of the trio for nearly 20 years. So it’s not surprising the Marsalis has become a festival fixture, schooling ticketholders on percussion at a Sound Dialogue event in 2012 and taking on musical director chores for the all-star concert at the Swing Central Jazz Finale in 2014. But until this year, Marsalis had never played the vibraphone in Savannah, although he had recorded three CDs with his Vibes Quartet in the past six years.

Roberts and SMF director Rob Gibson remedied that as the Marsalis Vibes Quartet headlined the first evening jazz concerts of the 2015 season, sharing the bill with the Warren Vaché Quintet at the Charles H. Morris Center. At the same time, Vaché and Marsalis were enmeshed in a subtle subplot of this year’s Festival-enhancing the competitive element of the jazz sector.

For eight seasons, competition has been embedded in the Swing Central Jazz program, with the top three high school big bands performing during the first half of the finale concert and a winner decided by a panel of the educator musicians. This year at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts, the Agoura High School Studio Jazz Band (Agoura Hills, Calif.), under the direction of Chad Bloom, took the $5,000 first place award for the fourth consecutive year in a competition celebrating Louis Armstrong.

The element of competition carried over to the all-star second half of the Swing Central finale as the notables jammed on tunes written by or associated with the great Satchmo, including “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Up a Lazy River” and “Dear Old Southland.” More of the same cutting spirit ensued past midnight as the all-stars adjourned to the Morris for a late-night jam hosted by the Sean Jones Quartet featuring Wycliffe Gordon and Friends, where the repertoire was widened to include such jazz staples as “Bags’ Groove,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Rhythm-A-Ning,” “The Very Thought of You” and “Portrait of Jenny.”

Up until recent years, the late-night jam had been a spontaneous phenomenon that had sprouted up at a local club after the Swing Central finale. Bringing it into the festival’s mainstream has definitely tapped a night-owl demand, for the jam drew a sell-out crowd brimming with enthusiasm for the freewheeling format. But the jam may not have been intended as the only replacement for the piano showdowns programmed at SMF in bygone years.

Was it really a coincidence that, on the evening after the Vaché-Marsalis sets at the Morris, trumpeter Sean Jones’s Quartet was paired with vibraphonist Warren Wolf and his Wolfpack in the same hall? There was definitely a sense of déjà vu-and the game is on-when I attended the second sets on both of these evenings and found the same set of Musser vibes already onstage.

Rental pipes at the ready, it was no surprise that the Marsalis Vibes Quartet was introduced first to us, or that we were treated to a generous sampling of the band’s most recent CDs. More than a couple of Marsalis compositions have political or pedagogical points packaged with their titles, and the Vibes Quartet launched its set with one from the In the World of Mallets CD, “Blues Can Be Abstract, Too.” The arrangement lurched from one tempo to another before Marsalis broke out in a furious uptempo, insistently swinging. With such a torrid pace, Austin Johnson’s solo on piano and Marsalis’ return sounded like radical departures, Johnson cooling things down to a quiet groove and Marsalis remixing the tempi.

Like it does on the album, “Ballet Class” followed immediately, its initial indolence reminiscent of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Skating in Central Park.” Johnson took care of the first gliding solo before Marsalis kicked it from a dreamy Milt Jackson feel to a percussive Lionel Hampton-like romp. The remaining tunes in the set all came from the band’s most recent release, beginning with a lovely ballad, “Nights in Brooklyn,” that drew some Bill Evans-like lyricism from Johnson. After disclosing the ornery origins of “18th Letter of Silence,” Marsalis pounded out the tasty line and reaffirmed how pleasurable it can be to hear a gifted jazz musician who thinks he has something to prove. For his part, Johnson demonstrated that he has a McCoy Tyner mode, not evident on the recording, when he works himself into a lather.

Marsalis had more on his mind when he wrote “BP Shakedown” in response to Texas Congressman Joe Barton’s infamous apology to the oil company’s CEO after a $20 billion fund was established to reimburse victims of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Heavy chords distinguished the Deepwater Horizon damage from the placidity of nature in the gulf, along with some obstreperous quotes of “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof, without the counterbalance of Barton’s recorded remarks that appear on the CD. More benign were the repeated quotes from “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the tail-end of an arrangement with three separate episodes in “The 21st Century Trad Band,” the title tune from the new Vibes Quartet CD.

With tenor saxophonist Houston Person joining Vaché on the front line, the trumpeter’s combo certainly wasn’t anticlimactic. Not only did they alliterate with the Vibes Quartet, Vaché’s quintet also brought a pedagogical element of their own to the stage, offering us a generous sampling of their forthcoming Arbors CD, Remembering Benny Carter. Like the new disc, the Savannah set started off with Carter’s “A Walking Thing,” doling out some lovely choruses to Vaché, Person, pianist Tardo Hammer and bassist Nicki Parrott. Framing the solos, the horns shared the line, with Person stepping into the spotlight for the bridge, and when the two played in unison, it evoked memories of the old Verve LPs where Roy Eldridge jousted with Coleman Hawkins. Jumping ahead to the last cut from the Carter tribute CD, “The Romp,” Vaché could feature the remaining member from the quintet as the trumpeter, Person, and drummer Leroy Williams traded fours before the outro.

Yet there was still a voice that hadn’t been heard-Parrott’s singing voice. If you already knew about her smooth way with a lyric, you might have counted on her for vocals on “Only Trust Your Heart” and “When Lights Are Low” (a tune foreshadowed by Hammer during his “Evening Star” solo). But on the closing number of the set, “Rock Me to Sleep,” Parrott scatted over her bass solo, too. Other tunes to salivate over from the new CD included “Doozy,” “Souvenir” and “Summer Serenade,” the last done in trio format by the rhythm section.

The following evening, Warren Wolf brought a different kind of orneriness to the bandstand than Marsalis, jokingly referencing his bulging biceps as consequences if we didn’t pick up his CDs after the concert. Only the first two tunes his Wolfpack quartet played had been recorded, “Sweet Bread” and “Señor Mouse,” but they appeared on his eponymous 2011 release rather than his most recent Wolfgang effort. Even if you had heard those tracks, cut with entirely different personnel, you would only be partially prepared for the totally new complexion the new combo gave them. “Sweet Bread” was predictably altered live when stripped down from a sextet to a quartet version with more space for Wolf and pianist Alex Brown to blow on.

What really surprised in Savannah was how Chick Corea’s “Mouse” roared. Brown and Wolf introduced the line, the vibist switching momentarily to electric piano, but when Wolf returned to the vibes for the bridge, he suddenly kicked into an intense acceleration and delivered some incredible riffs on the line. Brown calmed things down beautifully in his solo only to pave the way for a fresh three-stage assault from Wolf before the outro. After that firestorm, Wolf and Brown eloquently cooled it with “Stardust,” begun with the leader playing the famed verse and finished in such a relaxed mood that Wolf added a snip of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” as a coda to the out-chorus.

Wolf integrated the rhythm section fully into the action in MJQ fashion, covering John Lewis’ “La Ronde,” so often used to showcase the classic quartet’s bassist, Percy Heath. Wolfpack bassist Kris Funn introduced the tune with the leader, but when the musicians subsequently traded eights, drummer Dana Hawkins also entered the fray. Hawkins pounded even harder in Wolfpack’s finale, “Enter the Chambers,” actually losing a drumstick at one point. Nearly as noticeable was Brown’s bravura, following Wolf’s wailing on his own line with a breakout rant of his own.

Jones made his SMF debut in 2012 as part of a trumpet triumvirate led by Jon Faddis, which may explain why live versions of tunes that appear on his latest Im·pro·vise Never Before Seen CD became less mellow and more stratospheric in his return to Savannah. The most radically transformed performance and arrangement came midway in the Jones Quartet set with “Interior Motive.” Drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr., and bassist Funn grooved the intro in much the same manner found on the CD track, but Jones discarded the muted interiority of the recording the moment he introduced the line, going into a fully open-horned tirade for his first solo. Pianist Brian Hogans, who would subsequently pick up the alto sax at the Late Night Jam, tempered the performance and then turned it toward a Latin groove that the recording only hints at. Jones bopped on it momentarily in a promising Dizzy Gillespie-like syncopation, heating up the excitement with some piercing high notes, but he lingered in the stratosphere with a Maynard Ferguson insistence that soon grew wearisome.

The trumpeter elaborated far more judiciously on his studio work when he opened the set with “60th and Broadway,” adding an extended introductory cadenza that seemed headed toward Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” before Jones’s rhythm section-altogether revamped from the studio date-cushioned him into the actual line. Hogans had space to expound on the theme that Orrin Evans never had, and Jones gave himself more time to fully shape the soft-loud-soft architecture of his solo. Commissioned for a wedding and as yet unrecorded, “Of Mars and Venus” was by far the most playful of Jones’s originals. Here the leader brandished his flugelhorn and radically distinguished between the two divinities, one of them soft and melodic, the other yammering and warlike. Or was that shrewish? I’ll draw a discreet veil over Jones’s spoken elucidation. He blew in a festive spirit, sure, but mixed with tenderness as Jones stirred snippets of Ellington’s “I Got It Bad,” a traditional wedding march, and Thad Jones’s “A Child Is Born” into his wedding song.

A couple of the afternoon concerts, by the Vaché and Jones groups, were merely extended versions of the sets they had done the night before. But the faces at the other three matinees I caught weren’t altogether different. Guitarist Dave Stryker borrowed Roberts’ trio mates, Rodney Jordan on bass and Marsalis on drums, to round out his quartet with pianist Bill Peterson. The Vaché Quintet’s rhythm section, led by Tardo Hammer, bopped a “Bouncin’ With Bud” tribute to pianist Bud Powell (without tipping off Parrott’s vocal skills). And on the afternoon after the Late Night Jam, Roberts gathered up his trio for himself, swinging a set of classics that ranged from Ellington and Waller to Monk and Coltrane.

Stryker has been laboring ably for years at SMF in its Swing Central vineyards as a classroom mentor and an onstage all-star, but 2015 marks his first time headlining a concert. Surely the success of his latest CDs, Eight Track and Messin’ With Mister T, if not his new self-produced Strikezone record label, came into play when festival producers filled out this year’s lineup card and placed Stryker in the lead-off slot for Jazz Week.

He was not disappointing. The Hammond B3 organ, a fixture in the background of Stryker’s last two studio gigs, was not in evidence at the Morris. Nor did any of the 10 saxophonists who put in guest appearances on his tribute to Stanley Turrentine drop by, though one of them, Houston Person, was slated to play the following night. Stryker’s performance couldn’t help but captivate Boomers in the audience. The quartet swung into a bluesy version of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” with Peterson at the keyboard, Jordan at his upright and the guitarist all contributing tasty solos.

If that weren’t ingratiating enough, as he introduced two of the vintage tunes covered on Eight Track, Stryker took advantage of a special opportunity: he brandished an actual 8-track cartridge to a half-knowing, half-wondering crowd. Priceless. Putting down the ancient relic after explaining its romantic power, Stryker revived memories of Youngblood Priest and Glen Campbell with covers of Curtis Mayfield’s funky “Pusherman/Superfly” and Jimmy Webb’s dreamy “Wichita Lineman.” With Marsalis pattering on the rim of his snare, the funk of “Fly” got a fresh twist as Peterson soloed, and Stryker enriched his “Wichita” brew with hints of “Greensleeves” and “Norwegian Wood.”

The guitarist had more than one other new project to plug on his label, but he soft-pedaled both. Stryker didn’t mention past recorded incarnations of his “Shadowboxing” or its current appearance on the new Family release by drummer Steve Johns, where the Strikezone founder pops up on five of the nine tracks. There was a more definite Wes Montgomery tinge to the picking here. Stryker also jabbed more aggressively behind Peterson, and Marsalis predictably had much to say before it was over. Briefly mentioning Turrentine while ignoring his gestating Mister T celebration, Stryker dipped into his own The Chaser from 2006 for the quartet’s choicest cut as everyone onstage reveled in Brother Jack McDuff’s “Our Miss Brooks.”

Stryker burned it more emphatically than either he or Kenny Burrell had in their recorded versions, going off for six or seven choruses before Peterson gamboled in the torrid zones of Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock. It was anyone’s guess whether Jordan or Marsalis was the designated soloist after that, so intense

was their interplay, and the set ended with a sweet collective mayhem as the line was reprised.

Separated by three days, the two trio sets didn’t play like a duel as the vibes-trumpet pairings had. Neither of the pianists had any new releases to hawk, yet both of their programs had the cohesiveness you would expect from an album project. Hammer’s set not only managed to mix moods in reviving Powell’s interpretations and originals, he offered a nice variety well-known and not-so-familiar works, a dozen in all, including a note-for-note transcription of Powell’s version of Jerome Kern’s “Sure Thing.”

Like Vaché’s Benny Carter set, Hammer’s was an informative overview for jazz novices and aficionados alike. There were wonderful reminders of Powell’s pioneering lucidity in “Monopoly,” “Dance of the Infidels,” “Hallucinations,” “So Sorry, Please” with its Asiatic intro, and “John’s Abbey” with its Yuletide outro. There was also plenty of unexpected quietude as Hammer delved into Powell’s Blue Note and Verve discography for a “Dusk in Sandi” solo, “I’ll Keep Loving You” and something called “Over the Rainbow.”

Preserving the bop flavor of Powell’s trio, Hammer’s wasn’t always reverential. Before trading eights with Leroy Williams on “Parisian Thoroughfare,” Hammer paved the way with a sprinkling of the “Marseillaise,” and there was a little pinch of Arabian flavor in the leader’s merry romp through “Un Poco Loco” preceding another explosion from Williams’ kit. Everyone had plenty to contribute from the outset as Parrott broke Hammer’s monopoly on “Monopoly” with a chorus-and-a-half of her silken eloquence on bass.

For those of us who hear him year after year in Savannah, Roberts has little left to prove. What he keeps proving, nevertheless, is that there should be more recordings of his formidable compositions, arrangements, and trio for us all to listen to. Only two of the nine pieces he played at the Morris, Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” have appeared on a Roberts recording in the past 10 years. The only others in Roberts’ discography, his original title track from Cole After Midnight and “It’s Only a Paper Moon” from that same 2001 CD, served respectively as the opening warm-up in the set and a palate cleanser later on between the true heavyweights that rumbled through afterwards.

Roberts paid homage to the MJQ version of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” before heading off in his own swinging direction, Jordan’s solo included plucked and bowed sections, and Marsalis slammed a mighty half chorus of his own before the pianist rode it home. A very percussive “The Way You Look Tonight,” Roberts and Marsalis merrily having at each other, followed a very mellow “Naima.” But two truly awesome doses of Coltrane were still to follow. The most prodigious of these was the rampaging treatment of “Tunji,” Roberts furiously wailing on it over somber Tyneresque chords and Marsalis answering with thunder of his own. “Bessie’s Blues,” however, was the sunnier performance, a wonderful closer with all trio members spotlighted at their ebullient best.

Between these two Coltrane titans was an equal delight, Thelonious Monk’s “Blues Five Spot.” Roberts put on so much Thelonious persona that one could almost see the eccentric’s goatee, embroidering his solo with extra helpings of Monkish arpeggios. In his four choruses, Jordan reminded me of his exploits the previous night at the Late Night Jam, where, amid horn players and pianists and a guitarist vying to make the loudest splash, he had made the softest. As for Marsalis, he merely responded by surpassing himself.

Originally Published