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Gilmore Piano Festival 2024

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Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival
Kalamazoo, MI
April 24 to May 12, 2024

Thelonious Monk ends his 1967 album Straight, No Chaser with the song "We See." This Monk classic quartet remake from the 1950s was also the last piece of jazz music performed at this year's Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival. This time it was played by the Paul Cornish Trio. 'We See" was the only cover the group played in their (otherwise) startling all-original 75-minute set. Closing out a five-day run of noonday jazz concerts at downtown Kalamazoo's historic Civic Theater, the Cornish trio were complemented by four other groups, all of which doubled on alternate days at Battle Creek's Kool Family Community Center. (Performances of both jazz and classical music could be heard at various venues throughout Southwest Michigan.)

These five groups, all of them stylistic contrasts to each other, weren't the only jazz seen and heard, but they represented the best overall. After five days it became clear that they expressed a welcomed testimonial to the varieties that 21st-century acoustic jazz can offer, each band loaded up with younger players approaching their prime.

As for Cornish and his group, and their cover of "We See," it was a case of an old bottle, new wine, this mostly packed house (this side of 495) treated to a different, outside-in listen to what, in Monk's day, was a more or less straight-ahead fanfare of medium-tempo swing. The Cornish band approach was consistent with their overall vibe to music-making: angular, cryptic, with elliptical asides to a playful melody surrounded by ingenious flourishes from all three members, the other two equal partners being bassist Emma Dayhuff and drummer Jonathan Pinson. In their own sweet way, they captured and conveyed Monk's whimsical, playful vibe all the while almost burying the melody amidst each player''s idiosyncratic touches wrapped inside their uncanny group interplay.

The somewhat retiring, soft-spoken Cornish nonetheless was a good talker with a mic as he bantered beforehand and between numbers. By contrast, his playing (which occasionally included some spare electronic additions via laptop) tilted towards the explosive, his engaging right and left hands at times seemingly doubled by Pinson's equally explosive right hand/left hand drumming. Indeed, it was thoroughly refreshing to revisit Monk's tune (and everything else) with this new approach, bringing new life to what might otherwise have been a more conventional approach to a jazz standard. In fact, a music that, with a surface listen, might sound indeterminate was very determinate, right down to the endings of each piece. Those endings---which followed much activity that might be called non-tonal, even arrhythmic---were mostly abrupt, leaving audience members suspended as if in mid-air over a cliff, albeit ready to clap with enthusiasm once they realized the song had ended. It was high-level communication, the trio displaying an engaging syntax of deep listening, truly sympathetic, one mind/three voices, a group mind where they seemed to be finishing each other's musical sentences.

Finishing each other's sentences could be said for pretty much the entire jazz component of what is putatively known as a classical music festival with jazz trimmings. A fascinating interface with the two genres made for brain-tickling moments as concerts attended veered between piano excursions both composed/written and improvised, all performed with a stunningly high-degree of technical expertise. And, apart from The Civic and Bell's Brewery Eccentric Cafe in Kalamazoo that presented the lion's share of jazz, two other shows spoke to the urge for jazz expression. Brazilian pianist/singer Eliane Elias' quartet played at Western Michigan University's Dalton Center while Kenny Barron's trio performed at the WMU's Shaw Theatre. The veterans Elias and Barron represented a more conventional, backward-glancing side of the music, especially when compared to the youthful energy on display elsewhere. Think Brazilian bossa nova and a history of jazz piano, 21st century-style.

The Shaw Theatre house was full and appreciative. The spirit of Monk seemed like an all-pervasive presence as Barron's trio opened with a lively, swinging and rarely played "Shuffle Boil." Barron's trio, featuring bassist Endea Owens and drummer Savannah Harris, displayed a high degree of group interplay and sophistication. But, in the swirl of so much piano music, the overall effect tilted toward a routine club set, in this case played to a sizable concert hall. Yes, there were fetching, up- tempo covers of other standards like Wayne Shorter's blues waltz "Footprints," a lilting visit to the lovely "Skylark," an eloquent solo-piano take on Charlie Haden's "Nightfall." Barron's playing throughout could remind one of other great piano stylists, including John Lewis, Red Garland and Ahmad Jamal. In his hands, the legendary Barron could be said to be a living embodiment of jazz piano's legacy now, the elder statesman throwing in some stride touches, to boot. As for encores, as they opened, so they closed, invoking the spirit of Monk once again with a typically playful run at his "Well, You Needn't."

Brazilian pianist/singer Eliane Elias also played to a full house with her quartet of bassist Marc Johnson, drummer Rafael Barata, and, on select numbers, guitarist Leandro Pellegrino. The elegant Ms. Elias played a program strewn with much samba music as she mostly played with an occasional soft vocal to such numbers as Antonio Carlos Jobim's peppy "Brazil," other times veering off into more jazz impressions, a highlight being her balladic medley of the standard "Emily" coupled with major influence Bill Evans' "I Love My Wife." Pellegrino's Spanish guitar heightened the feel of being somewhere else while Johnson and Barata were given ample room to take solos that served as crowd-pleasers. Elias took time to talk to her audience as well as play, much to everyone's delight. A return to favorite Jobim with "Desifinado" ended the concert with a typical Latin bounce that had to double as an encore, despite the audience's call for more.

The Bell's concerts were a study in jazz contrasts with the Civic Auditorium shows. All three Eccentric Cafe gigs could have been played at the Ciivic, but given that they were evening shows with two sets each, and that there was much hearty beer available to quench a crowd's thirst, they carried more of a party vibe than what the Civic's lunchtime audiences experienced.

First up was someone playing a form of transcontinental jazz that was illustrative of what the music can mean halfway around the world. Accomplished South African pianist/composer Nduduzo Makhathini was all exuberance with his chant-like modal concentration on feeling over technique, musical storytelling that was literal as well as lyrical. Accompanied by his longtime compatriots from shores closer to home---drummer Francisco Mela, bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere, and saxophonist Logan Richardson—the leader was as much a talker-teller as he was a pianist. Makhathini, (with a new album out on Blue Note, Unomkhubulwane) mixed hearty chants with echoes of McCoy Tyner-ish stylings as the music thrummed like a rubato rolling trek across imaginary fields of sonic otherness, full of balladic imagery that could feel like a call-out to the spirits. While he sang and exhorted in another language, his English spoken to this full house was laced with ideas about Africa, cosmology, what is home?, identity and collective memory. I asked a bartender what she thought halfway through his set. Her reply: "I like it. There's a lot going on." A variation of something that sounded like a page from "You Are My Sunshine" was played like a lullaby with a slow gait. There was a folk-song vibe throughout with many gentle, hymn-like passages that recalled Ornette Coleman-style free-jazz scrambling as all three sidemen made essential, equally significant contributions. Not your "typical" jazz set.

Two nights later, pianist Gerald Clayton's trio offered something completely different. If you liked your music full of rumination, laced with nondescript bebop references and outright swing with blues overtones clearly this was the explicit pulse of yet another full house of upwards of 160. Opening with a kind of medley that rolled one song into another, "Jubilation" served as a good warmup for what followed. Joined by bassist Jermaine Paul and drummer Justin Brown, Clayton took right-hand flourishes, twinkling across the keys with loose ties to blues changes, playing in the spirit of inspiration Bud Powell soon after a lovely visit to "Monk's Mood" in a natural fit. But, like Monk being played everywhere else, it was a revisitation that brought fresh energy to one of the composer's most beautiful melodies as Clayton veered off the changes and went modal with a two-chord Spanish vamp. It was loose-limbed but with an inner cohesion, like a secret lingo, a secret code. A tight band all around.

The third of three, organist Delvon Lamarr's trio closed out the Eccentric Cafe's jazz portion of the Gilmore Festival. Unfortunately, this reviewer wasn't in attendance for either of the two sold-out performances. I'm sure a grand old time was had by all.

Indeed, while the Barron, Elias and Eccentric Cafe shows might have been remarkable in their own right, as mentioned, it was the noonday series at the Civic that presented the most rewarding outpouring of distinctive jazz at this year's festival. How ironic, given that jazz is normally a music one associates with nightclubs, or at least music at night, and played beyond the putative one-hour timetable (usually starting late). Instead, patrons were treated to varied showcases that might have complemented a midday tryst, a quick lunch, or served as a daytime rejuvenator.

Things kicked off with the youthful Isaiah J. Thompson Trio on Monday, a group that straddled tradition with innovation, beginning, oddly enough, with the standard "I'm Old Fashioned," Thompson's quick hands combining a spare left hand with a traditional medium-tempo swing. To liven things up, there was some robust 6/4 swing that featured drummer Matthew Lee followed by a cool-down visit to Billy Strayhorn's haunting "Chelsea Bridge," played very slow en route to a ruminative swinging gait. With astute support from bassist Barry Stephenson, Thompson's style carried shades of Gene Harris and Oscar Peterson with hints of Mr. Tyner, particularly with that left hand.

Rivaling the Cornish trio for originality was the Shai Maestro Quartet on Tuesday. Unlike anything else heard from jazz at this festival, pianist Maestro began the quartet's set with a 45-minute segment that included him standing astride his piano plucking strings, leading to a one-note groove for everyone to engage in. Eventually sitting down to roll out a discernible melody that brought the rest of the band in, Maestro recalled similar strategies by (early) Keith Jarrett, Nik Bartsch and Jon Balke. Maestro managed to balance that percussive pianism with a lyric touch as he drew in trumpeter Philip Dizack, Dizack's sound meshing with the rest of the group to create a kind of lush, otherworldly sonic landscape that conjured the spirit of Tomasz Stańko Quartet in its heyday. But this band had its own sound and approach as that extended intro wandered with no clear barlines or measures. It was mood music without a pulse, a medley of serious fun as solos blended with interspersed, ethereal melodic touches that suddenly were played at a fever pitch with tight, orchestrated lines. What was left of the hour-plus set included some more solo piano, an engaging piano-bass duet with Jorge Roeder, traces of a lovely folk ballad with more percussive piano. With drummer Ofri Nehemya in driving support, there was a return to rambling tempos with a mesmerizing closing cover of Ornette Coleman's "When Will The Blues Leave."

Continuing the Jazz at Noon series on Wednesday was the Helen Sung Trio. Bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Adam Cruz added significant heft to this unsung (no pun intended) super trio as Sung charmed the crowd with a smattering of casual talk via an amiable personality and a red dress that enhanced a fun vibe to the proceedings. That said, when she began to play it went from some up-tempo swing to something in 5 that felt like a tango, her earnest, two-fisted approach a stark contrast to her more or less soft demeanor. Sung's more classical technique resulted in some hard swinging and fast, malleable musical forms. For an encore, the audience was treated to some furious stride that was totally consistent with this set's overall approach. Again, the Sung Trio's set was unlike anything else that preceded or followed this series. In other words, a perfect fit.

Penultimate to the Cornish performance that followed on Friday, concertgoers were treated to the Benito Gonzalez Trio, with drummer Jaylen Petinaud and bassist Will Slater. The Venezuelan-born pianist was the epitome of good energy as he wooed his willing audience with much banter and smiles, jumping right in with a stutter-step, Latin-flavored "Right On," leading into an explosive 15-minute sprint that contained some serious back and forth between Gonzalez and Petinaud. Slater emerged as the resilient center between the two extroverts on either side. And just when you were thinking of seatbelts, the trio casually strolled in with a breather, a delicate cover of the standard "The Nearness Of You" followed by a soulful strut of a coda that included an ascending/descending three-note vamp. A hand-clapping jaunt of an encore, McCoy Tyner's super-charged "Fly Like The Wind" anthem, had the crowd on their feet even as it revealed one of Gonzalez's prime musical influences.

To close, a word (or two ) about that jazz and classical dance that remains a hallmark of this biennial music festival. While it wasn't referred to as a jazz event by this reviewer, the festival opening concert of Hiromi: The Piano Quintet featuring the PUBLIQuartet at Chenery Auditorium (Kalamazoo's finest room to hear live music) displayed a surprisingly creative and stunning mesh of the jazz spirit within a classical string quartet setting. Then there was the spritely piano Labeque Duo, French sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque, in the pristine Stetson Chapel at Kalamazoo College. Finally, in a return performance to Chenery, there was the Beijing-born Yuja Wang in a typically powerful display of pianistic brilliance. All three concerts offered crossover potential for any open ears.

Of the three, clearly Hiromi, who is known worldwide as coming from the jazz orbit, offered the best example of what is possible when the spirit of jazz blends with a surpassing technical virtuosity. As much classical as jazz, the splendid string quartet on hand was like an extension of Hiromi's piano with cellist Hamilton Berry, violist Nick Revel, and violinists Jannina Norpoth and Curtis Stewart. All five members spoke with distinct voices as they moved through snappy, up-tempo swing and blues, Hiromi proffering her own blizzard of single notes with both hands laced with loads of pizzicato. At times, there was a natural blend of unison, classical lines leading to some walking "bass" rhythms. Hiromi invoked the spirit of Erroll Garner as she duetted with Berry, leading to a slow, walking, almost swinging "bass" hoedown. Later, a dazzling 40-minute, Art Tatum-esque solo-piano excursion was followed by a quartet version of Ellington's "Come Sunday," which served as a kind of breather before encore music of more solo piano and quartet. With intimations of Harpo Marx, Hiromi was the personification of an unbridled imagination.

The delightful frictions of the Labeque Duo exuded sibling revelry. Their contrasting styles alternated were both robust and ethereal. Having known of the two through their collaborations with jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, it was no surprise when the sisters broke the tension of their piano face-offs with a bit of rhythm & blues rumination for an encore, the sisters now sitting side by side at one piano. The net effect was a festival "smorgaskeyboard."

Nearing the festival's end, music lovers were treated to another highlight as Yuja Wang performed pieces by Messiaen, Scriabin, Debussy and, after an intermission, Chopin's Ballade No. 1. And while her performance held nothing one could call jazz, let alone your typical improvisation, one could not help but get the impression that Wang's relationship to the piano is anything but orthodox. Not being a classical music critic, I couldn't detect any variances, any added touches or invoked nuances. All I could come away with, apart from feeling her compelling ferocity and magisterial command of mood, from explosive to serene, was what this artist might do if she took her novel approach a step further and jumped into jazz's more exploratory world. Wearing two riveting, eye-catching dresses with extreme stilettos on either side of the intermission, Wang's generous spirit allowed for five encores, graciously declining a sixth. She's not your typical classical artist. As Alex Ross regaled in a recent New Yorker profile of her, "In the end, Wang's flair for spectacle doesn't diminish her gifts; it heightens them."

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