Journalist Doug DeLoach is on the ground for all 17 days of the Savannah Music Festival and his daily diaries, along with photos by Elizabeth Leitzell and Frank Stewart, capture the magic of SMF’s 28th annual season. Performances run daily through Saturday, April 8, 2017.
Monday, March 27
A day-long tribute to Haitian music and its relations began at the Charles H. Morris Center with a magnificent performance by multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla and her trio. McCalla’s Haitian connection comes by both blood and proximal exposure. Born in New York, her parents are native Haitian. A classically trained cellist, McCalla moved to New Orleans after a stint with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. As she explained to the audience between songs, an immersion in Cajun and Creole culture led to an appreciation of the deep influence of Haitian migration on the music of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, and the early American songbook in general.
Singing in Haitian Creole, Cajun French and English while playing cello, banjo and guitar, McCalla and cohorts enthralled us with original compositions culled from her two albums, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes and A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey. Cello wizard McCalla coaxed myriad sounds and rhythms from her instrument by strumming it like a guitar, rapping its wooden body and plucking its strings. Her banjo and guitar playing was similarly inflected by idiosyncratic charms while Bria Bonet’s viola lent a rich resonance and Daniel Tremblay (McCalla’s husband) demonstrated how, in the right hands, the simplest of instruments, such as a metal triangle, can make even the most bewitching music an even richer experience.
The Haitian theme continued into the evening with a double-bill featuring McCalla and her trio joined by fellow ex-Carolina Chocolate Drop-mate Dom Flemons followed by the American debut of Chouk Bwa Libète. Covering territory previously explored by groups such as Boukman Eksperyans and Rasin Mapou de Azor, Chouk Bwa Libète specialize in conveying the mystical power of Vodou (voodoo) through music unencumbered by Westernized accoutrements. Eschewing melodic instruments, the band consists of four drummers, two female singer-dancers and lead singer (and bandleader) Sambaton Dorvil who also wields the fer, a metal bar that “calls” the rhythms.
If nothing else, Chouk Bwa Libète proved to be the uncontested leader in the running for the annual SMF “Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t” award. The potential for a crushing onslaught of percussion was tempered by the magnificent interplay of rhythms and the hypnotically soothing call-and-response vocalizing between Dorvil and the band. The melding of cultures in early American history, which McCalla eloquently addressed during her set, was immediately evident to anyone who has seen a performance by the McIntosh County Shouters in the shimmy shaking dance moves by the two women flanking the lead singer in Chouk Bwa Libète. With hair braids flying, the male percussionists pursued a regimen of disciplined fury while switching between drums and imploring the spirits to presumably do the right thing. At intermission, the band members switched from all-white attire, which seemed ceremonial in purpose, to clothing imprinted with iridescently bright floral colors and tropical patterns, which imparted an element of psychedelia to the proceedings.
At the end of the official performance, the ecstatic response from the audience ensured an encore. From the side of the stage and with the manager of Chouk Bwa directing the entourage, McCalla and Flemons brought their cello and bones out into the seating area. The members of Chouk Bwa Libète gathered round and McCalla began strumming a beautiful melodic groove. The Haitians began to sing and the audience was transported into the realm of the voodoo spirits.
“That show made me fall in love with life again,” McCalla said after the concert. “My heart is so full and I am so grateful!” I cannot imagine anyone else in the audience not feeling exactly the same way.
See a clip from the encore here: https://www.facebook.com/SavannahMusicFestival/videos/1313050768774447/
Tuesday, March 28
Your faithful correspondent had to make sure he got to the Trinity United Methodist Church on time for the start of the “Beethoven Sonatathon,” the moniker for Stewart Goodyear’s epic recital in which the phenomenal Canadian pianist proposed to play all 32 Beethoven sonatas in a single day. At a few minutes after ten o’clock on a beautiful, already warm, sunny Savannah morning, Goodyear walked onto the stage clad in a long white formal shirt, black pants and black shoes. The still-shy-of-40-years-old pianist stood for a moment in front of the audience, his face set in steadfast repose. After executing a shallow bow, he turned to his right and walked a few steps to the 9-foot Steinway grand piano. The moment Goodyear’s butt hit the cushioned piano bench, his hands went to the keyboard and, without a millisecond’s hesitation, he began fingering the first notes of Sonata No. 19 in G Minor, Opus 49, No. 1. The incongruity of the numbering is an anomaly in the series due to the status of Sonatas number 19 and 20, which are considered by most scholars to be “easy” or “practice” pieces. Regardless, no bona fide Sonatathon would be complete without them. Approximately 13 hours later, around 11:15 p.m., with short breaks after Sonatas No. 12 and 24, Goodyear dropped his hands, stood up and bowed. The Sonatathon was completed.
In the interest of full disclosure, your correspondent was not in attendance for all 32 Sonatas, but I did hear that some dedicated audience members were and some of those brought scores to follow along with the performance. Also, at times, Goodyear understandably sported some sort of back support brace to help ease the strain.
Dom Flemons stepped onto the Charles Morris Center stage with his banjo slung in front of him and started off his noontime set with “Cindy Gal,” a classic from the original black string band repertoire. Between songs, Flemons informed us that “Cindy Gal” was composed by Joe Thompson, the late North Carolina musician who was one of the last of a breed. A decade or so ago, Thompson taught the old string band ways to a trio of curious young African-American college kids – Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson – who had just formed a band called the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Ten years and a Grammy later, Flemons lived up to his self-appointed moniker, “American Songster,” by accompanying himself on banjo, quills, harmonica, guitar and spoons while singing Papa Charlie Jackson’s “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” Ma Rainey’s “Yonder Comes the Blues,” Black cowboy songs and hokum tunes, such as Thomas A. Dorsey’s, “But They Got It Fixed Right On.”
Wednesday, March 29
For a couple of Nor’westerners, fiddler and mandolinist Caleb Klauder and guitarist Reeb Willms can surely lay down an authentic country song whenever they please. Their lunchtime concert at the Charles Morris Center was a delightfully engaging mix of new and traditional songs that blurred the line between old-time standard, downhome country and contemporary bluegrass. With obvious tender loving care and two perfectly matched harmony voices, the husband-and-wife duo put their spin on venerable classics, such as Buck Owens’ “There Goes My Love,” the Carter Family’s “The Lonesome Homesick Blues,” George Jones’ “I’d jump the Mississippi” and Georgia native Norman Blake’s “Billy Gray” while keeping the legacy fresh with compositions such as Klauder’s “Can I Go Home with You.”
Wednesday evening’s Jazz Organ Summit brought together two of the greatest performers on jazz’s historically neglected, uniquely expressive, stepchild. It was interesting to compare the two organists’ styles since both Joey DeFrancesco and Ike Stubblefield were using similar instruments, which were famously manufactured by Hammond until the company went out of business in 1985. Georgia’s native son Stubblefield, guitarist Detroit Brooks and drummer Herlin Riley opened with a swinging cover of “Misty,” followed by a mix of blues, funk-bucket numbers and standards. DeFrancesco and his People – saxophonist Troy Roberts, guitarist Dan Wilson and drummer Jason Brown – responded with a set that included numerous original compositions by the bandleader, which gave DeFrancesco an opportunity to demonstrate his very keen trumpet skills. Stubblefield’s smooth, bluesy, more laid back style offered a complementary alternative to DeFrancesco’s sharper, more analytical attack. At the end of the night, the two Summiteers came together for the inevitable Hammond B3 shootout, which brought the SRO audience to its feet.
Thursday, March 30
On Thursday, in quick succession, your fleet-footed reporter scampered from a stupendously performed chamber ensemble tribute to Mozart to a fabulously entertaining throwback to the heyday of Flatt & Scruggs to a swinging congregation of Professors and Youngbloods from the SMF jazz contingent.
The Mozart concert was flanked by the sublime Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major, K. 482 and the more often heard String Quintet No. 4 in G-minor, K. 516. In between were Mozart teacher Johann Hummel’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 97 and Gioachino Rossini’s String Sonata No. 1 in G Major, written when the composer , better known for his operas and sometimes called “the Italian Mozart,” was 12 years old. The program was performed by a rotating ensemble featuring most of the standout players familiar to SMF audiences augmented by Savannah native and former member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Joseph Conyers on double bass and pianists Simon Crawford-Phillips and Sebastian Knauer. I say “most” because violinist Lorenza Borrani, a regular favorite in the SMF chamber series, was unable to travel to the U.S. this year due to an injury. No worries, though, since subbing for her was none other than SMF Associate Artistic Director Daniel Hope.
The Earls of Leicester led by Dobro master Jerry Douglas held court at the Lucas Theatre in a return engagement, which was every bit as fun and dazzling as their appearance during SMF 2015. The Earls’ shtick, if you will, is to celebrate the legacy of bluegrass/country music legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (hence, the band’s name) while conjuring up the golden era of the Grand Ol’ Opry radio broadcasts in the late Fifties and early Sixties, complete with sung commercials for Martha White flour. The hilarious between-song banter by the band members, especially Douglas and guitarist Shawn Camp, was once again alone worth the price of admission. This year’s setlist included Flatt & Scruggs standards, such as “I’ll Go Steppin’, Too,” classic tunes from Buck Owens (“Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”) and the Carter Family, and an assortment of country blues and gospel songs. Peerless musicianship and fantastic harmony vocalizing by fiddler Jonny Warren, mandolinist Josh White, banjo/guitarist Charlie Cushman and bassist Barry Bales reinforced the impression they made on me two years ago: the Earls of Leicester are one of the finest American bands, regardless of genre, working today.
A half-dozen blocks away, the jazz component of the SMF was in full swing at the Charles H. Morris Center in the guise of “Professors and Youngbloods,” a special program featuring bona fide professors of music from Michigan State University’s Jazz Studies department and trumpeter Marcus Printup’s Youngbloods, which features a roster of latest and next generation musicians. Led by bassist and MSU Jazz Studies Director Rodney Whitaker, who also serves as a clinician in the Swing Central Jazz program during the SMF, the Professors set the tone of the show, which featured a preponderance of music by Thelonious Monk (“In Walked Bud,” “Evidence,” “Ask Me Now,” “Straight, No Chaser”). Among the standout individual performances of the evening was Etienne Charles’ twists on the trumpet, which included creative use of plunger mute and a bevy of growling, slurring and sliding techniques with his plaid suit, pink tie and iridescent green sunglasses adding to the 21st century hep cat vibe. Also notable was the playing of guitarist, composer and arranger Randy Napoleon whose peerless interpretation of Monk’s music on his instrument was a wonder all on its own.
Friday, March 31
I wish I could start every Friday with a late morning performance of piano trios composed, inspired by or somewhat related to Mozart. In this case, the selections were the Trio for Clarinet or Violin (the latter played by Benny Kim) and Piano in E-flat Major, K. 498, Robert Schumann’s Six Studies in Canonic Form, opus 56 and Beethoven’s Trio for Piano, Clarinet or Violin and Cello in B-flat Major, Opus 11. The Schumann was especially enthralling with its hypnotically repetitive, contrapuntal interplay. The rendering of the Mozart trio was simply elegant and exultant, and even the Beethoven was one of the master’s most upbeat and lighthearted of works (here, again, with Daniel Hope sitting in the injured Lorenza Borrani’s chair).
The early evening fare was distinguished by one of SMF 2017’s centerpiece programs, “Monk and Dizzy at 100,” which paid tribute to the centenary of two great American composer/instrumentalists who were born within weeks of each other in South and North Carolina, respectively, in 1917. The bill also featured performances by the final three contestants of the Swing Central Jazz (SCJ) band competition. The top prize this year went to the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts Jazz Ensemble I from Jacksonville, Florida, for their rendition of an original composition by Jason Marsalis. At the beginning of the concert, SMF director Rob Gibson shared the good news that longtime sponsor of the program, Bob Faircloth, had pledged to support SCJ for another ten years with one proviso: the winner would receive the Jean Faircloth Award, named for his wife who passed away in February.
The tribute to Monk and Diz featured an all-star big band led by Ted Nash. The lineup included perennial participants, such as SMF Associate Artistic Director Marcus Roberts (piano), Marcus Printup (trumpet) and Jason Marsalis (drums), along with reed players Joe Goldberg, Ricardo Pascal and Tissa Khosla, and trombonists Ron Westray and Corey Wilcox (a SCJ alum). The program moved swiftly, as Nash promised at the opening number, which gave everyone a bit of a breather before heading over to the Charles H. Morris Center for the annual Late Night Jazz Jam.
And a stellar jam session was had by all. Roberts knocked everybody loose with his solo on Ellington’s “Caravan.” A tribute to Clifford Jordan prompted a triple-trumpet throwdown between Printup, Etienne Charles and young gun Terrell Stafford. Printup blew some fine high register runs and Stafford gave it a worthy effort, but the undisputed winner by technical knockout, according to this reporter’s ears, was Charles, who dazzled everyone with a similar arsenal of inventiveness that killed ’em at the Professors and Youngbloods show the night before.
Saturday, April 1
Veterans of previous SMFs, the Dover Quartet is featured in multiple contexts this year. First up was a program that included string quartets by Mozart (No. 22 in E-flat Major) and Beethoven (No. 13 in B-flat Major, Opus 130), as well as one of the most unusual works in the entire chamber series. “Pale Blue Dot,” a 2014 composition by David Ludwig, is based on a plot worthy of a sci-fi fantasy novel. Imagine, if you will, that the Voyager I spacecraft, which left the Earth in the summer of 1977, is found in deep space by aliens. After hacking the Golden Record etched with images, sound bites and music, which was stowed aboard the vessel, the aliens eventually learn how to play the Cavatina movement from Beethoven’s Opus 130 string quartet. “Pale Blue Dot” draws expression from the composer’s ruminations on this fantastical theme. At the Dover Quartet performance, we initially heard a solo violinist playing a sustained, high note, artist unseen. A few seconds later, first violinist Joel Link entered the hall, walking along the side of the stage. In succession, he was joined by violinist Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw coming from different directions, each playing different sustained notes, creating an other-worldly, harmonic soundfield that permeated Trinity United Methodist Church. The rest of the 16-minute piece was riven with some dissonant, but mostly pleasantly evocative passages marked by theremin-like glissandi and percussion effects. At the end of “Pale Blue Dot,” the violist used a guitar-slide to stretch out the “receding” sound of the Voyager spacecraft, which had been re-assembled by the aliens and sent along on its journey into the void.
From the classically sublime to the seriously soulful, I moved from the contemplative atmosphere of the TUMC to the ornate confines of the Trustees Theatre for the Piano Showdown featuring Chucho Valdés, Marcus Roberts and Danilo Pérez. Paying solo and in duets, the three musicians, each so utterly unique and different in every way save for their virtuosic skill, swept the audience into a swooning revelry with a wide ranging program. Among the selections were Chopin’s E Minor Prelude (Valdés), Jelly Roll Morton’s Latin-tinged “The Crave” (Roberts), “Galactic Panama” (Pérez), “It Could happen to You” (Roberts/Pérez) and a spectacular finale with Valdés and Pérez sharing a Steinway and joining Roberts for a six-handed jam on Ellington’s “Perdido.”
An hour or so later, longtime pals and collaborators Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall shared the Lucas Theatre stage with Myers’ son, George. After warming up the crowd with delightful duets, which featured Meyer and Marshall riffing and soloing through a virtually limitless trove of songs with titles like “Number 1” and “Untitled,” the dynamic duo were joined by the aforementioned Meyer son, who is a violinist and a graduate of the SMF Acoustic Music Seminar and Julliard. The close affinity among the three men, which came through during the performance, was a joy to see and hear.
Back across town, at the Johnny Mercer Theatre, your intrepid correspondent noted the continuing popularity of large arena concerts and the fervent devotion among devotees of Jason Isbell. Wielding acoustic and electric guitar with swagger and skill and singing with confidence and commitment, the former Drive-By Trucker led the 400 Unit through its paces. The audience was treated to the hits they craved including “Decoration Day” and “Something More Than Free.” They also heard new material, which they appeared to relish. I’m not a huge fan, but I appreciate Isbell’s songwriting chops, dedication to craft and down-to-earth demeanor.
Lastly, but by no means leastly, Saturday’s packed calendar ended on a multi-cultural high note at the Charles H. Morris Center with an only-at-SMF double-bill featuring Sounds of Kolachi from Pakistan and Hiss Golden Messenger, an Americana band based in North Carolina. Sounds of Kolachi is a 10-piece ensemble of instrumentalists and vocalists who blend elements of Pakistani folk and South Asian popular music with westernized progressive rock. The result is a unique concoction, which enthralled the audience in Savannah.
The instrumentation played by Sounds of Kolachi includes sarangi, sitar and electric guitar supported by electric bass (played in Savannah by a young Pakistani who bore a strong resemblance to the late artist known as Prince) and a standard rocker’s trap set. The music, which is partly based on leader Ahsan Bari’s study of Sufi texts and mysticism and partly on his unabashed affection for rock-n-roll, sometimes to my ears sounded diluted from both sides. Nevertheless, the overall impact of the Sounds of Kolachi was a transformative experience for many audience members.
At the end of the evening, word circulated that, after watching Sounds of Kolachi play their set, at least one member of Hiss Golden Messenger said, “Oh, man, we have to follow that?” True or not, the alt-folk quartet led by lead singer, guitarist, songwriter and former punk rocker M. C. Taylor did seem to get off to a halting start. However, three or four songs into their set, the band more than held its own against the world fusion invasion. Taylor has a heaping dash of Dylan in his voice and lyrics and the band has a healthy dose of Allman Brothers in their medicine kit. Hiss’s final song, which featured a blisteringly hot slide guitar solo by Phil Cook (who also doubled on keyboard), was the high point of the set and a fitting end to your reporter’s long day of vari-colored incantations.
Next installment will be a recap of the final week of the Savannah Music Festival featuring performances by Richard Thompson, David Finkel & Wu Han, Masters of Brazilian Music, the Dancers of Che Malambo, Sanam Marvi, and, as they say, a whole lot more.