Savannah Swamped with Jazz as Smith, Lage, Frisell Perform


Dr. Lonnie Smith performs at one of three sets on April 5 at the Savannah Music Festival in Savannah, Georgia.

(Photo: Frank Stewart/Savannah Music Festival)

Although the Savannah Music Festival embraces all forms of American roots music, most of its jazz programming takes place during the middle week of its March 28-April 13 run.

Located in Georgia, the city grows out from the banks of the Savannah River, with South Carolina visible on the opposite bank. The festival takes place in multiple venues, all of them positioned within the Savannah Historic District, where quaint post-Civil War-era houses sit in neat rows, intersected by 22 mini-parks, shaded by gnarled oaks, which drip moss from their twisted branches.

The festival’s core venue was the Charles H. Morris Center, where three shows were presented on most days. This is the number that Dr. Lonnie Smith played on April 5: one around midday, and two in the evening, these latter being a double bill with the Sullivan Fortner Trio. The high priest of the Hammond B3 was clad in a black robe and turban, a change from his more usual silver-and-white garb. Smith’s vintage instrument was augmented by a Korg synthesizer and an electronic percussion pad, while a vocal microphone was positioned for the occasional foray into abstract accompaniment. The bandleader was joined by guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Xavier Breaker.

The set that the trio played on their own was markedly powerful, particularly for a lunchtime event. Smith began softly, using his sensitive finger-trigger sampler to set up a conga pattern, until a groove was found, and he crept onto the keys of his organ, building up to a rapidly churning pace. Kreisberg added a tight, rocky fuzz, warbling between the notes.

A rolling train-push arrived, with Smith holding down keys, as Kreisberg soloed with gusto. Smith issued flute, trumpet and string-section sounds on his synth, their authentic qualities strong enough to avoid any potential cheesiness. Instead, they bloomed into a late-1960s hippy halo, combined with a suggestion of Roland Kirk’s sonic universe. This gradually awakened strains of “My Favorite Things,” at first softly, and then slamming into a rollercoaster reading. It peaked with a wild Breaker solo, and just as listeners expected the set to conclude, Smith introduced “Pilgrimage.” It was fortunate that he included the tune, as it turned out to be a churchy glider, with Smith singing along in an appropriately spiritual murmur.

In the evening, the young and rising New Orleans pianist Sullivan Fortner opened for Smith, partnered with bassist Ryan Berg and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons. The leader’s deliberately wisecracking persona revolved around “creepy and crazy.” This quirky stance was intensified when he selected the Merv Griffin “Changing Keys” theme from the Wheel Of Fortune game show as a basis for improvisation. This opening performance wasn’t particularly appealing or vibrant, but when Fortner played again, around noon the next day, his stand-alone set was something of a revelation. Fortner and his sidemen were energized and focused, delivering a marvelously poised version of “Tres Palabras,” originally popularized by Nat King Cole. Clemons used his soft mallets with a subtle military precision, drawing intermittent tattoos amid the pools of calm.

There was an understated emphasis on the tune’s coasting motion, each phrase and beat carefully pronounced, and thoughtfully enunciated. Clemons used a tight snare sound, summoning muted thunder, without much ringing. Fortner’s own composition, “Newport,” concluded the set, establishing a calypso character, not unlike those often explored by Sonny Rollins. The bandleader’s levity still hung around, but his soloing now was far superior to that of the previous day’s set. It’s as though the trio had been given the chance to fully ease into the festival’s embracing warmth.

One day later, there were a pair of double-bill sets combining two generations of jazz guitar: the Julian Lage and Bill Frisell trios. Lage presented a line-up with bassist Jorge Roeder and David King, drummer of The Bad Plus. Lage is not always so easy to stylistically confine, as he’s lately been mixing up melodic glow with hints of a rougher texture, particularly when working with fellow guitarist Nels Cline. A rambling country nature kept Lage in line with Frisell’s manifesto, rolling merrily, but King persistently clicked and clattered his sticks, making pugilist interventions. Lage paused while King and Roeder initiated a wiry turbulence, seemingly nudging the guitarist toward a flare-up when he re-entered, spouting aggravated phrases, sounding like metallic fragmentation.

Frisell guested in the final stretch, a spell of tuning-up actually segueing into song. Despite the overall tendency to float their guitars toward eventual blandness, King kept the climax interesting with a consistently inventive skittering around the kit. Frisell’s own set operated in a predictable mode, rambling through the countrified choogling that he’s been immersed in for the last several decades. Frisell has developed a close rapport with bassist Thomas Morgan, but it was drummer Rudy Royston who ensured some liveliness during this otherwise sleepy set. The best moment was when Frisell selected “Moon River,” a tune co-penned by Savannah native Johnny Mercer, interpreted with a suitably luminous hue. DB

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Sean Jones
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