Collaborative Spirit Prevails at Savannah Music Festival
Joshua Redman paused, mid-thought. He needed a bit of help. During a concert with pianist Brad Mehldau on April 6—the last weekend of the Savannah Music Festival in Georgia—the tenor and soprano saxophonist told the audience about his love for the small southern city. Recounting his last trip to Savannah, in 2005 with the SFJAZZ Collective, he stumbled trying to remember the name of a family-style restaurant where he ate lunch. “Mrs. Wilkes’,” came the almost instantaneous shouts from the crowd. Of course, they had likely heard it all before.
This familiarity—a tight-knit, communal nature that pervades the concerts—made the festival’s two Friday-night shows something more than mere performances. On the docket that night, in addition to the Redman/Mehldau show, was the so-called Stringband Spectacular featuring Julian Lage and a handful of legendary bluegrass performers.
The crowds seemed a bit thin on this final weekend of the festival, which runs annually for two weeks during the end of March and beginning of April. Headliners who had long since left town included Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band, the Marcus Roberts Trio, Wycliffe Gordon, and pianists Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron. The festival also featured classical, world music, bluegrass and folk, along with a bit of pop, gospel and country.
Earlier that Friday night, before Redman and Mehldau took the stage at the Trustees Theater, festival officials presented a summation of their weeklong acoustic music seminar. A little fewer than 30 bluegrass and folk players had entered the festival’s all-expenses-paid string program to spend an intensive week exploring their music with guitarist Lage, banjo player Tony Trischka and mandolin player Mike Marshall. (There are similar programs for high school jazz musicians.) The students—many of them, like bassist Paul Kowert, professional players—also took master classes with festival artists.
The well-attended, session-ending concert broke the students into a handful of ensembles, many of which featured one of the instructors. The students played through original tunes as diverse as an Appalachian quasi-string quartet by fiddler George Meyer and the lithe, breezy “Polska” by Simon Chrisman on dulcimer. The original tunes all had strong melodies and rich harmonic structures with ample solo sections to show off the attendees’ chops. The night leaned toward more raucous bluegrass numbers, with mandolinists like Josh Pinkham leading the charge, but also slowed down for singer-songwriter-type pieces from guitarist Molly Tuttle, who also performs in a band with her father and two siblings.
In a tribute Earl Scruggs, one of the patron saints of bluegrass, the entire group traded choruses on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to end the evening. While moving that many people around the stage—especially four upright bassists—didn’t lead to the smoothest of transitions, it was a fitting tribute and a fun, upbeat way to end a wonderful show.
Redman and Mehldau’s set was sparse by comparison to the revolving cast of bluegrass musicians. The two played a mix of originals, with “Monk’s Dream” and “Airegin” thrown in for good measure, Mehldau’s classical approach creating dense, harmonic textures with the aid of a somewhat sticky piano pedal. Mehldau is a propulsive player; his lines always seem to be moving forward at a smooth, liquid pace. And he looks like what he plays—contorting himself, seeming to feel the music in his bones. The handful of songs evolved with ease, the two exploring all the harmonic possibilities in each piece, moving far away from the original melodic content during long solo sections.
Mehldau and Redman have been playing together for ages, and there is a comfort in their sound. But the two pushed each other and didn’t fall into a trap of complacency or start to play familiar sequences and old patterns. The almost summer-camp atmosphere of the Stringband Spectacular mixed with the casual mastery of the Redman/Mehldau concert made Friday night a perfectly fulfilling, laid-back end to the Savannah Music Festival.