Drawn In

Drummer and keyboard player on East Main Street in Rochester, New York
Drummer and keyboard player on East Main Street in Rochester, New York

These guys, performing on the street near Hatch Hall, posed for me while they were playing. The drums were about five times louder than the keyboard.

We didn’t know the names so we listened to the samples and were left with only a few choices for the opening night of the Jazz Fest. More time to watch the three World Cup matches we had time shifted.

Seventeen years in and we are still able to find free parking downtown. We walked by the old Milestones, what was once a venue for the festival, James Blood Ulmer comes to mind, and a solo guitarist was playing in the parking lot patio. He had a foot pedal rigged to play a tamborine and an old suitcase that played like a bass drum. Can’t even remember what he sounded like. We were on our way to the Xerox Auditorium and we were drawn into the Rhythm Dogs performance in front of the Inn on Broadway. Drawn that is by the rock solid R&B drummer, Laris Ashford. Anybody could have played anything in front of that guy. We only lasted a few minutes because it was painfully loud.

Alfredo Rodriguez and Pedrito Martinez at Xerox Auditorium were a pure joy to hear. We had heard both at past festivals in completely different settings, Rodriguez with his trio at Kilbourn and Martinez leading Cuban dance/pop ensembles. They played fast and furious and then slow and pretty. The classically trained pianist’s free flowing melodies worked magic with the rhythms of the Cuban streets. We were tempted to return for the second set but the World Cup called.

Marius Neset at the Lutheran Church went from dreamy pretty to frenetic in the same song. Their material was richly orchestrated and executed with near precision. We sat between the piano and vibraphone and those two instruments sounded especially good in stereo harmony. Their arrangements were mostly joyous and the band was clearly having fun so the progressive tendencies remained infectious.

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No Monk

New light sculpture at Memorial Art Gallery

4 By Monk By 4” started at 4 o’clock at the Lyric Theater. Four piano players were on the bill but only two pianos were on the stage. Cyrus Chestnut started alone and then Benny Green played one and then George Cables played a duo with Green. Kenny Barron played a duo with Cables and then a couple on his own. Then, of course, all four players, two on a piano, which made me think of the merry-ground music at Sea Breeze. George Cables was the most interesting.

Young Sun Nah did an Al Green song, a Joni Mitchell song and a Hendrix song all in a row. A pretty good set list of other people’s material. She has an odd manor, smiling during sad songs, an incredible voice but strangely detached from the material.

Phronesis was back, for the third time, at Christ Church. It is not the best venue for them. They have a frenetic sound and the cavernous church takes that edge off. The bass player and band leader is both the foundation and the lead instrument. The piano and drums decorate his playing. It is kind of unusual. No matter how flowery the piano player gets you are still drawn to the bass. And rhythmically the drummer never gets out front of the bass. Here I am trying to describe the band and the bass player just invited the crowd back to the second set by saying. “All different music. If you like weird rhythms, slightly dark, melancholic, Scandinavian music, by all means, come back”

Oskar Stenmaek NYC Quartet let their arrangements run and wander but they always landed with a lovely, mellow, folky, flugelhorn melody from Stenmaek. Despite their name the melodies were all old world.

Cello, djembe, tom tom, accordion and vocals from all four and even some throat singing. Dakha Brakha are from the Ukraine. We were standing next to Olga and Peggi asked her if this was pretty authentic Ukrainian music and she said it was but the music is usually sung by old women and there usually are no drums.

We finished the night over at the MAG where they unveiled their newest acquisition, the light sculpture above.

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Full Monty

Jesus freaks with a camera downtown Rochester, New York

Here I was taking a picture of these Jesus freaks downtown and I now see he had a small video camera pointed at me. My camera card has been acting up. While it was mounted on my computer I wasn’t able to rename photos on the card or drag unwanted photos to the trash. I reformatted the card in the camera and that fixed the issue but when I went to take a photo of Monty Alexander and Peggi out on the street this afternoon the camera read “No Card.” Re-inserting fixed that issue but Monty was gone.

Tommy Smith is an Scottish gentleman who plays a gorgeous tenor sax. I don’t mean his horn is particularly good looking. His tone is rich and warm and it sounded especially good in the round opera hall. He played solo at the Lyric Theater this afternoon and it was everything you would want from a jazz performance. Melodic, rhythmic and moving.

Back at Kilbourn for more Monty Alexander, this time in a trio setting. We sat next to Gap Mangione. Monty had the same bass player as when we last heard them here, someone who has been with him for thirty years or so. And I think the drummer was a former Eastman student because after the show he addressed John Beck, the former head of the percussion department, as “Mr. Beck.” With a rythmn section, Monty is grounded. And when he is grounded he is more astonishing, melodically and rhythmically, in equal measure. He is so musically gifted and has such fun with it all that it is pure joy to be a witness. Corny enough to quote the Flintstone theme mid song and get away with it. And he finished with a heart-wrenching version of “No Woman, No Cry.” Monty gets our vote (again) for Best of the Fest.

At the Lutheran Church we heard something other than jazz. Klabbesbank. Three horns up front playing arrangements on top of sequenced keyboard tracks. A guitar player and drummer played along.

Anthology was our last stop of the evening. Kind of amazing how loud this club is. There’s a whole second row of speakers in the back of the club just so you can’t possibly get away from the volume. Electric Kif is a little bit of everything, mostly over the top with it all. Too many gnarly keyboards for my taste and progressive with no ideas. The jazz fest slide show by the door was more interesting than the band.

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Painting On Piano

Little Black Chairs in Christ Church

Monty Alexander, playing solo piano at the Lyric Theater, introduced one of his songs, “Hurricane,” as his “painting on piano.”
Monty’s bout with pancreatic cancer seems to have slowed his manic pace a notch. He can still shift gears and quote so many songs you just wish he would milk what he brings to each one a little longer. So when he slowed things down to play a melancholy version of September Song he captivated the room and then brought the house down with “Sweet Georgia Brown.” He plays with a trio tomorrow at Kilbourn.

I have a slow meditative Steve Kuhn song in our iTunes library called “Trance” that I love. I meant to play it today before the show but it slipped my mind. Tonight he played a lot of standards. My favorite was “Stella By Starlight” Billy Drummond played drums and it was hard to take my eyes off him. He was the perfect foil/accompaniment to Kuhn’s fluid, rolling melodies. I know I have him on a few records at home.

About four songs into their first set Kendrick Scott Oracle announced that pianist Geri Allen had passed away. He had played with her as did Ornette Coleman and she played the festival here a few years back. Kendrick Scott dedicated a song to her and followed that up by playing along with a recorded montage of Obama’s speech on the black incarceration rate. Scott said he was “all about togetherness but you have to talk about it.”

Ole Mathisen Foating Points at the Lutheran Church was a four piece with sax, trumpet, piano and bass and their music was all notated. The sax player and leader even read from notes between songs. They played like a small mysterious orchestra and were very dreamy.

Vanishing Sun Band in the RGE tent were laying down a great, heavy, funk groove that could be heard a block away so we stopped in the RGE Fusion Tent for a beer but then the band dipped into fusion for some reason.

Dave O’Higgens Atlantic Bridge Quartet at Christ Church did just that. They bridged the Atlantic with an international band of proper jazz musicians. Clean cut jazz.

Mario Rom Interzone at the Little were just called Interzone last time we saw them. The Austrian band has so much youthful energy and such a love of jazz they are Infectious. Just when you think they are too young and too European to really swing they sound like Louie Armstrong in a Bourbon Street bar. And they are so very entertaining.

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Make Out Machine

Michael Blake's Red Hook Soul performing at Xerox during the 2017 Rochester Jazz Fest

We stopped in to hear Michael Blakes’s Red Hook Soul on Sunday night but we only stayed for a few songs. The sound in the big tent is so oppressive. We had already decided to hear them at Xerox on Monday and they were so good we caught both the early and late shows. Every member of this band is a solid pro and the sound here was perfect. We sat in the front row for both sets and we had an incredible stereo mix of the two mostly rhythm guitars. Tony Scherr on the left had the crunch and Avi Bortnick the classic clean soulful scratch. Of course none of this would work without a way in the pocket bass player. The band plays vintage 70’s soul and Blake writes songs in that vein (“Make Out Machine”)for the band. He chooses the best and Michael calls out songs on stage. Last night they played a different Gladys Knight song in each set along with Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Volunteered Slavery” and Taj Mahall’s “Buy You a Chevrolet.”

Bill Frisell was at the first show with his wife, Carol d’Inverno, and his current bass player, Thomas Morgan. Margaret Explosion played the Mercer Gallery opening for Carol’s art show at MCC last year and we had her over for dinner. She told us they are in the process of moving to Brooklyn where she begins a residency next month.

En route to the Xerox hall we spotted Bernie Heveron, formerly of Personal Effects, playing bass with the Red, White and Blues band.

Ikonostasis at the Lutheran Church was the most avant-garde guard band of the festival so far and maybe my favorite. A trio with no bass player. This one worked, unlike the band we saw at the Little Theater last night. Kari Ikonen, the piano/synth player is the leader but I was sitting so close I could only get two players in the frame and the sax player, Ole Mathisen, and drummer, Ra-Kalam Bob Moses were far more interesting to look at. The band went from pretty to abstract to outer space and back. “What time is it?” asked Ikonen after an hour or so. “Just keep playing’ said someone in the crowd. And they did with a beautiful middle eastern piece that started like a call to prayer.

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In The Burning Of The Republic

View from inside the Golden Port Restaurant

I didn’t hear the Peruvian half of the Gabriel Alegria Afro-Peruvian Sextet but the Afro-jazz part was right on. The rhythm section, piano, bass and drums were all amazing players. The percussionist was rough and tumble and that’s where the magic was. The combination was beautiful.

When Eivor was in Rochester with Yggdrasil about thirteen years ago she bought an electric guitar at the House of Guitars. In fact she was playing that guitar at the Lutheran Church. She told the crowd she went back to the HOG today and bought another guitar, something from the sixties. She finger picked Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” on it tonight. Her lofty voice was perfectly suited to the church.

Hey, we know that Guy, chatting up the cigarette lady.

This young trio laying in the street sounded pretty damn good.

Derick Lucas from WGMC introduced the Neil Cowley Trio and told us we were in for “a life changing experience.” Well, not quite. More progressive rock than jazz with lots of unison parts they were melodic and a joy to listen to but I found myself exhausted before the set ended.

After securing our wrist bands for early entrance to Kilbourn Hall on Sunday night we took refuge in Golden Port where we split a Curried Vegetable dish. It rained twice while we were in there but the sun came out just as we left.

We spotted Bill Frisell and his bass player, Thomas Morgan, going in the side door of the Eastman for their soundcheck. We’ve heard Frisell everytime he’s been here and almost decided to skip this one but I’m glad we didn’t. We found front row seats and sat right next to Bob Martin and Ken Frank from Margaret Explosion. In this duo setting Frisell sounded better than ever. The musical exchanges between the two were intense. The minor key “Rambler'” an early song of Frisell’s, was my favorite.

Matthew Leonard from the D&C introduced the band at Harro East.

Shabaka & the Ancestors tore it up. They started with a chant and the “In the burning of the republic. . .” theme ran throughout their set. “We need you people. You need these hymns. Feminize the government. Feed our children. Black lives matter.” I assume the Ancestors are artists like The Last Poets and Sun Ra. Shabaka Hutchings certainly channelled Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax.

Red Hook Soul does classic, King Curtis style, r&b. Tenor sax player, Michael Blake, whose band, Blake Tartar was one of our favorite groups of the fest a few years back and was just in town performing at the Bop Shop, leads the band, a money making project for him. Bill Frisell’s long time bassist, Tony Scheer, plays guitar in this band. They play again tomorrow night at Xerox Auditorium.

Fred Costello was playing Bill Dogget’s “Honky Tonk” on the stage at Gibbs Street. His band sounded great and we couldn’t help thinking how his R&B sounded so much more authentic than Red Hook Soul. Could have just been the great Bill Dogget number.

Elliot Galvin Trio at Christ Church was contemplative and very pretty. Their spartan sound and delicate touch worked really well in this space. Not entirely ethereal, they even played an off kilter blues.

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Like Jazz

Old brick building in downtown Rochester near Richmond Street

We checked out the sound samples on the jazz fest app, looking for the stuff that sounded the most like jazz, and found a parking spot on Richmond Street. This trio was playing a party in the patio of the modern apartment with all the gee-gaws. They sounded pretty good.

The Huntertones met at Ohio State and got their start playing house shows. They were doing a Stevie Wonder tune when we walked into Montage. They used to call this “frat rock.”

The leader of the Moscow Jazz Orchestra, the only one not wearing a red, white and blue striped tie, sounded fantastic on his own. His song, “Nostalgic,” was, slow, romantic, cinematic and bluesy. His tenor tone reminded us of Gato Barbieri.

After 21 years of continuously singing the good news of Jesus Christ, Tim Woodson & The Heirs Of Harmony, billed as “True Gospel psalmists,” sounded like a loud festival rock band. The singers all wore white and hadn’t taken the stage yet.

Yggdrasil, we have heard many times at the jazz fest but their sound has remained the same. They work in a folky, sometimes Bjork austere, sometimes Pink Floyd ponderous fairyland.

You can’t see the vocalist of this band playing in Spot coffee. He was more like a metal shouter. It looks like they might have cleared the place. We were drawn to the barefooted guitarist. His heavy pschedelic sound was spilling out into the street.

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