By any measure, the opening concert of the new Carolina Summer Music Festival in Gray Auditorium of the Old Salem Visitors Center was a success! An opening night sell-out and a program full of familiar Gershwin tunes promised and delivered the overflow audience a delightful evening. Turning away large numbers of would-be attendees, the organizers of the festival can be proud of their marketing. Audiences are advised to call ahead (336-682-8524) for reservations or by clicking here [link inactive 12/09]. There are seven more concerts in various locations between now and the end of August.

Each title of the baker’s dozen Gershwin favorites performed has its origin in a Broadway musical, and true to the practice on Broadway, many of the songs were reused in other musicals. The versions presented at this concert became platforms for extended jazz improvisations by an eclectic group of musicians which included a violin (Jacqui Carrasco) as well as the more traditional instruments – tenor saxophone, trumpet and rhythm section. Martha Bassett provided vocals on several numbers.

A couple of solo numbers deserve special mention –  Federico (“Freddy”) Pivetta was brilliant in his high-powered version of “Fascinating Rhythm” with whimsical quotations from An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue. And drummer John Wilson gave the rest of the band a break while he improvised a long solo, apparently non-Gershwin, featuring, to the amusement of the crowd, an oriental gong.

The amplified violin sounded very much like the trumpet with a Harmon mute – so much so, that only glissandi and portamenti identified the violin as such. (A “Fourier analysis” comparison of the two sounds would be revealing.) The excellent trumpet solos of Ken Wilmot were most effective either without violin or without mute! And Wally West had some gorgeous and far-ranging solos on the tenor sax.

Many of the arrangements were by bassist Mat Kendrick and varied in style from quasi-Latino to swing to blues. Wally West arranged the encore which featured the whole ensemble in an up-beat version of the usually sultry “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Unfortunately, over aggressive drumming obscured the violin and bass solos in this performance.

A dissonant intro to “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” inspired vocalist Martha Bassett to experiment with bitonality, unintentionally, as wide grins later confirmed! And she was moving and convincing on the old favorite “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

The success of the program should inspire a repeat performance – or a larger concert hall. “Who could ask for anything more….”