Here are two reviews provided by graduate students from Syracuse University who are covering Spoleto Festival USA and the Piccolo Spoleto Festival for the Charleston City Paper.

Ravi Coltrane’s music commands the Cistern June 3

The weather held out for a night of alternatively austere and challenging jazz in the Cistern on June 3, despite a few worrisome minutes. 

“That was two raindrops, or three? Okay, everybody stop counting now,” laughed jazz saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. 

Coltrane, son of jazz legends Alice and John Coltrane, performed music written by his mother. Alice Coltrane (1937-2007) was a pioneer of using the harp in a jazz setting, and the Spoleto performance heavily featured the skilled hands of harpist Brandee Younger. Her unexpected runs, pivoting from pastel-colored heavenly glissandos to sounds far rawer and more questioning, added a layer of ethereal sound to a complex base of piano, double bass and drums. 

With each solo, the underlying accompaniment became no less interesting, but continued to highlight the individual musicians. Coltrane switched back and forth between tenor and soprano saxophone. The resulting changes in tone significantly influenced each piece, from the more traditional tenor sound to the smooth, effortless, almost oboe-like soprano. Coltrane’s playing commanded the stage, but he often stood to the side, perfectly content to watch the rest of his band groove. 

A solo from drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts was the highlight of the night on a track that originally featured an uncredited Carlos Santana. Full of classic rock, Latin and even hip-hop grooves, Watts’s virtuosity offered a short master class in jazz drumming. Watts played on Alice Coltrane’s 2004 album “Translinear Light,” and while the set list leaned primarily on works from the 1960s and 1970s, the band played “Blue Nile” from that album. They also played “Universe,” a track that was recorded in 2006 but never released. It features an extensive harp solo before being joined by slapping bass, fast keys, cymbal-heavy drums and an exposed soprano saxophone line.  

Layers of sound flowed under the canopy of Spanish moss swaying in the cool breeze of the impending storm. The five musicians played off one another, even laughing together as the music mimicked the threatening sky, building ominously upon itself until the tension dissipated into an unsatisfying release, circling back to where it all started. It was like each member was in their own world but following the rules of jazz chord progressions as they flawlessly maneuvered the intentional chaos of music, seemingly free of time signature and tempo. —Nat Bono

Witty solo show about Parker cuts humidity, raises heat

“People ought to be one of two things, young or dead,” 20th-century critic Dorothy Parker once wrote. Over the course of the Piccolo Spoleto solo show You Might As Well Live, Parker is both of those things. The pouring rain may have soaked the city on a recent afternoon, but her bone-dry wit reduced the humidity while raising the heat inside Threshold Repertory Theater. 

We meet Parker (Susan Marrash-Minnerly) on her couch flipping through a book in a colorful nightgown, her eyes constantly turned to the phone. She is waiting for a call from her love. The play, written by Glenn Griffin, shows her life from 1914, when the 21-year-old Parker was hired at Vogue, to her 1967 death in the apartment we see here. That life was as free as a spring wind, until it became tougher and tougher.

My enjoyment of the play followed a similar path. I loved Parker’s words at the beginning, but without a sufficiently energetic performance, Marrash-Minnerly’s monologue became unenjoyable after 40 minutes. The tiny, dark space gets stuffy with only her dull tone to focus on and no time to process the story. 

As is often the case, Dorothy Parker said it best: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” —Tina Zhu

Nat Bono and Tina Zhu are graduate students in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

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