Keeping with the worldly scope of Spoleto Festival USA's long-running Wachovia Jazz Series, this year's newly named Wells Fargo Jazz series lineup is just as vibrantly international as ever. I admire that the series never follows a narrow definition of "jazz." It's obvious that it continues to draw acts who relate to the jazz world in different ways.
A few years ago, jazz series director/producer Michael Grofsorean told City Paper that he was on a "lifetime hunt for music ... music that speaks to me and people in our festival constituency." Since 1980 Grofsorean has arranged and directed the jazz events within the festival.
"In my conversations with musicians, they have consistently eschewed labels," Grofsorean told us this week. "I understand this today better than ever. The river of great concert music began in Europe, and it's just gotten wider and wider. While I would love for one night to attend a Beethoven concert wherein the man himself improvised, I'm glad that I live in this very exciting time for music, the 21st century. I try to capture this excitement in every series we present, in artists who could be from anywhere in the world."
A significant change in the series' artistic direction occurred in 2001 when festival producer Nunally Kersh asked Grofsorean to consider Brazilian singer Virginia Rodrigues.
"Rodrigues didn't perform jazz in the conventional sense of the word, but her music was extraordinary," Grofsorean says. "I loved her music, but how could I put her on a jazz series? It dawned on me that the cultural parents of her music were the same as those for jazz — Europe and Africa."
Spoleto presented Rodrigues and made clear that her music was not jazz, but "a member of its larger family," as Grofsorean puts it.
The jazz program set for this May and June is quite impressive. Virtuosic instrumentalists from around the world will be on hand, including Norwegian concert pianist Ketil Bjørnstad, Brazilian accordionist Toninho Ferragutti, Italian pianist Danilo Rea, and Argentina's exotic and experimental jazz duo Willy González y Micaela Vita, among others.
It's a dynamic range of international veterans and up-and-coming artists who specialize in everything under the "world jazz" tent. But none of the artists listed above resemble anything close to the swing of Glenn Miller, the be-bop of Charlie Parker, or the fusion of Weather Report.
Audiences can react in weird or negative ways to the types of performers during Spoleto's jazz events. I remember folks in the Simons Center, milling around before percussionist Gerry Hemingway's performance in 2009 — some were saying things like, "Oh, this is a drum solo guy ... I bet he's like Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa." Little did they know they were in for a wild ride far from big-band swing. I was proud to overhear the grumbling — proud that Spoleto was bold enough to book and promote such a show.
"There is jazz somewhere in the bones of all the music in the series," Grofsorean says of the 2011 roster. "Sometimes it's more literal and closer to classic jazz. Sometimes it's found only in the inner spirit of it. Sometimes it's a matter of familial kinship. Bjørnstad made his big debut as an artist with the Oslo Philharmonic, performing Bartók's third piano concerto. Then he heard Miles Davis and was never the same. He was inspired to leave classical music to make a new music of his own. There's jazz in his spirit."
For more on the Wells Fargo Jazz Series, visit spoletousa.org.