Xerox Auditorium is not exactly the ideal venue for a jazz concert. It is, after all, a sterile corporate auditorium. But Tuesday night Anat Cohen breathed new life into it by breathing a dizzying array of wonderful notes into her clarinet and saxophones. She and her band were a joy to watch and hear.
The auditorium had its first-ever full house and Cohen gave the crowd what it came for. She danced, and laughed, and played snake charmer to her drummer, Ulysses Owens. Her enthusiasm was infectious but it would have been nothing without her incredible musicianship.
Starting with Fats Waller’s great “Jitterbug Waltz,” she slinked her way in and around the melody on clarinet. And she was equally adept at tenor sax on “The Wedding,” another great tune by Abdullah Ibrahim, and on soprano sax on a Brazilian song.
Her band was on fire throughout the set. Owens and bassist Joe Martin were excellent and pianist Jason Linder was Cohen’s equal in creativity when it came to solos. At one point he seemed to turn his piano into an electric keyboard by sliding his iPhone over the strings inside as he was playing them. It was the best use of an electronic device I’ve seen at a concert in a long time.
Earlier in the evening I caught the John Patitucci Trio at Kilbourn Hall. Patitucci, a bassist, brought the superb saxophonist John Ellis and a fine drummer whose name I didn’t catch. During the first tune I felt like the group needed a piano or guitar and should have been a quartet. Patitucci seemed to anticipate this, referencing the most prominent leader of a piano-less jazz group (Sonny Rollins) later in the set.
But I forgot my complaint as soon as he picked up his electric bass. It’s a six-string bass that kind of combines guitar territory on the high end with a traditional electric bass. Patitucci was all over that thing, slapping, picking, and strumming magnificently. My favorite tune was “Mali,” composed as a tribute to an African musician he had played with.
I heard another great tenor saxophonist, Julian Arguelles, over at Christ Church. Arguelles’ quartet, from England, boasted pianist Kit Downes. Both he and the leader turned out nicely shaped solos every time. But what I liked best about Arguelles were his compositions, which were always distinctive and never predictable.
After knocking his use of electronic vocal gimmicks in Monday night’s blog, I wanted to hear Alfredo Rodriguez play solo at Hatch Hall. What a difference a day makes; he was wonderful. He played Cuban songs and original compositions, but he played them in a style recalling Keith Jarrett.
The audience was transfixed as he combined super-human technique with exquisite sensitivity. Every tune he played was a journey, and although he had played them before, there was a sense that he was rediscovering them, exploring from different angles. For instance, when he played possibly the best-known Cuban song of all, “Guantanamera,” it was more like pianistic Paganini Variations on “Guantanamera” showcasing myriad possibilities.
Wednesday night I’ll begin with three young giants, Bernstein/Stewart/Goldings, at Montage. I’ll also hear two pianists, Aaron Goldberg at Max of Eastman Place and Jacob Karlzon at the Lutheran Church.
With the casual air of a felon who knows he’s guilty, but doesn’t care, The Dave Spinner B3 Band swung vibrantly nonchalant and tasteful in the Big Tent Monday night. The band came out with its take on the Funky Meters before moving into Herbie Hancock territory. The set was even-keeled and steady in the heat. And the band made it look so damn easy…
The crowd was a little light last night throughout downtown, but managed to congregate big and noisily again in the Big Tent for The Sicilian Jazz Project. Despite the inconsiderate level of chit-chat from the hoi polloi, the group came off as just that -- a project. Not a band, an assembly, a group, or an experience, but a project with a mystical flair.
The project assembled slowly with members coming and going, ebbing and flowing as needed. At times a duo — ethereal vocals and really ethereal guitar — to a full out frontline of two vocals, guitar, and horns above a drummer who sporadically exploded when not plugging away beneath the band’s -- I mean, project’s -- slithering exotic tone. It had a gentle seductive wail that added to its Mediterranean swelter and linen-ensconced charm. Dramatic and beautiful.
Violet Mary’s set at the RG&E-LiDestri Spirit Tent was the best I’ve seen the band, ever. It was loose and totally plugged in as the audience — of all ages — lapped it up. The guitar had amazing tone and attack, and the band’s rockin’ boogie was a nice respite to the Jazz Fest’s tuck and pleat.
Never seen The Fabulous Thunderbirds? Seeing The Chris O’Leary Band at Abilene was the next best thing after the band’s classic “Girls Go Wild” line-up. Freight-train harp, twin sax attack, and a guitar player with a huge twang-cabulary had the place jumpin’ Texas blues style and the walls sweating like those felons I told you about earlier.
The Alfredo Rodriguez Trio started off well enough at Kilbourn Hall Monday night. During the group’s first tune the dynamics were off the charts. Rodriguez, his bassist, and drummer never fell into a standard pattern. The piece rose and fell like Rodriguez’s hands springing off the keyboard. The sound was impressionistic, with flurries of notes and surprising turns in the melody.
The second composition began nicely with hand percussion and a simple repeated phrase that gradually grew more complex. But halfway through the piece, Rodriguez opened a laptop computer and moved a microphone to his mouth. He then proceeded to add gimmicky vocal effects to the mix. I thought we were a couple of days away from Peter Frampton.
I headed over to catch Geoffrey Keezer at Hatch Hall where, thankfully, there were no mics or laptops in sight. If you imagine a great jazz pianist like Keezer spending years in a garret listening to nothing by Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Duke Ellington, consider the first three compositions on his set list: a Stevie Wonder tune, a Peter Gabriel tune, and a Rush tune. But, I must admit, they were played in manner more like Monk, Powell, and Ellington.
Keezer was wonderfully engaging, telling stories between each tune. He can seemingly convert any pop song into compelling jazz. But my favorite of his selections was “My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose,” based on a poem by Robert Burns, which was probably a hit in 1794 when it was written.
The most arresting music of the night for me was provided by the Kurt Rosenwinkel New Quartet at Xerox Auditorium. The band not only had Rosenwinkel, one of the most distinctive guitarists in jazz, but also boasted Aaron Parks, one of the genre’s finest young pianists. These two were supported by the superb rhythm section of Eric Revis on bass and Justin Faulkner on drums, two musicians who where so in sync, they played as one.
Every one of Rosenwinkel and Parks’ solos was an adventurous flight but, I must say, they saved the best for last. The second-to-last tune was a gorgeous ballad on which Rosenwinkel would play fairly exotic chords and then play runs over them while they resonated. His tone was perfectly clear, his lines beautifully articulated.
On the last tune, “Star of Jupiter,” Park played his finest solo of the night. And Faulkner, who, in retrospect, had been holding back for most of the night, unleashed a solo as masterful as it was powerful.
I ended the night with Eric Alexander and Harold Mabern at the Montage. Because I was late, I was stuck in the bar portion where they don’t seem to know there’s a jazz festival going on. Maybe, with the variety of venues, bar ambiance (read noisy people) is what they’re going for at Montage, but it’s kind of annoying to hear really loud people even when I’m inside the music area.
Still, Alexander proved to be his usual muscular tenor-sax-playing self (he’s one of the best). And it was good to hear Mabern, one of the last of the greatest generation of jazz players. This guy played with Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Wes Montgomery -- the list goes on and on. On a ballad at Montage he played one of the most beautifully constructed and melodic solos I’ve ever heard.
Tuesday night I’ll be checking out the John Patitucci Trio at Kilbourn Hall, saxophonist Julian Arguelles at Christ Church, and Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen at Xerox Auditorium.
UPDATED 6/25/13 with the name of John Sneider, the guest trumpet player who performed with the Eastman Youth Jazz Orchestra.
Monday was Day 4 of the 2013 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, but for me it was the first night out.I’m contributing coverage to City this Monday through Friday.
I arrived early and got to take in the sounds of the West Irondequoit High School Jazz Band on the Jazz Street Stage (more commonly referred to as “Gibbs Street”). No fewer than 21 high-school bands were scheduled to perform in this year’s festival, and I’m giving a shout out to the West Irondequoit student playing alto sax for his natural rhythm and strong line.
The first show I was assigned to cover was also the best of the night, a UK jazz artist with Jamaican parents, Courtney Pine. He took to the stage at Harro East in an official Great Britain team shirt and let loose with a wail on his straight soprano saxophone. Pine is not traditional, or even American jazz. There was an obvious Caribbean influence that included steel drums. By the third song Pine’s entire group was grooving and dancing upon the stage, and I couldn’t fathom how the audience remained in its seats.
What a switch to then head over to Max of Eastman Place, which was full to capacity for the early show by Hiroya Tsukamoto and Satoshi Takeishi. Tsukamoto played an acoustic guitar (amplified) and sang. Takeishi delivered percussion, from a drum with a tambourine fixed inside, a large handful of wind chimes that he stroked against the drum, brushes that he used on the snare drum, small bells and cymbals, and a round drum with perhaps dry rice inside. Tsukamoto’s songs, like “Gemni Bridge,” were sublime, with the voice sounding as if off in a distant memory, adding an arc to the instrument and percussion.
Then, it was over to Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre for the ESM-XRIJF Gerry Niewood Jazz Scholarships Performance, featuring the Eastman Youth Jazz Orchestra and the Eastman Jazz Ensemble. When I arrived, the Eastman Youth Jazz Orchestra was already bopping around a number with Sage Melcher (Allendale Columbia) on vocals. Melcher definitely has it bad for jazz, and her stage presence was infectious. I was also impressed by guest trumpet player John Sneider, who joined the Eastman Youth Jazz Orchestra along with his guitarist brother, Bob Sneider. John's trills and other finger-flutters left me saying, "Wow!" The pure sound he brought forth from his instrument just sailed through Eastman Theatre. If there’s another opportunity to hear him, we need to figure it out -- and fast!
Special congratulations also to the two winners of the scholarships, Ryder Eaton (School of the Arts) and C.J. Ziarniak (Aquinas Institute). Both Eaton (bass) and Ziarniak (saxophone) will matriculate at ESM this coming fall to pursue their studies.
And with that, I’m checking my schedule for tomorrow, a line-up that includes John Nyerges (Rochester Club), Djabe (Big Tent), and Michael Wollny (Max of Eastman).For this year’s festival, I’m looking for jazz blended with other cultures to create unique sounds.
Of all the bands that I wanted to see on Sunday night, and of those I hadn’t seen before, The Stretch Orchestra at Montage Music Hall was at the top of my list. I've seen this Canuck trio in parts — as solo artists or sidemen — and knew the total would surely outweigh the sum. Well, these cats took the stage, took a bottle of quirk and mixed it with some carbonation, shook it, and popped the cork.
Leading the charge was multi-instrumentalist Kevin Breit (Norah Jones, Sisters Euclid, etc). If it’s got strings, barring yo-yos, he can play it. Breit’s attack was just that; an attack, visceral and intense and yet he could coax utter beauty (I forgot to mention heartstrings) from a baritone guitar as quickly as he could pummel the low end and send the upper register up, up, and beyond. There were periods of confusion, chaos, and elation for all in attendance.
Matt Brubeck added the bottom end, working his cello as a bass with an equal affinity for soaring forays into madness, and an added bowed beauty. Drummer Jesse Stewart was solid and on the same page as his band mates, but didn’t come off as left of field as the other two. Perhaps I’ve grown to expect drummers to be rather crazy. It’s a bit premature, I know, I know, but this was one of the best shows of the whole Festival.
Christine Tobin sang her poetic interpretations from the altar at Christ Church with a gentle lilt that was entirely too precious for the mood The Stretch Orchestra had put me in, so I skedaddled. Besides it was in a church and God and I have an understanding; he stays out of my house and I stay out of his.
I usually don’t truck on the negative side of the street, but the Louis Armstrong Jazz Society Band left me wanting Satchmo. Don’t get me wrong — or do if you want, I dare you — this band was top notch; heavy hitters playing jazz from the very top of the pyramid as Jack Garner so aptly put it in his introduction. But the band’s singer, who made a splashy entrance from the rear of Kilbourn Hall, made me feel as if I was in Vegas or on a cruise ship. So I set sail for Abilene with The Stretch Orchestra still rattling around my skull. Goodnight Miss Calabash, wherever you are…
For my Sunday night at the Jazz Fest, I was back at the Rochester Club for Mike Brignola and Friends. Sometimes at the festival I have to make concessions, and even though baritone sax isn't tuba, it still dances low enough in my range-likings to be worth checking out.
But, there was just something off about his whole set. I've tried and tried and can't exactly wrap my head around it, but something tonally in Brignola's playing hit me the wrong way. It might have been his softer playing, or maybe it was the articulation on his runs, leading them to come off muffled instead of clean and clear. Whatever it was, he has another show tomorrow night, so readers, please check him out and comment below with what you think. There were a couple of mic flares, but given how small the room is I feel like style, not amplification, was the culprit here.
Diversity in song choice wasn't working for the group, either. It played through two songs before I even noticed it had switched from one tune to the next. And I know I've hit this point home on several Jazz Fest performers, but if you are playing at a festival of this caliber, you really shouldn't be relying on a music stand and reading music. It's jazz. Make it up as you go along and have fun.
Next up I headed down south for a little Cajun musical cooking with BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet at Harro East. I wish we got more bands like this at the Jazz Fest: Louisiana folk/stomp/Cajun/jazz always seems to be highly underrepresented, and it's just so much fun. I love me some fiddle, and BeauSoleil brought that served up on a plate with the rest of its French Creole traditional music.
Tradition may be a big part of the group, but it also seemed to be its biggest weakness. I don't want to call the group disappointing, but it played a safe, comfortable, and relaxed set. No boundary pushing (though the Gospel tune was a treat). It was good, but the band kept everything at very safe tempos and never managed to progress past good into amazing or mind-melting territory. Just not enough hot sauce on this plate of jambalaya, I'm afraid.
[ Slideshow ] BeauSoleil
BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet performed June 22, 2013 at the Harro East Ballroom as part of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.
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?
hard to find show times.