Last time Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey appeared at the RIJF, it was obvious the band members were excellent musicians, but the set didn't impress me as anything special. Sunday night at Xerox Auditorium the group rose to a higher level. Aside from some personnel changes, JFJO, which hails from Tulsa, OK, recently recorded an ambitious concept album, consisting of music inspired by the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Playing with a purpose, the group was superb.
"Race Riot Suite," by lap-steel guitarist Chris Combs, consists of 12 parts, all musical chapters in the race-riot narrative. All that pianist (and founding member of the group) Brian Haas said at the start of the show was that in 1921 Tulsa had the wealthiest African-American community in America, and in one day it was burned down. The group then proceeded to play the entire album. The suite is a tone poem of sorts, a soundscape of the community, the horror, and the aftermath with cultural references and plenty of chaos, convulsion, and turbulence.
Musically, there was not a dull second. Traditional-sounding jazz was employed in a historical context; the expressive flexibility of the music used in the storytelling, and, in this context, free jazz was enlisted to represent literal chaos. The bassist, drummer, and Combs were all outstanding for their versatility, expressiveness and endurance.
Mark Southerland was remarkable on tenor sax and an invented instrument with the head of a sax, the tail of a trumpet, and a hose in between. He muted it to guttural effect and twirled it in the air like a lasso as he walked into the audience. And Hass was a virtuosic whirlwind at the piano, using the instrument as an expressive, percussive vehicle for this extraordinary ride.
It was a great night for musicians with concepts. Ninety Miles at Kilbourn Hall consisted of three stars -- vibraphonist/marimbist Stefon Harris, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and saxophonist David Sánchez -- who also decided to explore new territory. The name of the group refers to the distance from Florida to Cuba, and the purpose of the project is to indulge in the musical legacy of Cuba.
While an album of the same name was recorded in Havana with Cuban musicians, only one of the musicians on stage -- the percussionist -- was Cuban. But, aside from Payton and Harris, all of the others were from Latin-American countries and the feel of the set was decidedly Afro-Cuban. All three of the leaders had ample opportunity to stretch out on inventive solos, with Harris displaying unbelievable technique playing marimba and vibraphone at the same time at mallet-blurring speeds.
I also caught the Scottish group Breach at ChristChurch, which turned out not to be the best venue for this electronic trio. Because of the church's excellent acoustics, amplified sound doesn't work well and it was sometimes difficult to balance the electric guitar, B-3 organ, and drums.
When the sound was not straining, Breach's strength was apparent, as evidenced by its performance of organist Paul Harrison's "The City From The Window." Guitarist Graeme Stephen began showcasing his electronic arsenal in a solo live and looped. Then Harrison came in on the B-3, which was perhaps the original "special effects" instrument used in jazz. All this time drummer Chris Wallace was building an undercurrent until his driving rhythm made its way to the front and became, in a way, the melody riding above the guitar and organ patterns.
Monday looks to me like the night of the trumpet. That's because the Terence Blanchard Quintet is playing at Kilbourn Hall and Nicholas Payton is at the Xerox Auditorium. They are two of the greatest trumpet players in the world and I'll be there, and there.
In between -- if I can get in -- I'll check out Eldar at the (in this case) way-too-small Hatch Recital Hall. Better get there really early for this one.
Caught a few songs from Catherine Russell's sensational swing set at the Harro East Ballroom before venturing into the Italian microcosm that is the Rochester Club's "Viva Italia" series to catch the Luca Ciarla Quartet. The band's sound was edgy and fast with the accordion player wielding the squeezebox as if it were a percussive instrument one minute, a distant relative to a drunken church organ the next. The lead violin offered some light variations at lightning speed, bringing to mind the gypsies that dance in my head nightly.
Sashayed my way to Max of Eastman Place to hear bassist/vocalist Brandi Disterheftsing sweet and spend plenty of time at the high end of the neck searching for those magic bumps and toots that live up there. This would have seemed un-pre-meditated and random had her band (Little Jimmy Scott's boys, by the way) not tailgated her for the duration of the trip.
Missouri 'sHa Ha Tonkaserved a heaping helping of the thrash and twang to end my night at Abilene , which has been home plate for me after doing the crowded mob mambo each night. The band is hot and sweet; hot, rootsy Americana -- rootsier in fact than most -- as the quartet magically pulled off five-party harmony on its opening number to a packed tent. Not sure how it did that. I think a deal with the devil might be involved.
Saw a banjo player briefly rattlin' and twangin' on East Avenue , but he vanished before I could get my camera out. Again, the devil may have something to do with it. And there's been a trio playing next to Abilene all week: three dudes that play it bluesy and cool with two saxes and one guitar -- and sometimes the old Benny Goodman licorice stick. I think you can summon the devil with one of those.
Speaking of Old Scratch, he's on his way and will be accompanying me as I check out Kim Lenz and Her Jaguars and Gypsophilia Monday night. Stop and say hi... I'll be the one with the horns.
My Sunday night at the Jazz Fest was one of extremes. I took in three groups that couldn't be further apart musically, yet all brought together under banner of this year's festival. That's one of the things I enjoy most about the XRIJF, as the festival is really a grab bag filled with new talent waiting to be discovered every year. Here's who I got to sample tonight.
First up was the 78 RPM Big Band, a Western New York-bred group that's been playing for more than 30 years. There's a reason that the songs we call classics have become so revered in modern repertoire, and with so many groups at the festival that focus on original material, it can be nice to hear some familiar tunes here and there. For its show in the Big Tent, the group went through a wide mix of classic jams, including a very cool Latin-themed chart as well as Barry Manilow's "Copacabana." It was a good time, even for someone who wasn't around for the heydays of 78s.
They say music is the universal language, and Eivor Palsdottir on the Nordic stage at Luthern Church is a great example of how true that can be. It didn't matter if Palsdottir was singing in English or her native Faroese: it was the same transcendent, beautiful voice either way. Performing songs about rivers, gardens, and even a traditional bed time song about fairies, Palsdottir had a mesmerizing voice that gripped me in both serenity and grace. She possesses a soft, mystic, whisper-like quality, yet can also sing big enough to steal a whole room's attention. Hauntingly beautiful by all accounts.
From there things got hot hot hot with Monophonics under the Big Tent. The group blends psychedelic rock with funky, funky funk, and just enough soul to really keep things hopping. The group was loud - very loud - but that was the way the musicians wanted it: the trumpet and saxophone player just kept telling the sound guy to bring the instruments up, and roar they did.
With soaring psych-inspired electric guitar solos, a tight horn section, and that lovely spin of the organ (a reminder of how much I enjoy that organ when it's played right), Monophonics had the crowd up and dancing in no time. I can't remember the last time I saw a dance pit at a Jazz Fest show, but Monophonics lit fire under people's seats. Hot damn.
Monday night I'm heading a little south of the border, with Afro-Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez at Montage, local salsa band Calle Uno on the Jazz Street stage, and then Jeff Lorber Fusion at Harro East.
Yggdrasil has played at the LutheranChurch several times at past XRIJFs, but I've never taken in a set until Saturday night. I was afraid they might be a little too new-agey for my taste. Instead, I was blown away by not only the talent of all seven members of the group, but also by their deep-rooted Scandinavian repertoire.
Eivor, who was with them this year, is simply an incredible singer. At times she sounded like the lead singer of the great Irish group, Clannad. And, when Yggdrasil performed a magnificent Shakespeare sonnet set to music, she seemed to be channeling Kate Bush. These are compliments, but the best compliment is: most of the time she sounded like Eivor. It didn't hurt that she looked like a storybook character, a good witch with long blond hair, accented by a long black dress with the texture of seal skin. (I don't really think they'd go that far for authenticity.)
The group, made up mostly of names I can't pronounce, was fantastic, from the fiddler to the flautist to the pianist and the rhythm section. Each had an unorthodox approach to his or her instrument and the combined sound was simply otherworldly. The good news is, you can catch Eivor and MikaelBlak tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. And Yggdrasil's leader KristianBlak goes solo at Hatch Hall at 5:45 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. on Sunday.
Earlier in the evening I caught Tom Harrell's Debussy & Ravel Project at Kilbourn Hall. Both Impressionist composers are favorites among jazz musicians due to their experimentation with unconventional harmonies, melodies, rhythms, and voicings. So when Harrell and his superb band played an hour and 20 minute set of (and in the spirit of) their music, it just seemed like cerebral jazz.
Harrell, who suffers from schizophrenia, never made eye contact with the audience. He walked slowly with his head down, every movement deliberate. But when he picked up his trumpet or flugelhorn he came to life. And he got better as the set progressed, with the last three tunes (two of them by Harrell, one by Ravel) the best.
His ensemble, enhanced by violin and cello, boasted some top players. Especially strong on solos were WayneEscoffery on tenor sax and Charles Pillow on various woodwinds.
I also caught pianist Bill Cunliffe, who played a far more traditional show at Hatch Hall, the Eastman School's beautiful, new, and intimate (read: small) venue. Cunliffe took advantage of the intimacy and had an ongoing chat with the audience between tunes.
He reminisced about his days as a student at Eastman three decades ago, and even did a pretty good Rochester accent. And he talked about the first album he made after moving to Los Angeles, a CD of Paul Simon songs. He said he was skeptical at first, but then he listened. The story was followed by a four-song Simon medley that included a beautiful rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." But the high point of Cunliffe's set was when he got deeply into a truly great composition, Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight."
Sunday night I'll be in Kilbourn Hall checking out some great musicians in their new project, Ninety Miles, inspired by the music of Cuba. Then I'll head over to ChristChurch for the progressive British group Breach. And, finally, I want to hear what Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has been up to lately at Xerox Auditorium.
On Saturday night Liane Carroll mounted the ChristChurch altar -- which doubled for a stage - in a fairly understated fashion. I mean, she got up there carrying her purse. What do you suppose she had in there? One thing's for sure: the lady can certainly carry a tune without a handbag. She has a beautiful voice that went into hyper-syllabic speed when she scatted throughout a rapid-fire set that was overall traditional while still managing to come off fresh. She's the second artist in two days I've heard cover Tom Waits. Fine with me.
Next it was the touch, the feel of Cotton with Big Apple babe Danielia Cotton, a red-hot rocker who played the festival a few years back. She put on a soulful rock set opening for the remnants of The Outlaws on the East and Chestnut stage. At its foundation, the music was powered by a strong singer-songwriter aesthetic, except for when Cotton roared -- which was a lot -- and when her guitarist laid down a funky hook -- which was a lot -- and reeled the crowd in.
Esperanza Spalding was both enchantingly focused and filled with child-like wonder as she fronted an excellent 11-piece band at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. The whole set was musically varied, including swipes at swing, flights of funk, and dives into dissonance with a constant narrative about love's ambiguity running throughout. It was positively brilliant as the band (including previous Jazz Fest performer Tia Fuller on sax) followed the uber-afro'd Spalding's flexible scat, going so far as to mimic and harmonize.
Abilene was rockin' so I didn't bother knockin'. I just walked on in to catch Canadian Americana (I guess we should call it Canadiacana) rockers Blackie & the Rodeo Kingsblow up the joint. This was hardcore bang and twang like Steve Earle used to do when he was still on drugs. In matching Flying Burrito Brothers suits, the band laid it down big time with some sensational slide leading the parade. Nobody sat still. I mean, I saw a woman dancing in her wheelchair. Stuff was getting biblical tonight.
I'm noticing a few more buskers on the sidewalks than in years past. I plan on checking some of them out more closely Sunday, in between officially sanctioned sets like Brandi Disterheft at Max of Eastman Place.
This afternoon I discovered that some idiot (that'd be me) somehow forgot to include a bio for the group J.M.O.G. in City Newspaper's 2012 Jazz Guide. So I felt obligated to start my Saturday night at the fest by checking out the group's early show at Xerox Auditorium. The band - an acronym for Jazz Men on the Go - is made up of American and Canadian musicians, several of whom are playing in multiple shows at this year's festival: Pat LaBarbera (tenor/soprano saxophone), Don Thompson (piano), Neil Swainson (bass), and Joe LaBarbera (drums).
The quartet focused on original compositions by its members, which tended to be mid-tempo (or slower) and feature meandering melodies with ample aural embellishments. There's no question that every member of J.M.O.G. is a fantastic musician, but ultimately, the music did nothing for me. It was pleasant. It sounded good. But by the third song it started to become predictable: Pat LaBarbera typically took lead, and then gave each member a chance to improvise in extended solos. Wash, rinse, repeat. Each song sounded distinct, but none of them moved me.
Conversely, I was immediately moved by the Sultans of String when the quintet started its earlier show at the Big Tent. From the first note I was hooked, as was the rest of the packed tent, which was visibly bopping along with and clapping to the various world styles being spun out on the stage. The Sultans are based in Toronto and feature a percussionist, two guitars, a bassist, and violin and fiddle played by apparent band leader Chris McKhool. Everything about this set worked. The Sultans started out with some exotic gypsy tunes, switched to Irish/Scottish folk songs, threw in some jam-band sounds, segued into American honky-tonk blues, took a detour to Lebanon, and even included a fascinating song about a killer whale that may have been the reincarnation of an aboriginal Canadian tribe leader (it was way cooler than sounds, I swear).
The truly astonishing thing about this group was the way it worked dynamics and the sounds of its instruments to produce a wide range of intonations. McKhool and one of the guitar players (I'm sorry, I missed the name) in particular produced notes that at times almost mimicked the human voice. It was the kind of awe-inspiring musicianship I've come to expect from the Jazz Festival, and I was chagrined to discover the Sultans were only playing tonight. I ran into a friend on the street and implored him to see the group if he got a chance.
I tried to finish the night by hitting pianist Gerald Clayton's late set at Max of Eastman Place, but the place was totally packed. After a (very polite) festival handler explained that I could not stand in front of patrons sitting in the chairs that lined the back wall of the venue, I found the lone open spot, which afforded me a fantastic view of a giant cement pillar. I could literally see nothing that was happening on the stage -- but it sure sounded nice. Clayton's playing is cool, assured, and what I would call cerebral - he toys with melody, rhythms, and time signatures, and his band ably followed along. The quiet, contemplative start to the set was marred by the very loud music coming in from Gibbs Street, but the band built things nicely and soon enough dominated everyone's attention.
You might say that Tessa Souter chooses her collaborators wisely. We're talking guys like Beethoven, Fauré, and Chopin. Her new album, "Beyond The Blue," features her lyrics set to some of the greatest melodies ever written, and she sang a lot of them Friday night during her first set at Montage Grill. Even though they were not familiar to the audience the way jazz standards would have been, she got strong responses.
My favorite song of the night was "Prelude To The Sun," based on the second (slow) movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The arrangement (by Rochester's Joe Locke, who plays on the album but was not at the show) beautifully accents the tune's wonderful counterpoint.
Souter's voice was gorgeous on the classical/jazz fusion pieces and on the few standards she performed. The audience seemed absolutely entranced by her rendition of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "The Look Of Love," which featured a mesmerizing guitar solo by Tom Guarna.
Get The Blessing couldn't have been more of a contrast over at ChristChurch. The four members of the group (including a substitute drummer; theirs is on tour with Radiohead) wore suits without ties but played it anything but straight. The group members used the stage visually in a dramatic way with the two horn players (saxophone and trumpet) on the far right and far left, and the drummer and bassist in the middle.
Conceptually, Get The Blessing is fascinating. In every tune band members went right to the edge and sometimes over. But, in every tune they came back and suddenly there was a theme so catchy, it was tough to shake. Few groups can pull off this sort of balancing act, not to mention raise questions about the yin yang of dissonance and harmony.
I was hoping to end the night with the great bassist Christian McBride's Inside Straight at Kilbourn Hall. The four other musicians in his band were in Rochester and at the afternoon sound check. But McBride himself was stuck at NewarkAirport with storms preventing his plane from taking off. He went all the way across New York to LaGuardiaAirport to try to get a flight from there but they couldn't get him here before 10:45 p.m. So, for the first time I can ever recall in XRIJF history, two shows had to be cancelled.
Instead, I decided to hear singer/pianist Karrin Allyson at Max at Eastman Place. On my favorite of her albums, "From Paris to Rio," Allyson demonstrates her ability to sing beautifully in French and Portuguese. Even thought the album came out in 1999, she still often ventures to both places in concert.
She sang a beautiful version of "Sous le Ciel de Paris" ("Under the Sky of Paris") and a wonderful "O Pato" ("The Duck"). And, when she interpreted Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Double Rainbow," she sang in English and Portuguese. Allyson had a natural rapport with the audience throughout the show. Her guitarist, who she said was playing only his second show with her, was especially strong.
Saturday night I can't wait to hear Tom Harrell's Debussy & Ravel Project at Kilbourn Hall. I love Debussy but I love Ravel even more. And I can't think of a more sensitive trumpet player to explore their music than Harrell. I'll also check out the excellent pianist Bill Cunliffe at Hatch Hall and see how ethereal it can get with Yggdrasil & Eivor at the LutheranChurch.
Acoustic Alchemy was the first band out of the gate at this year's Jazz Fest. Lines were berserk throughout the fest and this show at Harro East was no different, with folks lining up at 3:30 p.m. for a 5:30 p.m. show.
The first half of this band's moniker is a bit misleading, as it started off its set with one amplified acoustic guitar amidst a mix of electric guitar, bass, drums, and keys. The band is extremely disciplined in its approach and is impressive in its languid, fluid delivery. Underpinings of smooth jazz soured me a bit, but the electric guitar's atmospheric Tex-Mex-mambo textures sweetened and saved the show.
I've often wondered if Diana Krall was as cool as she comes off, or just bored. I'm here to say she's cool, daddy-o. As Krall strolled out of the backstage darkness at Kodak Hall and over to the piano, every Raymond Chandler description of a woman poured out of me like sweat. Not only is Krall breathtakingly beautiful, but that voice -- it's pure seduction and invitation a la Julie London. Krall tackled songs by artists like Nat "King" Cole and Tom Waits. Her band laid a capable shag beneath her and she returned the favor with frequent forays that featured each. I was told that the show was sold out, but there was nobody there except for Krall and myself as she sang and completely unglued me front and center. I bounded out of there in love like Pepe le Pew. Le sigh!
In keeping with the femme fatale theme tonight (and my life in general), I rolled over to Abilene to see rockabilly filly Rosie Flores, who had a line down the street and around the corner for both of her sold-out shows. I've seen Flores a bunch of times over the years, and this was the wildest I've seen her in the guitar department. She tore into her baby blue Tele like it was her prom date and she had a hard time keeping her boots on the ground. What a sensational show. She tears me up.
During the coming days we may discover that the Jazz Fest has outgrown itself. With lines getting increasingly long, space in clubs getting tight, and parking scarce (a big thank you to the asshole charging $20 to park), tempers were tested a bit tonight. The festival runners may want to add more shows to accommodate its otherwise awesome success.
Saturday night you'll find me at Esperanza Spalding and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, among other shows.
The Lucio Ferrara Trio kicked off the 2012 Jazz Festival for me at the Rochester Club. It played soft, slow, romantic jazz, with Ferrara's guitar playing holding most of the spotlight. His fingers walked up and down the frets, guiding the string bass and drums while each took separate turns at soloing.
The trio was a good fit for the room, working well with the casual dinner atmosphere. The band kept everything pretty mellow, save for a few crescendos and percussive explosions, but that was as much due to what seemed to be some over-micing of the drum set, which was mixed a little loud with the other instruments. We also got a few bowed string-bass solos, which are always a good time. It's nice to hear an exploration of the lower octaves of the jazz world.
The GoranKafjesSubtropicArkestra played Friday, June 22, at the LutheranChurch of the Reformation as part of the 2012 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.
Next up was the GoranKajfesSubtropicArkestra on the Nordic stage at the LutheranChurch of the Reformation. The group called for and required a bit of patience. It took simple ideas and melodic lines and mixed them with an accompanying scramble of sounds, including effects, electronic sampling, and the keys/organ, slowly building it all into something like a roar, before simmering and stopping abruptly, just short of overkill. It was a mix of weird and groovy, each song like a wad of musical putty that the band would slowly roll out, bend, twist, and mix, before the audience could finally see the exact sculpture the group was creating. If you trusted them enough to follow along on the ride, you just might enjoy it. The group is also the recipient of my first Ron Burgundy Award of the year for its use of the super-awesome jazz flute.
L'Orkeste des Pas Perdus played Friday, June 22, at the Big Tent as part of the 2012 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.
I finished my night at the Big Tent with L'Orkestre des Pas Perdus. Fierce, feisty, powerful, and French (well, OK, French Canadian), the group combines some of the rarer stars of the jazz world, such as the French horn, and my personal favorite, the tuba, with trombone, trumpet, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, drums, and an auxiliary (and electronic gizmo) percussionist. The group had that big brass-band sound and was fast, loud, and raw: just the way I like my women (and my jazz). It was in your face and intense, and rocking the way that only high-powered brass jazz can be. Canada might not be New Orleans, but this orchestra could give the best bands on Bourbon Street a run for their money.
The icing on the cake?A multi-phonic tuba solo. It just doesn't get much better than that.
I'm taking Saturday night off, but I'll be back on Sunday with reviews of the 78 RPM Big Band at the Big Tent, EivorPalsdottir with MikaelBlak at the LutheranChurch, and Monophonics at the Big Tent.
This year's Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival may not have too many hardcore jazz headliners. But the ClubPass venues are so full of excellent acts, it's going to be tough to choose what to see on more than a few nights.
I'm going to start the festival Friday with one of my favorite artists from two previous XRIJFs. Tessa Souter will bring her gorgeous voice and her excellent band to the Montage on the heels of a great new album. Souter has been writing lyrics to some of the greatest melodies Western civilization has produced, tunes by Beethoven, Ravel, Chopin, and others. Strangely, they make excellent jazz standards. Should be great to hear them live.
After all of that beauty I'll need Get The Blessing, at ChristChurch, to jar me into the wilder side of jazz with a little Ornette Coleman-esque sacrilegiousness.
I'll end the night with arguably the best bassist in jazz, Christian McBride, at Kilbourn Hall. His band isn't called Inside Straight for nothing. This quintet is composed of some of the finest straight-ahead players on the jazz scene today.
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