We’re at the halfway mark on the Savannah Music Festival calendar and a whole lot of fantastic concerts have transpired since my last report.
Tuesday’s noontime solo jazz piano performance by Aaron Diehl at the Charles Morris Center was a testament to the 31-year-old virtuoso’s skills as a singular improviser and gifted interpreter. From John Lewis’ 1960s composition “Milano” and Phillip Glass’ Etude #3 (“It’s the one that grooves the most out of all of them,” we were told) to an arrangement of a never-performed James P. Johnson Piano Concerto for Orchestra and the seasonally apt “Echoes of Spring” by Willie “The Lion” Smith (like Johnson, a stride piano master), Diehl handled everything with his trademark razor-sharp melodic articulation and flair for dense textural harmonics.
Until Tuesday evening at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts, I had only previously heard Andrew Bird as a member of Squirrel Nut Zippers. Bird’s SMF debut in support of his latest album Are You Serious was the artist’s first live performance with a touring band since 2003. Despite a few technical hiccups and faulty song starts, Bird and the boys sounded like they’d been doing their thing together for way more than one rehearsal the day before the show (true story). Bird’s distinctive voice and unusual instrumental choices, such as simultaneously whistling and playing the violin and occasionally tapping on a glockenspiel, have made him an odd duck hipster hero. What surprised me was how well-crafted and appealing the odd coupling sounded (actually, you couldn’t hear the glockenspiel over everything else, but whatever). Bird is a clever, compelling songwriter and wickedly talented performer, and his band has his back.
A return engagement with Aaron Diehl kicked off a ridiculously packed Wednesday schedule. This time the pianist was joined by bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers at the Charles Morris Center for an eclectic set, which covered everything from a bebop composition by Walter Davis (“Uranus”) to a melange of tunes inspired by the movie Back to the Future, climate change, and Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie.” Another Phillip Glass etude (#16) featured Diehl rendering the composition note-for-note while his second and third mates improvised. All swinging, fascinating stuff.
The triplet theme continued in the early evening at Trinity United Methodist Church with the first of a two-night program featuring all six Beethoven Trios performed by chamber music superstars Wu Han (piano), David Finckel (cello) and Phillip Setzer (violin). In her delightfully informative introduction, Han explained the significance of the Beethoven compositions (basically, they set the western classical tradition on a new path) while imparting the emotional impact playing the music exerts on her and her colleagues. In closing, she said, “We will try to play all the right notes.” The ensuing performance of the Trios in E Flat Major (Opus 1, No. 1), C Minor (Opus 1, No. 3) and D Major (Opus 70, No. 1, the “Ghost”) was the most beautifully realized ensemble playing one could ever hope to hear. Without getting into technical nuances, Beethoven’s spirit was palpable in the room and all the notes were indeed rightfully played.
A brisk walk from one church brought me to the Lucas Theatre where Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White staged a 21st century version of an old-time gospel show. The feeling of a family reunion permeated the proceedings with Cooder back in front of a live audience for the first time in decades and the band filled out by his son Joachim on drums, Skagg’s wife Sharon’s sister Cheryl on guitar and vocal harmony, and father Buck White still spryly tickling the piano keys in his eighties. Rather than a straight up bluegrass show replete with power-picking shootouts, as some audience members evidently had anticipated, the setlist focused on gospel harmony singing and “old-time mountain music.” As Sharon White put it, “These are the songs we heard in our childhood.” Among the highlights of the evening were Cooder’s phenomenal slide guitar work and his banjo rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man,” which he “learned on Youtube.” Another magic moment was the ensemble’s sizzling, tour de force performance of the Delmore Brothers’ “Freight Train Boogie.”
Back at the Charles Morris Center the Monty Alexander Trio and Cécile McLorin Salvant were sharing a late evening bill. Alexander is a straight ahead, in the groove, seriously great jazz veteran. His set, comprising almost all original tunes, ably rounded out by Hassan Shakur on bass and Jason Brown on drums, was by-the-book brilliant, swinging, and highly entertaining. But, man, oh, man, what happened next changed more than a few folks’ lives for keeps. To say that Cécile McLorin Salvant is a jazz singer is like saying Maria Callas was an opera singer. Period. More accurately, the 27-year-old classically voice-trained daughter of a Haitian physician and French mother who founded of a French immersion school in Miami, is an improvising artist of the highest caliber, a diva by the most exalted definition of the word. Endowed with a silky rich, highly flexible mezzo instrument, Salvant also is blessed with a benignly mad poet’s imagination. To point out that she sang a set of mostly standards is to leave out the part where she completely transformed songs like “Mad About the Boy” and “Jeepers Creepers” into dramatically fresh musical narratives populated by characters brought so vividly into the moment by her sublime technique she made you want to tune in next week to see what happens next. So shy is Savant, she admitted during a song break toward the end of the set, she couldn’t muster up the nerve to ask Monty Alexander to play a song with her. Earlier, without her knowledge, her pianist, Aaron Diehl, had graciously made the entreaty, which led to the audience being treated to a wonderful rendition of Billie Holiday’s classic blues “Fine and Mellow.” One last thing: I would need another thousand words to adequately describe the epic, heartrendingly beautiful, soul-stirringly triumphant interpretation of “John Henry” Savant performed Wednesday night. Let it suffice to say, you ain’t heard the song till you hear her do it.
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.
To learn more about music festivals, attractions and landmarks throughout Georgia, visit ExploreGeorgia.org/Music.