Savannah Music Festival charms with new recipes

On the first weekend of the Savannah Music Festival, a jazz trio joined with two flamenco musicians, becoming a beautiful mutant hybrid.

The swing and sweetness of jazz mingled with the stern melancholy and poly-rhythmic thrust of the Spanish idiom.

As the musicians, who had met each other only the week before, brought the set to an end, listener Chris Acker rose from his seat in the soaring brick interior of the Morris Center to cheer.

“It’s like bacon and chocolate!” exulted Acker of the flamenco/jazz fusion. “You don’t think it’s going to go together, but somehow it does.”

That moment, inside a 19th century factory that has been transformed into an intimate performance venue, was one of many gems that ornamented Georgia’s most delightful music festival. Though the project, led by pianist Aaron Diehl and guitarist Dani de Morón, was briefly workshopped in New York, the combination was pure Savannah, unique to the festival and unavailable elsewhere.

Bacon and chocolate — great ingredients and unusual melodic recipes — abound in this, the 25th Savannah Music Festival. Today, the 17-day smorgasbord ends its first week with music from European chamber musicians, American jazz artists and exotic qawwali singing from Pakistan.

How did a city of 150,000 (360,000 in the metro area) create a music festival that rivals Spoleto in Charleston? How did Savannah slip past Atlanta and claim this prize?

A visit to Savannah for the first three days of the festival offered a few clues:

Relentless hospitality

On Thursday morning, one can’t help but notice how Savannah natives greet visitors with eye contact and salutations. “Hello, dear,” said a mail carrier, walking her rounds.

Savannah is a city where mail can, in fact, be delivered on foot. The music fest is scattered between 10 venues, all easily walkable from a downtown hotel. And the city’s Oglethorpe-designed street grid, punctuated with 22 park-like squares, make the journey as pleasurable and congenial as the destination.

The city is designed to accommodate tourists, and 11,000 will rent hotel rooms to attend.

Choice

German pianist Sebastian Knauer beamed lighter-than-air sprays of sixteenth notes into the impeccable interior of the Trinity United Methodist Church, kicking off the fest with a solo-performance of Mozart, Haydn and Schubert.

It was Knauer’s 10th year at the festival. How does he keep getting invited back? “Obviously, I behaved well,” he said.

On the first day of the festival, listeners found something for every taste, including foot-stomping Americana from the Avett Brothers, confessional folk from Aoife O’Donavan, the deepest traditional New Orleans sounds from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and flamenco from Tomatito.

Courage

That flamenco performance, in the almost sold-out, 1,200-seat, Art Deco Lucas Theatre, was an example of the original choices — and risks — made by artistic director Rob Gibson and his associates.

Other risky choices typify the festival, including the qawwali singing from Asif Ali Khan and Indian percussion from Zakir Hussain.

Paraphrasing Duke Ellington, Gibson said, “There’s two kind of music: Music I like, and music I don’t like. I just program music I like.”

Gibson, 55, is an Atlanta native who began producing concerts while he was still at the University of Georgia (his first show was the Art Ensemble of Chicago), and eventually became co-producer of the Atlanta Jazz Festival. He left Atlanta in 1990, partnering with Wynton Marsalis to build a jazz program at Lincoln Center, where he stayed until returning south to join the Savannah festival in 2002.

At that time Savannah’s enterprise was struggling. Gibson helped assemble a board of directors, three key donors stepped forward to drag the operation out of debt, and the turnaround began.

Today the festival operates with a $3.4 million budget, of which about $1.5 million is generated through ticket sales. The rest comes from the city of Savannah, private donors and corporate support, including a $100,000 grant from Savannah’s big employer, Gulfstream, which also brings music to local schools year-round.

The results seems to please visitors and natives alike.

“They don’t have anything like this in Denver,” said Kurt Vollinger, a service center coordinator at Gulfstream and a Colorado transplant. Vollinger was grabbing a draft beer at the Ships of the Sea outdoor venue, waiting for the Brooklyn band The Lone Bellow to go on.

Situated among the gardens adjacent to a maritime museum, the covered performance space was cool in the evening breeze, but the audience generated heat, shouting its approval as the band returned for an encore of “Slip Slidin’ Away.”

Earlier in the evening a more sedate but no less enthusiastic crowd cheered the piano quartet led by Knauer and violinist Lorenza Borrani, leader of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, during another concert at Trinity. Festival board member Lynne Davis (who pointed out that Knauer would look just like Beethoven if his hair were a little higher) is a big fan of opera and chamber music, but she and her husband Charles also planned to catch a show by bluegrass/Americana mainstay Ricky Skaggs. “He’s just iconic,” said Charles.

Boston natives Ken Nimblett and Rusty Miller also took in the chamber music show, and Nimblett said, “I was amazed there was anything like this down here.” The two made the trip mostly to see the flower show in Charleston, but timed it to coincide with the Savannah Festival, which they stumbled onto a year ago, to their delight.

What the two admire about the Savannah series is something they also see in the summer music festival in Marlboro, Vermont: interplay among the invited performers.

An example of that interplay occurred in 2008 when banjo player Bela Fleck sat in the Marcus Roberts jazz trio. In 2012, the Preservation Hall band teamed up with bluegrass master Del McCoury and his band to create a remarkable sandwich of traditional music.

Fans thought the idea was even crazier than bacon and chocolate, but, “It’s all music, so we knew we could find some common ground,” said Preservation leader and trumpeter Mark Braud. They shared much, including church tunes, blues and such standards as “Jambalaya.”

Gibson and his associate music directors take chances with these combinations, but their audiences are willing to go out on a limb.

Mike Marshall, the great mandolinist, is the coordinator of the festival’s Acoustic Music Seminar, which targets young string players around the country and brings them to Savannah for an intensive week of instruction, coupled with exposure to the festival’s performers.

“What he’s done, what great promoters do,” said Marshall of Gibson, “is develop a sense of trust with his audience. They will come to things they might not have come to years ago.

“He’s shining a light on all these different styles, putting them up where they deserve to be. And he loves all this music. You can see it in his bones.”

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