It’s not every day you get to see two of the world’s greatest pianists from two entirely different genres performing a few blocks away from each other. Such was the planetary alignment on Day 9 of the Savannah Music Festival.
First up was the Marcus Roberts Trio at the Charles H. Morris Center: Roberts at the keys accompanied by Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums. The setlist comprised a mix of originals and standards including Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Sphere,” John Coltrane’s “Naima,” Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” the latter of which Roberts’ prefaced by wryly noting, “Here’s a song that holds special relevance, given recent events here, in America, in 2015.”
Over the years I have caught Roberts in a number of different settings including with this same trio at the premiere of his composition, “Spirit of the Blues: Piano Concerto in C Minor,” with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at SMF 2013. Until Saturday afternoon, I have never heard a jazz trio – including Roberts’ – swing so hard and with such commanding technical facility and improvisational empathy. I guess that’s what being led by a genius and playing together for the better part of two decades will do for a three-piece band of brothers.
A couple of hours later, Murray Perahia strode across the stage at Trinity United Methodist Church, sat down on the piano bench, and began playing the first of eight dance movements from Bach’s French Suite No. 6 in E Major. At the conclusion of the suite, which Bach wrote ca. 1722 for his new bride, Anna Magdalena, the nearly packed church erupted in thunderous applause the likes of which are not often heard at piano recitals, augmented by unrestrained shouts of “Bravo.”
Perahia proceeded to rip through the rest of the program, which included works by Haydn, Beethoven, Cesar Franck and Fredric Chopin, capping off the dazzling display with two encores. His technique was nothing short of masterful and reflective of a highly personal approach to maneuvering through the score. The way he shapes melody, plays with rhythmic components to control momentum, and employs accents, suspensions and other effects to mold the music to his satisfaction, puts his playing on a level very few musicians ever reach. One of a select few students of the legendary maestro Vladimir Horowitz, Perahia represents the last of a dwindling breed.
The Hot Rize show at the Trustees Theater was a pleasant engagement if not a particularly memorable experience. Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, and Bryan Sutton are terrific players. O’Brien still has a voice tailor made for the genre, and the Colorado-based band, which first appeared onstage together in 1978, hasn’t forgotten how to harmonize the heck out of a melody. They still hold an abiding respect for tradition combined with a willingness to experiment (Forster still wields an electric bass and Wernick still uses an effects pedal on the banjo). The only thing missing from Saturday’s concert was the sparkling fireworks that distinguishes a truly exceptional performance from a merely good one.
Last stop of the day was the Ships of the Sea outdoor pavilion where Irma Thomas and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band were throwing a New Orleans Soul & Brass Party. About this soiree I am here to tell you two things: At age 74, Irma Thomas can still rightly claim the title of “Soul Queen of New Orleans” and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band remains the standard-bearers of the category, which they essentially re-invented in the late 1970s. Beyond that, I can only report that when the temperature dips below 50 degrees outside your faithful correspondent is sometimes inclined to hail a pedicab and head for the hotel. (March 28 Entry – DD)
Each day of the Savannah Music Festival, trusty correspondent Doug DeLoach attends as many shows as possible and shares his thoughts.
Today: Sunday, March 29:
The 17-day “celebration of the musical arts” continues in Georgia’s first city with an afternoon and early evening of superb choices including:
3:00 p.m. Emerson String Quartet Temple Mickve Israel
The Emerson String Quartet stands alone in the history of string quartets with an unparalleled list of achievements over three decades. The Grammy-winning string ensemble featuring Eugene Drucker, violin; Philip Setzer, violin; Lawrence Dutton, viola; and Paul Watkins, cello has amassed more than thirty acclaimed recordings since 1987, nine Grammy® Awards (including two for Best Classical Album, an unprecedented honor for a chamber music group), three Gramophone Awards, the coveted Avery Fisher Prize and cycles of the complete Beethoven, Bartók, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich string quartets in the world’s musical capitals. The Quartet has collaborated in concerts and on recordings with some of the greatest artists of our time. Today, the Quartet will perform Beethoven, including String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat Major, Opus 127 (1825) and String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Opus 132 (1825).
4:30 & 7:00 p.m. Giants of Texas Swing: Hot Club of Cowtown/Asleep at the Wheel Charles H. Morris Center
Since the early ’70s, Asleep at the Wheel have been the most important force in keeping the sound of Western swing alive. In reviving the freewheeling, eclectic sensibility of Western swing godfather Bob Wills, the Wheel have earned enthusiastic critical praise throughout their lengthy career; they have not only preserved classic sounds that had all but disappeared from country music, but have also been able to update the music, keeping it a living, breathing art form. Typically featuring eight to 11 musicians, the group has gone through myriad personnel changes (at last count, over 80 members had passed through their ranks), but 6’7″ frontman Ray Benson has held it together for four decades, keeping Asleep at the Wheel a viable recording and touring concern and maintaining their devotion to classic-style Western swing. (from Billboard magazine)
Western swing revivalists Hot Club of Cowtown formed in San Diego, CA in 1996; originally a duo pairing singer/violinist Elana Fremerman and singer/guitarist Whit Smith, a subsequent move to Austin, TX made room for the addition of bassist Billy Horton. Signing to Hightone, the trio issued its debut album, Swingin’ Stampede!, in the fall of 1998; the follow-up, Tall Tales, appeared a year later. New bassist Matt Weiner joined Smith and Fremerman for 2000’s Dev’lish Mary. Ghost Train came two years later in 2002, and it showed the group focusing more on original material and cutting back on the amount of covers. Continental Stomp followed in 2003, with Wishful Thinking arriving in 2009, and in 2011, the Hot Club finally surrendered to the obvious and released a tribute to Bob Wills, What Makes Bob Holler (the album was actually released in November of 2010 in the U.K.). (Jason Ankeny & Steve Leggett, Rovi)