Savannah Music Festival Pt. 2: Mabern, Roberts Showcase Piano Prowess


Harold Mabern performs at the Savannah Music Festival in Savannah, Georgia, on March 31.

(Photo: Elizabeth Leitzell)

The concept of a piano trio is not new. In jazz, this entails the classic formation of piano, bass and drums, but in classical music, the piano trio has a different make-up. Stretching back over 300 years, the lineup of piano, violin and cello was first used by Haydn and Mozart, in a chamber sonata setting.

The classical violinist Daniel Hope and the jazz pianist Marcus Roberts are both associate artistic directors of the Savannah Music Festival, and had been discussing the concept of a mixed concert program with chief artistic director Rob Gibson for almost a decade.

They finally decided to make it a reality for the 2016 program, appearing at the Lucas Theatre on April 2. The idea was to place each leader’s trio side by side on the stage, alternating musical styles between jazz and classical for the entire duration of a performance, with each trio remaining on stage throughout.

This might seem like a simple action, but it’s a situation that’s increasingly rare. Jazz and classical ensembles can sometimes cohabitate in some concert programs, but to have stylistically alternating pieces during the same set is unusual. The experience led to a fresh way of hearing each side, like a real-life audio shuffle. It was also enjoyable to watch the physical reactions of the musicians when they weren’t playing, each group taking pleasure in the other’s performance.

Roberts was joined by bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis, opening the first half with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” The tune was given a bluesy, ambling style, hopping to a pert prance and shifting gears from one section to another. The reading was dynamic and exciting in a cultivated fashion, as if anticipating the Ludwig van Beethoven to follow. Here, it was noticeable how vigorous the trio of Hope, cellist Keith Robinson and pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips were in their approach, as if looking to emulate the freedoms of jazz.

Roberts played a very restrained “East Of The Sun,” taking a soft stroll, with a deliberately quiet delivery. Franz Schubert’s “Piano Trio No.2” followed, then Rodgers and Hart’s “Where Or When” and Felix Mendelssohn’s “Piano Trio No. 1” to close the first half.

Apparently, back in the old days, it was common behavior for classical audiences to applaud particularly impressive executions within a piece, so a faction of the crowd led an outbreak of clapping during a spirited stretch of Haydn’s “Piano Trio No.10.” For George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” Marsalis opened with a short percussion solo, followed by bass and piano alternations, all thoughtfully arranged, turning a common tune into a more unusual incarnation.

A Ravel piece was followed by “Playing Around,” an original composition by Roberts. As influences surely cross-pollinated, Hope led a fierce reading of “Piano Trio No.2” (by Dmitri Shostakovich) with hard riffing tangled up in gypsy roots. Roberts closed with his own number, “The Spanish Tinge,” but the hotly anticipated possibility of a sextet team-up didn’t transpire.

Such a mingling of musical skills might have necessitated extreme compromises in one direction or another, but ultimately the two trios avoided a rare chance to actually play together simultaneously. Nevertheless, the ongoing aural juxtapositions had a quite uncanny effect, giving the jazz and classical works a fresh significance. Much of the work was in the imagination of the listeners, who were allowed to make their own personal balances and orientations between the shifting sound-worlds.

Two days earlier, at the Charles H. Morris Center, pianist Harold Mabern played a solo lunchtime gig, followed by two evening sets with The Eric Alexander Quartet. Mabern exuded energy in both his playing and personality, recounting many tales in-between his pugilistic, blues-soaked improvisations.

Saxophonist James Moody was born in Savannah, Georgia, so Mabern made sure to include the late reedist’s “Moody’s Mood For Love” in his set, performing it as a boogie-woogie.

To add variety, the pianist engaged in a Q&A session between numbers, taking questions from audience members at the close of each song. Mabern, in response to a question about when he started playing jazz, said, “I didn’t choose music, it chose me.”

The completely self-taught Mabern’s approach involves a percussive hardness, filled with detailed embellishments, leaving spaces in his runs for added emphasis. “I never think of myself as a teacher,” he announced. “I’m an advanced student! As long as I can get that 198 bus to the campus, I’ll continue to teach. I’m an r&b player who understands the philosophy of jazz.”

Mabern proved this further with the Alexander foursome, bonding tightly with his leader’s tenor saxophone each time a theme was negotiated. The tough “T-Bone Steak” (Jimmy Smith) was followed by the ballad tenderness of “All The Way” (Jimmy Van Heusen), featuring a sensitive, brush-skittering solo from drummer Joe Farnsworth.

Alexander took his solos to the limit on a couple of occasions, overblowing with finesse, but Farnsworth was particularly volatile, striking out with more than the usual count of drum solos.

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