LISTENING to live jazz has a beneficial effect on body and soul that’s just different from other forms of music.
We’re all familiar with the life-giving, soul-affirming effects of, say great dance music. But live jazz seems to find and stimulate some other important place, some other vital chemical, in the human brain.
A really great live jazz session leaves behind a profound, deep sense of mental and spiritual balance and calm tranquility. Last night’s epic Savannah Music Festival double bill at the Trustees’ Garden Metal Building was an excellent example of this.
The first set was a delightful collaboration between tenor sax legend Houston Person and the up-and-coming Joe Alterman Trio. Alterman, an Atlanta native, is a young and engaging cat with an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz styles and history – which is reflected in his eclectic and joyful piano playing, heavy on the swing, soul, and boogie-woogie.
Person was seated centerstage, and became one with his instrument as the gig wore on. He began with a breathy, almost tentative approach on the big tenor sax. At first it seemed as if this elder statesman didn’t have the stamina for a proper gig, but then you realized he was just getting his mojo going, feeling his way into the earthy vibe of the set.
By the middle of the set Person was in full command, and the interplay, both musical and personal, between him and Alterman – playing right beside Person and facing him – led both of them to a higher level. Highlights included the Johnny Mercer tune “Namely You” from “Li’l Abner,” and a fun take on the schmaltzy ‘70s classic “Sunny.”
The second set was a stellar, chop-heavy performance by the Charles McPherson Quintet, featuring the muscular yet melodic bebop trumpet of Sean Jones – another young cat keeping the flame alive.
McPherson’s a legend of the alto sax who needs no particular introduction here. With a professional’s sense of calm confidence, he led the band through an eclectic set that featured standards, salvo after salvo of bebop, and McPherson’s own complex yet relatable original compositions.
While Jones was the featured guest – and for good reason -- McPherson obviously has a soft spot for his bassist, David Wong, who garnered plenty of applause from both audience and band alike for his adventurous solos.
So which set was better? Depends on your taste. My wife preferred the warm soul and swing of the Joe Alterman set, while I preferred the gunslinger, multiple-solo approach of the McPherson set.
But it’s all live jazz, so it’s all good!
My jury is still out on the choice and style of venue. In previous SMF editions, this kind of intimate show would be at the nearby Charles Morris Center, a venue which easily adapts to the live jazz vibe and aesthetic.
This show, however, was at the Metal Building inside the old Kehoe Iron Works. As the industrial name implies, it’s a large, narrow, bare shell of a space, significantly longer than it is wide, with very high ceilings.
For this gig, the stage was set along one of the long walls, with seats and high-tops arranged in a form of theater-in-the-round. Some sightlines were obscured by large ceiling support beams.
I get what they were trying to do with this stage layout – and I’m sure a lot of thought went into their decision – but I couldn’t help but think that it might have been preferable to chop the long space in half or even thirds, put the stage at one end rather than in the middle, and curtain off the excess.
In any case, the crowd certainly didn’t seem to mind, and I can see the merits of this particular layout.
We ourselves sat at dead-on stage left, and were treated to a behind-the-kit look at both drummers, sharing the same Gretsch kit.
McPherson’s skinsman, Billy Drummond, is something of a legend in his own right. An incredibly young-seeming 63 years of age – sort of a Vin Diesel lookalike -- he's played with dozens of jazz icons, including a stint in Sonny Rollins’ band, and is jazz drumming professor at both Juilliard and NYU.
The set, and the evening, closed with a dynamic tune showcasing Drummond’s epic chops and tasteful sensibility that left the audience smiling.