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As the second year of the pandemic lumbers past the halfway mark and cultural life begins to migrate back indoors – along with our sacrificial schoolchildren – we can only wonder whether outdoor venues like Rivers Green in Charleston and Victoria Yards in Charlotte, pressed by necessity into emergency use, will ever be utilized again on the other side of our global nightmare. At first blush, Rivers Green might have seemed to hold more promise, nestled on a picturesque site behind the College of Charleston library. But with more flexible seating, picnic tables, and provisions for food trucks and restrooms surrounding concertgoers, the more urban Victoria Yards offers a more a more casual and welcoming experience and a more sophisticated sound system. All of these factors came into play as JazzArts presented a three-tiered event as its 2021 outdoor finale. The JazzArts Youth All-Stars warmed up for the Dreamroot quintet from Durham, who in turn made way for hometown vocalist Robyn Springer, with saxophonist Adrian Crutchfield leading a mini-set before Springer's regal entrance. Nearly three hours long, with two generous intermissions, this robust program was in no hurry to send us home, as so many misguided live and online events have been over the past 17 months. Instead of cowering from COVID, JazzArts offered us extra helpings of escapism and joy.
Covering such standards as "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "Green Dolphin Street" while mixing in a couple of originals, Holland Majors was the dominant member of the Youth All-Stars trio, and its spokesman from the keyboard. Holland's younger sister, Lois Majors, accompanied on the upright bass, making her most impactful contribution as composer of the first original. Upstage behind his drum kit, Samuel David shone brightest in the latter portion of the set, on "Green Dolphin Street" and the original blues that served as the closer. That as-yet-untitled tune was unexpectedly swift and hard-driving for blues, climaxed by an extended exchange of four-bar volleys from the drummer and the keyboardist. Holland's sound on the electric piano was also more satisfying at this point, preferable to the saccharine timbre he opted for more often in the early portions of the set.
Beginning with woodwind player Serena Wiley, who also sings and composes the band's spoken word segments, Dreamroot is a richly gifted quintet, weaving between commercial and artistic aspirations rather than exploring their trailblazing potential. With less time to stretch out on her flute and tenor saxophone solos, Wiley wasn't as impressive or technically advanced in her improvisations as Lynn Grissett on his honey-toned trumpet solos. While Grissett delivered the most satisfying individual playing, keyboardist Joe MacPhail frustrated me the most with the sparsity of his output. After erupting into a spacey, cosmic solo and setting the tone in "Habits," the second piece of the set, MacPhail only surfaced as a soloist intermittently afterwards. Most of the tunes were unannounced, but I filled in gaps with Dreamroot's 2020 recording, Phases, thanks to Spotify and Wiley's poetry. Positive ID and spelling were obtained in this manner for three of the songs, "Momentum 7," "Stridin'," and "Good Morning Afternoon." Among the instrumentals, Wiley announced "2AM" from the stage, a mellow ensemble akin to "Good Morning Afternoon" with its slow tempo and rich harmonies. The bopping penultimate tune was "Phase Is," the closing piece on their similarly named album. Since that studio date, they’ve improved the arrangement and given drummer Theous Jones a much greater opportunity to shine.
With less of a footprint on the major streaming services, Springer was more of an enigma before she performed. Previous blips of her on our radar were both part of JazzArts presentations, a couple of songs as a guest artist in a Matt Lemmler tribute to Stevie Wonder in 2019 and a prerecorded "Santa Baby" (with notably less distinguished backup) in an online Holiday Edition last December. What Springer would program when she was the headliner seemed to be completely up for grabs, though the introductory set led by Crutchfield and a quartet that included two percussionists and an electric guitar presaged a smooth jazz flavor. Our host, Curtis Davenport, primed us to greet the headliner with a rousing ovation, conveying to us that Springer intended to "sang," which implied that there would be some heat involved.
Among the most familiar songs Springer and her bandmates covered were "Give Me the Night," "Moondance," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Lovely Day," "I Can’t Help It," and "I Believe in Love," all of which are over 40 years old. Thus, it may have seemed odd to those in the crowd who reached puberty in the current millennium when Springer asked if it would be okay to sing an "old" song before launching into the more ancient "Fever," the revised version introduced by Miss Peggy Lee back in 1958. At this inopportune time, since the cat was already out of the proverbial bag, Springer hilariously insisted that it was the song and not she who was old. Sade's "Keep Looking," released in 1988, soon followed, perhaps the youngest song in the set.
True to her word, Springer made each of these standards her own. Particularly savvy were the inclusions of Bob Dylan's "Knockin'" and "Fever," each of which came equipped with stanza breaks that provided Crutchfield and guitarist Joe Lindsay convenient spaces to blow. Part of an all-star Jazz at the Bechtler anniversary celebration just a couple of months before the pandemic struck, Crutchfield blazed most memorably in the interstices of "Moondance" and "Fever." There was no shortage of voltage from the alto sax on "Knockin'," but Lindsay, whom I'd never seen or heard of before, absolutely upstaged him on a searing solo that even left Springer gasping in wonderment when he was done. Both soloists excelled equally on "Lovely Day" and afterwards supplied the familiar backup vocals as Springer scatted and vamped to the finish. Under the lights, everyone onstage was enjoying the show as much as the audience, though the temperature remained in the 80s well after the sun set. Crutchfield was particularly loose by the time we reached "Keep Looking." As Springer's vocals gradually built to a boil over Lindsay's intensifying lines and the seething percussion of Shamon Scull and Corey Johnson, Crutchfield spiced the festivities with capricious snippets from Bizet's Carmen.