I chose my Sunday night venues with the best of intentions. After researching all of the acts, watching videos, and listening to the music, I picked what I thought would be the best shows. So I was surprised to be disappointed by two out of three of them.
Rafael Zaldivar is an excellent pianist, but he didn’t seem to give much thought to the structure for his show at Max of Eastman Place. The first piece, for instance, lasted 18 minutes. That’s a bit too long, especially for a rambling work that was tough to get a grip on as it was. When it was over he said it was actually two tunes, but you couldn't tell.
By his fourth selection, a standard he did not name, he was playing interesting harmonies and doing fine two-handed spider-walking down the keys. There were flashes of real talent from Zaldivar and his bassist and drummer, but ultimately he failed to engage the audience.
I thought surely the eclectic Christian Wallumrod Ensemble from Norway, over at the Lutheran Church, would be an unusual, but wonderful, mixture of instruments and musical styles. And it looked promising. On the stage were the usual suspects; a trumpet, sax, piano, vibes, drums, etc. But there was also a violin, a cello, a harmonium, and a toy piano. And at one point the percussionist played a saw beautifully.
But it turned out the group was way too conceptual, experimenting with musical ideas rather than playing music. The first piece had frustrating stops and starts, which I’m sure was intellectually interesting, but not musically interesting. The second was mostly an exercise in doing anything with your instrument except playing it traditionally. Again, interesting, but not too musical. Finally at the end of the set the group actually played a piece of music. Start to finish. Just music. And it was great.
I finished the night with the Dave Rivello Ensemble at Xerox Auditorium. This 12-piece band just gets better and better. Members like trumpeter Mike Kaupa and bass clarinetist Dean Keller have been in the group for a long time, but most of the members are Eastman School of Music students who stay for a few years before moving on.
Kaupa, Keller, and saxophonist Doug Stone all had excellent solos. So did outstanding Eastman students like Alexa Tarantino (sax) and Chris Teal (drums). But the real stars of this band are Rivello’s compositions and arrangements. Rivello speaks the language of jazz orchestra eloquently; his voicings are just gorgeous.
There was just one thing that didn't work. Kaupa, a great trumpet player, sometimes uses electronic devices to enhance his sound and play in small group settings. I can see where that would work when he’s the only trumpet player. But when you’ve got two other trumpets right beside you, not to mention all the other instruments, why use a machine to broadcast the sound?
Tomorrow night I’m looking forward to hearing the Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and his trio at Kilbourn Hall. I also want to hear guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel at Xerox Auditorium. And I can't miss saxophonist Eric Alexander and pianist Harold Mabern at Montage.
There are always a few acts at the XRIJF that I’ve never heard of before the festival, but I can’t stop talking about after I’ve seen them. Pianist Matt Herskowitz is now on that list. Before describing him I want to say that I do hope the Steinway in Hatch Hall recovers from the (positive) pounding it took Saturday night. At some points in Herskowitz’ performance you could see it shaking.
The concert had a title, “From Bach To Brubeck,” and along the way Herskowitz visited Chopin, Schubert, and other composers. The premise was the embodiment of Third Stream music: the fusion of jazz with classical music to create, in this case, a wild hybrid.
What made the concert extraordinary was Herskowitz’s beyond-brilliant technique. He was, of course, capable of subtlety, but he was astoundingly adept at impossibly fast and intricate passages. He found them in Bach and Brubeck and also in a “Chopin etude” that he made up, seemingly based on the premise of Chopin as a jazz man. He also played the most wildly rhythmic rendition of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” that I’ve ever heard.
At one point, toward the end of the concert, on a tune by the late pianist, Michel Petrucciani, Herskowitz executed a two-handed fluttering chord passage that got faster and faster until it melted into a blur of hummingbird wings. After he lifted his hands, I swear the piano was still shivering with those notes.
A little while later I found myself at the Montage watching Terell Stafford and had the following realization: trumpet is the most confrontational of instruments. While the piano usually faces the side of the stage and the saxophone is sending notes upward or to the ground, the trumpet is in your face. There’s no sliding back and forth like the trombone. The trumpet says, “I’m talkin’ to you!”
When Stafford is on the other side of that trumpet, the urgency is palpable. Whether he’s playing a fiery up-tempo tune or wrapping his horn around a mid-tempo ballad like “Candy,” Stafford is in command. He is no less a brilliant player when he switches to flugelhorn.
The other three members of Stafford’s quartet were musicians who had studied with him at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he is coordinator of the jazz studies program. They were young but all three were capable of swinging hard and soloing with imagination.
I also caught Bruce Barth and Steve Nelson at Max of Eastman Place. (By the way, I apologize for mixing up Steve Nelson with Steve Wilson in City's Jazz Guide; Barth played with Wilson the last time he was at the festival.) Barth is a superb pianist and Nelson a great vibraphonist.
The concert dragged a bit during a slow blues number that I thought would never end. But both players came alive nicely during a suite of three tunes by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. Nelson played gorgeously on Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.”
I’ll start tomorrow night with Cuban pianist Rafael Zaldivar at Max. Then I want to hear the unusual combination of instruments (harp, cello, harmonium, etc.) that make up the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble at the Lutheran Church. And I’ll finish the night with the great home-grown big band that is the Dave Rivello Ensemble at the Xerox Auditorium.
First up for me Saturday at the 2013 Jazz Fest was the Halie Loren Trio at the Rochester Club. It's an interesting venue (food and jazz at the same time!), and Loren's trio fit the space well. The act created music that was more fit for the background of a conversation than it was being at the forefront. Loren’s voice was soft, just shy of sultry, as she and the trio created what was essentially ambient music for the room. It was nothing too exciting, or too powerful.
Also worth nothing was the fact that her trio -- keys, vocals, and bass -- lacked anything strongly percussive, and you could tell as various members took turns clapping or hitting their instruments to try to keep some kind of rhythmic backbone going. Not the strongest start to the night.
Next up was YolanDa Brown at Christ Church as part of the Made in the UK Series. I only got to catch one song before I had to bounce to the next show (it didn't help that she burnt stage time making the audience members introduce themselves to the people sitting on the right and left of them), but the opener was lyrical in that way that saxophone playing should be: the instrument acted like a human voice, expressively talking to the audience. I'm still trying to figure out why she had an iPad on stage, but that mystery will have to go unsolved for another day.
In certain musical circles, there's a stigma against the acoustic guitar. For some reason it can appear that if a player is skilled enough he or she will eventually “graduate up” and learn to shred on the acoustic's electrical brother. That's a bias that Loren and Mark easily dismissed Saturday at the Little Theatre.
The duo was the runaway winner of the acts I saw Saturday night, and was more a one-bodied, guitar-playing monstrosity with four arms than it was two people up on the stage. The duo was cool and collected, making the onslaught of acoustic-y goodness look and sound so easy.
Moving from Western melodies to some gypsy jazz a la Stephane Wrembel's silly Paris song, the duo played in beautiful unison, perfectly passing note runs between one another to the point where it was sometimes hard to tell where one's playing stopped and the other’s began. Simply great stuff. Who needs electric guitars, anyway?
Last up I shuffled (it's almost like I planned that) off to catch Shuffle Demons under the Unity Health System Big Tent. When I got there I was surprised to find that the crowd was sparse. The Demons came out dressed to impress, but failed to flatter. The band’s cover opener was a disjointed arrangement, and its original songs showed some promise as a tight horn-driven unit before being ruined by subpar vocals and simple, needless lyrics. It was almost like the group couldn't decide what it wanted to be, and opted for an all-over-the-board approach that wasn't doing any of it justice.
Even the awesomely dressed pharaoh string-bass player couldn't save the show. Shuffle Demons will be back Sunday night on the Jazz Street Stage, but your time is probably better spent shuffling off to see someone else. Nothing demonic here, folks.
Sunday I plan to check out Mike Brignola at the Rochester Club and BeauSoleil at Harro East. What will you be seeing?
The sky was cryin’ as me and my baby (now married six years) made our way to the festival site Saturday. First up: Dr. Lonnie Smith at Kilbourn Hall. Smith and his band --- guitar and drums --- came out to initially build a groove from next to nothing. It was if they were making musical spaghetti and seeing what would stick to the wall. The experiment built and built until it turned into a frothy broil with Smith’s random stabs and swirls of the B-3 organ knockin’ on the door marked “serious.” And just look up the phrase “impish grin” and you’ll see Smith’s smile looking back at you.
The band was loud for the room. That was fine, except for when the drums occasionally threatened to wash out the colors and underlying tones Smith was laying down. Don’t get me wrong; the cat knew how to thump the tubs. Maybe it was just how the room handled it.
Willie Nelson strolled out on to the Kodak Hall stage and didn’t stroll off until every motherf***er who has said to me, “Willie Nelson isn’t jazz,” walked away convinced that he is. First off, this was just an amazing show front to back, with Willie and his minimal band --- bass, snare drum, harmonica, piano --- digging into his hits, other people’s hits, and some new, soon-to-be hits like “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore” or “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.”
But back to the jazz analogy. Like Ray Charles, Nelson sets his own time signatures that flow pretty much as he feels them, when he feels them. According to his bassist, my old pal Kevin Smith, it’s a heads-up game playing with Willie as he lyrically and melodically interprets the songs as the mood hits him. There probably is no other artist that has sung more versions of his own songs than Nelson. And his guitar playing? It is elegant, poignant, blissful, heartfelt -- a quiver of six-string arrows through the heart. Let’s see: it’s interpretive, innovative, evolving, and exquisite. Yup. That’s jazz. Told ya.
Willie kept me a little late, so I popped over to hear Delbert McClinton wail the soulful blues over an absolutely blistering band playing full throttle on the Chestnut Street stage. Man alive, those were some great horns. But I had to split in order to see John Mooney and Bluesiana turn the Abilene tent into a sweaty, dirty, raunchy juke joint circa 19-remember-when.
Mooney stomped and wailed some vicious blues mostly on his shiny dobro. Built around intoxicating riffs, Mooney’s blues did nothing to soothe the savage beast. It antagonized and taunted the poor bastard. The whole place was sexed up and getting down. I bet everyone leaving the place got laid that night, even if it wasn’t their anniversary. Say goodnight, Gracie.
Sunday night I’ll be lining up to see Christine Tobin, the Louis Armstrong Jazz Society Band, and Stretch Orchestra, which I’ve heard great things about. What will you be seeing?
Hearing all of the Scandinavian groups at the Lutheran Church over the years, I’ve often been curious about their distant, thrice-removed perception of jazz. After all, they are not only more than half a century away from the golden age of jazz, they’re also a continent and culture away.
Friday night Norway’s Trondheim Jazz Orchestra answered my question better than any other Scandinavian group has before. For an entire hour, with hardly a pause, the group painted a surreal aural image of American jazz from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. It was as if someone fell asleep in a European movie and dreamed of jazz.
The eight men wore zoot suits and fedoras; the one women had a flower-patterned dress and her hair up as if she had just stepped out of a Billie Holiday album cover. They played brilliantly but never played it straight.
The woman sang mostly abstract vocalese -- incomprehensible things that just evoked jazz. Toward the end she sang an absurd amalgamation of just about every jazz classic (lyrics like: what’s new, tenderly, some day my prince will come, I remember April…) gorgeously, with no hint of irony.
There were two odd characters in white who did not play instruments but performed a weird purification ritual, reaching into chalices to wash their faces with what turned out to be white powder. There were many other theatrics. The musicians went out into the audience and at one point everyone just died. But they got up, one by one, swinging hard.
The good news is, you can catch Trondheim Jazz Orchestra at Xerox Auditorium Saturday night.
Earlier in the evening, I was impressed by Christian McBride’s Inside Straight at Kilbourn Hall. The tunes, mostly originals by McBride and his group members, were all strong. And the arrangements were beautifully fleshed out with plenty of room to improvise.
Every member of the group was a virtuoso player. Alto and soprano saxophonist Steve Nelson was especially creative on every solo he took. (He’ll also be back Saturday in a duo with Bruce Barth at Max of Eastman Place.)
In his solos McBride demonstrated why he is just about the most in-demand bassist in jazz. And even when he is not soloing he is an unusually commanding player. He was also pretty hilarious when he explained why he did not make it to Rochester for last year’s show.
Speaking of virtuosos, the three men in Thiefs, which performed at Xerox Auditorium, were ridiculously talented. The drummer, for instance, was also an excellent singer. And he didn’t even need his drum set to create convincing beat-box percussion.
Thiefs’ saxophonist had an array of electronic devices in front of him that could turn his sax into just about anything. He could play chords, he could create a drone and solo over it, and he could make his sax into an organ.
I ended the night with Patricia Barber at Max of Eastman Place. Barber is a quirky singer given to odd hand gestures, contorted facial expressions, and occasional vocal outbursts. Her first utterance, during her group’s opening instrumental, was, “Shit!”
Her quirkiness seemed to be about making the experience of playing music real. This was no routine. Her group (guitarist, bassist, and drummer) paid close attention to Barber because they weren’t sure where she would be going. The guitarist, GiladHekselman, was especially good, with beautiful tone and wonderful solo flights.
Barber is an excellent pianist who plays with real emotion. She is also a strong singer of originals and covers like the standard “The Thrill Is Gone” (not the B.B. King tune). She has always been good at taking a pop tune and bringing new life to it. I remember years ago she actually made me appreciate a Sonny & Cher song. Friday night she did a great rendition of Smokey Robinson’s “Being With You,” which, I hasten to add, was always a great song.
Saturday night I’ll be checking out Bruce Barth and Steve Nelson at Max of Eastman Place. I’m curious about what Matt Herskowitz will have up his sleeve at Hatch Hall when he combines classical music and jazz. And after he just about blew the roof off last time he was at the Montage, I can’t wait to hear Terell Stafford there tomorrow night.
With the longest line I’ve ever scene snaking out of the Harro East Ballroom --- down around the block and all the way up Liberty Pole Way --- the 2013 Rochester International Jazz Festival kicked off in style Friday night. It was gorgeous outside as I made my way into the early show of the sold-out ballroom. Quincy Jones protégé Nikki Yanofsky was the draw, and boy was she amazing. She hit on standards like “Witchcraft,” underground standards like Louis Jordan’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” and even broke into some slick scat a la Ella Fitzgerald. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think she threw in a “Yabba DabbaDo.”
Yanofsky’s voice was absolutely beautiful as she and her band put a contemporary twist on jazz. Musically she did that with the pop medley of contemporary-radio hits that frankly I could have done without, and that no one in the audience recognized, based on the amount of khaki in the seats. Still, she was a two-fisted knockout punch of style and beauty. And though in some circles she’s referred to as “Quincy Jones Presents,” she was a lot less contrived than I thought she would be. Simply put, the young lady was remarkable.
The stage for Eastman Theatre headliners Pink Martini was set so that you could see all the working parts. And it was fewer parts than the group often has when it plugs into an existing orchestra. The band laid down its beautiful, multi-lingual, multi-genre exotica with Hollywood grandeur and style. It was Round 2 for me with women who gutted me with their gorgeous pipes, as the vivacious contralto of Martini’s China Forbes soared to the very heights of Kodak Hall, to the delight of a near capacity house.
At the East & Chestnut Stage Dr. John waxed mondo cool in front of a giant throng, as if the scene was a Louisiana pool hall with just a few hustlers shooting nine ball on a weeknight. Most of his set centered around lyrical righteousness and spirituality, the kind that throbs only in the heart of New Orleans. He looked and sounded great. The crowd, however, looked a bit bedraggled. Pace yourself, guys. You got eight more days to go.
Last but not least I ended my night at the sweaty asylum known as Abilene, where the Hackensaw Boys were turning the joint upside down and on its ear. These guys are Jazz Fest vets, and were a wee bit more traditional than last time. But they still kept up the intensity and speed as they drove the crowd out of its mind, over the cliff, and into the hot night.
Saturday night I’ll be checking out Dr. Lonnie Smih at Kilbourn Hall, Delbert McClinton at East & Chestnut, John Mooney & Bluesiana at Abilene, and the one and only Willie Nelson at Kodak Hall.
What was your favorite show of the first night of this year's Jazz Fest?
My involvement with music started with my family. My grandfather was a bandleader, my uncle was a composer for Broadway shows, and both of my brothers were (and still are) musicians.
My interest in jazz in particular can be traced to my younger brother Hankus, who was always practicing Joe Henderson tunes on his saxophone in the next room when we were kids. Later, when I really started exploring it, I found great jazz to be every bit as brilliant and transcendent as Beethoven and Ravel.
My real job is Chairman of the Art Department at Nazareth College, where I teach printmaking (and create etchings and lithographs). But another major interest is music and I've been writing about jazz for City since the late 1990's. A couple of years after I began writing about jazz the festival was launched, putting Rochester on the map as a great jazz town.
In recent years at the XRIJF I've found myself spending less time with the headliners in Kodak Hall and more time in the Club Pass venues, where acts tend to be more raw and experimental. This year is no exception. Here's my plan for opening night, Friday, June 21:
One of the world's great bassists missed his plane on his way to last year's XRIJF and his concert was cancelled. This year Christian McBride (and his group Inside Straight) should be right on time at Kilbourn Hall, and I'll be there.
I'll head over to Xerox Auditorium to catch Thiefs, the spelling-impaired but musically intriguing trio from France. And I'll end the night with the wonderful singer/pianist Patricia Barber at Max of Eastman Place.
Two more things that I do at the XRIJF every year:
I never leave home without earplugs because the outdoor acts (and some indoor acts) can be insanely loud. I've often wondered why the city's health inspector doesn't care about people's ears. In any case, I love music and I want to be listening to it when I'm 90, so I bring earplugs.
Throughout the festival I'll try to hear acts whose names I
have trouble pronouncing: artists like RudreshMahanthappa's GAMAK, Youn Sun Nah
& Ulf Wakenius, GwilymSimcock. It's sometimes
a good indicator that an artist will take me somewhere I've never been before musically,
and that's where I like to go every night of the jazz festival.
Hello there, jitter-buggers, jumpers, jivers, and jazz fans. My name is Frank De Blase but you may know me better as Frank De Blase. I've been a music writer at City Newspaper for 13 years -- long before I sought to get my ya-yas out writing smutty crime fiction.
For the next nine days I'll be your guide through the swingin' swamp, the boppin' brou-ha-ha that is the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. Often imitated, but never duplicated, we here at City Newspaper have been blogging this event since the beginning, before blog was even a word. Our picturesque language and keen ears will hip you to what you won't want to miss, and relentlessly torment you with the stuff you do. Face it: it's bound to happen, you can't see it all.
Compare your opinions and insights to ours. Agree, disagree, feel vindicated, start an argument, call me names -- just get involved and add to the beautiful chaos found only in music, and in the hearts of those who love it.
Friday night I'll get the ball rolling with Nikki Yanofsky, Pink Martini, Dr. John, and the Hackensaw Boys. If you see me out there, stop and I'll tell
you a jazz joke. Warning: I work blue.
Summer is here, and in Rochester, that means the city is again putting on its shiny shoes and making the transition from Flower City to Jazz City. I can't seem to remember exactly how many years I've gone to or been involved with the Rochester Jazz Festival, but it goes back at least to high school (as part of a high-school jazz band performing on the Jazz Street Stage), and this year marks my third time covering the festival for City, where I work as the Music Editor.
I've got quite a wide mix of artists I'll be covering over the nine days, some you've heard of, some you haven't, and many for whom this will be my first time experiencing. As for my own jazz tastes, I tend to stray on the hot and rock-heavier side of jazz. I want something that is going to get me moving and not lull me to sleep, and having some tight low brass (read: tubas) doesn't hurt a band's chances with me, either. Bring some energy, and at the very least you've got my attention. Make me go deaf and you've got it twice (though maybe not for the same reasons).
On my end, I'm slightly disappointed by the line-up for the festival as a whole this year. I'm most looking forward to a return appearance from last year's show-stealers, the accordion-powered Dwayne Dopsie & The Zyedeco Hellraisers, plus my first chance to finally catch the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and seeing festival veteran Trombone Shorty. He's a killer performer, and if you haven't seen him in the past years he's been here, don't pass it up this time around .
And of course, for my stomach, I'm glad that Bayou Billy's scrumptious food is returning. Nom.
See y'all out on Jazz Street.
I'm the Features Editor at City Newspaper, which means I oversee all of our arts & entertainment content; everything from dining to music to theater to art to movies. This will be my seventh year handling City's coverage of the XRIJF.
Although I like to think that I appreciate all kinds of music, I'll admit that going into the festival my first year I was skeptical because jazz...not my favorite. So imagine my surprise when I found myself loving most of the Jazz Fest shows I went to see. Over the subsequent years I've found that I enjoy the vast majority of what I've seen/heard at the festival. The moral of the story is, "I don't like jazz" is a poor excuse to skip this festival, because it is way broader than what you probably think of as "jazz."
This year I'll be taking a somewhat different tact. I won't be hitting up Club Pass shows or running around from venue to venue. Instead I'll be camping out at Jazz Street, running City's social media and taking the temp of the crowd at the heart of the festival. So follow us on Twitter, Like us on Facebook, and interact with us as you experience the festival. Long line to get into a show? A particularly awesome first set for a band that people shouldn't miss later? Shoot us a message and we'll broadcast it.
I'll be up until the wee hours of the morning posting all of our Jazz Blogs and photos, so that you have something to read while enjoying your coffee and bagel in the morning. But we want to know what YOU think. Leave your comments on the blogs, or post them to Facebook, or Tweet us.
On that note, here's your first assignment: what concert are YOU most excited about at this year's Jazz Fest?
hard to find show times.