Savannah Music Festival review: Jazz Meets Brazil with Dianne Reeves and Chico Pinheiro

I could listen to Dianne Reeves sing, I think, for hours, before my notoriously short attention span would surface.

Her voice fills a room like the Lucas Theatre with such beauty, such ease. The highlight of last Saturday’s lengthy set at the Lucas (I’m just now getting caught up on all of my reviews, sorry this isn’t more timely) was her rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” which nearly had my companion in tears (or so she later reported — I was too absorbed in the music to notice).

But there’s so much joy in Reeves’ voice that in retrospect it seems to me an imperfect vehicle for Holiday. Reeves’ own composition “Nine” — about the joys of being an age when the world seems innocent, exciting, and unexplored — seemed a better emotional fit, as did her extended semi-improvised number inspired by a song and singer Reeves saw randomly on latenight television in Barcelona. The piece had no real words but obviously was influenced by Spanish; it rose and fell and expanded and drew back; it was beautiful in just about every way that jazz vocals can be.

From the opening number “The Twelfth of Never” until she sang the introduction of the band (bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Terreon Gully, pianist Peter Martin, and Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, who also lit up the stage during the first half of the program), Reeves had the audience around me totally absorbed. There were, however, a few people who slipped out early for various reasons. In his review in Connect Savannah that captured many of my feelings about both halves of the show, Jim Morekis speculates that some may have had babysitters waiting. I’ll add that I also saw a foursome later at The Pink House who had had to leave before the final number to order dinner before 11 p.m. At three hours, the whole program was perhaps a bit longer than it should have been — and definitely longer than most of us expected.

The first part of the program — the “Brazil” part of “Jazz Meets Brazil” — featured the talented, handsome, and radiant Chico Pinheiro who performed with his ensemble (sometimes joined by singer Luciana Alves, who would have been a perfect fit in the background of a 1930s Marlene Dietrich movie), with Lubambo in a duet, and with a small ensemble of strings and woodwinds conducted by Robert Sadin, who took the mic at one point to pour obviously heartfelt praise on the Savannah Music Festival generally and Rob Gibson specifically. I quoted a few of Sadin’s remarks in this column.

Sadin’s ensemble included the impeccable Ted Nash, who did a great sax solo at one point and who later wrote about the SMF on his blog: Good Time at the Savannah Music Festival

Nash writes in part:

The Savannah Music Festival is an amazing event, passionately run by Rob Gibson, former executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, who manages to find ways to involve his favorite musicians in a variety of settings, year after year. I am fortunate to be on this list, and have played the Festival in the past as conductor and performer with Police drummer Stewart Copeland, with my eclectic group Odeon, as clinician with the Swing Central high school band competition, with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and this year as music director and performer with “Downtown Uproar,” a presentation of Duke Ellington early music.
[. . .]
Somewhat last-minute I was added to a concert with Chico Pinheiro, the Brazilian guitarist and composer. Robert Sadin was conducting a set of pieces that was a beautiful synthesis of classical and modern Brazilian music. Chico is a great composer and player, and is also a very nice guy! The second set last night was Dianne Reeves. Many vocalists talk about their “instrument,” but Dianne is one of the few who really owns one! She’s got a cute new hairstyle, too…

The music of the first half of “Jazz Meets Brazil” was beautiful, the guitar play delicate and passionate. But the comings and goings from the stage made it seem like a really good rehearsal, one with any number of beautiful and spontaneous moments, more than a polished performance. And that was just fine in the context of the entire program. When the final 75 or so minutes are going to be in Dianne Reeves’ hands, a casual and intimate performance like that of Pinheiro and friends seems more than enough.