It's no secret that some of the most vital artists in the contemporary jazz world can be found residing in Brooklyn. That's why "A Portrait of Brooklyn" is an appropriate title for an excellent new album from Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records. The CD is full of great tracks showcasing the diverse writing and playing styles of five of the top bandleaders on the Brooklyn scene.
Strangely, the differences in these musical visions work to tie the album together. The CD begins with the relentless driving energy of trumpeter David Smith's "Starr St." Tenor Saxophonist Dan Pratt's "Buttermilk Channel" keeps it going with equal energy and some fanciful melodic twists. Then comes the wonderfully weird Mingus-like "JV" by multi-reed player Adam Kolker. But that's not the only experimental track; "The Cherry Bees" by bassist Anne Mette Iverson, is deliciously orchestral while including the oddest of harmonies.
The most beautiful cut on the album is drummer Rob Garcia's "1898" which features an excellent trumpet solo by Smith. Listening to these musicians interpret one another's tunes make it clear that these unique artists are more than capable of supporting all of their individual idiosyncrasies as a cohesive group.
While tapping guitar chords with his left hand and keeping up a steady beat on the bongos with his right, Raul Midon turned to the Kilbourn Hall audience Saturday and said, "I want you to notice there are no looping machines up here." He didn't need any. He picked, strummed, and slapped percussively on his guitar, pausing occasionally to play a melodic run at breakneck speed. Then he added the trumpet that he seems to have built into his mouth. It's uncanny in its resemblance to the real thing. Midon can "mute" passages and hit those slightly flat notes that seem to go with the instrument while "playing" beautiful solos.
There are several ingredients to being a successful singer/songwriter; among them are personality, intimacy, and having great stories to tell between songs. Midon has all of them in abundance, but he has a lot more. In addition to his breathtaking guitar technique and Stevie Wonder-like voice, he's got an unusually exuberant songwriting style. You can feel the emotion in his tunes because he doesn't follow any rules. As a result of all of this, Midon had the audience in the palm of his hand all night. I guess I should mention that he's blind, but aside from figuring into his story-telling, it didn't matter.
Joanne Brackeen seemed oblivious to the fact that there was an audience in Hatch Hall for her concert Saturday night. Between songs she spoke quietly to a couple of friends in the front row. In the middle of her set a saxophonist joined her for a couple of tunes. Then he left. From what I could hear, she told her friends something about bumping into him in the hotel lobby. It took shouts from the audience -- "Who was he?" -- to get her to say: Pat LaBarbera.
Aside from that, she was great. Her playing was sparkling. If she had told us the name of any of her tunes I could tell you that one of them, the second she played, was especially wonderful, with an odd march-like quality. LaBarbera and Brackeen played a terrific version of Duke Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood." And she played a beautiful solo rendition of Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" (the one tune she named).
Clarinetist Arun Ghosh never stopped moving when he led his quintet in a show at Christ Church. He was kinetic in both his playing and his dancing. It just seemed to be in his personality. Ghosh led his band through mostly original tunes that were derived from his southern Indian roots (West Bengal) and his Manchester, England home. Everything the band played had a joyful quality to it.
While his bassist and drummer had come over from England with him, the alto and tenor saxophonists in the band were Rochester's own Colin Gordon and Doug Stone. While they usual played the more steady parts, allowing Ghosh to soar over them, they both took adventurous solos. They fit right in even though they had just joined this somewhat unusual ensemble the day before. The show ended with an energetic take on The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." Ghosh explained that because John Lennon was influenced by Indian music when he wrote it, the band was bringing it full circle.
Looking back on XRIJF 2012, I can't imagine any other conclusion: it was bigger and better than ever. This year I only saw one headliner and I had to put my fingers in my ears to avoid instant deafness as a result of the ridiculous sound levels of the outdoor shows, but I still loved the festival. My favorites of the past nine days are all over the place in terms of style and content and that's what makes this festival great. Here they are:
-Vocalist Tessa Souter took a chance on songs merging classical melodies with her lyrics and a jazz sensibility at Montage.
-Yggdrasil & Eivor managed to conjure up that ancient Nordic magic at the Lutheran Church.
-Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey examined the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 with a furious musical statement at Xerox Auditorium.
-Eldar delivered one of the greatest performances I have ever witnessed when he played "Rhapsody In Blue" at Hatch Recital Hall.
-The Orlando LeFleming Trio delivered a magnificently subtle performance at Christ Church.
Now that the festival is over, who did you like best?
I'm always ready to go toe to toe with hammerheads who bitch and moan about the Jazz Fest's non-jazz content. But the fact that Jazz Fest kingpin John Nugent colors outside the lines and books a band like, let's say,The Sadies -- that is a jazz move. And in the last nine days I've been treated to jazz and its myriad sub-genres, plus blues, rock, world beat, zydeco, big band, etc. and all their variations. Regardless, it's a jazz festival, so shut up.
Incidentally, the best act of the whole damn week was Saturday night's Abilene headliners, The Sadies. This band rocked so hard with its trademark western swing-surf-blues-garage-roots-rock giddy-up, I didn't know what to do first; jump up and down, scream, or applaud. As you read this, I'm still doing all three. This show will stay with me a long time. And face it, I've seen a lot of cool shit over the years. Saturday night's Sadies spectacular is up there in the Top 10 easily.
The band brought its own soundman so it could flex appropriately. It was hard to focus as both Travis and Dallas Good (front men and brothers in the group) both have something to offer. Travis has his high-speed guitar picking and maniacal fiddle abuse. Dallas is the tall cool one with the rich voice and the B-bender guitar. Both pick lonesome and mean. The encore tune for both sets was insane, as it included nods to Them, The Sonics, The Seeds, Bob Wills, and even Spinal Tap. The crowd went bananas. Like I said, best act of the whole damn week.
That doesn't mean the rest of the night was a wash. Over at Max of Eastman Place Chic Gaminecreated beautiful, upbeat harmonies against a minimalist tapestry of drums, and occasional keys and guitar. It was more beauty shop than barbershop with the group's splendiferous mix.
Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars put on a show of polyrhythmic joy and thundering bass. The band just seemed so happy (especially if you consider how and where the band came to be).
I got as close to the East and Alexander stage as possible for Trombone Shorty's set. He was a lot more contemporary and poppy than he was last year. So I opted to pop in for a tattoo at Doc Yager's. Doc put a nice music note on my arm. It wasn't a jazz note, it wasn't a rock note. It was just a beautiful music note; just like this year's Jazz Fest was simply a beautiful music festival.
It was well past 11 p.m. when Tim McGraw walked off stage at CMAC Friday night, ending four hours packed with country hits from McGraw, Dierks Bentley, and Kip Moore. In that time, the temperature had risen past 100 degrees and oxygen felt limited. Fans thronged every inch of the stage to the ramps, and sang along with all of the musicians.
McGraw played 22 songs, including "I Like It, I Love It," "The Cowboy in Me," "Something Like That," "Felt Good on My Lips," and my personal favorite, "How Bad Do You Want It?" Every song but one pounded at an incredible pace, several times up-tempo of studio versions, the one exception being a song McGraw said he had never played before on stage and that he sang by himself.
McGraw is a showboat. There is no way around his style of performance upstaging the music. He comes out of the wings and, for the entire show, concerns himself with the physicality of touching fans, pounding his chest, shaking his fist into the air. He strikes dramatic poses, often with fully outstretched arms, and holds them in a pose for the sea of camera phones thronging him.
What surprised me about the concert was an output that was more aggressive than it was musical. McGraw's studio versions, sung in a quieter voice, have a velvety twang, especially in songs like "Just to See You Smile." They warm a girl's heart. His studio recordings also allow the ear to hear the kinds of musical details that flow from fiddle, accordion, acoustic guitar, and a lighter touch of the drum set.
On stage, McGraw had no less than five guitars for nearly every song, including two dominant bass guitars. Consequently, McGraw pushed his voice to a need for drinking water, using throat sprays, and it even cracked during "Cowboy in Me" as he neared the end of the concert.
Which brings me to Dierks Bentley's performance, which immediately preceded McGraw's. I walked in a fan; I walked out a FAN. From the very first note of "Feel That Fire," I was stunned at the quality of his voice, which far exceeded his studio recordings. Songs like "Come a Little Closer" became a serenade, especially when paired with a sincere smile, showing life-earned laugh lines. By the time he got to "Home," his rich voice had nestled in my heart.
Bentley shared his passion for the music, and proved his ability to give freshness to every one of 14 songs. Bentley made me feel like we were out on a porch in his backyard in Nashville, friends, hanging out together, making good music and having a good time to songs like "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)."
Bentley's individual band members brought some outstanding elements to the music. One guitar player, in particular, during "What Was I Thinkin'," flipped his guitar perpendicular to his body, and started picking those strings with his right hand and sliding up and down with his left. Whether it was picking, fiddling, or strumming, the balance between the instruments created a finely blended sound that had me dancing.
And a special shout out to Kip Moore, who opened the night. Moore brought a sweeter, easier voice and beat to the show, even while working up every woman in the audience with "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" and bonding with every guy over "Beer Money." Moore and his band had a work-together style that delivered a professional show that tells you Moore is an up-and-comer.
A final note about Moore: his fourth song out of five was a soft, sultry ballad, "Hey Pretty Girl." It was impossible to avoid the memories it triggered of early 1980's Bruce Springsteen, exhaling and whispering his way through "I'm On Fire," which opens with "Hey little girl is your daddy home." There's an acoustic version of Moore's song on YouTube from Country 98.7 KUPL. I'd urge you to watch it and tell me if he doesn't break you heart into bits all in the very first line. If I have one strong recommendation for Moore, it's to go that one step further as a performer and let that KUPL acoustic depth carry into the bigger stage shows.
I guess there's something positive about being in your 80s and having someone call you immature. I'm sorry, but that was my impression of legendary jazz drummer Roy Haynes at Kilbourn Hall Friday night. He joked around, tap danced twice, and seemed to be seriously trying to pick up a woman in the audience. Even his "Fountain of Youth" band mates seemed weary of his silliness.
But when he sat down at the drum set he was, after all, Roy Haynes. He played a fine solo, most of which took place off of the drumheads and on the surrounding metal. And he was really at home on bebop tunes like "Milestones," the kind of songs on which he forged his reputation. All of the members of his young band -- Martin Bejerano, piano; Jaleel Shaw, saxophone; and David Wong, bass -- played excellent solos.
Jean-Michel Pilc also rambled at his Hatch Hall concert, but did it with his hands gliding across the piano keyboard. Pilc played a stream-of-conscious set full of snippets of jazz standards like "All The Things You Are," "My Romance," and "I Get Along Without You Very Well" surrounded by impressionistic improvisation. It was as if jazz is a flowing continuum with one tune growing out of another and, in a way, it is. A little Gershwin here, a little Monk there; Pilc seemed to be saying it's all shaped from the same clay.
At ChristChurch the Orlando LeFleming Trio put on the most subtle show I've seen so far at the festival. The sad thing is, by day eight, a lot of people are jaded by too much impressive music and the attitude seems to be "show me something new." So, during this beautiful set, three quarters of the audience left.
LeFleming is an excellent up-and-coming bassist. He's also a fine bandleader in terms of arrangements and his choice of band mates. On guitar was Lage Lund, whose sound is absolutely wondrous. And on saxophone was Will Vinson, another great young player. On tunes like "Dear Lord," one of John Coltrane's most beautiful ballads, Lund's gorgeous playing, Vinson's sinuous sound, and LeFleming's sturdy anchoring made for a dream-like sound in a perfect setting (even for an atheist). Too bad people didn't have the patience for it.
I ended the night with The Music of Gil Evans with Ryan Truesdell at Montage. Truesdell led the young musicians from the Eastman School of Music in a concert of early arrangements by arguably the greatest arranger in jazz history, Gil Evans. Somehow the 20 musicians of this really big band, plus Truesdell, fit on the Montage stage. And, despite noise from the bar, they sounded great.
On a range of tunes, from "Just One Of Those Things" to "Struttin' With Some Barbeque," Evans' arrangements were gems. No one was ever more elegant or varied in his voicings of parts to back up and accent the work of soloists. With its lush harmonies and beautiful melodies, the most sublime arrangement of the night was Evans' "Blues For Pablo."
On the final night of the festival I'll be starting with guitarist/singer Raul Midon at Kilbourn Hall. Then I'll hear the excellent pianist Joanne Brackeen at Hatch Recital Hall and the superb clarinetist Arun Ghosh's Quintet at ChristChurch. How will you wrap up the 2012 edition of XRIJF?
Started off entirely on the jazz tip tonight as I took in The Bridge Trio at Max of Eastman Place. The group was impressively tight and impeccably dressed as it ventured in and out of the riffs and shapes each musician created. It was righteously crisp and quite cool.
Headed over to the East and Chestnut stage to get down with The Po' Boys Brass Band as the band got down with a fresh line-up. Man, these guys were funkified, with an amped-up emphasis on vocal call and response with the increasingly frenzied crowd. And when I say funky, I mean funkier than a port-a-potty at a chili cook-off. The band played, jaws dropped, eyeballs bugged, and hips went back and forth in a bodacious blur to the Po' Boys' brass balls and groove.
Norah Jones has the prettiest voice, and she sings with a storied innocence over her gentle pop. Kodak Hall was packed to the walls with fans of the chanteuse. Many in the crowd recalled Jones' show here at Jazz Fest No. 1, when she played at Max. The problem with that trip down memory lane is, it's kind of like those who remember being at Woodstock . There are tons more people that brag about it compared with the amount who were actually there. Anyhow, I was there -- last night, anyway -- to hear Jones' sensuous noir. Her voice lilted and floated like the flock of origami birds flying over the stage. Her gentle nonchalance remained throughout, even when she picked up the guitar to add some sinister tremolo twang. I could have used more of that, honestly. I mean, her new album cover is an homage to Russ Meyer, which indicated to me that perhaps she was heading in a raunchier direction. That I would have dug deep, if she'd gone for it with her terrific band. By the way, you really should have seen her red shoes.
I would've stayed longer to await the arrival of the devil in Miss Jones, but one of my all-time guitar heroes, Jimmie Vaughan and the Tilt-A-Whirl Band, was playing the East and Chestnut stage. The band --which includes ex-Fabulous Thunderbirds, Little Charlie and the Nightcats' bassist Ronnie James, and ex-Useless Playboys guitarist Billy Pitman -- delivered a two-hour haymaker punch full of swingin' blues and Vaughan 's signature ducktails and Texas twang. He brought along blues belter Lou Ann Barton for added thrills, and she sang with mucho seasoned reserve and moxie. The overall sound was in the swing vein -- a hot-ass horn section will veer you in that direction -- with a generous dose of the blues. It was awesome.
Saturday night I can't wait to see the Sadies; it's gonna be a bloodbath. Where are you headed for the final night of the fest?
Well, every night can't be a face-melting, accordion-fueled dance party.
After the zydeco chaos that was Thursday at the Jazz Fest, Friday night I operated on the more traditional and laid-back end of the jazz musical spectrum.
First up was the Rochester Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra under the Big Tent. Another big band from Rochester (in case the name didn't give it away), the group was made up of local community members playing big-band charts. This group, and groups like it, are the backbone of our local music scene, and it's great that the festival gives time to local acts admidst everything else it has going on. The vocalist's singing reminded me of Las Vegas (or at least "CSI," which is as close to Vegas as I've come), which was a nice touch. But the group had a few snafus here and there and just didn't blow me away. It did pick some cool pieces and had some neat stuff here and there, but it just wasn't as extraordinary as some of the acts this week have been.
(But, to be fair, I did cheat a bit and caught some of Dwayne Depsie and the ZydecoHellraier's free Jazz Street stage set. I won't say anything else, as I said it all yesterday).
From there I headed over to Xerox Auditorium to catch the RobiBotos Trio. The group, featuring Botos himself on piano, as well as string bass and drums, was one of the better-suited acts for the auditorium I've seen this festival. Starting off simply, quietly, the group soon took on the characteristics of a locomotive: quiet start, wheels slowly churning, steam starting to pour, and then a relaxing, yet steady, speed taking over. At top speed the group wasn't quite at a jet-engine roar, but even a musical train can chug powerfully along and give its passengers a pleasant ride. I was glad I gave the group a chance, and the string bass solos were quite enjoyable.
But, before heading over to Xerox I did manage to catch a shorter-than-I-would-have-liked glimpse of the Po' Boys Brass Band, a local high-energy funk-rock outfit that's always a treat. It seems that the rumors I heard that the band was now sans tuba player (a mortal sin) actually aren't true. The group does have a tuba player, just one that alternates on electric bass (only a venial sin). Either way, the group always rocks. How about we end on that note tonight? Carry on, my wayward sons.
It can be somewhat difficult to consider your parents as human beings, as individuals with hopes and dreams and desires of their own. Well, as uncomfortable as it may sound, I watched my mother fall in love with bass saxophonist Colin Stetson Thursday night. Stetson is one of those acts at this year's Jazz Fest that paid off for those who took the chance. His association with Tom Waits made my mind up in a hurry, and suggested an evening of non-conformist, antagonistic glee. I know I'm onto something whenever there's an exodus for the door after the first tune.
Stetson took to the Kilbourn Hall stage silently, strapped on his bass saxophone -- or rather strapped himself to it. It's an instrument so big that it needs license plates, and emits a tone so big and hellacious and hypnotic that it threatened to replace the air in Kilbourn Hall. The valves were so big on this behemoth that they added an audible tap and rhythm to the multi-octave madness, the looped tones and occasional shouts.
It was hard to decipher how Stetson created this cacophony, and what actually came first in his parade of tones as it swirled big and bad toward its climax. Best club show yet. I think I saw mom slip him her phone number.
Caught a bit of Ruthie Foster and The Family Band's second set at the Harro East Ballroom. Foster sings strong and soulful, and she has a broad, mainstream appeal. The audience ate her up. She was good. And that's the problem. With artists like Colin Stetson flipping my wig, the bar has been raised. Sometimes good just don't cut it. This year's line-up has turned me into a spoiled brat.
I said the other night that steel guitar was like catsup; it's good on everything. Well apparently Daryl Hall feels the same way about reverb as the entire mix for his show at Kodak Hall sounded as if it were mixed by The Ventures. His band was tight, particularly in the vocal department. Hall raged and raved with his blue-eyed soul. But I've got to say, the night belonged to Keb' Mo', whose succinct guitar playing and singing (picture a young, skinnier Lou Rawls) came off casual and cool while splashing in Lake Reverb.
I was especially looking forward to St. Louis' Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three, and the band didn't disappoint me, or what appeared to be the biggest -- and most rabid -- crowd in the Abilene tent so far. The group's aw-shucks, Mayberry shtick was genre-appropriate and didn't get in the way of the band's old-timey gramophone strain. I mean, they had 78s for sale and everything. It was Tin Pan Alley with hints of Western swing and gypsy jazz. I would almost say it was the best night so far, but I'm going to see one of my all-time favorite guitar players, Jimmie Vaughan, tonight.
The stage was set up in an unusual way for Daryl Hall and Keb' Mo's appearance Thursday night at Kodak Hall. Surrounding the back and side walls of the stage was a faux-wood recreation of the music room where Hall hosts "Live From Daryl's House." The webcast features a wide variety of musicians who come to jam with Hall and his band. Aside from the preoccupation with food that is part of every one of the shows, Hall and Keb' Mo's performance preserved a large share of the spirit of the webcast.
Hall had an enormously successful career in pop music in the duo Hall & Oates with John Oates. Now he's found a way to explore his roots -- like the blues and R&B that Keb' Mo' plays -- in a jam-session setting and he's clearly having the time of his life. Of course, playing with some of the most accomplished rock musicians to be found anywhere on the stage, it's not exactly a loose jam session. But it still had a pretty free feel to it.
Hall looked perpetually hip and youthful in jeans, a black t-shirt, and black leather jacket. Keb' Mo' (short for Kevin Moore) was even slicker, lean as can be and wearing an exceedingly cool fedora.
Hall definitely got a kick out of singing Keb' Mo' songs like "My Baby's Tellin' Lies" and "The Whole Enchilada." And he clearly admired Keb' Mo's touching song, "We Don't Need It." For his part, Keb' Mo' was more than willing to chime in with a verse or two on Hall songs like "Maneater" and "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)." The latter was preceded by a little conversation typical of the back and forth between Hall and Keb' Mo' all night:
Keb' Mo': "That's a bad-ass song!"
Hall: "You know why it's a bad-ass song? I wrote it about the record business."
Many of the Eastman Theatre shows I've seen at XRIJFs over the years have been elaborately choreographed down to the stage patter. This one was refreshingly loose.
I had planned to hear two excellent visiting guitarists tonight. Unfortunately, Mark McKnight never made it to ChristChurch. He apparently had travel problems. But Bjorn Thoroddsen was on stage at the LutheranChurch displaying his dazzling guitar skills.
On a solo medley of Beatles tunes he played rhythm, lead, and bass simultaneously, tossed in harmonics, and added percussion while keeping the bass going. Without missing a beat, he ran through "Here Comes The Sun," "Day Tripper," and "Norwegian Wood," increasing the complexity as the performance progressed.
Friday I will hear newly discovered arrangements by the great Gil Evans when Ryan Truesdell's band (from the EastmanSchool) takes the stage at Montage. Then I'll head for ChristChurch, where Orlando LeFleming's excellent trio will be playing. I'll try to fit in French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc at Hatch Hall. And, finally, I will see the current group -- Fountain of Youth Band -- of the legendary drummer Roy Haynes at Kilbourn Hall.
There are only two nights left of the festival. What are you hoping to see before it wraps up Saturday?
You have certain expectations when a band has the word "hellraisers" in its title.
So, Rochester, let me tell you a little story about Dwayne Dopsie & The ZydecoHellraisers.
The band came out on the Big Tent stage Thursday night jamming, but with accordionist and front man Dopsie nowhere to be seen. His saxophonist jumped right into the crowd, getting the partying and dancing started as the rest of the band worked to pump things up. Electric guitar blaring, washboard rocking up and down, metal clicking and clanking.
Not your typical start to a concert.
And then, like waiting just the right amount of time before pulling the curtain back on a play, Dopsie walked -- no, pranced -- out on stage, picked up the accordion, and started blowing the crowd's faces off, one at a time. He didn't raise hell, he strode into it, kicked out Beelzebub, tore the place down, and rebuilt it as an altar to sweaty, zydeco-fueled rock parties made from the underworld's ashes.
That said,Dopsie's solos were more like something out of heaven, surrounded by the loud and raucous band behind him. But boy, he played the living shit out of that squeeze box. There's a reason he refers to himself as the King of Accordion, a title he earned making all the crowd members vassals in his new kingdom.
And that was all while chewing gum. Some people can't walk and chew gum at the same time. Dopsie was cool as can be on stage, yet the sweat was pouring from his head as his fingers flew faster than blazes.
At one point during another player's solo, Dopsie ran off stage, started a dancing line around the tent, and sorry to break the journalistic fourth wall, but as I ran over to grab a shot, he stopped, posed with the fan he was with, shook my hand, and danced away.
Classy as always, folks.
I left thinking that Dwayne Dopsie & the ZydecoHellraisers are to zydeco what Flogging Molly is to Irish music, what Gogol Bordello is to gypsy music, and what awesome is to awesome music. It was one of the best groups, if not THE best group, I've ever see at the Jazz Fest, and an amazing performance of the musical arts.
Earlier in the night, I also got to check out TerjeRypdal & The Bergen Big Band at Xerox Auditorium. The group was dark, ambient, tonal, and moody, which stood out amongst most other acts at the festival. It scratched my itch for the low end of the musical register, though I didn't think it would be at the hand of a group's clarinet section, which started off the show and eerily danced among the lower ranges of woodwind sound.
The group produced some weird, weird stuff, and that's why it stood out. It was almost spooky in its arrangements. And like a good thriller, the show gripped my attention; it put listeners on the edge of their seats, never knowing which twists or turns (or goblins) would be around the next corner.
And last but not least, I got to see Rochester blues band the Barrel House Blues Band on the Fusion Stage. The group was as hot as the weather, combining rocking blues guitar and great blues vocals. I know it's a little easy, but I just can't resist: the group was a barrel of fun.