Pianist Gwilym Simcock brought just the right mix of tradition and experimentation to Christ Church Saturday night. He played mostly straight-ahead, but occasionally went under the hood to spice things up. At one point he played totally inside the piano, strumming the strings percussively as if they were on a mandolin.
Simcock took care to talk to the audience about his music. He explained that he’d had classical training before falling for jazz, and he still loved the second movement of Grieg’s Piano "Concerto in A Minor," so he made a jazz tune out of it. It was a good tune, but much better given the introduction.
His song “Northern Smiles,” he said, was prompted by his move to London after spending time in smaller cities in the north of England. He wanted to capture the small-town friendliness that he missed. But, it’s a lot more difficult to do with only music, compared to a song like “Penny Lane,” in which Paul McCartney used words to convey a similar idea. Simcock’s introduction made it interesting to search for what he was trying to say within the more abstract context of the song.
Simcock played mostly originals but, in one of his extended improvisations, he threw in tunes like “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” and a rousing rendition of “On Broadway,” in which he seemed to have about four different musical ideas going simultaneously.
Earlier in the evening I heard Five Play at Max of Eastman Place. If jazz wasn't so dominated by men, it wouldn’t matter that Five Play is an all-female band. But their concert left no doubt that these women were on a par with their male contemporaries.
The first among many outstanding solos came from multi-reedist Janelle Reichman on clarinet during a Latin-flavored tune. Trumpeter Jami Dauber followed with an outstanding flugelhorn solo on “Que Sera, Sera.” If you’re wondering what that tune was doing in a jazz concert, the band’s leader, drummer Sherrie Maricle explained that it was popular in Vietnam where the group recently toured. If it wasn’t jazz before, it is now. Maricle and bassist Noriko Ueda provided solid support (not to mention their own strong solos) throughout the set. And Tomoko Ohno lit up the room every time she soloed at the piano.
Torben Waldorff brought an excellent band to the Lutheran Church, featuring Gary Versace on keyboards, Orlando le Fleming on bass and Jon Wikan on drums. Unfortunately, the band was so loud that the music sounded better out in the hall. Waldorff is a superb guitarist in the high, liquid, Pat Metheny tradition. He often plays beautifully in the spaces between the lines that would normally be the verse. Because of the sound problem, my favorite tune was a ballad near the end of the set. Waldorff is a top-notch composer and it was nice to be able to hear one of his compositions without the filter of earplugs half-way in.
Over the last nine nights, the highlights never seemed to let up. It was great to hear straight-ahead artists like Anat Cohen and Kurt Rosenwinkel at Xerox Auditorium, Christian McBride’s Inside Straight at Kilbourn Hall and Terell Stafford at Montage.
I love the opportunity the festival provides to hear and see (they tend to be just as fascinating visually) edgier artists like the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and Youn Sun Nah & Ulf Wakenius at the Lutheran Church. And it’s a treat to have brilliant musicianship showcased at Hatch Hall where I was stunned night after night by pianists like Matt Herskowitz, Geoffrey Keezer, and Alfredo Rodriguez.
Looking over the above names it’s clear that the international aspect of the festival remains one of its greatest qualities. And, of course, despite my complaints about how loud some things are (I seem to be from a different planet when it comes to volume) there is no denying that the XRIJF is the best thing that’s happened to Rochester in the four decades I’ve been living here. For nine days Rochester is truly alive.