It's not always easy living in Georgia, what with the crazy politics, corruption, heat, and mosquitoes and all.
But we've always got Wycliffe Gordon!
The Waynesboro, GA, native, world-class trombonist/horn player of all trades, and Savannah Music Festival favorite for ten years running led a ridiculously talented ensemble in a raucous and spirited tribute to the great Louis Armstrong at the Morris Center in what is the single best jazz concert this reviewer has seen at any edition of the Savannah Music Festival.
In his impassioned introduction, Festival director Rob Gibson spoke of his friendship with Gordon, the enormous global importance of Louis "Pops" Armstrong -- an ambassador of America as well as of jazz itself -- and the presence in the audience of a busload of high school jazz players in town to play at the Swing Central competition.
Gordon, who acted as bandleader and vocalist -- adding a sweet, syrupy edge to his Armstrong "impression" -- made it clear that the set was less a note-for-note emulation of "Pops" than a celebration of his musical spirit.
The youthful Swing Central musicians took this to heart and gave an added spark to the evening, hooting and laughing spontaneously and appreciatively at the awe-inspiring chops on display. Their enthusiasm was infectious -- even the Landings folks who are usually the majority at these shows eventually got into the swing of things.
Gordon -- who inhabits a trombone in such a tonally intimate and expressive fashion that he almost plays it like a didgeridoo -- was at the top of his form, actually opening the show playing trumpet a la Armstrong . He was backed this evening by a remarkably diverse collection of players, including charismatic drummer Herlin Riley, bassist extraordinaire Yasushi Nakamura, young piano wunderkind Aaron Diehl, and the showstopping, world-renowned Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen. The multicultural nature of the ensemble was no mere nod to political correctness, but rather a reflection of Armstrong's universal appeal and the Festival's commitment to quality musicianship.
And they can all play. The set only comprised about half a dozen songs, but they were all stretched out to the max in order for everyone onstage to have extended, multiple solos. The cumulative effect of such capable musicianship bouncing so many lightning rounds off of each other was so breathtaking it almost made you laugh in absurd admiration.
Gordon, admitting with a humorous shrug that they were playing the most dynamic number near the beginning of the set instead of saving it for last, led the band in a kinetic, loud, and soulful version of "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got that Swing." Its ten or so minutes of explosive musicianship set the tone for the rest of the show.
No one could be said to ever steal a show from this bunch of cheerful experts, but the one who came this close to stealing the show was clarinetist Cohen.
Wearing a stylish black dress, shaking her copious, curly locks, and laughing appreciatively during others' solos, Cohen brought the house down with her numerous clarinet solos, which ran the gamut from honking to whispering, rhythmic to melodically rapturous.
Indeed, at one point when Cohen played a true solo without accompaniment -- the other players standing by -- I caught drummer Riley looking at her from behind his kit, mouth almost agape, agog at her talent.
After the show one of the Swing Central teenagers said excitedly to a friend, "It's going to take months and months to get this out of my system," and he was speaking for all of us.