We took a big bite out of the Savannah Music Festival on Friday and Saturday, reveling in the flavors of a wide array of festival offerings that included classical, jazz, bluegrass and even Pakistani music.
For us, jazz dominated our visit, providing four exciting opportunities to hear some of the finest players around. Another highlight was a performance by the Dover Quartet, performing three spectacular works, including Beethoven’s Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, op. 130.
Much of the musical pageantry seemed to come in sets of three.
The Savannah Music Festival is a 17-day event that runs through Saturday, April 8. Each day of the festival is different, of course, with between three and seven shows to choose from. One can hear a terrific sampling of many musical styles, enjoy dynamic performances by famous headliners and encounter lesser-known talent you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the region. The festival is arguably the most important of its kind in the Southeast. Its diverse programming, top-drawer musicians, relaxed vibe and bucolic setting make it a must for serious and casual music lovers alike.
Our first concert was “Passionate Piano Trios,” with Associate Artistic Director Daniel Hope filling in on violin for Lorenza Borrani. He joined CarlaMaria Rodrigues on viola and Simon Crawford-Phillips on piano. If there hadn’t been a discrepancy between the configuration on stage in the acoustically wonderful Trinity United Methodist Church and the program book, or an announcement made before the music began, listeners surely would have assumed the ensemble was meant to be together and had rehearsed the program for days.
They played Mozart’s Trio for Clarinet in E-flat Major, substituting violin for clarinet, Schumann’s Six Studies in Canonic Form and Beethoven’s Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Cello in B-flat Major, op. 11, substituting — because they could — violin for clarinet and viola for cello.
It was the perfect late-morning program for a sunny day in Savannah.
We proceeded quickly through resonant streets and shady squares to the Charles H. Morris Center to see Marcus Printup and the Youngbloods (the latest group of young jazz artists the veteran has conjured up. Printup plays trumpet in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and he likes to do this small-ensemble thing on the side, he said.
So he introduced a receptive crowd to saxophonist Mercedes Beckman, trombonist Corey Wilcox (son of the incomparable Wycliffe Gordon), pianist Michael King, bass player Eric Wheeler and drummer Henry Connerway III. All showed an impressive command of their instruments and a natural gift for improvisation. Printup made sure they each got a turn soloing, and it was exciting to hear what they could do.
Reassuring, too. These players surely will mature into thriving careers, providing listeners with decades of great jazz. Big thanks to Printup not just for his own mastery and mentorship but for showcasing the next generation.
In the early evening, we attended the Swing Central Jazz Finale and Award Presentation, followed after intermission by “Monk & Dizzy at 100: Swing Central Jazz Finale.” The festival devotes much effort to educational outreach, administering three main programs: Musical Explorers, Swing Central Jazz and the Acoustic Music Seminar.
The first focuses on young students in kindergarten through second grade, introducing them through formal interactive curricula to a variety of musical styles. The program is implemented in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.
The Acoustic Music Seminar, run by Associate Artistic Director Mike Marshall, is a week-long clinic that enrolls 16 talented young string players from all over the world for intensive coaching from leading musicians such as Julian Lage, Bryan Sutton and other festival performers. New compositions are written or developed and new collaborations forged. The seminar concludes with a public “Stringband Spectacular” at the Lucas Theatre.
Swing Central Jazz brings top high school jazz bands to Savannah for workshops and an exciting competition. Young players learn about the big band style and repertoire, practice improvisation and work with a couple dozen clinicians such as Terell Stafford, Jason Marsalis and Rodney Whitaker and Rodney Jordan.
We witnessed the finale at which the three high school band finalists each played a number before the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts Jazz Ensemble 1 of Jacksonville, Fla, was named the grand-prize Faircloth Award winner, receiving a check for $5,000. Byron Center Jazz Orchestra of Byron Center, Mich., won second place ($2,500); Agoura High School Jazz “A” of Agoura Hills, Calif. Came in third ($1,000).
After the finale showcase the clinicians themselves formed a big band and got to work playing a bunch of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie tunes, paying the two late masters of bebop tribute 100 years after their birth. Needless to say, the beautiful Lucas Theatre shook good and hard.
Next came the Late Night Jazz Jam, led by trumpeter Terell Stafford, with Bill Peterson on piano, Rodney Jordan on bass and Bryan Carter on drums. Many others made their way to the stage over the course of about two hours, taking turns soloing. At one memorable point, three trumpeteers — Stafford, Printup and the aptly named Alphonso Horne — tore the roof off the Charles H. Morris Center. It was the sort of culminating moment a jazz lover longs for but only rarely gets.
The following morning, back at Trinity Church, the Dover Quartet provided the second highlight of our short musical excursion. These are disciplined young players who play with warmth and subtlety. They presented an ambitious program that includes Mozart’s String Quartet No. 22 in B-flat Major (the “Prussian”), a wonderful 2014 work by David Ludwig called “Pale Blue Dot” that was inspired by the Voyager 1 spacecraft and its cultural cargo, and Beethoven’s incredible String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, op. 130, with its original “Grosse Fuge” finale restored.
The Dover Quartet performed with precision and feeling. The Mozart was gorgeous. Ludwig’s piece was an adventure in aural textures and effects. The Beethoven was, well, unforgettable. If there’s a recording of this by the Dover Quartet, I will buy it.
So good things come in threes. Piano trios. Three trumpets. Three magnificent string quartets on a single program. And then three jazz pianists sharing the stage for a delightful, light-hearted concert of Latin-infused jazz.
The “Piano Showdown” featured the festival’s Associate Artistic Director Marcus Roberts, the sensational Afro-Cuban veteran Chucho Valdes and Panamanian Danilo Perez, who has played with a long list of important jazz musicians and gained his biggest fame starting in 2000 when he and Wayne Shorter formed a quartet that included John Patitucci and Brian Blade.
The three men bonded on stage, the warmth of their affection for one another permeating the Trustees Theater. They played various tunes individually and in pairs, switching off between two grand pianos. The show began with Valdes playing a soulful version of Chopin’s famous Prelude in E Minor. But quickly the vibe turned very Latin, with Roberts adding flavors of the American South to the mix.
It was a feel-good experience, the sort of thing the Savannah Music Festival does well.
Our penultimate concert involved another trio — well, it started as a duo, bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Mike Marshall. But soon Meyer’s son George, a violinist and alumnus of the festival’s Acoustic Music Seminar, joined his elders. The show was one of those experiences that mesmerizes quietly. The elder Meyer has long been a favorite of mine: his technique, range, mastery of multiple styles, love of classical music, ability as an arranger and composer, enthusiasm for remarkable collaborations and genuine good-guy demeanor is impossible for me to resist. Marshall’s good too, of course, and young George clearly has what it takes to succeed.
Our last show gave us a taste of the Pakistani band Sounds of Kolachi, which opened for Hiss Golden Messenger. Sounds of Kolachi was invited to participate in the festival thanks to the U.S. State Department’s Centerstage initiative, which fosters cross-cultural diplomacy.
The band was big: lead guitarist/singer, second guitarist, bass player, drummer, four back-up singers, sarangi master and sitar master. The instrumentation and musical styles merged traditional South Asian music, including raga, with western grooves and an international love for improvisation.
It was fun, though I would have preferred something edgier, more experimental, more virtuosic. But gratitude must be extended to festival organizers — this year and every other year — for insisting on showcasing the music from other cultures, and from subcultures here in America.
Once again, the Savannah Music Festival delivered.