Jazz is a musical genre that is by far at its best in a live setting — the more intimate the better. This is a fact which has both limited its mass appeal, but which also makes an intimate jazz concert — by players who really know what they're doing and are in the zone — possibly the ultimate musical experience of all.
One of the hottest nights of the Savannah Music Festival comes with the epic one-two punch of the Swing Central finale immediately followed by the Late Night Jam at the Morris Center. It is the closest the Festival comes to a can't-miss ticket and a 100 percent guaranteed special experience.
The first event, the Swing Central finale, is a big band-style barnburner at the Lucas, with over a dozen top jazz artists taking turns soloing during special arrangements. It's a long evening, clocking in at nearly three hours this past Friday night, and represents the culmination of a week of playing and mentoring during the entire Swing Central event.
Led by master pianist Marcus Roberts and drummer Jason Marsalis, this edition was loosely organized around the theme of Love. Each piece got a pithy, often humorous introduction from one of the musicians.
But the point is the music, and regardless of the stated theme, the intent of the pieces is to spread the love around the stage, giving the opportunity for inspired solos within the big band approach.
Because of the nod to the Big Band and Swing era, the size of the room doesn't diminish the impact of the solos or the songs. A smaller ensemble might get swallowed up, both aurally and visually, on the Lucas stage. But Swing Central builds a critical mass of sound, and at no point do you feel the venue is too large or impersonal to enjoy good jazz.
No disrespect to Swing Central, but arguably the real main event comes at 10 p.m. over at the Morris Center, as the great Georgia native and Music Festival staple Wycliffe Gordon presides over the Late Night Jam.
Though a trombone player, Gordon is one of the great interpreters of the music of Louis Armstrong. His Music Festival sets often revolve not only around Armstrong's songs and arrangements, but Gordon's scat and standard vocal style is clearly an homage to the great master as well.
Gordon never ceases to amaze on his instrument. Like a Jimi Hendrix of the trombone, he is deeply soulful as well as skilled in coaxing an incredibly wide variety of alternative sounds from his horn.
Gordon's core ensemble this evening was pianist Chris Pattishall, bassist Rodney Whitaker, and drummer Bryan Carter — the latter of whom stepped out from behind the kit to sing Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable."
The quartet played to a deeply appreciative sellout crowd, with too many stellar moments to list. Whitaker, in particular, is a delight on the bass, with a wry and personable style, and I'd happily hear a whole set just from him.
For me, a truly unforgettable highlight came when the folks from the Swing Central performance made their way to the Morris Center to sit in.
Thus came one of the golden moments the Music Festival is known for, as the matchless Marcus Roberts sat behind the keys, with Whitaker on bass and Gordon on horn, for an ocean-deep, quietly heartbreaking version of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo."
The trio, sans percussion, eschewed any trope or gimmick in taking on this very familiar standard. In their hands, it was like hearing the tune for the first time. This was an indelible performance which will stay with me.
Roberts is simply a wizard on the keys — not a wasted note, not one unnecessary flourish, and with a sense of dynamics that has to be heard to be believed.
You've heard the old line, "What he doesn't play is just as important as what he does play?" That's Roberts' style in a nutshell. His taste level is unsurpassed.
The fact that so many geniuses of jazz can grace a single stage in little Savannah, Ga., even for just one amazing night, is another testament to the commitment to quality of the Savannah Music Festival.