Jamison Ross has played at the XRIJF before as the drummer for Cecile McLorin Salvant, but Thursday night he was at the center of the Kilbourn Hall stage. There's no doubt about Ross's drumming prowess; he won the 2012 Thelonious Monk Drums Competition. But when it came to one of the competition's prizes, a recording contract, he didn't want to make a drum record, so Ross emphasized a second skill and sang on 10 of the album's tracks. Next thing he knew, he had a 2016 Grammy Award nomination for Best Jazz Vocal. McLorin Salvant won that award, but it was enough to kick-start his singing career.
Ross gave a bit of a simulation of the moment he decided he could sing when he opened with "Epiphany." If the largely wordless vocals were kind of shapeless, it added to evoking the sense of discovery that he felt. On the other original songs he sang, he also meandered, sometimes into rich territory, other times into cliché in terms of words and music. But what a voice! When he sang a fully realized song, the Etta Jones classic "Don't Go to Strangers," he was superb. And his pianist, guitarist, and bassist were not only excellent, there was a genuine camaraderie among all the members of the band.
My next stop was at the Lutheran Church where I caught a set by the Norwegian quartet, Cortex. The front line, consisting of Thomas Johansson on trumpet and Kristoffer Berre Alberts on saxophones, played unison or harmonized heads on all of the tunes, and then proceeded to play fiery solos while bassist Ola Høyer and drummer Gard Nilssen held down the fort.
They were all great players, but I couldn't help thinking they could learn something (as Miles Davis did) from the great pianist Ahmad Jamal: leave some space. When they included less crowded sections, the tunes were challenging but engaging. Too often, though, they filled and overfilled every second with sheets of sound that, after a while, became mundane.
I ended the evening at Xerox Auditorium with the Claudia Quintet, drummer John Hollenbeck's contemporary music ensemble. Hollenbeck has assembled some of the top players in jazz to perform his avant-garde-leaning tunes. They are all capable of improvisation, and had the chance to do some of that Thursday night, but every piece began with the notes on the music stand.
Some of the works got off to a slow start with lots of notes seemingly floating around for minutes at a time trying to find a melody. Those melodies always arrived, but sometimes they were circular and reminiscent of the minimal works of Philip Glass or Steve Reich. A large portion of the audience walked out as the concert went on.
Throughout the show all of the musicians -- Hollenbeck; Drew Gress, bass; Matt Moran, vibraphone; Chris Speed, clarinet and saxophone; and former Rochesterian Red Wierenga, accordion -- had chances to solo, and all of them proved to be inventive even when playing mostly composed pieces.
Friday night I'll begin with pianist Helen Sung at Hatch Hall. Then I'll check out guitarist Ben Monder at the Little Theatre. Finally, I'll go over to Christ Church where Matthew Halsall will be playing.