On Sunday night, though the two Jazz Festival performances I witnessed were stylistically quite disparate, both concerts had a nonstop energy that was remarkably uncanny.
First was guitarist Stephane Wrembel and his 8:30 p.m. set at the Rochester Regional Health Big Tent, where he was joined by drummer Nick Anderson, bassist Kells Nollenberger, and guitarist Roy Williams.
Wrembel takes classical guitar timbres and applies them to his original compositions with an electric guitar sensibility, resulting in a smooth and sexy sound delivered with the intensity and unrelenting drive of rock. His musicianship was intuitive and effortless as he tore through licks with a poignant combination of grace and technical prowess that was nothing short of stunning. The only downside was that Wrembel's tremendous gifts as guitarist had the potential to obscure his natural ability as a composer.
On the song "Evolution," a chameleon-like change in styles captivated before settling into a "hot jazz" aesthetic infused with prog-rock flair. "Prometheus" began with an almost Baroque guitar approach that shapeshifted into Spanish classical style before finally settling into a Django Reinhardt-inspired setting. "Big Brother" -- from Woody Allen's 2008 film "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" -- was a beautiful blend of tango and Parisian jazz influences. On "Bistro Fada," written for Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (2011), Wrembel's dizzying facility for his instrument was inescapably hypnotic.
On the surf rock-tinged "Eternal Cycle 5: Apocalypse," Wrembel demonstrated that it's one thing to blaze through a guitar solo with astounding virtuosity, but it's an entirely different thing to make each and every note sound indispensable to the melody. It is the guitarist's ability to achieve the latter that makes him truly great.
Beyond Wrembel's memorably performance, Anderson's drumming was explosive, complete with innovative syncopated fills. He had a way of making the drums sound downright lyrical, transcending the seeming constraints of the non-pitched drum set.
Wrembel and company's set was the unequivocal highlight of my festival experience so far, and when they return for additional performances (free of charge) at the City of Rochester Jazz Street Stage on Monday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. respectively, you may find them to be the highlight of your festival as well.
Next on the agenda was Kneebody, playing its second set at Max of Eastman Place. The band's ability to sustain a frantic groove was remarkable, and one got the sense that they could play at that quick pace and high skill level for hours. But Kneebody's cohesion and split-second precision is ultimately what made the performance compelling -- from the muscular, straight-ahead rock rhythms of bassist KavehRastegar and drummer Nate Wood in "Lowell" to tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel's insistent melodic theme in "Nerd Mountain" around which Shane Endsley's trumpet motives seemed to swirl.
Throughout the set, Kneebody's compositions relied on a post-minimalist approach to melody, and the recurring use of repetition was subtly subversive. It was as if the quintet was successfully smuggling minimalist elements into its progressive jazz-rock songs. Even as the set came to a close with keyboardist Adam Benjamin's "Antihero," the group's enduring energy was impressive, and a joy to experience. It's worth noting that Benjamin, Endsley, and Wendel all attended Rochester's Eastman School of Music together, about which there was much onstage reminiscing.