Perhaps it was his comedic timing and wit, or maybe it was his genuine charm. Or maybe it was his crisp blue suit. But wait...could it have been the bluegrass? Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers put on a simply amazing show full of humor and instrumental dexterity. And both the laughs and musical prowess helped to give the sold-out Kodak Hall crowd at the band's Wednesday matinee a crash course in bluegrass.
Now, purists may balk, and I'm inclined to agree somewhat, but Martin and the band ("They're not my band, I'm their celebrity," Martin explained) played music beyond bluegrass. I credit Martin's compositions, as he interjected a little more melody than the genre typically offers. That was tied together with the smoothly (and sometimes savagely) bowed strokes of fiddle player Nicky Sanders sawing away amidst the rest of the band's percussive plunk and twank. In addition, the band's use of minor keys gave it all a melancholy luster and appeal.
Martin's between-song banter was hilarious and, frankly, I didn't want the show to end. I know, I know; a little bit of bluegrass goes a long way. Yet I -- Mr. Give-me-an-old-Gibson-through-a-Deluxe-Reverb-turned-up-to-10-any-day -- didn't want this to end.
But it did, so I popped in to check Eastman gradShiranthaBeddage's Quintet at Max of Eastman Place where his tone got me thinking. If you're not around when a note is first struck, strummed, tapped, blown, or sung, you may not be able to tell its instrument of origin. If they had been played without their breathy, tell-tale launch, the notes coming from Beddage's baritone sax had hints of bowed notes and traces of a human voice. I don't know, maybe I'm explaining it wrong.
A lot of this esoteric pondering happens in the presence of more exploratory ensembles likeFfear, which played Wednesday at the Lutheran Church, where the group shifted gears between time signatures at least half a dozen times...in the first tune. By the time you latched onto the piece's progression and intention, Ffear was onto its next rhythmic boondoggle. Even so, the band was fun and very listenable.
I finished the night rocked in the conventional arms of Yvette Landry's sturdy honky-tonkin' country at Abilene. And man, what a smile. The lady and her band rocked steady with frequent blasts of slip-slidin' twang from her amazing steel player. Steel guitar is like catsup; it's good on everything.
On Thursday night I'm looking forward to watching Colin Stetson get buck-weird with the bass sax, along with other jazzy, jivey delights. What are you planning to see?
Eliane Elias wowed the crowd at Kilbourn Hall Wednesday night in a show filled with sambas and bossa novas from her native Brazil. For decades Elias has been known as a formidable pianist; in recent years her singing has become an equally important part of her music. She sang songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim and others in the original Portuguese. Only on "Call Me" and on the bridge in "The Girl From Ipanema" did she sing in English.
But there was no language barrier. She knew all of the songwriters personally and was very funny in her descriptions of their lyrics, especially when they related to sexy women. And speaking of sexy women, at the age of 52 Elias is blonde and beautiful. She was wearing a low-cut black dress and, at one point got up to dance while singing a song about a blonde dancing. Who else can sing a sexy song, dance a sexy dance, and then sit down at the piano and play a solo to rival McCoy Tyner?
Her band was excellent throughout, but only on the last tune did her bassist (and husband), Marc Johnson, and drummer, Rafael Barata, unleash fantastic solos. After a standing ovation, the group came back and played two more songs.
Earlier in the evening I caught the adventurous quintet Kneebody at Montage. The group, composed mostly (four out of five) of Eastman School of Music graduates, opened with a large, driving beat, drums and bass in perfect sync. With the keyboard swirling around, the front-line trumpet and sax players took off in another direction, countering the beat and making for a manic dance.
The piece eventually slowed down to an ethereal horn harmony, but that didn't last long. The saxophonist put down his instrument and went over to assist the powerhouse drummer (as if he needed help) and things became downright tribal, complete with the elephant that the trumpet had morphed into. And that was just the first tune.
I also saw saxophonist Osian Roberts, trumpeter Steve Fishwick, and their band at Christ Church. With his English accent and Beatle hairstyle, Roberts looked like he could have been part of the British invasion of the mid-1960's. But when he picked up his sax it was clear that he was rooted in older music, the hard bop of the late 1950's/early 1960's.
Roberts and Fishwick are both outstanding straight-ahead players, but that doesn't mean straight and narrow. Every solo started close to the melody, but as they progressed through the choruses both musicians would venture further and further out. There were some excellent original tunes, notably "New Bossa" and "Uptown Shuffle" by Fishwick, but the highlight for me was their rendition of Grant Green's "Jean de Fleur." The group lurched out of the gate and, driven by Rochester drummer Mike Melito, never lost the momentum.
Thursday night I will see the inside of Kodak Hall for the first time this festival when I check out Daryl Hall and Keb Mo in a special traveling edition of "Live From Daryl's House." I'll also check in at the churches to catch two guitarists: Mark McKnight at Christ Church and Bjorn Thoroddsen the Lutheran Church.
What shows did you enjoy the most on Wednesday night? Where will you be heading on Thursday?
If there's a shortcut to my musical heart, it lies with the Celtic-leaning instruments: the fiddle, the banjo, the accordion. They aren't often seen in jazz music, but one act Wednesday night took that shortcut and ran down the path.
Bill Evans Soulgrass exists in a magical place where the roads to many different styles of music cross, mingle, and set up camp and hang out for a while, resulting in a sound featuring parts jazz, bluegrass, funk, blues, and some good ol' rock and roll. Oh, and it has a banjo (which could have been turned up a bit, I hasten to note).
Breaking the pieces apart, I wasn't entirely sure how well the set-up would work as a whole, cohesive unit. The electric guitar solos would not have been out of place at a stadium-rock concert, the banjo twanging was right out of Americana, the vocals veered between rock and roll and sultry blues, and the sax playing was everything here, there, and in-between.
But, the moment that really defined the early show at Harro East was the duet played between Evans and his banjo player. It was a raging onslaught of plucked strings and blown air that created my single standout moment of the festival so far. Evans said that the song, "Katie Hill," tended to piss off both the bluegrass and jazz crowds, as neither would consider this rendition a pure form of either genre of music. That didn't matter, as it was awesome, and did everything but piss off this reviewer. Purists be damned.
Now, if a banjo is a surefire way to enter my heart, the opposite can be said of the baritone sax. As a tuba player I've always had a long-running rivalry between that certain woodwind instrument that also plays low notes.
But, even still, I went to check out the Shirantha Beddage Quartet at Max of Eastman Place. Beddage actually used to go to school at Eastman and work at the RIJF, so it was cool seeing somebody who had worked their way up back playing at the festival. I was a little disappointed that Beddage spent most of his time playing the bari sax like it was an alto sax, though. Sure, it goes to prove that a great bari player can play anything that a great alto player can play, but it didn't really take advantage of the lower register like I would have hoped. I would have liked to have seen a little of that low-down honking ,if you know what I mean.
Last but not least I swung by the Fusion stage to check out Russell Scarborough Soul Jazz Big Band. The group read like a Who's Who of Rochester musicians, and it was great to be reminded during the festival of all the musical talent that you can see in town year round. The group was exceptionally tight and bright. The group kept things in check, though, staying a little on the mellower side of swing, and I wish I could have caught a few more of Scarborough's original compositions. The featured solo work stood out the most, including the great saxophonist Bill Tiberio, who is always a treat, and a trumpet solo by a name that I just missed catching.
The week may be winding down, but the festival isn't. Thursday night I've got Terje Rypdal & Bergen Big Band, Barrel House Blues Band, and Dwayne Dopsie & Zydeco Hellraisers. Looking forward to a little blues and hell raising myself. Where are you planning to go Thursday night?
Tuesday night, Canadian singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan, performing with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, brought down the house at the Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua (CMAC). For a good two hours McLachlan sang from more than 20 years of songs, ranging from classics we know by heart ("Adia," "Building a Mystery") to selections from her more recent CD, "Laws of Illusion" ("Rivers of Love," "Love Come").
CMAC was the third stop on a three-week tour in which McLachlan will perform throughout the United States and Canada with more than a dozen symphonies. Accompanying McLachlan on the tour is arranger and conductor Sean O'Loughlin, profiled earlier this month by City.
The weather was picture perfect. The stage at CMAC comfortably accommodated about 50 musicians from the RPO, along with McLachlan's band of bass guitar, acoustic guitar, synthesizers, and drums, as well as her own electric piano and acoustic guitar. And the expanse of CMAC as a covered/open-air venue extending back to a grassy knoll handily suited McLachlan's enormous vocals.
McLachlan performed for approximately two hours, most of the songs featuring the RPO. About mid-way through the second set, starting with "Adia," McLachlan began to let go and open up her voice. By the time she spun into the final four songs ("Possession," "Bring On the Wonder," "Angel," and "Ice Cream"), she had the audience thronging the stage, holding up cell-phone camera screens where once lighters would have been aflame.
So let's get right to the bottom line on this new adventure for McLachlan: at the end of this symphony tour, McLachlan should lock herself in Eastman Theatre with the RPO and conductor/arranger Sean O'Loughlin and not emerge until they can deliver what could readily become the CD of her career.
Two weeks ago, I interviewed O'Loughlin for City, and he staked the claim that even longtime fans of McLachlan would find her entree into the world of a classical symphony to be a fresh experience. As someone who has lived with McLachlan's music as part of my life for more than two decades, O'Loughlin's claim was no exaggeration. Last night's symphony concert was the beginning of something great for McLachlan.
The first song of the second set was "Good Enough," and it was the best example of the possibilities of this new approach. For that song, McLachlan grabbed her 12-string, back-up singers Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet, dropped her drummer, and allowed the RPO to do what O'Loughlin is capable of arranging it to do. O'Loughlin's tempo brought the song from being sad into being soulful. The RPO string section became consistently audible, and the score not only enhanced McLachlan's melody, it took on a newer, deeper shape.
Between O'Loughlin's classical training and the excellence of the RPO, other songs, like "Forgiveness," transformed from the edge of bitter to matured introspection. O'Loughlin's arrangements were logical progressions of the original songs. He lost none of the elements that created McLachlan's hits, but he took the natural power of McLachlan's voice and pushed it to new heights through the use of the symphony as an instrument.
This notion of "cross-over" artists into the world of classical is an interesting one. For me, McLachlan's vocal command, range, and natural stage presence mean that she can easily let go of pop elements like a standard drum set and utilize the RPO's percussion section, which would also give her a much greater range of instrument textures and tones for some of the prominent rhythms in, for example, "World on Fire" and "Full of Grace." Then, too, with a gem like "Sweet Surrender," she could actually bring the oboist center stage and connect with the oboe as a soloist, the way she is used to doing a back-and-forth with other guitarists on stage.
And, just to make sure my role as a troublemaker is complete, I would be hugely curious to see what would emerge if McLachlan and O'Loughlin were to collaborate in writing a completely new piece of music from scratch, pairing her talent for melody with his knowledge of orchestral scoring.
Two thumbs up for McLachlan, O'Loughlin, and the RPO. I can only put it out there that if McLachlan heads into the studio with O'Loughlin to pursue this concept, she would be well served to have the RPO by her side.
On Tuesday night, ex-Dirty Dozen Brass Band denizen Big Sam and his new group, Funky Nation, didn't just entertain, it commanded and demanded participation, reciprocation, and overall elation from the packed Harro East Ballroom crowd. It was a little less New Orleans than I had expected, but it had folks on their feet, reaching for the ceiling throughout the show. This band is a powder keg with no fuse.
The evening continued with a classic big-band bang thanks to The Jack Allen Big Band in the Big Tent. As always, Allen drove the bus, conducting his band through the music's sweet subtleties. Besides its fearless leader's charm, this band's reed section is creamier than caramel in a sauna. Good music to put you in the mood.
The question going through my head -- along with Wynonie Harris' "Don't Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes At Me" -- was could Zappa really do Zappa? Was Dweezible feasible? The answer is, kind of. Dweezil Zappa brought his painstakingly accurate send-up to his dad, the late Frank Zappa, to Kodak Hall last night. Whether it was show-opener "Sexual Harassment in the Workplace" or the bass-heavy "Apostrophe," the band was deadly accurate.
However, it was also plagued by sound issues with its monitors, which Zappa explained as soon as the band hit the stage. This was unnecessary, as it took the steam out of what could've been an explosive entrance. The drummer even stormed off the stage before the show got underway and a feeling of tension remained throughout the show. Still, all in all, the music was excellent and loud. Zappa's guitar sounded great, even on a fantastic rendition of Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption" followed by "Somebody Get Me A Doctor" sung by a cat in spandex and a blonde wig. It was kind of how I remember my prom date.
Slipped into Abilene post-Zappa, where they boogied real slow with the blue light way down low to dig NYC's Clinton Curtis. The band reminded me a lot of The Dave Matthews Band, only here the band members took turns soloing. It was funky and fun with a hint o' jam.
Wednesday night I'm going to see that wild and crazy guy and The Steep Canyon Rangers at Kodak Hall. Where will you be heading?
I only had one show at the Jazz Fest Tuesday night -- contrary to popular belief, other types of music do still go on during the festival, and I'll have a full photo slideshow of Motion City Soundtrack's Water Street show up on City's Facebook in the morning. But at least my one jazz show of the evening was a good one.
Coming to us via Scotland, Tommy Smith & Karma put out an enjoyable blend of styles, cultures, and tastes. You could hear the varied world influences throughout the songs, from Scottish and Irish folk tunes, to fiercer rock-heavy songs held together by strong drum work, and I swear I heard some Egyptian sax lines thrown in there as well.
The group had the extremes worked out quite well. It was soft and serene at its sweetest moments, and strong, confident, and energetic during its bellowing louder sections. It was a good variety and showed off the group's dynamics, no pun intended. The musicians' range and skill was further showcased in the feature solo sections. Not often have I heard a soft, almost weeping, electric bass solo, but here one was, and Smith's sax work went from whispery to wild and back again.
Unfortunately for the slower and softer numbers, Xerox Auditorium was quite quite echoey, to the point where even Smith called it a cave. It made me wonder if amplification was even needed for this smaller venue. It wasn't very noticeable during the louder tunes, but some of the very intimate and on-pins-and-needles solos were working against the acoustics of the theater. Regardless it was an enjoyable show, wide in its scope and great in its execution, even if it wasn't quite as Celtic as I would have hoped.
Wednesday I'm back to triple duty for the festival, with Bill Evans Soulgrass (which may be the group I'm most excited for this whole week), Rich Thompson Trio Generation, and Shirantha Beddage. Where are you planning to head Wednesday night?
There were few fireworks from the Benny Green Trio Tuesday night in Kilbourn Hall, just a solid concert. Green had great support in the bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, who are not related but probably have played together more than any other musicians in New York.
The program featured salutes to colleagues, including "Tales of Malone," dedicated to Green's long-time collaborator guitarist Russell Malone, and "Jackie Mclean," written for the late saxophonist. There were a variety of compositional styles on display, from a nicely structured samba ("Magic Beans") to a slow blues with some unconventional turns ("Golden Flamingo"). But the best tune of the night, with some unison lines played mile-a-minute fashion, was Thelonious Monk's "52nd Street Theme."
The music was more urgent at the Lutheran Church when the Scandinavian group IPA took the stage. The quartet had no pianist, so it was up to the bassist and drummer to keep the decidedly agitated rhythm moving under fiery solos from the saxophonist and trumpeter. They were more than up to the task.
Although IPA is one of the most avant-garde acts to visit the festival this year, the group managed to hold on to the vast majority of the audience for the entire show. This might have been due to a wise strategy of alternating the wild rides with some more melodic tunes. The best of the latter was a calypso tune that reminded me of "St. Thomas" by Sonny Rollins. Sure enough, it was dedicated to Rollins and another saxophonist, Albert Ayler, who was an inspiration on the avant-garde side.
I had a tough time getting a handle on NeWt, a trio from Scotland at Christ Church. Only one of them was actually Scottish (the others were Australian and Canadian), but they all were wearing kilts, which seemed a bit over the top. It was, I must say, an unusual combination of instruments: electric guitar, trombone, and drums.
They told stories like the one about traveling to the farthest reaches of Scotland, the Shetland Islands, and, while walking on a cliff-side, encountering giant birds that could have carried them off. This and other stories were evocative inspirations for songs. The trouble was I could not feel any connection between what they played and the things they talked about. That is, until the very end. It was then that they mentioned an old Royal Air Force base they came upon and proceeded to play a piece that nicely evoked military excess.
Wednesday evening I'll be at Kilbourn Hall where the wonderful pianist/singer Eliane Elias performs. I'll be back at Christ Church to hear saxophonist Osian Roberts, trumpeter Steve Fishwick, and their group and, finally, Montage for the nicely wild group, Kneebody.
Where did you go on Tuesday night? What was your favorite show? Leave your reviews in the comments.
It's rare that I'll chance missing a lot of groovy new stuff I've never heard and instead stick around to see an artist's second set. But I really had no choice; Kim Lenz had us wrapped around her finger so tight that by the time she and her band, The Jaguars, were done, we all looked like stretched-out Slinkys on the dance floor. Lenz and her band absolutely rocked Abilene Monday night with pure, uncut, unfiltered, unadulterated, undulating rockabilly. You can lay a lot of the blame on the flame-haired Lenz's Janis Martin-fueled
I caught Teagan and The Tweeds at the RG&E tent for the band's early set. I enjoyed watching the crowd get off on the band. It occurred to me as I watched the group plow through an audience of first-timers, that this is one diverse band -- nobody matches. And yet the sound is as awesome as it is diverse, all tied together with The Tweeds' shared energy. Teagan and The Tweeds are big, bluesy, ballsy, and bad-ass. It's real rock 'n' roll. You remember rock 'n' roll, don't you? It figures it would take a jazz festival to remind us.
Tuesday night I'm going to big band it with The Jack Allen Big Band before seeing Dweezil Zappa at Kodak Hall. I'll be holding out for "Titties and Beer." What do you want to hear, sluggo?
You can have Heaven. Hearing Eldar play "Rhapsody In Blue" on a perfectly tuned Steinway piano in Hatch Hall Monday night is enough for me. He played it a little faster than usual, and a little bluesier, kind of like the original rendition by George Gershwin himself. It was the perfect ending (save the encore) to a wonderful set by Eldar who, though now in his mid 20s, still looks like a teenage prodigy.
In an hour-long set he played standards like "I Should Care" and "Embraceable You," jazz classics like "Moanin,'" and original compositions like "Hope." The common denominator was insanely brilliant technique. I don't think I've ever seen hands move across a keyboard as fast as his did. But it would be nothing if it were merely dazzling; he is also a supremely sensitive player.
Eldar was on fire from the start, but things got even more intense when he segued from his own tune, "The Exorcist," into Prokofiev's B-flat Sonata, his hands spidering over the keys. That was just the beginning. Next came "Rhapsody In Blue," an incredibly challenging piece requiring equal measures of classical mastery and jazz sensibility. Eldar took it in stride, cross-hand parts and all. He got the largest ovation (in the smallest hall) that I've witnessed so far at the XRIJF.
As for the two trumpet players I said I was so anxious to see in last night's blog, I was disappointed by both. Terence Blanchard led a fine band at Kilbourn Hall. And there were great solos by his pianist Fabian Almazan and saxophonist Brice Winston. But Blanchard himself was more into electronic gimmicks. The first one he used, producing an echo when he played, made him sound like the Kenny G of trumpet. The second, which somehow made his single trumpet notes into chords, had a side-effect of shrillness.
Blanchard used the recorded voice of Cornell West at the beginning and in the middle of his composition, "Choice." After hearing West say, "Beethoven said music is deeper than philosophy," I couldn't help wondering why I was listening to the voice of a philosopher instead of the music.
But Nicholas Payton at Xerox Auditorium was the biggest disappointment. The group was a trio with a bassist, a drummer, and Payton on trumpet and keyboards. At the same time. There were exceptions, but much of the time Payton had his right hand on the trumpet keys and his left on the keyboard, doing justice to neither. I kept wondering why I was listening to one of the best trumpet players in the world noodling on the electric piano.
At one point he began repeating the first phrase from Miles Davis' "Milestones." Just the first phrase. Once in a while, with two hands on the trumpet he would start to get into something interesting, but not for long. It might have gotten better, but after a half hour, I'd had enough. Simple is one thing, simplistic is another. This was the latter.
Tuesday night will be a bit more on the avant-garde side for me. I'll be hearing IPA at the LutheranChurch and NeWt at ChristChurch. But, I'll keep one foot in the mainstream with the Benny Green Trio at Kilbourn Hall.
Where did you go Monday night? What shows are you most looking forward to on Tuesday?
If Sunday night at the Jazz Festival was all about extremes, Monday was all about expectations. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Jeff Lorber Fusion at Harro East. I had written a preview on the group a few months back, and knew that Lorber has put music together for such wide-ranging projects as the Weather Channel and "Castlevania" video games, but that was about it. And that's a pretty big field to walk around in.
Lorber, however, was quite sure of himself and the masterful musicians he brought with him. All smiles as he jammed along and tinkled the ivory, his group put on one of the most entertaining and enjoyable sets I've seen at the festival yet this year. Each member of the group had stunning solos, and it was a seemingly endless string of them, going from keys, to saxophone, to bass, and drums, and back again. I've always been a fan of jazz improv; I think it's where the genre really shines and differentiates itself from other types of music. These were some top-notch musicians offering up great examples of the art.
Lorber himself even needed two pianos to contain his prowess. I've never seen somebody straddled between both a keyboard and traditional piano, easily going back and forth between them, sometimes playing both with different hands. It takes some smooth skill to pull it all off, and Lorber and crew had no problem bringing it in droves.
Next up I had back-to-back trips to the more Latin side of jazz. First was Pedrito Martinez Group at MontageMusic Hall, and then Rochester-based CalleUnoon the Jazz Street stage. I was excited for both acts, as I've really started to take a liking to more Spanish and world-influenced groups. So, my hopes were a little high.
The Pedrito Martinez Group focused around Martinez's conga playing, joined by a keyboard, electric bass, and another percussion player. And I'm not sure what it was, but I just couldn't get into the set. Perhaps with a mostly percussion-based band it can be hard to really show off. The sparse instrumentation leaves room for mostly rhythmic-based fluctuations, but I just couldn't get behind the group's Afro-Cuban beats.
I was also surprised when the band completely stopped in the middle of one song to have the sound guy turn the volume down. I've rarely, if ever, seen a band complain that they were too loud, and even rarer still is a group stopping dead in the middle of a song for any reason. I'll be the first person to complain when things are louder than they need to be, and even with Montage's tight quarters this was by no means blaring.
On the other hand, I still think that the Jazz Street stage is often turned up too loud, and I was also unable to get into CalleUno as much as I had hoped. The group played through a salsa-inspired set, and perhaps something was simply lost in the translation this time.
It's not like either group was bad, or made any glaring mistakes. The groups might have been hot and spicy to some, but I guess I like my heat (and music) a little hotter than most. They were both examples of safe and standard Cuban percussion and salsa groups; I just wasn't blown away like I was hoping to be.
Tuesday night I've only got one Jazz Fest show, Tommy Smith & Karma, but I'll also be checking out Motion City Soundtrack at Water Street Music Hall. I'll have thoughts on both shows on the blog, and back in full swing with three Jazz Fest groups on Wednesday.
Where did you go Monday night? What shows are you most looking forward to on Tuesday?