Bassist John Lee played with Dizzy Gillespie for the last 10 years of the great trumpeter's career. Lee continued that legacy Saturday night at Kilbourn Hall with the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience. The group features another veteran player, master percussionist Roger Squitero, along with a host of young stars.
Trumpeter Freddie Hendrix had a pivotal role as he stepped into Gillespie's shoes, and he did an admirable job every time he took a solo, especially when he ventured into the higher register. Saxophonist Sharel Cassity was equally adept in her solos, and Brazilian pianist Abelita Mateus was not only superb at the keyboard, she was featured singing a tune in Portuguese. Evan Sherman rounded out the group, doing a fine job on drums.
But I couldn't take my eyes off Lee who was playing a fretless bass so flawlessly and effortlessly, it seemed to be a part of him. Even after the show, when he came over to talk to fans, he was still wearing it.
My next stop was Hatch Hall where Canadian pianist Brian Dickinson made a great first impression. He was mostly an interpreter, playing only two of his own tunes, but his renditions of songs by others were highly original.
Especially strong were two medleys, the first consisting of three tunes by Billy Strayhorn, the second, two compositions by Thelonious Monk. In every case he embellished the original melodies from every angle, re-inventing the compositions as he played. I thought I might have to go through an entire festival without hearing my favorite jazz standard, Monk's "'Round Midnight," so I was happy to hear it not only played, but played so well.
I've heard at least half a dozen world-class pianists at the festival this year and Rochester's own Laura Dubin fit right in, playing with her trio at Xerox Auditorium. She was stunning on covers, like Michel Camilo's "On Fire," and on her own tunes, such as "Barcelona."
But perhaps the most wonderful aspect of her concert was the manner in which she combined classical pieces (part of her background) with jazz standards. She began one of these excursions with Debussy's "Reflections in the Water" and ended it with George Gershwin's "Love Is Here to Stay." But in the middle, the two pieces were perfectly interwoven in an inventive and lovely way.
Dubin's bandmates were just as strong. Her husband, Antonio H. Guerrero, was not only an excellent drummer, he was quite a showman, twirling sticks expertly while never missing a beat. And bassist Kieran Hanlon also stood out, especially when he played a beautiful solo on Dubin's "Kelly Green."
Looking back on this year's festival, my favorite performances were by Mikkel Ploug's Equilibrium at the Lutheran Church, Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra at Christ Church, and Eldar at Hatch Hall.
Ploug's Equilibrium featured the otherworldly singing of Sissel Vera Pettersen, which nicely melded with Ploug's guitar and the gorgeous clarinet playing of Joachim Badenhorst. Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra added a harp to a jazz quintet, and played a unique kind of world music that was nothing short of wondrous. And finally, I was once again in awe of Eldar, who combines the technical brilliance of a top classical player with an ability to swing like crazy.
Jazz Fest 2016, Day 9: Dizzy Gillespie
Going to the Jazz Fest is like eating ice cream for nine days straight. I like ice cream, but now my tummy hurts. So before I go on a ice cream-less sabbatical, I went down one more time for the crushed nuts, the hot fudge, and jazz.
Tia Fuller bopped to the max at Max. She and her band cut up hard. She opened up the show on the soprano sax, running lines full of nasally toots that left a few folks scratching their heads. It was when the band added a passage that repeatedly modulated up and down that people got it, and the light bulbs in their heads clicked on. It can happen that fast. Fuller played intense throughout the set in a blinding sequin top.
The Flat Earth Society looked like a ragamuffin miscasting for a school play. I counted 14 musicians on the stage creating the rather storied music that was as free as Zappa but as elegant as Ellington.
It found the sweet spot just shy of completely weird, tossed in the anchor, and stayed put. I particularly liked the Neil Young type electric guitar especially in church, it made me think that evil, the real cool kind, still stands a chance.
So after one last dish of ice cream, I bid you all good night. Elvis has left the building...
Jazz Fest 2016, Day 9: Flat Earth Society
Well a wop bopa loo bop a wop bam boom. No sooner did I send up the Bat Signal for some scat then Curtis Stigers rolls into town delivering a mouthful of syllabic sensations. Suave ain't the word; it doesn't do the man justice.
Stigers hit the stage with so much cocksure swagger it was as if he were the missing member of the Rat Pack. This silver-haired cat and his band (including homeboy, Bob Sneider on the guitar) came out swinging like Jake LaMotta with a case of the fleas. He wound the Kilbourn crowd up good and tight with a singing style you could describe as velvety vocal-ease. His band pumped and swung as tight as his suit.
He took time to dedicate Randy Newman's "Living Without You" to the late, great jazz pianist and bon vivant Paul Tillotson. It caught me off guard, and I got teary: Tillotson, who appeared at the Jazz Fest some years back, was a good friend to me and especially my wife. Stigers was visually teared up as well before getting back in the swing of things. But it was a gesture and a tender moment I won't soon forget.
The crowd won't soon forget the way he switched off effortlessly from swingin' on the sax to singin' to the max. Curtis Stigers, the ultimate smooth operator. Total class. Goddamn.
More magic on a Friday night followed with Gregg Allman and his band with an amazing set of classic -- timeless, really -- blues-based rock 'n' roll. Allman's band? Amazing. Allman himself? The voice is still there as he tore through an hour and a half set.
There was a beautiful rendition of "Sweet Melissa," a soulful take on "Midnight Rider," a rockin' sing-along to "One Way Out," and a barely recognizable re-working of "Whipping Post." Allman, who split time between the B3 and guitar, was a casual yet charming host with all eyes riveted on him, was a thrill to see. However my pick for MVP is definitely his guitarist and musical director, Scott Sharrard. Sharrardsh-redded with feeling and soul and frankly blew me away...
... just like the speakers did at the Los Lonely Boys set outside. You probably couldn't have seen them from space, but you could certainly hear them. They played with a vicious Texican attack to a crowd of thousands and thousands. I dug it for as long as I could, but I split after the subwoofers threatened to give me an involuntary colon cleanse.
Saturday night I get my fill of Tia Fuller, before walking off the edge with Flat Earth Society.
Once I finished playing Monday morning quarterback with the cats at JAZZ 90.1, I crossed the street -- to get to the other side and catch the Lauren Sevian Quartet deliver some hard bop via her baritone saxophone. Miss Sevian stayed mostly in the upper register while ignoring the delicious honks and growls associated with the instrument; if you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t have been able to tell it was a barry.
Dave Rivello’s ensemble played some fairly intricate, multi-layered jazz that kept listeners on their toes. It seemed as soon as you identified with one of the melody lines within a tune, he’d turn around and highlight another one. This went on for the whole set at The Little Theatre. I also witnessed a tuba mute the size of a Volkswagen in use for the first time.
Don’t you just love douchebags all around you with their all too important conversations with their fellow dickheads, prattling on instead of listening to the band. It took Australian pop sensation Rai Thistlethwayte extra effort to shut up the rear portion of Anthology which was lousy with these Chatty Cathys.
For those who did pay attention, we were treated to musical excellence that is the beginning spark of what should prove to be a pop star before long. Armed with an electric keyboard for the left hand and a piano for the right, and joined by a drummer, Thistlethwayte rocked up and down the keyboards with determination and genuine mirth. A little Elton, a little Ben, a lotta cool -- especially when he looped a sort of beat box pattern before scatting over it. It’s a goddamn jazz festival and I haven’t heard any scat until now. And I wanna hear some more. C’mon and try it with me : Ah scooby dooby bay wah wah zup zi.
Skipped the East Avenue fantastic to end my evening with the full bore romance of The Bossa Nova Bradley Brothers. This is one of the city’s best kept secrets ... not for long.
The intimacy of Hatch Hall was perfectly suited to the highly personal set Helen Sung played Friday night. Between tunes, she told the audience about her musical journey, starting with her upbringing in Texas with a strict Russian piano teacher who told her classical music was the only music worth listening to and playing. Once she discovered jazz, her studies continued at the Thelonious Monk Institute in Boston.
Her classical background was apparent in her flawless technique, but so was her ability to swing and deal with the intricacy of a Monk tune. She played a medley of them, starting with "Eronel," moving on to "Light Blue," and ending with "In Walked Bud." If you think of yourself as a jazz aficionado but you only recognized "In Walked Bud," that gives you a sense of how unpredictable Sung's song choices were. She also performed "Armando's Rhumba" by Chick Corea, "Equipoise" by Stanley Cowell, and her own heart-felt tune "Hope Springs Eternally."
Helen Sung plays with her quartet on Saturday night, 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., at Montage Music Hall.
Over at the Little Theatre, Ben Monder sat with an electric guitar balanced over his knee in the manner of a classical guitarist, and played a series of original tunes all of which involved finger-picked chords, up and down the fret-board, with the occasional melody breaking through. But these were not the chords you learned at guitar lessons. They were a unique variety that hovered on the edge of harmony and dissonance, often slipping over both sides.
Not everyone appreciated Monder's chord-centered style and a significant portion of the crowd left as the show progressed. Those who stayed until the end witnessed a sharp left turn on the last tune, which was filled with electronic distortion and a palette of echoes and other effects.
My last stop was Christ Church where Matthew Halsall and The Gondwana Orchestra played a wonderful set. Halsall's group features a fairly typical line-up -- piano, saxophone, trumpet, bass, drums -- until you get to the harp. It was the first harp I've seen at the festival in 15 years, and Rachael Gladwin played the first (beautiful) harp solos I've heard there.
Halsall, a fine trumpeter, is from Manchester, England, but his music came from all directions. Some of the tunes evoked Eastern Indian music and one composition was referred to as a Japanese ballad. Curiously Halsall and the equally talented Jordan Smart, the saxophonist, never played together; it was always one or the other. Taz Modi, the pianist, was superb, as were the bassist and drummer. Christ Church is a tough room for a large band, but this group's sound was perfectly balanced.
On the last night of the festival, I'll start at Kilbourn Hall with the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience. Then I'll head over to Hatch Hall to hear pianist Brian Dickinson, and I'll conclude the festival with hometown pianist Laura Dubin at Xerox Auditorium.
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.
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.
Tia Brazda's first show was sold out to the walls with a crowd forced to sit on old wooden chairs from the Marquis de Sade collection. But the charming Brazda made the pain in the ass worth it. Her just right amount of vocal flexibility was wrapped in coquettish velvet and sass -- she sounded a bit like Billie Holiday, especially on her no frills guitar and voice take on "Summertime." Her band was an assembled group of swingin' crackerjacks including Rochester based drummer, Sean Jefferson. Brazda's set was pure delight as her band dialed into groovy jazz with authentic swing.
Nikki Hill and her band brought some surly and savage rock 'n' roll to the Jazz Street Stage in front of thousands hungry for just that right surly and savage rock 'n' roll. Now with Hill's voice -- a snarling blend of Barbara Pittman, Wanda Jackson, and Ruth Brown -- and her powerhouse band, the scene was positively electric. The band has plugged in another guitarist in addition to the incredible Matt HiIl, and ultimately it sounded a lot like the Stones and left the crowd howling in disbelief.
With Nikki Hill ringing in my head, I ventured to the Big Tent to witness guitarist Johannes Linstead tame the crowd with his acoustic-based world music. This time the people were sitting on chairs that, unlike the Montage's equipment, didn't offer permanent ass damage. Linstead's playing was slick and percussive and sexy, but sound-wise, the guitars sounded plastic and kind of like toys.
The grand dame of the night was Danielle Ponder and her band The Tomorrow People. The Fusion tent was the scene of R&B salvation and sonic redemption as Ponder and TTP threatened to crack the sky. If there is a God, he heard it all right. The sweet spot for me was standing on East Avenue between Chestnut and Gibbs where the sound between Nikki Hill's second set and Ponder's comingled in a beautiful, emotional explosion of powerful black women that virtually reduced me to powder. I left with my head, my ears, my heart ringing. I've got nothing left ...
When I entered Kilbourn Hall a bit late for the Nacka Forum concert, saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar was in the middle of a solo. He wasn't playing the sax, though; he was doing a deadpan, funny monologue about his desperation to move to the United States. He said he would have to marry someone, and it didn't matter to him whether the person was male or female, young or old, etc. You probably had to be there, but it went on and on and the audience was laughing hysterically.
The audience also laughed through the Marx Brothers-like antics of this Dada jazz group. Drummer and pianist Kresten Osgood was the most over-the-top in his sarcastic humor, which included making fun of musicians who milk the audience for affection while playing a sappy song. Kullhammar did some of that, too. And when audience members left after a song (as they almost always do at the XRIJF), he screamed, "I love you all so much! Please don't go!"
But there was a serious, avant-garde jazz side to the performance. And when Kullhammar and trumpeter Goran Kajfes went full throttle on a high-energy tune they were as good as it gets. Bassist Johan Berthling and Osgood were also great when the music demanded it.
Kajfes saved the best for last when he put down his trumpet and picked up a seemingly magical instrument, a small, black, crazy sound machine. He lifted it to his lips and created a wondrous array of sound effects, ranging from siren-alarming to birdsong-beautiful. I found out afterwards that it was an electric trumpet (or electric valve instrument) connected to a space echo, an early tape-delay accessory.
Nacka Forum plays again Wednesday, June 29, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., at the Lutheran Church.
Earlier tonight, I caught part of Christine Tobin's set at Christ Church. Tobin was striking for two reasons: she's a great scat singer, and she takes the most unlikely songs and transforms them to jazz. For instance, I never imagined Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" with jazz harmonies and phrasing, but there it was. The same can be said for the pop song Tobin began her set with: "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)."
But I enjoyed her most when she indulged in scat singing. She had ample opportunity on a wordless song by her guitarist, Phil Robson. Robson, who played with his trio at the same venue Saturday, provided excellent support as did pianist Leo Genovese.
There's only one thing I'm sure of on for Wednesday night. I will not miss one of my favorite guitarists, Russell Malone, when he plays at Kilbourn Hall. I'll also try to catch pianist Marianne Trudel and her trio with Ingrid Jensen.
Jazz Fest 2016, Day 5: Nacka Forum
Despite her sunny looks, Bria Skonberg harbors a little darkness. She played around in minor keys, and introduced me to my new favorite tune, Sidney Bechet's "Egyptian Fantasy." The way she worked around its haunting Duke Ellington-esque elegance was tres cool.
I couldn't make up my mind if I liked her horn playing or her singing more. Skonberg's horn was clean with a lot of presence from her perfect armature to the way it lead the charge for her band, especially her clarinet player who snaked around with the trumpet to create a breathtaking New Orleans-rooted spectacle. There were faint hints of Dixieland in the air. Her voice was as fresh and clean as frozen Pepsodent, and some of her lyrics were noir-ish in mood and texture but ultimately up-beat and up-lifting. Skonberg was charming in the extreme. And the packed Harro East Ballroom crowd ate her up.
Bernunzio's is putting up large pictures on its windows to celebrate Rochester's musical icons, and guess what? I'm an Icon. Thanks guys; I'm floored, flummoxed, and humbled. I performed there tonight next to my picture. I was beside myself.
Meanwhile, back at the party, they were jumping for Joy because she wouldn't get off the chandelier...
And meanwhile, back at the Jazz Fest...
I skated over to Xerox Auditorium (it's a bit of a haul) to dig on some Brubeck Blood playing Brubeck. I'm sure his last name opens doors and answers phones, but Dan Brubeck is a killer drummer who I believe I saw play with his dad, Dave, once upon a time. Though it wasn't the old man playing them, it was still a thrill to hear "Blue Rondo a la Turk" played expertly or "Take 5" with its innovative 5/4 time signature played with the guitar playing Paul Desmond's signature part as there was no saxophone or saxophonist to be found.
I'm just hitting my stride kids. Wednesday night it's Tia Brazda. Weeee!