Concert Reviews from Savannah Music Festival Continue

Wycliffe Gordon conducts the orchestra during the screening of Oscar Mischeaux's 1919 film, Within Our Gates. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

Wycliffe Gordon conducts the orchestra during the screening of Oscar Mischeaux’s 1919 film, Within Our Gates, on April 1, 2016 at Lucas Theatre for the Arts. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

I was really looking forward to seeing Dwight Yoakam for the first time live Thursday evening at the Johnny Mercer Theater. The Kentucky-born crooner and songwriter has blazed a progressive-minded path for contemporary country music by building upon the genre’s deepest roots. Alas, the first half-dozen songs, which included classic hits like “Little Sister” and “It Won’t Hurt,” were delivered in a detached, lackluster style that seemed to satisfy the devotees, but moved your intrepid to an early exit. Not helping matters was the sound system, which was way too loud, bass-heavy and lacking in mid-range detail. Even when things seemed to be on the verge of engaging the right gear, Yoakam’s voice sounded toothless and muffled as if he was singing through an old feather pillow.

For jazz fans, the Savannah Music Festival is a gift that keeps on giving. On Thursday, March 31, the Charles Morris Center hosted a double-bill showcasing the titanic talent of two quartets and their respective tenor saxophonists. Stephen Riley’s accompanists were the solid-to-the-core triumvirate of Marcus Roberts (piano), Rodney Jordan (bass) and Jason Marsalis (drums). A straight up bebop traditionalist with a full, fluid, easygoing tone, Riley played with solid chops and sincere commitment, but occasionally struggled to assert his presence amid the juggernaut rhythm section. On a few occasions following a solo, he stepped away from the mike looking like a man who had narrowly escaped being run over by a three-wheeled bulldozer.

Eric Alexander’s quartet featured bassist John Webber, drummer Joe Farnsworth and the inimitable Memphis-born, hard bop/soul pianist Harold Mabern. Alexander is one of those players who studied fiercely and absorbed everything – down into the deeper fathoms of his instrument – on his way to figuring out what works best for each musical setting. From blues to bop and beyond. Mabern’s playing, whether ferociously funky or soulfully smooth, is and was a commanding force, while his barrel-aged voice and gift for recounting hilarious anecdotes enthralled and cajoled the audience throughout the night.

Mandolinists Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg perform at Unitarian Universalist Church. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

Mandolinists Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg perform at Unitarian Universalist Church. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

Friday’s concert calendar started out in the acoustically refined confines of the Unitarian Universalist Church with a program exploring the history of the mandolin through four centuries led by the husband-and-wife team of Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg. An insightful and instructive setlist included works by Bach, Vivaldi, Jacob do Bandolim, and Gabriele Leone. The couple’s enthusiasm for the instrument and its rich repertoire was conveyed throughout the program. Among the most evocative performances occurred during “Mara’s Sleeping Song,” a lullaby written by Lichtenberg for her niece’s first child; and “Borealis,” co-written by Marshall and longtime collaborator Darol Anger.

Brianna Thomas performs at the Charles Morris Center. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Elizabeth Leitzell)

Brianna Thomas performs at the Charles Morris Center. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Elizabeth Leitzell)

Brianna Thomas’ noontime appearance at the Charles Morris Center was an inspiring set by one of jazz’s most talented young vocalists. A rich mezzo voice with a bright lithe timbre, Thomas illuminated familiar songs like Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave,” exposing new depths and contours. Supported by the ubiquitous Aaron Diehl on piano, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Marion Felder, she scat sang like a young Ella Fitzgerald, wailed on her own material (“I Should’ve Known”) and capped off her show by employing a hugely powerful chest voice to lead the crowd in multiple choruses of “Roomfull of Love in My House.”

Trombonist and educator Wycliffe Gordon composed the score for Within Our Gates, performed on April 1, 2016 at Lucas Theatre for the Arts. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

Trombonist and educator Wycliffe Gordon composed the score for Within Our Gates and conducted the orchestra during the film screening on April 1, 2016 at Lucas Theatre for the Arts. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

It would be difficult to overstate the beauty and power of the live performance by a 20-piece jazz orchestra of Wycliffe Gordon’s score for Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1919). In its day, Within Our Gates partly constituted a response by the black community to D. W. Griffith’s revisionist, Ku Klux Klan- glorifying “Birth of a Nation” (1915). The melodramatic narrative touches on contemporaneous themes relating to the Harlem renaissance, the ascendancy of black activism, and racism as practiced in the north and south. Scenes depicting beatings, lynching and attempted rape, which made the film controversial in its day, were rendered no less unsettling by the passage of nearly a century. With the silent film projected behind the musicians in the orchestra pit and a master’s touch, Gordon directed his colleagues through a melange of ragtime, early jazz, bebop, swing, blues, and rhythmic stomping, clapping and singing. Through the use of distinctive character themes and evocative, atmospheric passages, Gordon’s music greatly enhanced the cinematic experience by strengthening continuity and imparting a sustained propulsive energy. After the final scene, the nearly packed Lucas Theatre audience leapt to its feet to give the orchestra a rousing ovation and were rewarded with an extended jam session.

About the Savannah Music Festival

Now through April 9, the historic district of downtown Savannah plays host to more than 100 performances during the annual Savannah Music Festival (SMF), which celebrates exceptional artistry in jazz, classical and a variety of American and international music traditions. A full schedule and tickets are available at savannahmusicfestival.org. Tickets can also be purchased by phone at 912-525-5050 or at 216 E. Broughton Street in Savannah.

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To learn more about music festivals, attractions and landmarks throughout Georgia, visit ExploreGeorgia.org/Music.

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