Prieto Exhibits Latin Prowess, While Medeski And Cleary Take New Orleans Sound On Manoeuvres At Savannah Music Fest

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Savannah DafnisPrietoBigBand FrankStewart

This 30th edition of the Savannah Music Festival featured a strong jazz presence, though spread throughout its extended run rather than dominating just one week, as has previously been the case. Balmy Savannah boasts many verdant squares, seemingly on almost every street intersection, with its festival venues all easily walkable, from east to west of this historically-preserved town centre in Georgia state.

The festival’s first Saturday presented a notably fine roster, each combo playing a pair of sets, from the afternoon into the evening. The Dafnis Prieto Big Band now seems to be its leader’s main vehicle, following his early-career emergence within a powerhouse smaller combo. Now, that energy has multiplied, but the Cuban sticksman, composer and arranger Prieto (pictured above) has also ensured that subtle colouration illuminates his big band charts, besides any expected forcefulness.

Prieto played in the medium-sized Charles H. Morris Center, the festival’s core venue, perfectly balancing the jazz and latin elements of his sound, the latter strong in the hands of percussionist Roberto Quintero and salsa-shaper pianist Alex Brown. The bond between Prieto and Quintero is tight, the leader playing his kit with a timbales ring. The opening salvo of 'Una Vez Mas' was followed by the lusty propulsion of 'So Long Ago', twinned flutes contrasting with tenor and baritone saxophone depth, not to mention the soft mass of the bass trombone. 'Song For Chico' held an elaborate power, with alto solos at key points, while 'Two For One' pushed forward a forceful percussion lattice. All of these Prieto pieces resounded with a bassy push throughout the ranks. Michael Blake delivered a rough-edged tenor solo of twining thought, whereas Román Filiu and Joel Frahm were underused, at least during the second set. It was Prieto himself who crowned this later sequence, his kit sounding quite dry, all the better to make blows with a no-reverbed staccato power.

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Just right for the afternoon, there was an inspired double-bill at the Ships Of The Sea Museum, a garden space with an all-spanning canopy, leaving its sides open to the sun-beaming elements. John Medeski’s Mad Skillet and Jon Cleary’s Absolute Monster Gentlemen brought the New Orleans vibe a bit further north, alternating two sets apiece, to extend into the evening. Mad Skillet allows Medeski to attach his full-on prowess to a parade band base, as Kirk Joseph (pictured above) takes the tough attitude towards his breath-bluster on sousaphone, creating a buoyant foundation for his leader’s Hammond organ eruptions. Medeski opened the floodgates early, pausing only for a sensitive melodica dapple, his head otherwise down deep in the Leslie speaker’s whirr. Old Dirty Dozen Brass Band member Joseph literally took it out onto the floor, parading through the crowd by the second number, before 'Blister' burst its skin, his big horn electronically tweaked for a cosmic gumbo-flatulence solo, close to the set’s climax.

Jon Cleary’s keyboard trio displayed a more conventional love for New Orleans tradition, though the leader’s vocals sometimes smoothed out a number or two, taking a poppier, or balladeering path. Cleary is actually an Englishman, but has been living in the Crescent City for around 40 years. His 'Unnecessarily Mercenary' grabbed our lugholes straight away, piano cavorting over an earthy bassline. All three band members sang choruses in unison, and when Cleary solos, it’s invariably a racing scamper of expressive notes. On 'Been And Gone', he delivers verses like he’s in a tiny saloon, naturally expanding into this larger setting. Around half way through the set, Cleary slung a guitar around his neck and the resulting solos were given a different incarnation. Professor Longhair’s 'Tipitina' opened gently, getting into a flouncing step, with hollerin’ vocals, then moving towards a salsa cowbell zone, the set concluding with the stutter funk of 'Just Kissed My Baby' (by The Meters), bringing in an a capella section. By this time, the two bands had jointly covered just about every possible variation on the sound of New Orleans.

Martin Longley
– Photos by Frank Stewart (Dafnis Prieto) and Elizabeth Leitzell (Kirk Joseph)