We have been to every Rochester International Jazz Festival and I take a few notes on the acts we catch.
Kind of strange to find no one in line outside the Rochester Club Ballroom. The first night of Jazz Fest is usually the most crowded but there was a very slim crowd inside. Did we mix something up? Spevak had Joel Miller picked as a “best bet.” Pegged as hard bop, Joel plays tenor and soprano and is supported by piano, bass, drums. They were fairly conventional with their own tunes from a new album but a good opener.
This young band, playing on the patio of whatever the restaurant is next to the Rochester Club, had a pretty cool vibe. Most likely Eastman students.
I scrambled over to the Xerox Auditorium where I met my brother coming straight from his job at Xerox. As one of the sponsors he had a couple of extra tickets to Janelle Monae at Kodak Hall so I grabbed the tickets through his car window and we headed inside to hear a few songs by the South African Township singer, Lorraine Klaasen. Her band had drums, conga drums, six string bass and guitar and a great groove but we couldn’t stick around.
The Finish group, “Sun Trio,” had some great sound samples so we got to the Lutheran Church early. They have just released a new album, “In The Dreamworlds” and have a very hip and slinky sound. The trumpet player had foot pedals, effects and a sampler on a stand so he could grab snippets to play along with but he mostly played it straight. Their melodic bass player drove the tunes and soloed beautifully. The drummer had a light touch with brushes and plenty of dynamics with sticks. His solo was creative and musical.
The ushers who took our tickets at Kodak Hall asked, “Are you sure you want to go in there?” People were already out of their seats and in the aisles. Those that weren’t were swaying with their arms in the air. Prince sang on Janelle Monae’s “Electric Lady” single and she got her start with Outkast but all we knew about her was her cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” No backing tracks, just bass, drums, congas, keyboards, guitar, two horn players and a couple of back-up singers who looked like they stepped out of a Ronettes video. This was old fashioned dance/pop/funk with JB and Michael in the mix.
We took seats in the front row of Xerox Auditorium for the Belgium big band, Flat Earth Society, and tried to guess how many members would be in the band. The stage was full of equipment and music stands. We guessed ten and it turned out to be 14. The drums and bass were front and center flanked by guitar and keyboards and the horn section ran all across the back. FES is a wackier, more rambunctious Willem Breuker Kollektief. Never mind the movie. This is vivid, action-packed, cinematic soundtrack music.
I would love to hear Sunna Gunnlaugs unaccompanied in Hatch Hall. She is a beautiful, melodic piano player with plenty of rhythm to propel the songs. The tune is complete in her hands and she just doesn’t need bass and drums rattling about. I think I said something like that when we heard her two years ago.
We were sort of mixed up tonight so we came back to Xerox for The Flat Earth Society’s second show. They introduced a song called, “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” saying “We play the painting” and they did! And then came “the name of the next song is ‘The Previous Song.'” They’re playing again tomorrow.
Couldn’t get to the car without checking out local boy, Lou Gramm, on one of the free stages. We heard part of “Cold As Ice.” Comfort food for burned out bikers. Shai Maestro Trio was highly recommended to us by a couple that we only see at Jazz Fest each year. The band was at the Rochester Club at 10 but we couldn’t hang in there so we came home and listened to them on YouTube. I wish we had heard them live.
OK, Bobby Henrie and the Goners are not part of this year’s Jazz Fest but they could be. We caught them out back at Marge’s Lakeside Inn on Sunday afternoon where they were playing to a packed beachcomber crowd. Bobby puts the jazz in rockabilly.
Rochester’s salsa champions, Calle Uno, got the party going in the new Squeezers tent next to the Inn On Broadway. I counted fourteen people on stage including the little kid rockin’ the mic. The bass player had seven strings on his bass and festival co-promoter, Marc Iacona, was standing in on trumpet.
Jon Ballantyne has played with so many people, big names like Joe Henderson, that you wonder how he put this trio together. Was the bass player a pick-up? Drummer, Adam Nussbaum, looked like Mike in “Breaking Bad” and was equally rough around the edges in an engaging way yet Jon Ballantyne is fluid and lyrical. Maybe they are a unit but it was a delight to watch them play like they were gettig to know one another. They started with the standard, “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” and then went into a rambuctious version of Ornette’s “When Will The Blues Leave” with a beautiful bass solo.
Harris Eisenstadt Golden State is the most unique act we have seen at this year’s festival. A drummer- led quartet or more aptly, a chamber jazz ensemble, they have a gorgeous combination of instruments. A bassoon and a clarinet along with the standup bass and Harris Eisenstadt’s crisp, clear and airy drums make an especially pleasing pallette for their detached edition of cool jazz.
Considering the D&C’s Spevak wrote that you will have to sell your first born to get into Vijay Iyer Trio, the line for the 6 o’clock show was approachable at just past four so we hung in there. We took an unfortunate position between the rows of port-o-potties on Barrett Place. We brought dinner and a beer and made the best of it. We chatted with passers-by and took some constructive criticism from Hal about the roundabout path to my jazz fest entries.
Downbeat’s “Jazz Artist of the Year,” Vijay was studying violin when he grew up in Rochester and his entire family was in the house tonight. Despite the line, we were able to score front row seats in the mad dash. WXXI was doing a dry run before recording the 10 o’clock show so there were cameramen all around us.
Stephan Crump, who was just at the Bop Shop with his own group, was on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. They ran a string of tunes together and didn’t come up for air for a half hour. The trio is recording an album in a few days and they did a song from it, a Monk tune called “Work” and a tune off of “Accelerando.” Gilmore played with amazing, military precision but I was knocked out by the interplay between piano and bass. Iyer goes from delicate and melodic to rollicking and Crump not only complements but re-shapes the dialog. His bass solo was beautiful and a gorgeous ballad that Iyer wrote for his wife knocked us out.
Scandanavian musicians play like they are determined to strip jazz of the blues but at the same time they infuse it with centuries of European musical influences. Instead of guttural, it is shimmery, esoteric and sensitive. Kari Ikonen Trio played well together. The bass anchored some delicate piano melodies and their song based on an Armenian folk song was especially pretty.
When we first walked into Christ Church I thought we were only going to last a few minutes. The low end of the B3 organ was eating up every bit of available air in this cavernous space. But the closer we got to the Paul Towndrow Trio, the clearer the sound was and by the time we sat down, the sax player was soloing on a ballad, one we recognized from Coltrane’s “Ballads” album but we couldn’t identify by name, and the ambiance on the horn sounded greatl. Unfortunately only the slower, more spacious material worked in this setting.
It seems like there is a Django influenced, gypsy jazz band on every corner these days but some are better than others. The guys on either end of the French band, Les Doigts de l’Homme, traded speed demon solos, the middle guitarist strummed and the accordion player added relief. He kept motioning to the sound man to turn up his instrument so Peggi stopped by the soundboard on her way to the bathroom and asked him to turn up the accordion. The soundman said the the guitar players want the guitars to be “more present.” The band was thoroughly enjoyable and the perfect nightcap.
Louis Hayes and the Cannonball Legacy Band at Kilbourn were doing exactly that, carrying on the legacy of old fashioned, straight ahead jazz. Led by a drummer who was there the first time around and played by a professional, scholarly band of men in suits.
Etienne Charles plays the kind of trumpet you’d want to hear if you visited, say, Trinidad. Warm and breezy, qualities you don’t usually associate with a trumpet. He plays the conga drums and a djembe when he’s not playing his horn. We started thinking about Kid Creole and the Coconuts and how much fun they were. These guys were more interested in taking their solos. I hope bands don’t feel like they have to hire guys with chops when they take a gig at a jazz festival. It doesn’t help.
We were just talking to an artist friend, someone who used to teach at RIT, and he was telling us he had joined a band called “New Horizons,” (doesn’t that sound like something out of Roz Chast’s book?) made up of retired people who play music. Well, New Horizons was playing in the street and we were expecting to see Jim Thomas on trombone but there were no trombones in this band even though the only song we heard, “When The Saints . . .,” could have used one.
Sophie Bancroft & Tom Lyne were as wholesome as they look here. She has a beautiful voice and could sing anything. He played five string electric and a double bass, playing the entire tune when Sophie put her guitar down to sing one with him. They don’t look it but they could swing too as they did on a Bossa Nova tune.
Forever Young is a five piece, piano, sax, bass, drums and led by the guitarist, Jacob Young. They played it relaxed and lush and opened with their namesake tune. It had all the earmarks of the ECM label. No rough edges, no angularity, understated rhythm, everything in check and near perfectly executed but less austere than the signature European sound. It worked especially well in the Lutheran Church.
You know you are in trouble when the musicians are wearing ear protection. Bonerama is loud, festival tent, party music. They have been here before but they look like all new recruits.
No idea who this band is but they were doing Coltrane’s “Green Dolphin Street” in a tent next to the restaurant, 2 Vine.
Blind Boy Paxton had a full house over at the Little Theater. He wears a yarmulke and plays guitar, banjo, harmonica and fiddle really well. He sings old time country blues songs, most laced with mildly bawdy humor. He is the black David Bromberg and since Bromberg borrowed his schtick, Paxton is only taking it back while playing with all the racial stereotypes. It is great to hear someone keeping the blues alive.
We started the evening at the Rochester Club with Jamey Haddad, a percussionist who has toured with Paul Simon and Joe Lovano. His group included Roberto Ochopinti on bass, saxophonist Billy Drewes and Venezuelan pianist, Leo Blanco. Drewes and Blanco wrote the tunes. Haddad played mostly trap set and along with Blanco they put a Latin spin on the Wayne Shorter like affair. Bill Dobbins was in the house. Everything was cool.
A Swedish / Danish group called “David’s Angels” was holding court at the Lutheran Church. They started slow with bowed electric bass and pretty quickly sounded like Portished mixed with with a healthy dose of Bjork but the spacious bass lines and the jazz drums and melodic Fender Rhodes had loads of promise.
Most notable for her beehive, Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez did a good job of rockin’ the tent at Abilene. Ohlman’s banter reminded us of Cheryl Laurro from Lilly’s Buffet and the band had a bit of Springsteen in their arrangements. They couldn’t miss with “Take Me To The River” and finished with a Bo Diddley beat song that had something to do with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, some solid touchstones.
We hear a little bit of these guys every year but tonight they hit the sweet spot. “Summertime” with just sax and djembe, played while the drommer smoked a cigarette.
Brian Kellock & Tommy Smith were a tenor sax and piano duo from Scotland who admirably played without mic or use of the PA at the Rochester Club. They took charge and played the room with songs from the twenties and forties, a slow moody Hoagie Carmichael song and Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade and Chattanooga Choo Choo. They were great players and and sounded as good as a whole band.
The Joey DeFrancesco Trio were in the middle of a real steamroller when we walked in. The guy is a powerhose and hardly needs a band. What followed was a funky number that sounded like something off of Bitches Brew. A killer groove with weight to the space, remarkable in that it needed no bass other than DeFrancesco’s foot pedal but then he switched to muted trumpet and it even got heavier.
“Hey Mavis” was a cool and relaxed four piece with fiddle and banjo. They had no drummer and skipped the whole incessant strumming routine that so many bands do. This left all sorts of room for the bass player to move around in the songs or bow the double bass instead of just playing the root. The bass player also played a tambourine with his foot and the rhythm guitar player played a bass drum with his. The woman had a real country voice and the whole band wasn’t afraid to let their rough edges show. We liked them.
The back up singers came out before Cyndi Cain made her grand entrance and they didn’t look real. They might work with Kraftwerk though. Cyndi Cain had a voice like Aretha and and she had the authority to deliver a song. I think that towel was some sort of security blanket because she held onto it for her first three songs.
Flute has to be one of the hardest instruments to play on the street.
This was an interesting looking duo in front of Greenwood Books. They were playing amidst the cigar smoke from the smoke shop next door.
We have watched this kid grow up at Jazz Fest. I don’t see his mom lurking anymore and the kid is playing like champ. He was doing a perfectly acceptable version of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”
We stopped in Hatch Recital Hall for Manuel Valera’s last song. It’s worth stopping in there for the acoustics alone. Imagine a Steinway grand in a perfect setting. You close your eyes and can’t picture a room or a hall or any environment at all. It is just a piano and you. I have no idea what Valera was playing but the piece was especially pretty and I drifted away.
We queued up for Bill Frisell’s “Guitar In The Space Age” at Kilbourn and ran into our jazz buddy, Hal, who was recovering from a sports injury. We compared notes on the upcoming acts and broke into the dinner we had packed. Hugh from Nod was up from Ithaca and in line ahead of us. The time went fast.
Kenny Wollesen was on drums. Tony Scheer, who has played with everyone from The Lounge Lizards to Willie Nelson, was on electric bass and Buffalo native, Greg Leisz, played pedal steel guitar and additional guitar. Frisell’s idea of guitar in the space age is decidedly American. We probably do have more junk floating around up there than any other country. The band toyed with Western swing with Hawaiian touches, a two-beat Americana thing, the Kinks “Tired of Waiting” and something funky that sounded like “Mustang Sally” or “Walking The Dog.” Leisz sounded fantastic on slide but he switched to guitar for the middle of the set and that somehow managed to dilute what we came to hear. Brian Wilson’s “In My Room” was rich, “Telstar” was perfect and their version of “Surfer Girl” almost made me cry.
“I tell you this every time I play here. They wouldn’t let me in this school,” Frisell said from the hall in the Eastman School of Music. “45 years later I come back playing surf music to a standing ovation.”
The Wee Trio had a crisp sound with fairly tight arrangements and their enthusiasum made it all seem fresh. The bass player and drummer met at the Eastman and they were great players and adventerous, reimagining David Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes.” The vibes in “Queen Bitch” nodded to the Velvet Underground as well.
On our way in to the church we overheard some of the people streaming out saying, “You couldn’t get out of there fast enough either?” The Deciders were somehow reading charts yet loose and frantic. They were clearly having a great time on stage in contrast to most of the acts in the pristine Nordic venue. They started a tune with just bass, drums and sax and another with just the three horns making the most out of their arrangements. They played with sound. Nothing was precious. They turned the church over a few times during their avant garde set.
We had already heard three groups tonight and I was in cruise control when we sat down at Christ Church. I don’t remember even checking out the sound sample for this group so I just relaxed and took it in. The band sounded great in here. Tthe first group that I can say that about in this venue. The bass was big but punctual, the piano was rhythmic first and Mark Lockheart, the tenor sax player and leader, was just sensational. They worked a tune into a controlled frenzy before I realized they didn’t even have a drummer. A slow tune, written by the piano player, was so pretty it slowed the whole world down. The bass player, Jasper Hoiby, has been here a few times with his group Phronesis and he is just fantastic.
Marcus Miller played on some late Miles lps and I never cared for those. But I’m happy the Festival booked a jazz band for the big, free outdoor stage instead of boogie band.
We didn’t last long at Ibrahim Electric. Montage was packed, the band was loud and I was not in the mood for a guitar solo. I liked them last time around.
Going on the blurbs and sound samples we didn’t really have any must see/hear acts for the final night so we just headed out. We always find something. We got in line for the French vocalist, Cyrille Aimee, at Max’s keeping tabs on the Colombia/Uruguay game while we waited to get in. With two guitars trading gypsy jazz she sang scat and a few too cute numbers like “It’s A Good Day” and then a nice version of Nina Simone”s “Love Me or Leave Me.”
t doesn’t seem like a good idea to put the word “jazz” in the name of your band but the Messengers, Passengers, Crusaders and Jacob Fred Jazz Odessey have all got away with it. Scott Feiner & Pandeiro Jazz feature a Brazilian hand drum, called a Pandeiro, accompanied by a Fender Rhodes player from Rio and a guitarist. Brazilian rhythms on a day when Brazil barely held onto a position in the World Cup’s elimination round. The sounds Feiner could get out of that tambourine- like drum playing it with only one hand were amazing. They were at their best when they stayed away from the noodling.
Is there such a thing as goth jazz? Susanna sang slow tempo, minor key songs whie playing piano. The guitar played Bob Martin style (is that really a guitar?) with plenty of reverb. The drummer sang harmonies and played mostly with mallets. Susanna sang a beyond the grave version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene ” and Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire.” I’m surprised she didn’t do Nick Drake’s “Riverman.” And she still looks like Karen Black.
For me the only false note for Chuck Mead & His Grassy Knoll Boys was his glasses but that is being pretty picky. They sounded great. Pure country honky tonk. If there wasn’t a jazz fest going on I would have made myself comfortable for a few at Abilene.
Ester Rada and her ensemble do Ethiopean jazz, funk, soul and R&B and they had the big tent in the palm of their hand. Ester did a great job with the second Nina Simone song of our night, “Four Women.” She has an unbelievable drummer who did rolls with his foot as a prelude to a completely unique drum solo.
We stood behind members of the Radical Pigs bikers while we listened to part of George Thorogood’s version of “Who Do You Love.” Festival promoter, John Nugent, was playing sax if you can believe that. The flames projection behind on the band was pretty cool.
Norma Winstone Trio may have been my favorite act of the whole festival. She certainly stole the night. With only voice, piano and sax or bass clarinet the arrangements were playful and wild with outside touches like the piano player reaching inside the piano and the bass clarinet popping his pads. The song selection was stunning. Nileson’s “Everybody’s Talkin,'” Tom Waits’ “San Diego Serenade” and songs like they just don’t write anymore. But her own song, the title song from her new album and one the bass clarinetist wrote the music forentitled “Dance Without Answer”, was the bomb. Norma Winstone Trio, like Peggy Lee, was quite exotic and intoxicating. Here’s a live version of that song.
The Deciders were back for a second night, an unlikely booking considering they only had a handful at the Lutheran Church for their second set last night. We had to stop in and cheer them on. There are so many adventurous groups out there and so few at the festival. All in all, another good year though.
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