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Savannah Music Festival

Marcus Printup
Marcus Printup at 80th Birthday Celebration for Ben Tucker (photo: Perry Tannenbaum)
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba at Savannah Music Festival
Marcus Printup (left) and Wycliffe Gordon at 80th Birthday Celebration for Ben Tucker
Amy Sacko and Bassekou Kouyate at the Savannah Music Festival

With its enviable variety of venues, the Savannah Music Festival can woo jazz patrons with an intimate club experience, wow them with an epic concert extravaganza, or even clear away some space and go ballroom. The city’s temperate climate allows this festival to steal a march on its Northern brethren – and open in March before the spring equinox. As early as the second week, SMF has ventured outdoors for a free midday concert. Perhaps chastened by the typhoons of 2009, the high school swing band competition was delayed until the third and final week of the festival. This year, the weather was sunny, flowery perfection.

The big jazz names that swoop down on the port city create a festival within the festival, especially this year, for jazz at SMF 2010 didn’t begin heating up until the second Sunday when Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra took over the Johnny Mercer Theatre. Classical programming was every bit as star-studded, from the opening night with Lang Lang onwards, including such luminaries as Nicolle Cabell, Yefim Bronfman, Gautier Capuçon, Wu Han, and the Emerson String Quartet. Folk, blues, bluegrass, zydeco, and Americana were also in the mix, topped by Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Cherryholmes, Wilco, Ruthie Foster, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Curtis Blackwell, and the Del McCoury Band.

Eight events were bunched into the last three days of the festival, making the final Thursday a propitious time to arrive. Ken Peplowski, who hooked up with three guitarists at the Charles H. Morris Center last year, returned for a noonday concert with one of them, forming a nifty duo with seven-string master Howard Alden. Not for the first time, we should note, since the two put out a duo album for Concord as far back as 1992, after playing on each other’s dates three years earlier on the same label. More recently in 2008, the two crossed over to the Arbors label and recorded Pow-Wow together.

With an admirable disdain for commercialism, Peplowski and Alden, neither of whom is the shyest of emcees, made no mention of their duo recordings. If a sprinkle of nostalgia was evident in their playlist, it was the two numbers reprised from their 1992 set, their opener, “You’re My Everything,” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Why” later on. Peplowski chose his tenor sax for the Harry Warren tune, jumping right on Alden’s free-form, Joe Pass tinged intro in a smooth swing-era style. He picked up the sax a couple more times, most notably on Coleman Hawkins’ “Stuffy,” digging even harder while Alden contented himself with a subsidiary role, taking advantage of the low seventh string to groove the swinging more deeply, joining the fray briefly to trade some 8s, and then standing clear while Peplowski went off again with an occasional Hawk-like edge.

Alden had more than a fair share of the spotlight, nodding to his mentor, George Van Eps, with a solo medley that began with Van Eps’ “Lap Piano” before abruptly veering into Richard Rodgers’ “Mountain Greenery.” The initially odd juxtaposition was justified as the guitarist shuttled smoothly between the two tunes at the end. Rebuffing his partner’s request for a Monk solo, Alden then delivered a richly textured rendition of Barney Kessel’s “I Remember Django.”

Peplowski got his way later in the set as the duo played Monk’s “Crepuscule With Nellie,” featuring a fine solo from Alden, followed immediately by “Ask Me Now,” where the clarinetist’s halting eloquence inescapably evoked the Trane-Monk recordings. Peplowski served up plenty more licorice treats during the set, including balladry on Ellington’s “Don’t You Know I Care” and uptempo romps through Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me,” Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism,” and Pixinguinha’s “Um a Zero.” That last Brazilian tune, the duo’s finale, had Peplowski lathered up in carnival spirit, tweedling away at warp speed in long-breathed phrases – kindling suspicions that the pair are headed back to the studio, not likely to leave this crowdpleaser behind.

Playing in his seventh consecutive year at the festival, bassist Ben Tucker was more than worthy of an 80th birthday tribute. He is arguably as important in Savannah music history as Johnny Mercer, for in addition to his exploits as an instrumentalist and composer of over 300 songs, Tucker was one of the first black radio station owners in America, and WSOK-AM climbed to the #1 spot among Savannah stations within his first year of ownership and stayed on top of the ratings for 13 more until he sold it.

Tucker did have to work at his tribute, but he seemed blissful enough playing in a pickup quintet. Small wonder, since it included trumpeter Marcus Printup and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, both clearly jazzed to be participating in the occasion. Gordon, in his eighth consecutive SMF appearance, was seemingly determined to steal the show, showing off every possible way to play his slide. There was a plunger #over# his mute when he soloed on Tucker’s “TNT,” a line drenched in Blue Note flavor. More startling, he played “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” with a real rag draped over the bell of his horn – a bath towel, actually, but you get the idea. In “Blues for TW,” Gordon half-scatted and half-kazooed with his mouthpiece before reassembling his horn for a chorus or two and finishing his stint in scat.

Of course, Gordon’s intent – besides showing off or just having a good time – may have been to kindle his bandmates’ competitive fire. Pianist Kevin Bales, who has recorded with Printup, made a bit of a splash up the road at Spoleto Festival USA last year playing behind René Marie. He played up to that same high standard in the Tucker rhythm section, building majestic solos on “TNT” and “Blues for TW.” Printup also rose to the challenge, matching Gordon brilliance for brilliance while keeping his horn open. He shone especially brightly on Michel Legrand’s “You Must Believe in Spring” with his mellow balladry, but his pitched battles with Gordon on the last two pieces, Tucker’s “Devilette” and the anthemic “Sweet Georgia Brown” will probably linger longest in the memory of the Morris Center audience. Both horns were jamming furiously in the outchoruses of these swingers with no clear victor except the music.

The Swing Central Finale and All-Star Swing Summit, at spacious Lucas Theatre, crystallizes the synergy between the educational and concert components at SMF. In the opening segment of the concert, the three top high school bands among the 12 chosen for the Swing Central Competition – this year, from as far west as California and as far north as Pennsylvania – play the three charts that have been provided to them by the festival. Then the big-name clinicians who have mentored the high school band members during the weeklong competition take the stage for the second half of the concert, in a variety of configurations, and serenade their students.

Dillard Center for the Arts, from Ft. Lauderdale, opened the concert with Ernie Wilkins’ arrangement of “Moten Swing,” followed by Agoura High School, from California, playing Oliver Nelson’s arrangement of his own “Stolen Moments.” Then some startlingly different instrumentation as Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, from Jacksonville, played Jelly Roll Morton’s “Blackbottom Stomp” in a Jackson Sock arrangement right before the tensely anticipated presentation of the top three award checks. SMF’s proliferation of these classic charts and the obvious pride the young musicians take in performing them, in front of a hugely supportive crowd, are what make this such a worthwhile and heartwarming event.

What follows after the intermission is truly epic – in quality and length. The printed insert tells people what they will hear and who will play, but newbies are likely unaware that the 7:30 show will keep swinging until a few ticks before 11 p.m. Jeff Clayton’s solo performance of his own “The Borg” on alto sax, near the midpoint of the all-star summits, seemed to serve as the call to take things up a notch. By the time Marcus Roberts finished his smokin’ solo on McCoy Tyner’s “Blues on the Corner,” there was a little more heat in the house, and when he and guitarist Dave Stryker traded fours, both were breathing fire. Fronting a piano trio with Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums, Roberts kept his edge on Porter’s “Anything Goes,” taking the title to heart as he steered his solo from ragtime to gospel to soft blues to a grandiose parade before a rousing mash-on-the-brakes ending.

Joining the trio for a raucous free-for-all on Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” were trumpeter Jim Ketch and reedman Ted Nash – plus Printup and Gordon, poised to resume their friendly hostilities. A new rhythm section cycled onstage for Gordon’s funky “Greasebucket,” with the composer and Nash, bopping on alto, engaging in the main fracas before Jack Wilkins mellowed things on tenor and Rodney Whitaker contributed a formidable bass solo from. Then came the reverential face-off between Printup and Gordon, accompanied by Roberts on “Amazing Grace.” Wycliffe, the man of many timbres, unleashed a few after Printup’s intro, challenging the trumpeter one last time to match his bravura. Slowly, Printup built to an awesome peak in his righteous response, eliciting yelps from the audience (and tears and goosebumps as well), soaring upwards and pulling down the heavenly angels to worship at his feet.

How do you follow that? Humble and nearly crestfallen, bassist John Clayton led the Clayton Brothers onstage and quietly declared that it just wasn’t fair before launching into their set. Brother Jeff on alto and trumpeter Terell Stafford had superb horn chemistry, blending nicely on leads, contrasting effectively on solos. Jeff’s “Wild Man” got the set off to a deep hardbop groove, and Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go” was the perfect palate cleanser before the finale, John opening bowed, Stafford switching to flugel, and Jeff noodling on flute. John’s “The Last Stop” had an instantly ingratiating appeal as the ensemble spun out its stop-and-go line. Stafford swung it, Gerald Clayton tossed in his best solo of the set from the keyboard, and Jeff wailed and squealed in a funky idiom as old as Cannonball Adderley. A great way to end a great evening as the all-stars strode onstage from the wings. Gordon and Printup were still sparring with their horns.

It’s hard to face complete withdrawal after an evening that gives us samplings of over a dozen groups, but the final evening, offering a shorter double-bill, was still a feast. Two separate performing spaces were carved out at the Morris, smoothing the transition between the Bill Frisell Trio set, played at floor level, and the onset of Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Bas, who filled the mainstage at the rear with their septet after the smaller group departed. Starting very softly and out of time, accompanists Tony Scherr on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums conspired with Frisell in laying down a primordial soup, out of which the leader’s guitar emerged playing a slow, aspiring, rocking “Shenandoah,” shouting with sustain pedal and sturdily braced with bass guitar. As we dissolved into another free episode, Wollessen shaking his drumsticks like a pair of dice, it became apparent we were in for something bigger – something that might be labeled an American trilogy, with the equally archetypal “Lovesick Blues” as the ultimate destination.

In between, there was a more classic, funkier blues that at times betrayed a kinship with Ray Brown’s “Blues for Junior.” Frisell played brilliantly on this but was content to coast on “Lovesick,” a generic Chet-Atkins-on-autopilot interpretation.

The other two titles in the set were also up-and-down. A wildly electronic intro, rife with distorted guitar that gave way to organ and electric piano timbres, landed unexpectedly in prime bebop with Frisell digging into Sonny Rollins’ “No Moe.” After the leader’s grand peroration, Scherr – on upright bass – finally took the first solo other than Frisell’s, but when Wollesen threatened to break out on drums, Frisell shut it down and brought it home. hThe finale was repetitive rock, made only mildly interesting when Frisell mixed things up with his signal processing, playing what he had already played in organ, chimes, and piano timbres.

Whether Frisell was miffed, humbled, hurt, or merely hermetic was hard to tell from his diffident, low-key demeanor. What he said about opening for Kouyate was in the form of a gracious resolve to get out of the way as quickly as possible so that we could experience something special. Nonetheless, it was hard to imagine that opening for another act, playing at the lower floor level, and starting his two-day stand in Savannah the night before, scheduled opposite the All-Star Swing Summit, had buoyed his spirits. Although he did introduce his bandmates, he never introduced or named a single composition he played and spent more time communing with his electronics than engaging the audience.

Introducing the names of the Mali songs was about the only thing Kouyate and his Ngoni Bas ensemble didn’t do. The septet paraded onto the mainstage in bright ceremonial costumes, plugged their ancient stringed instruments – akin to lutes and ancestors of the banjo – into contemporary amps, and played, sang, danced, and drummed through an infectious nine-song playlist. Four of the tunes came from their 2007 debut album, Segu Blue, and four others – toward the end of the set – came from their latest CD, I Speak Fula, released exactly two months before their SMF debut.

The driving forces behind the ensemble are Kouyate, with his blazing instrumentals on ngoni, and his wife Amy Sacko, an astounding vocalist. While the recordings capture the solemn, spiritual side of the music, they pale beside the electricity the group generates live in the celebratory revels. Tempos are quicker, the amps lend the four ngonis playing simultaneously more volume and grit, and Sacko becomes a powerhouse. The dancing we get to see behind the soloists is either precisely choreographed like a doo-wop group or wildly spontaneous like the line dances that break out at street celebrations. Two percussionists – sometimes three or four (if Sacko picks up an instrument) – send pulsations through the house that rock the ground.

Both Kouyate and Sacko are fine-looking and gregarious. Sacko decreed that the audience join her on one song. On another, she and her husband led the women and men in a friendly vocal battle. And to get our encore of “Torin Torin,” Kouyate ordained that we would have to dance for it.

During his introductory remarks, the festival’s executive and artistic director, Rob Gibson, had made the improbable prediction that we would want to travel to Mali and check out their music scene after they were done. When the crowd streamed toward the stage, in response to Kouyate’s summons, and began dancing festively alongside the stage as SMF came to a close for 2010, it seemed possible that some of the dancers were actually entertaining Gibson’s notion of a Mali getaway. More were likely contemplating a return trip to Savannah in 2011.

Originally Published