David Berger Arrangements Emphasize Dramatics at Detroit Jazz Festival
Posted 9/25/2013

As the 17-piece David Berger Jazz Orchestra took the Detroit Jazz Festival’s main stage for a commissioned collaboration with wunderkind singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, the festival’s artistic director, Chris Collins, explained to the audience that Berger had arranged a suite of songs from the second quarter of the 20th century with Salvant’s tonal personality in mind.

Best known as an Ellington specialist, the 64-year-old Berger has transcribed close to 500 Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn scores and helped Wynton Marsalis decode the mysteries of Ellington during the pre-history and early years of Jazz at Lincoln Center. As the recital proceeded, he demonstrated—as he has done on recordings like Marlowe, Doin’ The Do, I Had The Craziest Dream: The Music Of Harry Warren and Champian (which introduced rising star pianist-vocalist Champian Fulton)—that he is also intimate with the entire stylistic evolution of big band jazz from such code-establishing arrangers as Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson and Bill Challis to Thad Jones and Gil Evans. Berger’s new charts refracted the orchestral colors and voicings with which Ellington infused such iconic ’50s recordings as Such Sweet Thunder and The Queen’s Suite and brimmed with strong inner melodies, well-wrought soli and intriguing polyphony.

Salvant’s functional intelligence and emotional self-knowledge allow her to find a point of view and cut to the core of a lyric efficiently. She has internalized the idiosyncrasies and procedures of a broad timeline of stylists (she has cited Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Nina Simone, Babs Gonzalez, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, among others), any of whom she seems able to access according to the dictates of the moment. At times, such juxtapositions—her tendency to transition from pure-toned little girl to raspy blues mama in a nanosecond—impart a feel more akin to cabaret than jazz.

It’s also evident that Salvant pays attention to her appearance and comportment. She has lived in France, and dresses with Gallic chic. On this evening, Aug. 31, her trademark large white glasses, a just-above-the-knee patterned dress and elegant heels complemented her cool delivery of hot material.

An example was her diffident-on-the-surface rendition of the 1930 Walter Donaldson-Gus Kahn number “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” once a Nina Simone staple. Salvant attended carefully to the song’s dynamics, controlled the time with a velvet-gloved iron fist and emulated instrumental phrasing with her voice. Dynamic extremes in response to quickly shifting textures in the arrangement also marked Salvant’s reading of Savannah Churchill’s 1947 ballad “I Want To Be Loved” (covered memorably by, among others, Dinah Washington and Etta James), which elicited declarations of love and adoration from the audience.

Salvant matched the Thad Jones-ish saxophone soli brass punctuations that Berger placed on the Billie Holiday ’30s flagwaver “I Hear Music” (Burton Lane), and then got way inside of Noel Coward’s “Mad About The Boy,” to which Berger gave a tango-like treatment with hints of atonality in the opening. The old Nat Cole Trio vehicle “Frim-Fram Sauce” (these days associated with Diana Krall) featured the coquette-to-worldly trope that Salvant favors, and she addressed “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me” with an easy swing feel that seems to be a lost art among singers under 35. She returned to Cole—but also 1947-vintage Vaughan and Lena Horne, and modern-day Kurt Elling—with Louis Prima’s “I Feel So Smoochie,” and then, on Gershwin’s “There’s A Boat Leavin’ Soon For New York,” stretched the vowels à la Betty Carter and Sassy.

One highlight was Salvant’s spectral treatment of “What’s Your Story Morning Glory,” which Mary Lou Williams composed for a 1937 Decca date by the Andy Kirk Orchestra for a lyric by Jack Lawrence, the singer on the original recording, and most famously performed by Ella Fitzgerald in 1958 with Marty Paich. It received an ovation, as did Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1947 tune “The Gentleman Is A Dope,” on which the cat-on-mouse perfection of Salvant’s rubber-band phrasing kept the audience on a string, and her wrenching version of Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful It’s My Heart,” best-known for Frank Sinatra’s 1942 and 1958 recordings.

When an audience member called out, “Girl, you got any Eddie Jefferson in there?” Salvant looked up. “Next time,” she responded. Then she dove straight into the bittersweet romantic depths of the Johnny Mercer classic “When A Woman Loves A Man,” most prominently associated with Holiday and Lincoln.

“I hope you scat some,” a woman called out, before Salvant began “We’ll Be Together Again” (Frankie Laine, 1945), which she crooned, bent forward, holding the microphone directly before her lips. She concluded with the 1925 Irving Caesar lyric “I Want To Be Happy,” phrasing just like the trumpet section members during their rounds of solos.

On Labor Day afternoon, Berger returned to the Carhartt Amphitheatre stage with the Detroit Jazz Orchestra, which included James Carter and Collins in the saxophone section, for a recital of classic Ellington.

A rollicking piano stomp by Alvin Waddles, whose left hand is old-school strong, introduced a swinging “Rockin’ In Rhythm” that featured Collins on clarinet, strong solos by trombonists Edward Gooch and Ron Kischuk, and stratospheric Cat Anderson-like trumpet work by Walter “Breaking Good” White. Using mute and plunger, White inhabited the Bubber Miley-Cootie Williams growl-master continuum on the opening refrain of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.”

“Oclupaca,” from Ellington’s Latin American Suite, featured a big-sound solo from Carter, replete with brusque hollers and fast runs. Carter went into his boudoir tenor bag on “Happy Reunion”—fleshed out by Berger from a sketch found at the Smithsonian—for a few impassioned choruses with a Coleman Hawkins connotation.

Waddles’ mighty left hand introduced “Take The ‘A’ Train”; bassist Marion Hayden, who swung throughout (her subsequent solo on “Moon Mist” cut straight to the chase), channeled Jimmy Woode on “Satin Doll.” Framed by trombone growls and clarinet glissandi, Shahida Nurullah presented her pure, textured contralto on “Solitude”; on “Creole Love Call” and “On A Turquoise Cloud,” Alice Tillman vocalesed wordlessly with exemplary range, fulfilling the Adelaide Hall-Kay Davis function.

After his creative 16-bar solo on “Happy Go Lucky Local” following a strong stride passage from Waddles, Carter offered his own version of Paul Gonsalves’ solo on “Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue,” swung hard by drummer Sean Dobbins. He began with a thick-toned “Let’s All Do The Hop” motif, quoted “Green Chimneys” and “Hot House,” contrasted short bursts of skronk-tone with long circular-breathed passages, moved into the altissimo register for emphasis, but returned to the melody every time. Whereas Ellington would have had the orchestra build the intensity, Berger brought DJFO to a decrescendo, one of the more surprising moments of the program.

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Ted Panken


Cécile McLorin Salvant sings as David Berger (right) conducts his 17-piece orchestra (Photo: Len Katz/Detroit Jazz Festival)

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