We have been to every Rochester International Jazz Festival and I take a few notes on the acts we catch.
There’s Scott Regan down front for Billy’s Band (head down, to the right, probably sketching). We kicked off this year’s festival with these guys even though we had seen them here a few years ago. Sounded pretty much the same and why should they change things? It worked for Tom Waits. They put an entertaining Russian spin on Waits and ride it home. The sound sucked in Harro East. Couldn’t even understand the guy who announced the band. It was a release of sorts when they did “Clap Hands.”
The Jeremy Pelt Quintet at Montage were really good but relentlessly straight ahead. How did jazz get so studied? I prefer the not so good students.
The Lynne Arriale Trio at the Xerox Auditorium was a real treat. A sensitive band who really listened to each other, they were able to maximize the beautiful. lyrical piano melodies. At times meditative like Keith Jarrett, she played a fantastic version of Sting’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” The drummer supplied an infinite variety of percussion sounds like a fine craftsman and the bass player was right on.
Stan Tracey is the kind of piano player you want to hear unaccompanied. He has a great sense of rhythm, evident in his Monk takes, and a light handed touch with distinctive voicings. His son played drums and I liked the bass player a lot but Stan is the man.
Catherine Russell has a great voice and she is a great entertainer. She makes great song choices too so what else is there? How about a band that goes one better than backing and deepens the the mood of the song with her? That would be powerful as well as entertaining. She paid respects to Peggy Lee and imitated the way Peggy snapped her fingers while she sang.
Guitar player Torben Waldorff of the Torben Waldorff Group announced “my” new cd is on sale in the back making it clear who runs the show here. There was too much guitar/sax unison and claustrophobic arrangements for me so we left after a song. That doesn’t seem fair but it is a big festival.
Brass Jaw was amazing. Their horns sounded perfect in the cavernous Christ Church. The ambience was welcome and they played with the space, moving all through the church as they played.I closed my eyes as the mix took on new dimensions. Their arrangements are inventive. Their own songs completely unique. Chamber jazz it is with a boyish edge. Oh, and two of the guys wore skirts.
Terry Clarke Trio with Greg Osby on sax were fantastic. Top shelf jazz by top shelf players. I only wish thay hadn’t misprinted the start time in the program. We would have seen and heard more.
We stopped in the street to catch a little bit of Rochester’s Filthy Funk and were quite impressed. They have a solid soul sound. Lead singer Danielle Ponder told the crowd that she grew up on Bay Street which we had just taken to get here. Then the band launched into a hefty Reggae groove.
Chuchito Valdes, the son and grandson of famous Cuban bandleaders, opened with a rousing Cuban number that came on like a tropical storm and brought the crowd to their feet. This guy is sensational! His piano playing is every bit as powerful as the powerful drummer who was sitting on the other side of the stage from him. And then it was as delicate as can be on a beautiful rendition of “Over The Rainbow.” These guys made everyone else we have seen this far in the festival sound like a toy band.
Charnette Moffett was named after his father, Charles, and Ornette Coleman, who Charles played with. Charles plays drums on the fabulous “Golden Circle” albums from the mid sixties and Charnette plays bass on two of my favorite Onette cds, the two “Sound Museum” releases. We had to check him out and we were richly rewarded. Although billed as a trio he opened with a mindblowing solo performance on stand up bass where he pulled out all the stops. He switched to the electric bass after a half hour or so and was joined by a woman on tambura for a beautiful version of “Nature Boy”. A drummer joined next on tablas and drum kit and then a piano player and a trumpeter. They proceeded to take it out! During their last song an alarm went off and kept going off at regular intervals every twenty seconds. Charnette stopped the band and started playing with the siren, wrapping melodies around the mournful siren.
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba from Mali play primitive looking four string instruments that Bassekou Kouyate describes as the grandfather of the guitar. Duct taped guitar pickups on the body and a “cry baby” pedal for Bassekou make for a solid groove. That and the two percussion players. Bassekou’s wife sang beautiful harmonies, a dramatic flamenco-like song and was a joy to watch as she danced.They sounded great in Kilbourn Hall but would have sounded even better in a dance hall.
We ran into Frank DeBlase and he predicted that the Amy Lavere Trio might be the sleeper of the festival. Quite an endorsement. Amy wears high heels, sounds great on bass and has a cute voice. I wish she was standing front and center. The drummer is certainly not the attraction. Her trio sounded best when they played quietly enough to hear the lyrics but when they did this the crowd in the back of the tent only got louder. Her guitar player had a perfect touch and accompanied her like a real pro. They have a cool, timeless sound.
Francois Bourassa Quartet has everything you could ever want in a jazz band. They are incredibly musical, gorgeous melodies and loose limbed arrangements. This is the kind of cinematic music that you just want to close your eyes to so your ears can take it all in. But if your eyes are open you’ll catch the band having the time of their life.
Samuel Hallkvist Center was one odd ball band, young Swedish guys who sounded like a progressive rock band without the steroids. Quite delightful!
Every Jazz Fest we stumble on one act that is so good we see both the first and second show. Dave Liebman Quartet and Blake Tartar were both in that category a few years ago. This year it was Francois Bourassa Quartet from Canada. Three quarters of the band have been playing together for twelve years and it shows as they complete each others’ thoughts and delicately support one another as they solo. The wild card here is the young Philippe Melanson on drums. Like a Warhol Factory star you can’t take your eyes off him and he plays in a completely unique way so you can’t help but keep your ears glued.
We checked out a few videos by Dominic Mancuso and we liked what we heard. They had an old world gypsy like touch and we decided it would be our first stop. The ballroom is great venue but big round tables with white tableclothes and Italian music made us feel like we at someone’s wedding in Greece, the subburb not the country.
Eivind Opsvik Overseas are the most adventurous band we have seen at this year’s festival. Eivind Opsvik, the bass player, composes angular, modern music, not entirely jazz, and he has chosen an outstanding band to perform it. The guitarist played played like a scientist how had just dicovered his instrument and he reminded us of Jack Schaefer. My favorite song was the last one with bowed bass, mallets on the drums, sustained Farfisa organ chords. That’s Kenny Wollesen on drums. We last saw him playing with John Zorn in Chelsea and he’s been to the Jazz Fest twice playng with Bill Frisell.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey were here before without the lap steel and they played on the street. I’m guessing their name came from the Spinal Tap song and they had sort of a Tap moment tonight when there wasn’t a stand up bass waiting for them at start time. The piano player stalled with a few solo numbers until a bass was delivered. Beatles to Monk, this band covers a lot of ground.
Palle Mikkelborg was sensational over at the Lutherin Church. This is a perfect venue for spacious music. You wouldn’t think a drummer with a set like Helen Davies’ could ever sound spacious. She was surrounded by a drum store’s worth of percussion instruments. The harp and guitar were minimal as well like The natural ambience and the added reverb on Palle’s mic made this a heavenly experience.
Get The Blessing from the UK is led by the rhythm section from the trip hop group Portishead. Their promo piece said they were united by a love of Ornette Coleman but they didn’t sound a thing like him. At times they sounded like Morphine. Instrumental songs more than jazz but very enjoyable.
Brad Shepik’s group performed compositions from his “Human Activity” release from last year. With a name like that you’d think there would be a little more emotion involved. Of course a lot of human activity is rather tedious. The pieces seemed to be arranged too tightly for much interplay.
Little Red Suitcase, from Spain and Germany, push the boundaries of jazz and that’s good thing. They brought their little red suitcase on stage with them. That’s it on the piano although it looks more like a lunch box. They had some cute songs about the joys of travelling light and butternut shells but they may have been travelling a little too light.
Next up, Susanna & The Magical Orchestra. There really wasn’t anything magical about them unless you consider backing tracks magical. The woman hiding behind the music stand reminded us of Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces.
Since we were striking out tonight we stopped in Abilene for a beer. Bryan Lee & The Blues Power Band were playing out back. They sounded a bit like the Allman Brothers so we walked out the side door with our beers.
We walked through the tent on our way to Booker T and saw festival promoter, Jon Nugent, playing with Djabe. This band is becoming a perennial favorite and the bass player still knocks peoples socks off.
Booker T & The MGs packed East Avenue so we walked around the block and checked them out from the rear. The sound was great back here and not as deafening. The heavy set drummer had a heavy set style. That is he dragged the beat just slightly and set up a perfect groove.
We finished he night with Joyce from Ipenima. She is a real pro, a one name star in her own country, with a beautiful voice. We loved her. She would have been sensational if the band had any personality.
We were quite a ways back in the line that formed early for Denmark’s Ibrahim Electric at Montage yet we were still able to grab front row seats. People seem afraid of the front row. Maybe that’s a holdover from school days. We prefer getting out of the way of the PA. We sat down next to a couple from Sweden and were talking about Denmark’s victory in the day’s match at the World Cup when Ibrahim Electric took off. Their are songs propelled by an agile, energetic drummer and a guitar player who played lines, leads and rhythm with intensity. The Hammond B3 player took care of the bottom end like he was driving the tour van, determined to keep the band on the road at this exhilarating clip. Their last tune started like a Fela Kuti song and finished like Santana in the Woodstock movie.
Mikko Innanen & Innkvistio hit the highest peaks at this year’s fest. Young and bright with world class influences (Ornette and Yusef Latef) they get there without getting heavy. The synth player played bass with his left hand and otherworldly keyboard sounds with his right. The drummer was amazing! The sax players introduced themes, soloed beautifully and stepped off stage while the other two soared. At times I couldn’t tell what was going on and I loved it. I closed my eyes and took it in on some other level. When I opened them I was amazed to see only the keyboardist and drummer playing. An arranged two horn tail ala Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry brought us back to earth.
We were a little afraid of the word “velocity” in Dennis Rollins Velocity Trio but their YouTube videos looked pretty interesting so we gave it a shot. What we found was hard driving drums, grinding organ and the world’s least likely lead instrument, a trombone.
Gwyneth Herbert was a complete surprise and she is almost impossible to pin down. She covers songs by Neil Young, Dolly Parton and Portishead but she does it all like a jazz cabaret singer. Her voice reminded us of Marianne Faithful when she had a voice. She is an entertainer first and she has picked the perfect musicial accompaniment to let her shine. The acoustic guitar and bass playing was stripped to the core and right on. She played piano, drum and closed the night wandering through the crowd with a ukulele singing a beautiful lullaby. We loved it.
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