Eastman School of Music alumna, vocalist, and upright bassist Katie Ernst brought her “Little Words” project -- featuring her original compositions set to the poetry of Dorothy Parker -- to Max of Eastman Place and the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival on its last day, along with what may have been the most refreshing voice of the entire nine-day event.
Ernst’s vocals sounded like the deepest, purest, bluest lake looks. Her initial vowel attack was bright and clear, but the tone inevitably darkened in the ensuing moments as the delicate phrasing set in. Indeed, her vocal tone was darker than some of the vocalists I heard earlier in the week, such as Kat Edmonson and Julia Biel.
Parker’s words, as selected by Ernst, were highly confessional and aching with vulnerability, focusing mainly on unrequited love. Even when singing about love gone wrong, there was a quiet contentedness, a weary optimism to Ernst’s voice. And though Ernst’s musical settings were often ruminative and introspective, they inevitably seemed to come out of their song-shells to embody up-tempo, groove-centric, sax-driven jazz tunes.
Ernst’s persistent and reliable bass was a constant as tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi’s debonair tone, Andrew Green’s subtle drum syncopations, and pianist Stu Mindeman’s lovely yet remarkably simplistic chordal motives filled out the sound. One got the sense that Ernst and her band were sharing something private and daringly intimate.
Ernst’s music finds itself in a similar vein as that of Gabriel Kahane, a fellow young singer-songwriter who also updates a classic jazz vocabulary with thoroughly contemporary compositional techniques. This stylistic element was particularly evident during the gorgeous song “Interior.” Timbrally, there was no more beautiful sound combination heard during the entire festival than the straight-forward, economical eloquence of Mindeman’s repeating piano hooks and Ernst’s velvety smooth voice.
The “Little Words” ensemble also took time to play two selections from Mindeman’s own project “In Your Waking Eyes,” featuring the poetry of Langston Hughes. Programmatically, the pairing of Parker and Hughes through the medium of original songs was inspired. Perhaps most importantly, the wonderfully crafted music also served to hip me to the poetry of Dorothy Parker, whom I might have otherwise overlooked.
In short, I could have listened to Ernst and her band for hours. As it was, I was left with this line from Parker’s “The Last Question” ringing in my ears: “Whose will be the broken heart when dawn comes?”
The last set I took in at this year’s festival was from The Wood Brothers at Harro East Ballroom. Their brisk set of folk, blues, and Americana -- with its warm, endearing acoustic sound -- was the perfect antidote to the cold, windy, rainy weather outside. Guitarist Oliver Wood’s voice -- with shades of indie folk artist Devendra Banhart -- was tinged in country and rooted in everyman populism. No matter where you happen to be from, his voice sounds like home. Additionally, upright bassist Chris Wood (of Medeski Martin & Wood) found a way to bring a bit of classical and avant-garde to the set with a bass solo performed sul ponticello, or “on the bridge.”
In a set that included the popular original “Luckiest Man” and a spirited cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel,” The Wood Brothers’ sound had flashes of indie folk charm throughout, not unlike such groups as The Tallest Man on Earth, Fleet Foxes, and Band of Horses.
As an encore, The Wood Brothers sang the moving “Angel Band” (made popular by the Stanley Brothers) without the aid of microphones to the rapt capacity crows. It was a fitting end to a festival filled with variety and new discoveries.