Musical dialogues -sweet, spiky and soulful-were conveyed with virtuosity and joy in three recent Boston area concerts that were attended by enthusiastic audiences who leaned in to hear every buoyant phrase offered up by gifted and inspired musicians.
The unique musical partnership of bassist Francois Moutin and vocalist Kavita Shah is a sparkling marvel. In their concert held within the intimate confines of the Regattabar in Cambridge, MA. (www.regattabarjazz.com) on January 18th, they treated their audience to musical dialogues that spanned the globe. Shah’s voice is a special vessel of liquidity and expression. Her weightless vocals float and hover like pinpoints of light. With her focused sound and clear diction, she weaves her improvisations and lithe wordless play into adventurous wander and dashes up and down her agile register, moving from Cuban to French influences with silvery flow.
Bassist Francois Moutin has been on our radar for some time. His exuberant explorations on bass can be heard on many audiophile gem recordings. Some favorites of mine include his past work with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa (on their fierce and elegant 2015 Bird Calls [ACT Music; www.actmusic.com] and in partnership with the masterful French pianist, Martial Solal, on their intrepid 2007 jazz trio recording Longitude [CamJazz; www.CamJazz.com) (joined by Moutin’s brother, Louis, on drums). These sessions frolic with energy and unbound creativity and they both are dynamically recorded. [Do also take note that the eminent 90 year-old Solal’s latest release (not with Moutin this round) is a duet with saxophonist Dave Liebman, Masters In Bordeaux (Sunnyside; www.sunnysiderecords.com). This is another audiophile gem rustling with the ever-playful energy of Solal’s piano in creative dialogue with Liebman’s prickly magnetic saxophone].
At Moutin and Shah’s Regattabar performance, Moutin brought his pungent bass foundation – all porous, fluid and crackling with plucks and harmonic energies – to dance with Shah’s lithe and expressive vocals. The excellent house sound, engineered by Dean DeMatteo, captured all their intimate dialogue in coherent, tactile presence. This duo’s new first album is aptly titled Interplay [Dot Time Records (www.dottimerecords.com).
At their concert, Bill Evan’s “Interplay” was ignited by Moutin furiously striking a repeating trill in his deepest registers while Shah’s voice hovered over this sea of dark colors in soft, wordless phrases. Out of this quiet whirlwind emerged a big bluesy workout in which Moutin soloed with huge string thumps, tenacious plucks and glowing strums. His solo ended with the sliding of his long fingers to the apex of his strings where he plucked and scratched out the lightest of harmonic colors. Shah contrasted Moutin’s athletic brawn with her curling light lyrics and wordless phrases, sweeping to the height of her register (with perfect pitch) in synergy with Moutin’s highest plucks. Their galloping “Interplay” ended with Moutin dramatically plucking one last reverberated lowest note into the airy silence of the Regattabar.
Their vibrant dialogue continued with a softly brewing rendition of Horace Silver’s “Peace” and an original composition, “Utopian Vision.” Both pieces found Moutin hunched over his big instrument with his intensely expressive selection of brawny strums, double-hits and bent strings serenading Shah’s radiant lyrics and lithe scatting. On their final tunes, a composition by drummer extraordinaire Dafnis Prieto and a piece dedicated to Vincent Brown (one of Shah’s mentors at Harvard University), Shah and Moutin partnered in joyous, burbling dialogue. Their conversation was founded on the bedrock of flowing Cuban and Caribbean rhythms created by Moutin’s percussive hand strikes on his bass; looping feathery light plucks and slippery glissandos. Over this greasy dancing action, Shah added her own beautiful light interjections and sunny grooves. Their rich intertwining chemistry resembled glints of sunshine hitting the surface of the warm Caribbean Sea, with all its turquois depths and diversity of life below.
More waves of crackling musical conversation were enjoyed in a vibrant meeting between inspired pianist Sullivan Fortner and his spanking trio: drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons and bassist Ameen Saleem. Their soulful dialogue took place on January 19th at Scullers Jazz Club in Cambridge, MA. (www.scullersjazz.com) before a capacity audience that followed every delicious musical phrase exchanged between these sympathetic partners.
The leader of this kinetic trio was Fortner, a young dynamo who combines effortless technical prowess with an impeccable New Orleans rooted touch for inner grooves, melody and the exquisite bluesy flourish. For a nice slice of Fortner’s piano style and his composing skill, take a listen to his 2015 debut recording, Aria [Impulse!; www.impulse-label.com) or to his most recent dapper conversation with vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant on Salvant’s magnifique Dreams and Daggers [Mack Avenue; www.mackavenue.com]. From Fortner’s swanking “Parade” (appearing on Aria) to his spidery light piano accompaniment to Salvant on their prankish duet, “You’ve Got To Give Me Some”, there is no stopping this mercurial young pianist.
Fortner and his partners’ show at Scullers Jazz Club was infused with intense joy and an exploration of their inventive powers. On their romping rendition of the theme from “Wheel of Fortune”, Fortner ran fast and slurry over his keys and then located a repeating single bass note in comic thunder (with Clemons firing away on his wood rims and toms). Classics from Ellington (“Sentimental Mood”) and Cole Porter (“You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”) were taken into new territory with Fortner spraying his fingers lightly over his keyboard with a velvet dancing feel (always looking for that dark/light contrast between notes) while letting Clemons and Saleem linger in their big bass string pulls and light snare/cymbal combinations.
Clemons took center stage on several numbers that highlighted his open-minded feel for combining huge kick drum and toms with the lightest of cymbal touches. These included a swinging Calypso number (melding New Orleans with Africa) which found Fortner launching fierce rolls to the top note of his keyboard then plunging to a bass chord pounce– all to the Cuban-African rhythms generated from Clemons’ light wood rim splashes and deep kick drum. The blues also took part in the sprawling conversation. One ballad (composed by Saleem), was a beautiful bluesy walk, with a bass solo softly turning and deep (marred only by an excess of volume that turned his individual lowest bass notes into incoherent thumps). On this and other bluesy frolics, Fortner was an engine of creativity on his piano. He hit graceful upturned trills; velvet runs ending in curled high flourishes and then surprised with a single note repeatedly caressed down low. (Chicago Blues piano giant Otis Spann would have been mighty proud!). Their encore of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cheri Amour” (with the crowd singing along to its softly swaying grooves), was the cherry on top of all of this delectable heady conversation between these simpatico young musicians on the rise.
And speaking of sway and camaraderie, there is no better example of quicksilver sway and delectable musical dialogue than is heard in the shifting meters and soaring melodies of music from the Baroque era, especially when it involves the music of Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) illuminated in all its glory by Juilliard415 and their leader, the astonishing violinist, Rachel Podger. Juilliard415 is from Juilliard School of Music’s full-scholarship Historical Performance program and they present concerts of opera, orchestral and chamber music from the 17th and 18th centuries on period instruments.
The ebullient Podger, one of the most sought-after Baroque violinists of our time, has made a series of recordings (all on the audiophile quality label, Channel Classics; www.channelclassics.com) that are of reference quality. One stellar example finds Podger performing with the ensemble, Arte Dei Suonatori, on a 2003 recording of the Twelve Violin Concertos of Vivaldi. This disc (playable in both CD format or in multi-channel SACD format) is a much-used reference here for its beautiful sonic rendering of natural tones and textures of period instruments plied in glorious flight within a palpable acoustic space.
Podger’s newest recording, leading the Brecon Baroque ensemble in selections of Baroque composers under the title of Grandissima Gravita [Channel Classics Hybrid CD/SACD] is another gem in which each radiant quick strike of violin, cello, lute or harpsichord is heard buoyant and tactile alive.
This recording is so present and dynamic that you can easily visualize Podger smiling and dancing in place to each of her long punctuated strokes (or dynamic quip) on her violin. In concert, that is just what she does. She loves to sway and launch each of her notes in the direction of her musical partners and wait their call and reply in their elegant conversations.
Juilliard415 and Podger performed on January 28th at one of my favorite concert halls in our region: the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA. (www.rockportmusic.org)(“Shalin”).
With its irregular wood and stone surfaces, the Shalin resembles a miniature Ozawa Hall (the beautiful sounding hall at the Boston Symphony’s summer home in Tanglewood; www.bso.org/tanglewood). Like at Ozawa, acoustic music at Shalin is delivered in crisp and natural tones and textures. I learned recently that each performer at the Shalin is given a choice whether to keep the shade closed behind the stage or whether to reveal the floor-to-ceiling window (with its panoramic view of the Rockport coastline and wheeling seagulls overhead), depending on their acoustic preferences. At the Juilliard415/Podger performance, the performers had the shade closed for the first half of the concert (feeling that it might prove too bright in the late afternoon for the performers) and then they raised the shade in the second half. Not surprisingly, the sound was very different with the shade open or closed. With the shade closed, the ensemble sound was warm and resonant whereas when the shade was lifted, the sound of strings, harpsichord and woodwinds were injected with a newfound sparkle and openness. There is nothing like this treat of hearing acoustic instruments aglow in a special acoustic space like the Shalin and to observe the changes wrought in how the music speaks within different acoustical settings.
The students of Juilliard415 clearly relished playing this Telemann program that called for several different ensemble settings. Each chapter in this unfolding conversation had its own rewards. Telemann’s Overture in E Minor for Two Flutes, Strings and Continuo began the concert. (“Continuo” – as Podger discussed at the concert – can mean several players [here cello, harpsichord and theorbo] who play notes with their left hands and also improvise with their right hands – a link to the jazz improvisation of today!). This first piece united the entire ensemble for a sunny romp into its regal marches, effervescent dances (ignited by flourishes of strings twisting with high upturned phrases) and fluttering flute dialogues (played by Jonathan Slade, Bethanne Walker and Mili Chang) with their skittering trills and runs. Likewise, on Telemann’s Concerto in A major for Flute, Violin and Cello, the entire ensemble played like one spirited force tossing Telemann’s airy grooves and unfolding sparkling lines back and forth with great dynamic urgency and sparkle. In the final Allegro, all members were doing knee bends to the swaying frolic: Podger full of sunshine and mellifluous plucky attack on her violin; cellist Madeleine Bouissou and violinist Rachell Ellen Wong carving out their own ardent flowing lines and Jonathan Slade punctuating his breathy staccato runs on his flute.
Telemann’s percussive grooves and his ingenious melodic interweave (of soulful, prickly or elegiac phrases) came into beautiful focus during Podger’s performance in Telemann’s Sonata in A major For Violin and Continuo and the finale of Telemann’s Conclusion in E minor for Strings and Continuo. In the Sonata, Podger’s violin playing was a marvel: effervescent and delicate one moment, full of muscular luminescence the next. Her bowing was quick, sure and of the lightest mercurial expression. This same expressive force of Podger’s violin lit up the Conclusion where she joined Juilliard415 in glowing dialogue in which twitchy strings (and Arash Norri’s deep percussive Theorbo) sparred until Telemann’s coda brought a close to the sparkling conversation with one final held note that soared to the rafters of the Shalin.