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Savion Glover

'Improvography'

May 10-15, 2005 -- Merriam Theatre, Philadelphia

'Classical Savion'

November 15, 2005 -- Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, November 15

by Lewis Whittington

Last spring, tap titan Savion Glover brought his solo “Improvography II” concert to Philadelphia with the aura of an old-style gig in the jazz tradition.  He toured with his four-piece band, The Otherz, for months, performing in a different town every night.  Despite this feat of endurance and the simplicity of the assembly, Glover’s 45-minute solo first act unleashed a jam of dance virtuosi.

By contrast, he returned to Philly in November in “Classical Savion,” his ambitious tap concerto in front of a classical music string ensemble.   He certainly was the embodiment of an instrument, but one that was often at odds with the rest of the orchestra.  Works by classical composers led to moments of dazzling musicianship and dancing (if not choreography) but also indulged the soloist through repetition and thematic bloat.

”Improvography” is clearly the more successful tap-dance concept.  Bassist Andy McCloud began the evening when he came onstage, sat on the bandstand and began an introspective five-minute double bass solo.  Unceremoniously, Glover entered and from the start it was clear that his tap shoes were the second instrument introduced in the band.

One by one, the musicians filed in and the musical tension built to a fanfare that stated the freewheeling spirit of Glover’s tap arsenal.  The band referenced everything from be-bop, big band, cool to deconstructed and progressive jazz.  Improvisation requires the practitioners to live on the artistic lam, literally and figuratively, referencing the past as a decided point of departure.  One of the most admirable things about this show was that it didn’t back off from being a jazz session in the most undiluted terms.

On piano, musical director Tommy James was always understated and succinct, possessed  with a cathartic quality.  Glover relinquished (even subverted) show-bizzy tap dazzle and made the evening a musical and visual journey. At 26, Glover is in top technical form, with the artistic authority to define new ground.  At times, he smashed metronomic tap patterns into mach-speed rhythmic fireworks and in other moments Glover was a whispering timpani.   The miking effects on the full-stage tap plank could have benefited by being more carefully modulated, but most of the sound was completely integrated.

Choreographically, Glover has changed his style over the years, most notably dancing more bolt upright to show the articulation of the body, instead of hunched and pitched forward.   Glover lushly interpreted the standard “Just the Way You Look Tonight” with ”rat pack” appeal, but his driving tap accompaniment suggested a more red-blooded scenario of unbridled passion. Similarly his dissonant vocals and staccato footwork turned “Nature Boy” into a raw manifesto of the artist and the man.

Ironically, by the nature of his instrument, Glover’s foray into classical music ends up being more experimental than the demands of jazz improvisation.  It brought to mind the phrase “battle of the bands” usually associated with the old big bands –  in this corner a ten-piece string orchestra and in this corner, cleat-tightening screwdriver in hand, Glover’s quicksilver taps.

The solidly constructed movements of “The Four Seasons” were sturdy enough for Glover’s taps to add to the drama as he galloped over Vivaldi’s tonal landscapes.  But too often the tautness of those seasonal strings got sliced under Glover’s note-smashing fortissimos.   Still, it faired better than any delicacy previously achieved by Mozart’s ”Divertimento in D Major.” As clever as Glover could be with the phrasing, he obliterated the fine lines of Mozart’s airy composition.  Not that the audience minded – Glover’s witty reading nonetheless won out in the warm environs of the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall.

Many choreographers have been drawn to the mathematical logic and musical purity of Bach.  Glover electrified here with the “Brandenburg Concerto No. 1” and the “Badinerie” from “Suite No. 2.,” moving in and out of Bach’s expansive universe without re-orchestrating it with percussive insistence.

From there he tackled Dvorak, Bartok, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn, with frequently mesmerizing vivace footwork and some interesting dialogues with the strings.  But this went on predictably and Glover never really mixed it up enough to illuminate these selections.  His percussive taps turned into aggressive drown outs, which, at moments, completely victimized the strings. Unlike his jazz readings, he also doggedly refused to engage his whole body in the choreography for “Classical” – it was all about the sound – his instrumental taps – so his upper body moves were accidental.  He allowed for an occasional turn and leap, but you got the feeling that it was to relieve his own tedium at showing off.

He tempered his feet for flute/soprano sax soloist Patience Higgins from The Otherz for Bartók's “Romanian Folk Dances,” allowing for witty and equal exchanges.  Glover ended up bringing his jazz comrades The Otherz back for this concert's finale of John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever (for now).”

McCloud’s sonorous double bass launched the 20-minute number by repeating three notes while Glover lengthily introduced each member of the string orchestra, who were each allowed one-minute solos, which were then repeated by Glover.  When he finally brought on his drummer, Brian Grice, whose pistons for arms pounded out rhythms that fired back at Glover, they turned this patriotic song into a cloying political statement.

Still, Glover’s artistry continues to tap into uncharted realms, so it comes down to a matter of taste.  There was no denying that the audience was with him every step of the way – pounding their feet and hands in approval.

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