Russell Malone was one of the artists I was most looking forward to seeing at the XRIJF, and when he played his first tune at Kilbourn Hall, it seemed promising. It was his own tune, "Honeybone," and it showcased that wonderful blend of lead and rhythm guitar, with gorgeous ringing tone, that Malone is known for. But the second tune was a bland rendition of the corny "Put on a Happy Face." And it got worse from there.
By the middle of the set, Malone and his band were deep into a Whitney Houston medley, starting with "The Greatest Love of All," the ode to self-love that I think is the worst song of all time. (It's more than enough to kind of like yourself.) That segued into "Saving All My Love For You."
Not exactly cutting edge, and Malone's bandmates sunk to the occasion. The pianist played some of the most milquetoast solos I've ever heard, and the bassist looked like he wasn't sure what to do. I have to admit the drummer was great, making the most of a bad situation.
Things picked up again on the last tune, a Mulgrew Miller song, "Soul Leo." Both Malone and the pianist proved that they can fire it up when they want to. But the bookends of good music at the start and finish were not enough to carry the show.
The surprise of the night for me was the late set by the Marianne Trudel Trio with Ingrid Jensen as part of the Rochester Club's "Oh Canada" series. They were kind of a last-minute choice, with a lot of competition, and they were superb.
Trudel is a lyrical pianist who can get highly percussive in her playing. Jensen is a top-notch trumpeter, one of the best anywhere. And the rhythm section -- Remi Jean-Leblanc, bass, and Rich Irwin, drums -- excelled.
Trudel's tunes were all personal and idiosyncratic. The combination of her piano playing, Jensen's resonant trumpet, and the spare but dynamic use of bass and drums lifted many of her compositions to the realm of the ecstatic.
I'll start Thursday night with drummer and singer Jamison Ross at Kilbourn Hall. Then I'll head over to the Lutheran Church to hear Cortex, and finish the night with the Claudia Quintet at Xerox Auditorium.