We have been to every Rochester International Jazz Festival and I take a few notes on the acts we catch.
We started off Jazz Fest 2005 by waiting in a line for Bill Frisell. The promoter announced that the band’s flight was delayed by thunderstorms but when Bill took the stage he announced that the Thunderbirds, who were preparing for the next day’s air show, were doing a practice round. He was very casual and the show was very relaxed despite a hum from his amp. The drummer and bass player played support to Bill’s lovely improvisations. Someone told us the bass player was Allison Kraus’ brother. All we have to do is figure out who Allison Kraus is. He told a joke about a royal potato family that wouldn’t allow their daughter to marry Dan Rather because he was only a commentator and then he did Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”
We checked out Sonny Rollins at the Eastman and the sound sucked. Someone was putting way too much ambience on his sax but he had a great big sound and sure can play. He sort of teeters these days and his white shoes make him look unsteady. We had seen Al Foster with Joe Henderson at Art Park and were thrilled to see him playing drums with Sonny. The sound got better in the second set and they did another one of those fifties era swinging, squawky sax pieces with a percussion solo. The highlight of the set was Al Foster trading bars with Sonny Rollins. Sonny followed Al and tried to mimic what Al played. The trombone player is playing here but he did a lot of standing around. Sonny’s solos went on too long and they didn’t hold together. He never seemed to quit while he was ahead.
We only heard a few songs by Hilton Ruiz over at Montage but they were really nice. He had a women drummer and bass player and they did a beautiful version of “God Bless The Child”. It was good to be back at Montage (now under new management). It feels like a real jazz club and the these guys sounded great in here
With a name like “Sex Mob” we had to check them out at Milestones. We were way in the back and could hardly see them. It was kind of jarring after Hilton Ruiz and it felt like frat jazz if there is any such thing. But that is probably unfair. We only saw one song. There is so much to hear with the club pass and you can’t possibly give each band a fair shot.
We have a couple of Pete La Roca cds from the sixties and we were looking forward to The Night of the Cookers at Kilbourn. The two original members were about forty years down the road from their hard boppin’ heyday but they pulled it off thanks to some great solos by the new horn players. Pete La Roca hid behind three big cymbals and never took a solo all night but he drove the band. They did songs from former bandmates Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan but sounded best when they slowed down for a ballad. David Weiss, the trumpet player on the left, led the band but kind of bugged us because he would step aside and talk during solos by the others, so we skipped his band at Montage the following night.
We grabbed some good seats for the second set of Steve Turre over at Milestones and this was a sensational show. Steve played with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and learned how to entertain a crowd from the master. Steve swaggered around the stage, told a manly joke and played percussion as well as trombone. These guys were all great players but the piano player was the most fun to watch. Trombone is a tough lead instrument but he clearly pulled it off. He played two conch shells at the same time to bring the house down. And we heard he did a completely different set at six.
On Sunday we went straight to Milestones for Willem Breuker Kollektief at six. The place was already full so we stood near the back. I spotted some friends at a table down front but there were no empty chairs in the place. So I hatched a plan to stand by the PA when the band was announced and then dart into the dressing room when the band took the stage. I grabbed two chairs in there and put them at our friends’ table. This is Willem Breuker on soprano sax. His band has been on the road for thirty years. He writes amazing music.
I was sitting so close I couldn’t possibly get all seven horn players in one shot. And there is a wildly inventive piano player back there with a bass player and drummer. This show was thrilling. They played for an hour straight running one piece into the other. They can sound like a German oom pah band, Spanish bull fighting music, an old world marching band or long hair music. Close your eyes and you feel like you are in the middle of a cartoon. And there is ample room for solos in these charts. And then there is humor like when the horn players drained their trumpets into their mute cups and doused the crowd. Tom Kohn from the Bop Shop has brought this band to town (from the Netherlands) ten times in the past so you may get another chance to see them. Don’t miss it. Sophisticated and joyous, this band has it all and should be huge. What is wrong with this world? Never mind.
Counter Fit Fest organized by Joe Tunis and Chris Reeg as an alternative to the Jazz Fest. The two day music/performance event featured their bands, Pengo and Blood & Bone Orchestra, in a line up of six local and national fringe-oriented artists each night. We caught Urknee and Bjurton Russell whose name comes from the synthesized influences of Rochester’s Bertrand Russell Society and the famous Sesame Street duo of Bert and Ernie. Amazingly, they pulled this combination off in sound/voice. They were joined by Jack Schaefer on guitar for this performance.
We ran into Dave Cross and told him that we planned to check out Ravi Coltrane. He warned us that “genius skips a generation” but we had to see for ourselves. Ravi had sold out the first show at Kilbourn so we got there early for the second one. He was a great player and his drummer was a bundle of energy but it is hard to believe that with a father and mother as creative as John and Alice he is not able to find his own voice.
We statrted Monday night with Bad Plus at Kilbourn. We kind of knew what they sound like because our mailman thought we would like it and let us borrow his copy. We didn’t burn a copy. They had a hard hitting drummer and classically tainted piano player and they tried putting it all together. They pulled off a nice version of Ornette Coleman’s “Broken Shadows”. And they introduced a song called “The Empire Strikes Back” by announcing that they “were all pretty much united in their disdain for our government”. “Pretty much united” could describe their sound as well. Kinda clunky for a jazz band and kind of fusiony for a rock band. We can afford to be picky with all talent in town.
Do you think the bean counters at Heluva Good Cheese actually see a spike in cheese sales after the Jazz Festival? I hope so.
Described as acid jazz, Orange Alert over at Milestones played nice melodies over a big beat. The sax player thanked his mom, who was in the crowd, and played same samples like a voice that kept repeating, “Mr. President. The subject of our conversation is the Middle East.” It wasn’t much of a conversation but it sounded pretty cool. I like the LaBatt’s Blue display.
Over at the tent we saw Alex Torres & Su Orquestra featuring twelve guys in the same floral patterned shirt. They were from Amsterdam NY and had just performed in Cape Cod but they did a pretty good job of sounding like a band at a festival tent in Puerto Rico.
We slipped into Max’s just as the second show was starting for Chiara Civello. We sat next to Gap Mangione and Steve Gadd. Steve Gadd played drums on Chiara’s debut album. She was nice but we couldn’t help feeling like we were on vacation and had been out in the sun all day and were now down in the lounge of a hotel. We ordered a Guiness and Chardonnay and the waitress came back to say they were out of both. We went up to our room.
Mamadou Diabate at Kilbourn Hall was magical. These two guys from Mali made a world of music on these two instruments. Mamadou Diabate is the guy on the right playing the kora (sort of like a harp). He explained that his family was from a very long line (800 years) of musicians. The guy on the right is Balla Kouyate and he plays balafon (like a xylophone). Together with their overlapping and interweaving patterns, they sounded trancelike like Steve Reich only folkier and and more melodic. The highlight though was a solo by Mamadou whose fingers moved so fast you couldn’t imagine where all the patterns and drone notes were coming from.
Over to the tent again where it was really hot. We ordered Brooklyn lagers ad sat down near the stage. The bass player gives this band away. He plays a six string (read “lead”) bass and wears it up high. Most of Tiempo Libre were originally from Cuba and they play Cuban progressive music. The drummer played a full kit and their horn player played a wind controller that triggered keyboard sounds. They had a young singer who was dynamite. They invited the crowd to dance but their music was so high energy that most people sat there stunned.
We showed up at Milestones for the second set of Steve Swell. We were kinda beat and the band was kinda all out. Steve Swell is a “traditional avant garde” player according to the program. His trombone, multi-reedman bass and drum quartet was pretty hardcore. Swells acted like he had hurt his lip in the first set and seemed upset, but maybe that was part of the package.
We got a good night’s sleep and started over again at Kilbourn Hall. The acoustics here are great if they don’t try putting a mic on everything like they seemed to do this year for some reason. Anyway, the sound was perfect tonight for The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and they were in full control. Kahil El’Zabar leads the trio on drums, percussion, chanting and thumb piano. The sax player was great but the trumpet player, Corey Wilkes, was the best musician we saw the whole festival. He has apparently taken the late Lester Bowie’s chair in the Art Ensemble. They dedicated songs to the great Ornette Coleman and the even more undersung Malachi Favors (former bass player with the Art Ensemble of Chicago). El’Zabar created deep grooves for the two horn players to play pretty melodies over and there was all sorts of room for solos. They closed with Corey playing two horns at once and the sax player with two saxes in his mouth. This may have been the best night of the Festival.
We left Kilbourn and walked over to the Little Theatre Cafe for our weekly Margaret Explosion gig. We made up songs for most of the first set and hit on a few good ones. We were happy to see a number of people there wearing their Jazz Pass lanyards. We sold a couple of cds to a couple that had just come from Chick Corea at the Eastman. We packed up and headed out for more music.
We were gonna make a short night of it but we popped into the tent for the Shuffle Demons’ second set and all hell was breaking loose. These guys have been doing it for twenty years. From Toronto, they are pros and they did what it takes to rock the place. They wore these crazy handpainted outfits and goofy hats. They reminded me of NRBQ on the rock side. The drummer delivered a thoroughly entertaining poem called “What Do You Want” and adorned it with drum flourishes. “Do want an foreign beer? Do you want to burn your brassiere?” Despite the suprisingly thin crowd The Shuffle Demons got us into a line dance that headed right out of the tent and into the middle of Main Street where the drummer did some break dancing with a woman from the crowd. Get on the ferry and check these guys out.
Thursday for us started with the Harry Allen / Joe Cohn Quartet. These guys were great players but they had very little edge and we need that for some reason. They all wore suits and ties and they were so polite. On another night we might have loved these guys but we couldn’t help but think of what we might be missing. We headed over to Milestones for Mad Science but didn’t care for them. Can’t remember why really.
We found our spot over at Montage and really enjoyed these guys. They are from France and those are twin brothers, Louis and Francois Moutin on bass and drums. It is their band but they have a sensational piano player, Baptista Trotignon and an amazing saxophonist, Rick Margitza. Apparently he played with Miles Davis in the late eighties.
The drummer did a solo with his bare hands and he and the sax player blew the roof off while the bass and piano sat out. Their set built beautifully and sound was perfect. These guys were one of the best acts we saw.
Over at the tent we caught Circle Wide with Brad Sheptik from Pachora on guitar and Donny McCaslin on sax. Without a keyboard but with vibes, they did compositions that sounded like outtakes from Miles’s 67/68 albums Water Babies, Circle in the Round and Filles de Kilimanjaro. There is Tom Kohn from the Bop Shop in the lower right hand corner. The drummer, George Schuller, wrote most of the songs and really captured that pre In A Silent Way / Bitches Brew period. He announced that that was their intention and they delivered.
We checked out the sound samples from the official site and picked Jacob Anderskov Trio at Montage. They had a very detached Scandinavian intellectual sort of sound. The pieces with bowed bass and mallets on the drums were beautiful. The Jazz Fest was crowded overall but there were very few people here for this one.
We left Montage and checked out the second half of Paul Smoker at the tent. He and his band were amazing. Wide open jazz, open enough to include rocking guitar. The drummer and bass player go from free to solid and hold this thing together while the guys on either end pull beautiful melodies out their hats and develop them. We made plans to check them out again at the Little at ten.
We settled in the not so comfortable seats at Little 1. I sound like my mother-in-law, complaining about the seats, but when I sit down here I feel like I am continually sliding out of these things. If I went with the flow I would be down on the floor with all the popcorn and Juji Fruits. I know they don’t serve Juji Fruits at the Little. I wish they did. This band is amazing. We loved them. Buy the Paul Smoker Notet – Live At The Bop Shop cd. Paul lives here and appears around town often, so go see/hear him. Steve Salerno is very cool on guitar. He plays electric guitar like a rock guy in a jazz band. No fussy jazz sound. His name sounds Italian but his leads sound Spanish. Paul Smoker said everyone asks what a “Notet” is and he went on to explain. He sent some paperwork to John Nugent (the promoter) that said he would be appearing with his Nowtet and someone dropped the “w”. So “Notet” was a very cool typo.
We left the tent and it was raining pretty hard but there was Rochester’s Steve Greene up on the Gibbs Street outdoor stage. There were two free stages tonight with another one out on East Avenue near Chesnut Street, but this was where the action was. This wasn’t the Steve Greene trio with two guitars and bass. This lineup had punch with Tim Sullivan on bass and Christin Shiner on drums. I think Christin teaches at Nazareth College. We have seen her in a cocktail trio setting singing standards as she plays. This band was a treat with three great players. Too bad it rained.
They promoted Raul Midon, the New Mexican sensation, so heavilythat there are probably still record company posters for this guy on the poles downtown. He was introduced as “someone who we would remember exactly where we were the first time we heard him.” I remember. It was Milestones. Raul Midón had a great voice and a very rhythmic guitar style but he threw way too much into each song. Great moments flew by and his songs just didn’t hold together. Over to the Little for more Paul Smoker.
We spotted Arthur Blythe’s name in this trio so there we were in the tent at six on the last day of the Festival. These guys were very spacey like they were on heavy drugs, but they couldn’t have played this well if they were. They closed their eyes and went with the sparse crowd (most of whom were chatting at he bar near the back) by playing sparsely. That is an electric cello that David Eyges is playing. He leads this group by occasionally nodding at the other two. Arthur Blythe plays beautiful melodies in a very casual, confident manner. I’m guessing by his playing that Abe Speller played drums in the Army band. This set was delightful. We made plans to check them out again at the Little at ten.
The early heatwave we had cleared out with yesterday’s rain and this was perfect weather for the perfect band for the outdoor Gibbs Street Stage. Lumiere plays gypsy jazz but not as purists. They sound old world but which world is hard to say. Brian Williams (on bass) played with John Mooney for many years and the fabulous Bob Henry and The Goners for the last twenty. Roy Berns was part of Steve Greene’s trio. Ed Marris on accordion plays with Stone Soup. They don’t need no stinkin’ drummer. They play Tuesday nights in the Little Theatre Cafe which is another perfect spot to hear them.
We collapsed in the seats at the Little for the last event of Jazz Fest 2005. The Eyges/Blythe/Speller trio was less laid back than they were in the tent but just as adventurous in the theatre. They drove harder and allowed things to fall apart before they rescued them and ended the tune. The electric cello can sound very percussive and the notes are more discernable than an upright bass. We bought the cd which was entirely improvised and my favorite cut there is a slow, bowed cello piece with mallets on the drums and a very melodic sax line. This band is open enough to grab magic moments and sometimes whole tunes.