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Spoleto Festival USA 2023

Spoleto Festival USA 2023

Courtesy William Struhs

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...with wave after wave of invention, Younger almost dared anyone to say she is anything less than the McCoy Tyner of the harp. Yet it would be silly to pretend that any pianist could play as softly as Brandee did on her outro.
Spoleto Festival USA
Queen Street Playhouse, Sottile Theatre, TD Arena
Charleston, SC
May 26 to June 11, 2023

Respect for the elders in the jazz lineup of this year's Spoleto Festival USA jazz was gracefully counterbalanced by a hearty welcome to newer generations. It only felt fleetingly like the closing of the book on a previous era when South Africa's iconic pianist-composer Abdullah Ibrahim returned to Charleston, one of the last—if not the very last—headliners booked for the canceled 2020 festival to make his belated post-pandemic appearance.

Henry Threadgill, the NEA Jazz Master and 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner for In for a Penny, In for a Pound (Pi Recordings, 2015), was the other esteemed elder in the lineup, making his overdue debut at Spoleto. The festival's jazz curator, Larry Blumenfeld, who would have interviewed Ibrahim in 2020, had no difficulty shifting his Jazz Talks events—and venues—to Threadgill at the Riviera Theatre, and harpist Brandee Younger at Queen Street Playhouse, two halls that had never been in play at Spoleto before.

Younger was announced as a substitution (for Courtney Bryan) just three weeks before Spoleto opened on May 26, adding to the luster of Blumenfeld's agility—as a producer and as an interviewer. Other young lions and lionesses in the lineup included Charleston native Quentin E. Baxter, Kris Davis Diatom Ribbons, and the Immanuel Wilkins Quartet.

Ibrahim, absent from the festival for some 25 years, may have carved the largest arc of departure and return in Spoleto history, but others in the lineup had links with past festivals. Baxter appeared with Ranky Tanky in 2018 and as a concert host in other years; Diatom Ribbons included guitarist Julian Lage (2010) and NEA Master Terri Lyne Carrington (2019), and Younger was a gleaming feature of 2022's Universal Consciousness, Ravi Coltrane's stunning tribute to his mom, Alice Coltrane.

Rashaan Carter, Younger's bassist, was also a holdover from Coltrane's tribute—and so, almost inevitably, were additional nods to Alice Coltrane in a well-chosen pair of compositions. The first of these, "Ghost Trane" from Alice Coltrane's A Monastic Trio (Impulse! Records, 1968) set a nifty precedent for the second nod to follow, "Turiya and Ramakrishna" from the imposing Ptah, The El Daoud Impulse! Records release of 1970. Both were recorded by Coltrane on piano rather than behind her iconic harp, expelling any taint of imitation from Younger's performances.

If you ever thought Alice couldn't truly belong in a John Coltrane Quartet, or if you've thought of her strictly in terms of spirituality and ethereality, the original "Ghost Trane" track, with its groovy line and Coltrane's finger-busting solo, will dispel your delusions. After an intro that subtly suggested the line to come, Younger made the lustrous, silky sound of her harp swing. Jumping off into her improvisations, riffing with wave after wave of invention, Younger almost dared anyone to say she is anything less than the McCoy Tyner of the harp. Yet it would be silly to pretend that any pianist could play as softly as Brandee did on her outro.

Nor would it be correct to imply that Younger allowed the sublimity of Alice Coltrane to be forgotten for long. "Love & Struggle" had a mixture of sublime Coltrane with a few flecks of soaring Carlos Santana fire, punctuated by a couple of fine Carter solos on acoustic bass. Fitfully, Younger's harp can evoke the sound of a guitar or reverberate like a set of vibes—even within her harp timbre, she can veer away from the velvety, mesmerizing Coltrane idiom into the crisper sound Dorothy Ashby espoused.

"Unrest," parts I and II, delivered without a pause, began with an extended meditative Younger solo before Allan Mednard, filling out the trio on drums, and Carter abruptly upshifted the tempo. Younger began comping chords behind her rhythm as Mednard steadily galloped until Carter briefly emerged as the dominant ingredient in the percolating stew, leaving space for Mednard to back away, restart, and take over with a palpitating solo. As in the previous piece, the drummer had the last word.

"Turiya and Ramakrishna" and "Spirit U Will" continued on this lofty plane. "Turiya" was the more exciting of the two because it revivified Coltrane's piano version with virtuosic brio and was the one title on this setlist that Younger hasn't recorded. Taking us gracefully into a soft landing, Younger finished with two titles from Brand New Life (Impulse!, 2023)—a beautiful "If It's Magic" solo that hushed the hall and a sweet trio version of "You're a Girl for One Man Only" at a loping mid-tempo.

After Younger played Spoleto's first jazz gig at the Queen Street, Threadgill turned a longtime theatre and dance venue, Sottile Theatre, back into a jazz hall for the first time since 2007, when Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner played there. Unluckily, Ibrahim was scheduled to reopen the Sottile to jazz in 2020, which would have been the largest jazz group to perform there since the Fred Hersch Ensemble, with Kurt Elling and Ralph Alessi, in 2004. Tyshawn Sorey put the classy old place into play at last year's Spoleto in the capacity of a composer, when a concert of his classical works was performed at the Sottile in the wake of his jazz trio's performance at TD Arena two nights earlier.

Acoustically, the idea worked well, as Threadgill and his oddly configured Zooid quintet played a set of six selections culled from releases stretching back to their This Brings Us To, Volume 1 (Pi Recordings, 2009), plus a newborn to end the program. The set included, but did not overstress, Threadgill's Pulitzer Prize winner, dipping more generously into his newer Poof (Pi Recordings, 2021) outing with the group.

No matter how far the group hearkened back, they still looked and sounded cutting-edge, Threadgill starting out on flute for the first two compositions, "To Undertake My Corners Open" and "Beneath the Bottom," before switching to his alto horn for "Chairmaster." Jose Davila followed a parallel path, switching from trombone to tuba, playing the intro to "Chairmaster" over Christopher Hoffman's cello until Threadgill entered with such rambunctiousness on alto that he briefly evoked Eric Dolphy. Hoffman then went into a bowed solo, further varying the sound palette.

Found more readily in a Google search than by scouring Threadgill's discography, "Not the White Flag" was a special live treat, begun by Davila on tuba before Threadgill, Hoffman, and guitarist Liberty Ellman took a series of tasty solos. Continuing to blur the borderline between composition and improvisation, Threadgill returned with a mysteriously diffident coda.

The genial stridency of "Now and Then," very much in an Ornette Coleman mold on Zooid's Poof album, had more Hoffman cello beneath Davila's tuba ramblings, a brief bluesy interlude in the middle, with Ellman's guitar explorations moved to the end of the arrangement. "Off the Prompt Box" retained its astringency from In for a Penny, In for a Pound (Pi Recordings, 2015) (with Hoffman's bowed solo, yet it sprouted new sections before and after the cellist seized the spotlight, allowing Threadgill fresh opportunities to extemporize on alto, most notably after Hoffman slowed the tempo.

Threadgill's new composition, "Fluoroscope," was an apt closer for his Sottile set, not only affording ample space to showcase the members of the quintet but also bringing a rugged circularity to the concert. Zooid drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee, who began the concert so auspiciously with an extended solo on "Undertake My Corners"—playing his cymbals, toms, high-hat, and pedal rather than thrashing them—drew the spotlight three times in this final arrangement. Ellman and Threadgill hooked up in the final section of this impressive concert.

Starting off his five-show engagement at Queen Street, Wilkins plunged straight into a set of compositions he is readying for the studio, accessorized with some electronics that the altoist used sparingly and initially struggled with. Yet the minor difficulties never obscured the exquisite chemistry of this quartet, with Micah Thomas at the keyboard, Rick Rosato on bass, and Kweku Sumbry behind the drums. Wherever it was emanating from so softly, the synthesized vamp from Wilkins' electronics barely intruded as he played the line and soloed on "The Big Country," discreetly disappearing as Thomas held forth.

Detractors might have charged that the synthesized sounds interrupted the flow of music in "Apparition," bridging the gap between the leader's solo and the rhythm section's takeover, while defenders might claim they personified the title. Wilkins himself seemed a bit dissatisfied, calling out to the soundbooth, and the next two numbers were acoustically sourced, mics working well though Immanuel's monitor may have been a concern.

By shedding their electronic woes, Wilkins and the quartet reached higher altitudes with their music. Grooving into a mellow mid-tempo, "Dark Eyes Smile" was their most engaging piece so far, Wilkins introducing the line over Rosato's bass, then sharing solo honors with Thomas before returning for the out-chorus. The ascent continued to its zenith with "If That Blood Runs East," where piano and alto harmonized on the melody before Sumbry kicked up the tempo behind the kit. Thomas mostly asserted himself afterward via a hypnotic ostinato while Wilkins soloed, ceding the spotlight back to Sumbry before re-entering for a moody landing.

"Blues Blood," the closer, was no less exciting and even more varied, for Wilkins was emboldened to try out his electronics once more after he and Thomas had soloed. Before settling into a bluesy groove as Wilkins vamped, Thomas showed us he could swing as well, and as this winsome tune faded out, he sprinkled some gospel flavoring into his comping.

Wilkins' engagement at Queen Street was fortuitously timed, so that he and the quartet could take in the Threadgill concert on the evening before their four-day engagement began and comfortably peep in on Ibrahim and Ekaya midway through his sojourn after his second performance. Ironically, Ibrahim's timing turned out to be less fortunate. Bad weather prevented him from returning to Cistern Yard, one of the two festival sites where he played in 1998.

Instead, the concert was transplanted indoors to the TD Arena a couple of blocks away, where the sound is better than the lighting and the lawn seating can be faithfully replicated. Delayed by the rescheduling, Ibrahim's arrival in the College of Charleston basketball arena was more solemn and dramatic in the dimmer light. Aside from introducing the members of Ekaya, the Zulu word for homeland, we heard little from Ibrahim, but it's very likely that the Ekaya sextet heard—and saw—plenty of prompts from their leader.

The intricate tapestry woven by the ensemble included seven piano solos from Ibrahim, three trio performances, and six arrangements with the horns—14 Ibrahim compositions doled out into seven music clusters—before the group returned after a feint toward the exit and covered Thelonious Monk's "Skippy" in their encore. Most easily recognized among the Ekaya arrangements were "Tuang Guru" and "Nisa" from The Balance (Gearbox, 2019), where "Skippy" also appears.

After a trio entrance that was likely an abbreviated "Mindiff," a chameleonic staple in Ibrahim's discography that he has recorded in multiple forms, Cleave Guyton Jr., jumped all over bassist Noah Jackson and drummer Will Terrill with his piccolo, the signature instrument of "Tuang Guru" in the studio version. Michael Pallas took a fine solo on trombone before Lance Bryant, a session mate with the rhythm section on The Balance , steered the arrangement toward solemnity with his tenor sax—and more massive scoring with the horns and piccolo.

Josh Lee's bodacious baritone sax solo was the most salient identifier when the band segued from an Ibrahim solo, likely on "For Coltrane," to an epic arrangement of "Nisa." Guyton switched to flute on this piece, and there were succinct and tasty solos from Bryant and Jackson. In his ability to stamp his individuality and genius on a piece in the space of eight bars or less, Ibrahim recalled Ellington in his concise regality after the tempo slowed to a stately march. Yet after the reeds and Jackson had distinguished themselves, Pallas emerged as the dominant force in this arrangement, soloing and leading the horns with his muted trombone, then opening up for a brilliant cadenza.

At age 88, Ibrahim still has impressive skills, a prodigious band, and enough venturesome spirit—and trust in his musicians—to continue tinkering with his arrangements. "Skippy" as an encore was notably different from the studio track, with Guyton switching back to flute and Jackson back to bowed cello, the weaponry they had used at the start of the concert; and without a clarinet solo from Guyton, a highlight of Mukashi: Once Upon A Time) (Sunnyside, 2014), it was difficult to be sure where "Mississippi" occurred in the magnificent 80-minute concert.

So, let's prayerfully put it out there that four years is already too long since the most recent Ibrahim & Ekaya recording. Greedy though the request may be, we need to hear more.

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