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Savannah Music Festival 2019

Martin Longley By

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Savannah Music Festival
Savannah, GA
March 28-April 2, 2019

The opening day of this 30th edition of the Savannah Music Festival featured a pronounced bombardment of diverse artists, tearing apart the motor controls of the driven sonic obsessive. If a pair of ears lends equal attention to Louisiana zydeco, Saharan desert trance and bluegrass acoustic harmonising, then this Thursday evening abundance was gonna cause serious clashing conflicts. Where to be, without missing much of a simultaneous set?

Generally speaking, we knew the basic location to be at, definitely in the balmy historic town centre of Savannah, where verdant squares are mathematically laid out, seemingly on almost every intersection of streets (and that's not too much of an exaggeration). The various venues in use span to the east and west of the old town, with several dotted in-between those furthest points. It's all easily walkable, though, and such strolling is always a joy. Except during the highly unusual pair of dull, chilled and rainy days that arrived at the end of your scribe's six-day sojourn. Even so, the charm remains, even if Savannah is almost as cold as NYC. The first four days, though, were as sunny as expected.

Much of the music found here springs from sweltering climates, funnily enough. Apart from Ireland, the homeland of folk troubadour John Doyle, the literal opening performer, stuck on his own, with zero competition, playing a set at 12.30pm in the festival's most-used venue, the Charles H. Morris Center. This is a fine, medium-sized space, with air conditioning that often errs towards the Arctic.

Nowadays dwelling not so far away in Asheville, North Carolina, Dublin southpaw player Doyle had brought three different acoustic axes, one of which was smaller, with a mandolin-like sound, making deft, silken flurries to match his lightly skipping vocals on the 18th century folk chestnut "Rounding The Horn." Then, he played "The Grand Auld Dame Britannia," followed by a clutch of instrumentals. That mandola was joined by a bouzouki-guitar hybrid, as Doyle combined these minimal means to make varying degrees of dynamic shifting, consistently maintaining the interest via song, tunes and talk.

Back in the same venue, four hours later, a potential dance party began, but perhaps the seats should have been removed, to encourage movement on the floor. In many cities around the globe, there aren't so many opportunities to catch zydeco bands, as it seems that the vogue for this Louisiana style was more in the 1990s, when many of these outfits seemed to be on the road more, particularly touring around European parts.

Formed in 1985, Nathan & The Zydeco Cha Chas have long been amongst the best proponents of this music. The black culture manifestation of Cajun is perhaps the best way to describe this Creole blend of blues and country, powered by the frottoir (metal washboard), and combining fiddles, accordions and electric guitars. Nathan Williams alternated between two accordions, and was joined by guitar, bass, drums and frottoir. We couldn't argue with "Tonight I Got Loaded" as one of the finest numbers, early in his set, and Nathan soon managed to get some peripheral dancing started, fighting hard to engage party mode right at the start of the evening. It's likely that the second show, at 8.30pm, further livened up the proceedings. But by this time, your scribe had sped across town to the North Garden Assembly Room at the Ships Of The Sea Museum. It's not really a room, as such, but a garden space with an all-spanning canopy, leaving its sides open to the elements. This is particularly pleasing, given the warm-breath climate of Savannah.

A double bill of African singers combined the high power projecting skills of Noura Mint Seymali (the Mauritanian Sahara) and Fatoumata Diawara (Ivory Coast via Mali). Seymali is the stepdaughter of Dimi Mint Abba, who did much to introduce the traditional music of Mauritania to Western global music listeners, particularly during the 1990s. Seymali and her band manage to keep intact a hardcore sound that resonates with the roughness of the desert, as well as adopting certain rock music strategies, notably in the blazing, overloaded and highly percussive guitaring of Jeich Ould Chighaly. Its trebly prickle frequently ignited each number into an extreme zone of psychedelic ritual transportation. Seymali's ardine, a small harp played only by females, also possesses a jangling strength, sitting well beside the cyclical guitar rifflets. Her commanding voice was enlarged by a heavy reverb, producing a heady feeling of exultation. Ousmane Touré provided some nimble funk basslines, so deep that they sounded broken up with distortion. Meanwhile, Chighaly hammered on his lower strings, making percussive effects, still needling lightly, and at high speed, on the higher treble strings. Seymali almost appeared modest and retiring, but her voice crackled with an astonishing power, ranging easily up high, and then even higher, perfectly controlled for a cutting escalation of mobile phrasing.

Fatoumata Diawara suffered by comparison, soon afterwards, her songs sounding quite conventional and poppy when set next to Seymali's material. She also doesn't seem to change her repertoire much, down the years, and relies on a more predictable set of entertainment moves when communicating with the audience. Seymali didn't need this, she just existed in an uncut desert rock state, effortlessly striking the crowd without requiring stage moves or banter. After around half of Diawara's set, it was time to catch some of Del McCoury's show at the Lucas Theatre, almost at the other end of the historic quarter. Judging by the sheer excellence of his last half hour of song, your scribe should have left straight after Seymali's performance, to hear more McCoury.

This singer and acoustic guitarist is one of the true bluegrass kings, one of the music's elder greats. He and his four fellows were often gathered around a single microphone, in the time-honoured fashion, their vocal harmonies tightly entwined. Besides their voices, they were also blessed with fiddle, banjo, mandolin and upright bass. McCoury took his voice high on "Hot Wired," with Ronnie and Rob McCoury dealing out short but sharp banjo and mandolin solos, going into "Get Down On Your Knees And Pray," the audience by this time rowdy and shouty, calling out their requests, as the night ran out. At this point, the quintet moved in front of the microphones, going completely acoustic, and projecting harmony sweetness out into the fine acoustic of the Lucas. The evening climaxed with a romping "All Aboard," and the absolute favourite "Don't Stop The Music," highly appropriate under these circumstances.

Still in the country music realms, the following evening, at Ships Of The Sea the long-running Asleep At The Wheel are also just as much a rock'n'roll combo, or a western swing crew, boasting a large spread of players fronted by witty leader and singer/guitarist Ray Benson. He's the sole remaining founder member, as the Paw Paw-born (that's in West Virginia, folks) band continue onwards, around 50 years into their existence. With a line-up that includes fiddles, reeds, mandolin and pedal steel guitar, they are armed for a multitude of musical detours, as each member might shuffle forward for a solo spot that will alter the orientation of the complete sound.

This is an Austin-based outfit that revolves around Benson's witty and authoritative presence, his voice often plummeting down around Johnny Cash's killing floor bass foundations, with guitar solos to embellish the verses. AATW often sound like unto pastiche masters, but the crew have chops to slacken the jaw, and their repertoire keeps the interest reeling, constantly subverting expectations. All of this happens whilst the Asleepers are being exceedingly entertaining. Your scribe stuck around for most of the two sets, each of which, aside from a few repeats, featured largely different material.

AATW played "Route 66," with honky tonkin' piano from Connor Forsyth, vocals shared between the two fiddlers, and pedal steel literally wow- wow-ing. Benson matches the profound and the humorous, sometimes simultaneously, plus sincerity and melancholia, with Bob Wills being a perpetual fountain of inspiration. There were jolly jogs through "Milk Cow Blues" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," the former featuring grittier geetar, and a step-out-front baritone saxophone feature from Jay Reynolds. Drummer David Sanger struck his Texas-state shaped cymbal during a manic "Tiger Rag" hoe down, featuring frenetic fiddle and mandolin solos. The pedal steel of Eddie Rivers shone under the spotlight during Santo & Johnny's "Teardrop," and the honkin' stomp of "Hot Rod Lincoln" climaxed the set with some drivin' weirdness.

As Sunday came, and led into the quieter Monday and Tuesday, the Morris Center became the chief venue. Jon Cleary is an Englishman who's been living in New Orleans for around four decades, imbibing its musical culture, and here giving a solo afternoon piano recital, threading tunes and styles into an evocative city impression. This setting allows the nuances to come forth, sharper, and with a subtle foot-clump. Some numbers arrived as instrumentals, but one of these was an extended introduction to "I Hear You Knocking," the Dave Bartholomew classic, which eventually had a sustained vocal holler from Cleary. There was a slightly warbled "Tipitina" (Professor Longhair), where the pianist demonstrated its various stylistic variations, shape-shifting at the keys, taking a subtle stance. Glassy piano trinkles sprayed drops of melody during an opened-out middle section, where he fully explored the tune's properties, giving a handy tutorial, changing the tune's beat emphases.

A Monday double bill placed NYC pianists Aaron Diehl and Chris Pattishall together, though delivering quite contrasting sets. Pattishall once again presented his arrangement of the Zodiac Suite, originally penned by Atlanta daughter Mary Lou Williams in 1944, for a 1945 release. He uses a quintet with reeds, trumpet, bass and drums, adding amusing comments in-between each of the, you guessed it, 12 pieces, which provide the ideal excuse for involving the audience in star sign revelations. Williams often preferred a bluesy thrust to her themes, filling her small, characterful sections with pockets of visually evocative detail. Alphonso Horne and Ricardo Pascal gave a succession of cookin' horn solos, and as the leader pointed out, this music must have possessed an almost revolutionary modernity, when first heard in the mid-1940s.

The Aaron Diehl Trio delivered a more roaming set, but one that still contained a few thematic pathways. Diehl is another communicative verbaliser. This double bill was almost as much about storytelling as it was about piano compositions. One of Diehl's most cherished works, of late, is Dick Hyman's series of piano études, where that venerable keyman presents portraits of his 15 chosen jazz masters, running from Scott Joplin to Bill Evans, aiming to reflect their styles and personalities. Diehl engaged with the audience by asking them to shout out their ideal selections, but this might not have been wise, as only a few kingly predictables usually get called out. This time it was Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Evans himself that rose to the top. Diehl also expanded on this theme by performing the Philip Glass étude that was specially written with him in mind, and then looked ahead to his own forthcoming album.

On Tuesday lunchtime, Diehl gave a solo recital, which was arguably superior, illustrating the blues and Latin roots of jazz, carefully displaying those tributaries. This was perhaps not so satisfying for the folks who came expecting a hardcore jazz repertoire, but Diehl clearly moves in many quarters. He made a sophisticated glide, interspersed with percussive runs, clusters of pointed energy, fully released in "Viper's Drag," by Fats Waller (always a treat when this oft-neglected treasure has slowly been rewarded with renewed recognition in recent years, as both performer and general tune- source). It was jolly, jaunty, and with an exuberantly skating melody, given further embellishment by Diehl, who eventually built up to a manic spill.

Then he played one of Aaron Copland's "Four Piano Blues," the part which Diehl considers to be actually quite bluesy. But the best deal was that we all got the complete 15 Hyman études, run through without interruption, the schizo styles parading past, in a compacted history of innovative individuals, involving radical switches of mood. The likenesses of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, George Shearing and Dave Brubeck were added. It was certainly beneficial to hear them all in sequence, for full effect, rather than isolated within Diehl's trio set. The crowning number was that Glass étude once again, making this afternoon set an ideal companion to the preceding evening's gig. It was ultimately instructive to catch both of these sets.

Tuesday evening brought a pair of shows by the John Pizzarelli Trio, with guest singer Catherine Russell, again at the Morris Center. The trio opened for around half an hour, then Russell came on for the second chunk. The repertoire was divided between songs popularised by Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, those two outstanding purveyors of the 'natural' voice, the easy-going phrasing book. Dedicated smoothie Pizzarelli has the slick patter, picking "Goody Goody" a lesser-known number from Savannah homeboy Johnny Mercer. The leader scatted along with his own guitar soloing, Konrad Paszkudzki gave a runaway piano solo, whilst Mike Karn tossed in a speedy bass feature to match. "Skylark" took it down softly, in preparation for the hyperactive "Jamboree Jones," returning to even less-familiar Mercer territory. "Witchcraft" got the vote for pleasingly surprise inclusion, with Pizzarelli playing a solo on his seven-string guitar, alone for the transition number, "The Way You Look Tonight." Then, "One For The Road" involved just piano for accompaniment.

Russell brought an aura of melancholia, "All Of Me" turned into a duet, with a straight, emphatic beat, followed by "You Go To My Head," with just her and Pizzarelli. "Love Me Or Leave Me" was taken at a brisk clip, not leaving much room for nuance, and then "Ghost Of Yesterday" took a glide out to the less familiar part of Holiday's early years ('folly of a love I'd strangled' sounded like 'for your love, I'd strangle,' as crooned by Russell). Despite another classic song, "Them There Eyes," much of the set sounded a touch too fast, with trotting being the preferred pace, not opening out much space for expression. Nevertheless, we couldn't argue with these superior songs, or the general air of sophisticated, easy-going humour.

Photograph: Elizabeth Leitzell

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