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Review: The Savannah Music Festival, March 22-April 7

An all-star galaxy at a festival within a festival

Brian Blade, Savannah Music Festival 2012
Anat Cohen, Savannah Music Festival 2012
L. to R.: Aaron Diehl, Wycliffe Gordon, Yasushi Nakamura, Anat Cohen & Herlin Riley at the Savannah Music Festival, 2012
Bass-off at Savannah Music Festival, 2012 (L. to R.): Jeffry Eckels, Rodney Jordan, and Rodney Whitaker

While Béla Fleck & the Original Flecktones, Pink Martini, Freddy Cole and the Joshua Redman/Brad Mehldau Duo were the headliners at the larger Savannah Music Festival venues, an all-star galaxy of performer/clinicians kept the annual Jazz Party humming on a more intimate scale, a festival-within-the-festival. Party central was the Charles H. Morris Center, where there were two jazz sets every evening from March 26 through March 29, with a minimum of four musicians on the bandstand each night. At the noon hour, there were three more concerts during that span featuring Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron and the Jeff Clayton Quartet.

Numerous notables didn’t perform at the Morris Center, surfacing only at the Lucas Theatre for cameo performances at “Swingin’ & Wailin’,” the Swing Central finale after the top three high school bands competing for first prize had been awarded their first, second and third place checks. Until then, these musicians had spent their working moments at SMF tutoring members of the 12 bands that had been invited from across the country-from Atlanta to Seattle-to compete in the finals. So in terms of solos for public consumption, it was one-and-done for guitarist Dave Stryker, trumpeter Jim Ketch, saxophonists Bill Kennedy and Jack Wilkins, and trombonists Paul McKee and Ron Westray.

A swingin’ and wailin’ finale it was, an 11-tune kaleidoscope, with a couple of wicked twists cooked up especially for the occasion. Three bassists-and nobody else-swung out Monk’s “Misterioso,” including Rodney Jordan, Rodney Whitaker and Jeffry Eckels. Far more combative and uproarious was the percussion volleying between Jason Marsalis and Herlin Riley on something they named “Marching in the Modern Parade.” Predictably, there were jammin’ jousts by assorted sextets on Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig of You” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Byrdlike.”

Cedar Walton began the jazz intensive three days earlier with his midday solo outing, an appealing mix of standards and originals, played with zesty swing and consummate polish. Youngest of the standards was “Just in Time,” a perky gem that emerged from Jule Styne’s pen a mere 56 years ago, restored to its original sunniness in the most straightforward of Walton’s covers. The pianist tended to flip the other standards around a little, or insert little bop flourishes or snips from other tunes. “All the Things You Are” came on with the bop intro dating back to Dizzy Gillespie with a soupcon of “Surrey With the Fringe” tucked in, and “Over the Rainbow” started uncharacteristically uptempo with the bridge, circling back there at the end. “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” maintained a midtempo groove all the way, beginning with some Tatumesque razzle-dazzle before settling into an Erroll Garner lope. Completing his “time” trilogy, “Time After Time” was gently swung, with hints “Melancholy Baby” and “Make Someone Happy” sprinkled in. Of the three Walton originals, “Bolivia” was the most familiar, making for a Latin-flavored finale, while “Martha’s Prize” and “Dear Ruth” gave Walton a chance to show us his sensitive side, Martha evidently putting the composer in a contemplative mood and Ruth inducing more sentimental thoughts.

Whether it’s the tide of political correctness or the softening effect of more women in the biz, new recording catalogs and concert encounters have put old-fashioned cutting sessions on the endangered list. Not in Savannah, where executive director Rob Gibson prides himself in kindling the cordial hostilities with a tradition that’s now nine years old, the Piano Showdown. Walton’s work in the afternoon was now augmented by two more sets at night, pitted against Aaron Diehl, Kenny Barron and Kevin Bales. Diehl sent out the opening challenge with a bass-heavy solo on “Cherokee” that packed plenty of Marcus Roberts brio in its gauntlet. Then Walton joined the fun for a friendly duet with Diehl that served as a nice warm-up for the spirited aggression that broke out in “My Ship.” Bales replaced Diehl at the first piano and swung out a couple of choruses before Walton zoomed in with a blistering Tatum overdrive. By the time the two men began trading fours, this critic was experiencing nostalgia for the old “Satch & Josh” sessions on Pablo by Count Basie and Oscar Peterson.

Barron was the last to come forth and well worth the wait, soloing masterfully on “Memories of You,” beginning with Tatumesque density on the line and releasing into infectious Bud Powell bop. Keeping things in a Powell groove, Bales returned to solo on Powell’s “The Fruit,” taking honors for loudest foot stomp among the four keyboard gladiators. But the full Tyner grandeur that Bales rises to when he leads René Marie’s backup trio was left in the dressing room on this night, for when Bales faced off against Diehl on “Caravan,” it was the younger pianist who picked up the pace-and swung harder-after Bales’ solo. It was still up on a Satch & Josh level, with both pianists reaching under the hoods of their Steinways to establish the mood in an evocative intro. Then the most formidable matchup took over, with Diehl and Barron launching rocket fire at each other on “I Mean You,” ending with a rousing exchange of eights. The action between the two would be even more incendiary when they closed the set later with a rollicking “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” fought to a championship heavyweight draw. In between, the sparring was less intense but consistently satisfying, highlighted by Barron and Walton commingling on the latter’s “Hindsight,” Walton and Bales settling into a bluesy groove on “Willow Weep for Me” (beginning and ending with the bridge), and Bales and Barron dishing out a second helping of Thelonious with “Monk’s Dream.”

Arguing on behalf of Diehl as the winner of the Showdown, you would likely cite virtuosity and daring as his standout traits, while advocates of Barron would point to his artful accompaniment and his incessant swing. Laying over for the “Noon30” concert the day after the Showdown, Barron cemented his claims to be listed among the swingingest unaccompanied pianists on the planet. On the first tune of the set, “Love Walked In,” he showed how it’s done, showering a variety of approaches on the Gershwin line, from Powell bop to Dave McKenna boogie, after beginning in a ballad tempo and hitting the gas. Reaching deeper into his stylistic grab bag, Barron pulled out a mess of stride with his left hand at about the fourth chorus of his next swinger, Ellington/Strayhorn’s “Isfahan,” while the calculated chaos he unleashed on his own original, “New York Attitude” (inspired by Manhattan traffic and taxi drivers), showed a firm grasp of the frenetic brio that Diehl deals in. Most impressive among Barron’s uptempo magic feats were the astonishing transformations on another Gershwin nugget, “Embraceable You,” swung rather fiercely for a tune that even the pioneer boppers revered as ballad.

There were just a couple of ballads to cool down with, most notably the classic “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” spare and delicately rendered with a splash of the blues that grew gradually bluesier until he finished with the original Tommy Wolf outro. Just as often, Barron preferred to spark ballads to an accelerated gait: with a dazzling blues groove, “Body and Soul” was freshened as deliciously as “Embraceable You.” A couple of Monk tunes found their way into the mix. The infrequently played “Shuffle Boil” gave Barron the opportunity to reprise some of the funny, frenetic flavor of his New York piece, and “Well, You Needn’t” served as a perfect closer, melody and rhythm quickly tossed aside and bopped as Bud would have done- with a quirky Monkish run to finish it all off.

All this cumulative brilliance by four ace pianists surely must have whetted festivalgoers’ appetites for the sound of other instruments, larger combos. Wycliffe Gordon had the perfect recipe on both counts, assembling a hard-charging quintet for a program he called “Hello Pops: A Celebration of Louis Armstrong.” The lineup on the bandstand was enticing enough, including Anat Cohen on reeds with a rhythm section including Riley on drums, Yasushi Nakamura on bass and Diehl returning to the keyboard. Not only did Gordon bring four instruments to the stage-trombone, valve trombone, trumpet and slide trumpet-he was more than ready to offer vocal samples, including scat work on “Swing That Music” and the concert’s title song, his own original composition.

Gordon’s bodacious versatility, plus his customary mute and plunger shticks, helped veil the fact that he was slightly outplayed by Diehl and trounced by Cohen. Disarmingly personable, Gordon admitted as much after Cohen’s two riveting choruses in “Body and Soul,” saying that the clarinetist’s work had sent strange tinglings through his body. There could be no disputing this testimony, except to add that Cohen had achieved the same effect earlier with her first two choruses on “A Closer Walk With Thee,” an extravaganza of Mardi Gras proportions with Gordon flashing all of his brass instruments in various solos, splitting vocal chores with the audience, and doling out multiple solos and duets to Riley, Diehl and Cohen. Speaking of personable, Riley was a pleasant surprise when handed the microphone for two vocals, first on “La Vie en Rose,” a wonderful change of pace, and then on the rousing closer, “Bourbon Street Parade.” Nothing topped “Body and Soul” or “Closer Walk” for deep-down satisfaction, but “Sleepy Time Down South,” “Indiana” and “I Cover the Waterfront” were right in-the-pocket for celebrating Satch.

Standing in line for the 9 p.m. show a couple of nights later-yes, the Satch celebration stirred enough interest to run on consecutive nights, with a Noon30 reprise sandwiched in the middle-we heard a doubly extraordinary buzz for the twinbill “Fire & Fellowship” program that was about to begin. The first wave began within the line as the hour struck and we were still waiting to get inside. Gradually, it became obvious that the 6:15 concert was still going on! And then when that audience poured out, the voltage rose higher, a sea of smiling people assuring us that we were about to hear something truly special.

It was nearly as eclectic as it was electric, as the Brian Blade Fellowship Band opened for the Jon Faddis Quartet plus Terell Stafford and Sean Jones. Within the Fellowship set, there was ample diversity, beginning with the Mercy Suite by the quintet’s pianist, Jon Cowherd. Although it flowed continuously, the piece had three distinctive movements, with Blade staying discreetly out of the spotlight, although his presence was frequently felt. The opening section was the most rigidly calculated, Cowherd setting the modal mood and Blade layering on before bassist Chris Thomas’s entry. As Myron Walden on alto sax and Melvin Butler on tenor joined in, the line coalesced before Walden began the blowing. Or so it seemed until Butler followed on his heels, so quickly that Walden probably hadn’t completed a full chorus before the two were exchanging fours and then jamming furiously together, so that Cowherd’s solo poked in like an oasis of calm. We circled back to the sax line and the piano intro before the composer transitioned us to a new tune as Blade switched from sticks to brushes. The new line from the saxes was markedly cooler, giving way to an eloquent solo from Thomas, who wielded a bow behind Cowherd before Walden picked up his bass clarinet for a tender rumination. Butler returned on tenor to state the final theme together with Walden’s clarinet, but he was all on his own taking us from the simplicity of the previous reed solo to the wild ferocity we had heard from the sax tandem to start the piece. Through Butler’s ravings, Walden kept noodling beneath him, making for a beautiful effect when the tenor rant subsided and two horns found concord before Cowherd’s mellow outro.

Magnificent music, yet the crowd registered more pleasure when Blade called his father, Pastor Brady Blade, to the stage for a rousing vocal on “Amazing Grace.” The senior Blade had a gospel gig scheduled of his own for the following Saturday night, “The Hallelujah Train,” at a local First African Baptist Church. There he would be backed by his two drummer sons, Brian and Brady Jr., a 30-voice choir, three guitars, bassist Thomas and Cowherd doubling on piano and organ. So the “Amazing Grace” was as much a foretaste and a promo as it was a cameo. Although Pastor Blade was mic’d too fiercely, the familiar hymn certainly ended the Fellowship gig with a better reason than the Mercy Suite for the audience to rise enthusiastically to its feet.

Faddis, a garrulous and self-assured entertainer, had no problem following the Blades or the Fellowship. By the time he had finished introducing his bandmates, the audience was already his. Doubled over with laughter was a perfect condition to be in as the onslaught of “Blues Walk” began. Everyone in the sextet-including the rhythm section of bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa, drummer Dion Parson and pianist David Hazeltine-soloed during an arrangement that climaxed with a lordly trading of 8s. Between Faddis’ stratospheric solos and the three-trumpet outchorus, eardrums throughout the house were reamed and cleaned by the brass. Stafford and Jones readily conceded the prize for the most ridiculously high notes to Faddis, but the meaning of the winces and grimaces that crossed the younger trumpeters’ faces remained ambiguous. Could have meant “That’s just not possible” or “That’s just not music.” Fortunately, there was a respite as the three frontliners picked up mutes for Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma.” Faddis is famous for his ability to replicate Diz’s solos-he may even be wearing Diz’s prescription eyeglasses for all we know-and his homage mode was far more salubrious than his Maynard-be-damned antics, particularly following Jones’ modest solo. Each of the frontliners then chose a ballad, keeping the mellow mood going for a while. Jones played a cappella before launching into the line of “In a Sentimental Mood,” and Stafford topped this fine performance with a gorgeously virtuosic “Skylark.” Stafford’s burnished beauty only roused Faddis’ competitive fire, so his interpretation of “‘Round Midnight” became another sky’s-the-limit affair, leaving musical substance behind.

Things further devolved as the audience got into the act. A huge contingent of Swing Central musicians was in the house, and Faddis took a shine to an attractive teen vocalist from one of the competing schools, who came onstage and sang “Everyday I Have the Blues.” This perfunctory performance-into a mic that was still overbearing-only materialized after extensive patter, including a renegotiation or two of what song Hazeltine could back her up on. The closer was even more of a drag as Faddis plucked a singer from Pastor Blade’s backup chorus who didn’t want to sing. Instead the young lady managed to prevail on another chorus member to take the spotlight. But our soloist was not easily coaxed and insisted on all assembled chorus members backing her up. So the prelude to “Oh, Happy Day” was excruciatingly long-and only worth the wait if you didn’t find all the gospel singing and shouting repetitious or tedious. Better was the piece between the two Faddis forays into the audience, the classic Ellington/Tizol “Caravan.” Unmuted, the three horns sounded even more like a big band than on “Con Alma,” and with solos by Hazeltine and Parson framing the horn battle, it was our last glimpse of the sextet’s true mettle.

Jeff Clayton has played at SMF before, but in recent years it was a family affair, with the altoist blowing as part of the Clayton Brothers quintet with brother bassist John and nephew Gerald at the piano. The new Jeff Clayton Quartet played the final jazz Noon30 for 2012, recruiting Diehl to the keyboard and the estimable Rodney Jordan behind the bass while reuniting with Clayton Brothers alumnus Riley at the kit. Clayton was in a Latin mood to start things off, and the quartet clicked instantly on “Jazzy Bluesy Bossa Nova” – together and individually. Elements of bossa mixed with the funk of Cannonball and the fire of Trane as Clayton blazed and then calmed his solo on his own tasty tune, Diehl also finding the line to his liking, firing up and cooling down, over Riley’s woodblocks, before giving way to the percussionist. Cole Porter’s “I Love You” got dealt a “Manteca”-like intro from Diehl, sustaining the Latin mood a little longer until Clayton launched into the line before each member soloed eloquently, Riley getting last licks again before the leader took it home.

Best of the rest were compositions by altoists, beginning with a frantic gallop through Sonny Stitt’s “Eternal Triangle” with Clayton positively screaming and bopping, Diehl diving into his own Bud Powell maelstrom, Clayton trading 8s with Riley, and rounding toward home only after Jordan and Riley built up to a second whirlwind of excitement. Benny Carter’s “Souvenir” contrasted beautifully with the bop-fest, Riley switching to the brushes for the ballad, Diehl probing the line most deeply while Clayton contented himself with ravishing the melody with his horn. The altoist called his own tune, “Phantom Energy,” for his closer, and sure enough, the line sparked the fun and intensity a closer should. Diehl was wilder than before, unveiling a Tyner overdrive he hadn’t hinted at before, Clayton wailed again, Jordan soloed lustily and Riley made his last moments memorable, thrashing with one stick and one hand, enjoying it as much as we did. Here is one drummer who does not need to nod his head to let the world know his solo is over. Riley keeps time that emphatically without the slightest sacrifice of creativity.

Clayton’s reticence on “Souvenir” was demystified when he reprised the tune that evening for his quartet’s slot in the all-star Swing Central Finale. With hundreds of aspiring musicians in the audience, Clayton was not alone in taking the occasion at the less-clubby, more formal Lucas Theatre venue with added seriousness. That attitude meshed well with a playlist that was anything but patronizing. Faddis’ solo on “Memories of You,” done as a duet, was his most heartfelt playing at the Festival; Gordon was at his most collegial opposite fellow trombonist Westray on Dizzy’s “Wheatleigh Hall”; and Diehl teamed up Roberts to teach jazz fans a little history, replicating Ellington’s duet with Strayhorn on their jointly composed “Tonk.” Altogether, this was strong playing on a high-protein program, both a climax and an affirmation in a busy week of jazz in Savannah. SMF not only hosts a swinging annual party, it has built a nurturing jazz culture, with topflight musicians dedicated to the cause.

Postscript: Dillard Center for the Arts, first place winners at the 2010 Swing Central competition, not only regained its crown in Savannah this year, the Ft. Lauderdale ensemble went on to take the Jazz @ Lincoln Center title as America’s Best High School Jazz Band. Double congratulations!

Originally Published