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Spoleto Festival, South Carolina, 2011

A fine and mellow jazz lineup running the gamut from Dianne Reeves and Karrin Allyson to Trombone Shorty and Danilo Rea

Danilo Rea at Spoleto 2011
Ketil Bjornstad, Spoleto 2011

In a year when Charleston was commemorating the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, there was far more attention at Spoleto Festival USA to the 100th birthday of festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti. So it wasn’t surprising that Dianne Reeves, who had spearheaded a boycott of Spoleto when the Confederate Flag still flew over the State Capitol dome in Columbia, was willing to let bygones be bygones. After all, the resolution of that flag thing and the ancient Civil War could both be chalked up in the victory column.

Since 1977, jazz has always been at the core of Spoleto, with Louis Bellson, Phil Woods, Ella Fitzgerald, Zoot Sims, Joe Williams and Clark Terry among the greats who performed at the first two festivals. Under the direction of Michael Grofsorean, jazz programming has grown more eclectic and venturesome in recent years, more in tune with the overall festival, which has always been more international than parochial in its outlook. Audience favorites like Reeves and Trombone Shorty continue to be mainstays in the lineup, but Grofsorean takes equal delight in introducing new artists from abroad, including Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjørnstad and the Willy González-Micaela Vita duo from South America, both making their U.S. debuts. The remainder of the Wells Fargo Jazz artists-Danilo Rea from Italy, Toninho Ferragutti from Brazil and Karrin Allyson from Kansas-was equally unpredictable and far-ranging.

Sixteen years after her first Spoleto appearance, Allyson returned to fire the opening jazz salvo of the 2011 festival in the great outdoor Cistern Yard venue. Her quartet was nearly the same as the one that played the 2009 Jazz Cruise, Rod Freeman still picking guitar and Ed Howard on bass-Billy Drummond was now behind the kit-and even a couple of the songs were the same. The set established an insouciant latenight momentum with the first two cuts from Allyson’s new ‘Round Midnight CD, “Turn Off the Stars” and “April Come She Will.” Then we briefly flashed back aboard the Westerdam oceanliner for “Loads of Lovely Love” before a charming little rainbow medley bridging songs from her two most recent albums, “Double Rainbow” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.”

Then Allyson asked the audience what they’d like to hear, reserving her veto powers. Loudest of the requests was “Footprints,” but Allyson wasn’t giving in right away, straying outside her discography for “Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues,” spiced with grooving solos from Howard and Freeman. Then we had a leisurely stroll through “Footprints,” Allyson’s piano at the fore with Freeman’s guitar, followed by a far livelier snatch from the same Footprints album, “Never Say Yes,” with plenty of scatting from Allyson, solos by Howard and Freeman, and volleys of eights traded with an exuberant Drummond.

Allyson then went her own way, beginning with an achingly lovely “Sophisticated Lady,” including a full chorus-and-a-half from Freeman, and then steering us back into the South American sector of her repertoire with “O Pato (The Duck)” and “Estrada Branca (This Happy Madness).” She couldn’t have chosen a better closer than Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’,” going beyond Jon Hendricks with some extra blandishments of scat before handing things over to Freeman and Drummond to duke it out. Critics must never shout out requests for encores, so Allyson’s reedy French accent on “Sous le Ciel de Paris (Under Paris Skies)” was like a wish fulfillment, reviving one of the best memories from an ocean voyage, up in the Crow’s Nest of the Westerdam. Around midnight.

Bjørnstad’s three solo sets turned out to be a double debut, for they were performed at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, previously the exclusive domain of Westminster Choir’s classical concerts. The ECM artist, whose work often embraces the same classical idioms that color Keith Jarrett’s solo work, was a perfect choice for bringing jazz to church in Charleston. At his opening concert, each of Bjørnstad’s four solos roamed freely among his compositions, mostly classical in mood with occasional jazzy outbreaks, cycling as many as four tunes-from as many as three different past CDs-into the mix.

His latest release, Night Song (with cellist Svante Henryson), was only touched upon in his first solo, between two selections from his Remembrance cycle and before a piece from his as-yet-unrecorded Antonioni Project. There was a New Age tinge to the intro before Bjørnstad reached his first melodic subject, swelling with romantic yearning, and a listener unaware of the musical category beforehand would likely guess he or she was at a classical concert. Certainly the Steinway breathed a pearlescent fullness in the church, and the pianist demonstrated that his classical training was formidable. Orchestral music of Sibelius came to mind when the first solo, so delicate at the start, peaked in stately forcefulness toward the end.

The next mélange, beginning and ending with “Floating,” after branching out into “The Sea, II” and “Flotations and Surroundings,” remained in mid-tempo, but darker, more like Schubert’s piano writing underneath the treble. Fashioned from two pieces featured on the forthcoming Early Piano Music re-release, “Prelude No. 19” and “Pianology,” the next solo began in Chopinesque melancholy before becoming the jazziest of the set as we were released from the opening theme a second time. The second classical subject actually waltzed before Bjørnstad wandered mightily outside metre and key with earthquake force, an interlude that led to an even more exciting rampage, reminiscent of the most jubilant Ralph Towner music of the early Oregon years. Of course, the finale was relatively calmer, woven into a sonata form like the first two. It started with “Madonna” (as envisioned by Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch) and rumbled into an untitled piece in its fantasia, but there was also a jazzy 4/4 romp before Bjørnstad circled back to his simple theme atop a somber baseline.

Tough act to follow, and three hours later outdoors at Cistern Yard, Toninho Ferragutti paled by comparison. Backed by a conventional string quartet augmented by double bass, the Ferragutti sextet wasn’t lacking in classical dimensions, but the leader’s intentions on accordion leaned toward tango and choro, liberally laced with French sentimentality. Occasionally first violinist Ricardo Takahashi broke free from the quartet drone with a brief fill, in “Sanfoneon” and “Nem sol nem lua” (the ELO-like title song of Toninho’s latest release), a reliable indicator that the true jazz soloists, Toninho and bassist Zé Alexandre Carvalho, were readying to joust in a monster jam. Takahashi introduced the opening melody of the most adventurous piece, “Na sombra da asa branca,” which closed the concert-prior to an encore, of course-slackening to a cowpoke lope with Toninho’s entrance and then by stages, drifting into a lengthy cadenza, a festive dance, a flight-of-the-bumblebee agitation, and a triumphant celebration.

When the quartet remained in lockstep, the best of the tunes was “Dominguinhos no parquet,” which featured similar hairpin tempo turns, starting off uptempo somewhere between polka and samba, then settling into an emphatic midtempo groove with the quartet sounding like marching bagpipers before accelerating back to the head. Curiously, the only pieces that weren’t written by Toninho were the ones that the accordionist played without accompaniment, Lupérce Miranda’s “Quando me lembro” and Hermeto Pascoal’s “Sion.” Jazziest of all was the encore on the leader’s “E o bento levou,” played as a blazing duo with Carvalho, who pulled out his bow along with all the stops, pounding his instrument when he wasn’t plucking or sawing it. More of that intense one-on-one action would have lifted the whole concert.

Famed for her non-appearance at Spoleto in 2000, when she led an artists’ boycott of the festival, in protest of the Confederate Flag that still flew over the Capitol dome in Columbia, Reeves has now performed three times at the event she once chastised. No doubt about it, her 2011 concert at Gaillard Auditorium, provocatively titled “Strings Attached,” was easily the mellowest, and arguably the finest, of them all. The strings turned out to be no more and no less than guitarists Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo, Malone on electric and Lubambo on amplified acoustic. So after the duo gently jammed on “I’ll Remember April” by way of preface and Reeves sat herself down between them, there was nobody standing on the vast stage, a most relaxing tableau.

Lubambo and Malone quickly became the opposite poles of Reeves’ set list as she began by swaying into Jobim’s “Triste” (Anglicized into “Sad”) and then tacked toward a bubbly rendition of Jon Hendricks’ “Social Call.” Sufficiently warmed up by these delicious bonbons, Reeves turned on her turbochargers for her own original “Tango,” an astonishing display that could be just as aptly titled “Jet Lag Scat” after her anecdotal intro and bravura fireworks. If the idea was to show that Reeves’ originals could stand tall in a forest of established standards, count the point as decisively made. Jobim’s “Once I Loved” didn’t upstage Reeves’ “Nine,” and Ani DeFranco’s “32 Flavors” had to defer to Reeves’ rousing “Today Will Be a Good Day,” not to mention Malone’s fervid solo rendition of “Unchained Melody.”

The power and purity of Reeves’ voice made one last ascent possible in her final three songs, starting with a tribute to the late Abbey Lincoln, who made her final appearance at Spoleto in 2003. If Dianne didn’t quite match Abbey’s heartrending blues majesty in “Throw It Away,” she certainly evoked it richly, and in its wake, the affirming spirit of the Reeves’ own “Mista” became a secondary tribute to round off the concert. The encore, McCoy Tyner’s “You Taught My Heart to Sing,” kept us on the same lofty plateau as Reeves made her triumphant exit.

After the relaxed regality of Reeves came the deluge known as Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, playing to a capacity crowd 11 nights later at Cistern Yard to kick off the final weekend of the festival. While the chart-topping band’s most rabid fans were excluded from the higher-priced front rows, they gathered en masse in sections flanking the stage, ready to swarm the turf directly in front of the stage when beckoned by their diminutive idol, brass-playing leader Troy Andrews, bearer of the funky nickname. Until then, they loudly and enthusiastically made their presence known, charging the atmosphere with their electricity.

Shorty certainly stoked their excitement, strutting frequently across to the corners of the stage, demonstrably appreciating the work of his bandmates when they soloed, and most incendiary of all, doing his own version of pumping iron, a trumpet in his right hand and the signature trombone in his left. When such oblique appeals to the audience didn’t suffice, Shorty asked the audience if they were having a good time, and if the clamorous response wasn’t deafening enough, he’d ask again.

Concertgoers accustomed to standing all evening long, perhaps even floating one of their members over the throng, no doubt took this all in stride. But for jazz fans and Spoleto subscribers expecting something else, there was an initiation process, prompted by the faithful.

If Shorty’s cool self-assurance, his arrogant swagger and his implicit hostage-taking ultimatums to the audience (you’d better cheer louder if you want to hear more) were all rockstar behaviors stamping a rock concert ambiance, then the party-time flavoring of his antics provided the bridge for the uninitiated to get into the spirit. While the infectious beat of the Orleans Avenue music lubricated the whole seduction, the exhortations of the lyrics-“show me what you workin’ with,” “show me something beautiful” and “whatcha gonna do?”-were the antithesis of subtlety when crowd control ceased and the party was emphatically on.

To be truthful, Shorty didn’t show much on trombone, playing clichéd riffs that were lustily loud and catchingly accented but short on musical content. The jazz highlight of the concert, both vocally and instrumentally, saw Shorty on trumpet for “St. James Infirmary,” affirming that Andrews indeed has a store of melodic imagination when he chooses to fall back on it. Percussionist Dwayne Williams and drummer Joey Peebles both switched to congas for this piece, but the most crowd-pleasing switching was saved for last. For their final encore, “Do for Me,” Shorty abandoned the trombone for the drums, Williams sidled away from the congas and retrieved a trumpet and Mike Ballard threw down his bass and picked up the trombone. The fun-loving spectacle was irresistible, with the most consistently solid music of the evening provided by guitarist Pete Murano and tenor saxophonist Tim McFatter.

Following the Trombone Shorty block party, the solo concerts by Italian pianist Danilo Rea that ended Spoleto’s jazz programming for 2011 would have to be judged anticlimactic. On the other hand, Rea’s music was more than a match for Orleans Avenue’s in richness and depth, very much in the European vein of Ketil Bjørnstad’s performances two weeks earlier. The biggest difference was the scope of the work. Bjørnstad had spun his medley fantasias from his own compositions, but Rea ranged far and wide for his materials, from Gershwin and Richard Rodgers to Puccini, from Carole King and John Lennon to Leonard Bernstein and Thelonious Monk, from Johnny Mandel and the Sherman Brothers to Ennio Morricone and Fabrizio De André. Or completely out of leftfield: Domenico Modugno’s “Volare.”

Within each medley, there was a more self-contained logic, but moods and tempos were subject to sudden switches. Tunes you had already heard might unexpectedly reprise. The opening potpourri boasted the widest range of materials, beginning with “The Shadow of Your Smile” and moving on to “My Favorite Things” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” then pairing “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “What Now My Love” twice before veering off into “You’ve Got a Friend.” There was a medley entirely devoted to Puccini, including a La Bohème collage and ending with the familiar “O! Mio Babbino Caro” from Gianni Schicchi. Hippest of all was the fantasia that began with Morricone’s “Theme from The Mission” and King’s “Up on the Roof” before diving back into the ’50s with Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming” and jumping off from there into a Monk medley: “Well, You Needn’t,” “Misterioso,” and “I Mean You.”

But the most charming of all the medleys for baby boomers had to be the Beatles medley, beginning and ending with Lennon’s “Imagine” and packing generous helpings of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” and the lovely “Here, There, and Everywhere” in between. While Rea occasionally showed his swinging aptitude, more often his considerable chops were deployed for exploratory and rhapsodizing purposes, and some of his most intriguing, imaginative playing came as he wended his way from one tune to another. As with many European players, there were no strict borders for Rea between jazz, classical and pop. What Rea did steer clear of was clichéd and saccharine playing. When he wasn’t swinging or rhapsodizing, Rea could be compellingly simple and sweet, letting the composers work their magic.

Originally Published