Schneider Supreme Among Savannah Fest's Legacy-Leaning Showcases



The middle period of the Savannah Music Festival featured most of its jazz shows, as the stylistic orientation shifted, throughout a 17-day run. This 29th edition celebrated the accustomed diverse blend of blues, country, classical, latin, cajun, flamenco, bluegrass and African musics. Down in Georgia, right on the Savannah river, the city's downtown historic center boasts a preserved criss-crossing of wooden-houses, only interrupted by numerous shaded squares, their droopy trees weeping moss. The pace is slower here, though doubtless much agitated from the norm by each day's prodigious flow of festival gigs, from midday to nearly midnight. The concept of the SMF can loosely be termed 'American roots music', although the classical concerts mostly featured old European music, and many of the traditional folkloric gigs included artists from Africa, Europe and Asia.

The Maria Schneider Orchestra appeared at the splendidly retro-preserved Lucas Theatre For The Arts, opened way back in 1921. The composer's anticipated regulars were lined up, including Scott Robinson, Donny McCaslin (reeds), Ryan Keberle (trombone), Ben Monder (guitar), Frank Kimbrough (piano), Gary Versace (accordion) and Johnathan Blake (drums), all of them on fine soloing form. Schneider displayed her distinctive conducting style, both in its physical language, and in the resultant sonic colourations. While still selecting a few old favourites, the leader was intent on highlighting newer works, often with a topical edge. Her older chestnuts frequently celebrate nature, but 'Data Lords', for instance, is more concerned with criticising the social media beast, cannily anticipating recent developments. A bristling beginning featured a muted Mike Rodriguez trumpet, heavily reverbed as swirling dark clouds gathered for this foreboding AI warning. This is a much darker Schneider universe. Steve Wilson took an alto solo, then both of these soloists responded, as their leader's signals became increasingly agitated and insistent, prompting a free-form strengthening. George Flynn's gruff bass trombone provided a deep undercurrent throughout. Robinson and McCaslin soloed vigorously during 'Arbiters Of Evolution', exchanging repeated blasts as this leviathan trucked along, the latter saxophonist reaching a monumental climax, Robinson then quite wisely taking it way down to a serene level.

TrumpetMasters FrankStewart

The festival's core venue was the Charles H. Morris Center, where three shows were presented on most days. This was the location for Trumpet Masters, a double-bill that looked back at the repertoires of Louis Armstrong and Lee Morgan. For the first set, the unfamiliar Alphonso Horne took the Satchmo role, hailing from Jacksonville, Florida, but currently residing in NYC. His octet made their entrance from the rear of the venue, New Orleans style, hopping onto the stage for 'Dippermouth Blues', getting into the vintage spirit. King Oliver's 'Weather Bird' followed, with a trumpet and piano dialogue, after Earl Hines. The set featured Louis-links with Sidney Bechet and Jack Teagarden, trombonist Corey Wilcox revealing a fine sideline in virtuoso whistling, then singer Brianna Thomas came on to invoke the spirit of Ella Fitzgerald, a part of the show that despite providing a climactic energy, concentrated too much on a specific part of the Armstrong story. The Terell Stafford Quintet moved on a few decades, investigating the starker, moodier realm of Lee Morgan. Saxophonist Tim Warfield Jr issued a robust solo on 'Stop Start', spilling guts at length, chased by the leader's sparky riposte. Morgan customarily closed out the night with 'Speedball', a blues with peppery parts. This was gifted with another verbose tenor solo, urging Stafford on to greater heights, with a cracked, slurred solo of his own, sledding along on the driving tempo.

Back in the Lucas, pianist Marcus Roberts (the festival's resident jazz music director) presented Stomping The Blues (titled after Albert Murray's 1976 book), a celebration of tunes from the early days of the music. Another all-star cast was assembled, sometimes working in smaller group permutations, rising up to virtual big band level. The garrulous Wycliffe Gordon made a significant impact, his rasping trombone sometimes being swapped for a slide trumpet. A returning Terell Stafford's solos were short and spunky, consequently packed with barely contained vim, a kind of micro-excitement. A bebop combo resided within the large ranks, and we don't often get the opportunity to witness a sousaphone in such a setting, as Gordon won our attention once again with a dribbling huff.

– Martin Longley
Photos by Frank Stewart