Spoleto Review: Wells Fargo Jazz series spotlights ‘fresh, new work’

By Leah M. Suarez Special to The Post and Courier

The Wells Fargo Jazz series charged on with two of the most innovative contemporary artists leading the way. Spoleto Festival USA programming is specially curated to include fresh, new work and is famous for inviting and commissioning artists who are at the vanguard of creation.

Malaysia-born, Australia-raised Linda May Han Oh, and Newark-born, Philadelphia-based Tyshawn Sorey, both fit that description.

Each a genius in very different ways, they share a community of conscious creators, primarily based in New York City. They also share music itself, joining pianist and Spoleto alum, Vijay Iyer, in a new combination on the bandleader’s acclaimed album, “UnEasy,” in 2021 on the ECM label. For this year’s festival, however, their masterminds will be shared from separate iterations in the same sphere.

Bassist Linda May Han Oh and her husband, pianist Fabian Almazan, performed at Festival Hall, the former Memminger Auditorium, for a five-night, six-show residency, usually reserved for College of Charleston’s Recital Hall, currently under construction.

The venue had been cut to half the size and transformed into a club-like feel, complete with a velvety scalloped backdrop, a low stage to accommodate a favorable sightline and cabaret-style seating, suitable for at least vocalist Storm Large’s six-night run and the first of two Music In Time performances.

Four chairs per each rounded mini table made for a cozier ambiance for this performance, and for all intents and purposes, a comfortable listening room. The sound reinforcement was carefully controlled, making for a thoughtfully curated and enjoyable listening experience.

Thursday evening, the two commenced their multi-night run, performing a program of all original compositions. The married duo and recent parents have explored this combination throughout the pandemic and what emerged for a live audience was a tangible intimacy.

May Han Oh switched between upright and electric bass, while Almazan played between acoustic treatment and electronic patches on the piano. It was improvisational music at its finest, sublimely sensitive, organic, and inventive.

On Saturday night, with a tropical system off the coast, a last-minute shift due to weather moved Tyshawn Sorey’s Cistern Yard performance a couple of blocks down on George Street to the TD Arena. It was an unfortunate circumstance. What May Han Oh enjoyed in dynamic intimacy, Sorey and his trio suffered in consequence, due to no fault of their own.

“I just tried to play the room,” Sorey said after the show. But a room, it is not. It is a gymnasium, built for basketball, replete with cold, hard surfaces to amplify any sliver of sound to bombastic effect. What the venue lacked, Sorey made up for with his warm personality and impressively shape-shifting arrangements.

Sorey stuck with evergreens and deeper cuts in the jazz canon, hot off the press from his 2022 self-produced release “Mesmerism.” The arrangements and delivery were everything but standard. The bandleader held court on his drum set, leading his trio through the album’s repertoire, from top to bottom, without pause: Horace Silver’s “Enchantment,” “Detour Ahead,” “Autumn Leaves,” Paul Motion’s “From Time to Time” and “Two Over One” by Muhal Abrams. Aaron Diehl hunched over the piano, finding his fingers (and footing) in a less-than-ideal setting.

Having closely collaborated with the upcoming Cécile McClorin Salvant, among many others, he is known for his exceptional time and emotive phrasing. Bassist Matt Brewer, an equally dynamic musician, brought a nimble brawn to his acoustic upright that was relieving to hear, even if only for when he was soloing. The dialogue between the three was more felt than heard.

To punctuate the evening, the trio tipped their hat to the great Edward Kennedy Ellington with “REM Blues” and a classic Duke turn-around. Harsh fluorescent lights came on before the band could get to the front of the stage to take their well-earned bows and receive hearty applause and a standing ovation from the appreciative audience who remained. Thankfully there are more opportunities to find Tyshawn Sorey in Spoleto programming, though in vastly different settings.

These particular performances, both May Han Oh’s and Sorey’s, were noticeably the only ones casting the invitation to purchase their music after the show. Musicians were scurrying to a merch table after full 75-90 minute performances to sell their own music: opening their packaging, handling cash or virtual transactions themselves, and signing, all while holding conversations with adoring patrons. These artists deserve better from a 46-year-old artistic institution and Charleston itself, a city repeatedly ranked as a No. 1 destination and known for its Southern hospitality.

While navigating a new normal is a sign of the times, the hope remains that we emerge more interdependent, with an appreciation to care for the arts that prove, time and again, a refuge in “unprecedented times” — times that inevitably repeat. Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey are extraordinary torchbearers for those who keep a well-lit flame to guide us in the present and lead us into the best of what the future could be.

If we’d only listen. Just as thoughtfully as they care for their craft, may we care for them just as responsibly, as the conscious creative artisans they are.