Eastman School of Music alumna, vocalist, and upright bassist Katie Ernst brought her “Little Words” project -- featuring her original compositions set to the poetry of Dorothy Parker -- to Max of Eastman Place and the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival on its last day, along with what may have been the most refreshing voice of the entire nine-day event.
Ernst’s vocals sounded like the deepest, purest, bluest lake looks. Her initial vowel attack was bright and clear, but the tone inevitably darkened in the ensuing moments as the delicate phrasing set in. Indeed, her vocal tone was darker than some of the vocalists I heard earlier in the week, such as Kat Edmonson and Julia Biel.
Parker’s words, as selected by Ernst, were highly confessional and aching with vulnerability, focusing mainly on unrequited love. Even when singing about love gone wrong, there was a quiet contentedness, a weary optimism to Ernst’s voice. And though Ernst’s musical settings were often ruminative and introspective, they inevitably seemed to come out of their song-shells to embody up-tempo, groove-centric, sax-driven jazz tunes.
Ernst’s persistent and reliable bass was a constant as tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi’s debonair tone, Andrew Green’s subtle drum syncopations, and pianist Stu Mindeman’s lovely yet remarkably simplistic chordal motives filled out the sound. One got the sense that Ernst and her band were sharing something private and daringly intimate.
Ernst’s music finds itself in a similar vein as that of Gabriel Kahane, a fellow young singer-songwriter who also updates a classic jazz vocabulary with thoroughly contemporary compositional techniques. This stylistic element was particularly evident during the gorgeous song “Interior.” Timbrally, there was no more beautiful sound combination heard during the entire festival than the straight-forward, economical eloquence of Mindeman’s repeating piano hooks and Ernst’s velvety smooth voice.
The “Little Words” ensemble also took time to play two selections from Mindeman’s own project “In Your Waking Eyes,” featuring the poetry of Langston Hughes. Programmatically, the pairing of Parker and Hughes through the medium of original songs was inspired. Perhaps most importantly, the wonderfully crafted music also served to hip me to the poetry of Dorothy Parker, whom I might have otherwise overlooked.
In short, I could have listened to Ernst and her band for hours. As it was, I was left with this line from Parker’s “The Last Question” ringing in my ears: “Whose will be the broken heart when dawn comes?”
The last set I took in at this year’s festival was from The Wood Brothers at Harro East Ballroom. Their brisk set of folk, blues, and Americana -- with its warm, endearing acoustic sound -- was the perfect antidote to the cold, windy, rainy weather outside. Guitarist Oliver Wood’s voice -- with shades of indie folk artist Devendra Banhart -- was tinged in country and rooted in everyman populism. No matter where you happen to be from, his voice sounds like home. Additionally, upright bassist Chris Wood (of Medeski Martin & Wood) found a way to bring a bit of classical and avant-garde to the set with a bass solo performed sul ponticello, or “on the bridge.”
In a set that included the popular original “Luckiest Man” and a spirited cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel,” The Wood Brothers’ sound had flashes of indie folk charm throughout, not unlike such groups as The Tallest Man on Earth, Fleet Foxes, and Band of Horses.
As an encore, The Wood Brothers sang the moving “Angel Band” (made popular by the Stanley Brothers) without the aid of microphones to the rapt capacity crows. It was a fitting end to a festival filled with variety and new discoveries.
Mother nature was a soggy, wet jerk for this year’s final day of the Jazz fest. Armed with my umbrella (which afore mentioned soggy jerk wrecked with a gust of wind) I ventured out into the Shangri-la-di-da one more time.
Though I missed Steve Martin’s quips, The Steep Canyon Rangers put on one helluva matinee performance. These Carolina boys can lay down bluegrass, bluer and grassier than anyone. But it’s the songs that depart from that root a bit that were especially scintillating. No worry to the purists; the root remained and served as, well, a root as the band blended today and yesterday with a tight performance that featured numerous feats of finger style strength and harmonies that though secular, were bound for glory.
Offering up musical interpretations of Dorothy Parker, Katie Ernst gave life to the printed word as well as color. She expertly caught Parker’s dry wit with her perfect voice lighthearted runs and patterns originating from her upright bass. Though lyrics and music could easily stand alone when spread n the same sandwich, it totally worked.
GoGo Penguin was swimming in natural reverb at the band’s first set at Christ Church. The trio built on dynamics from sublime to intense on each of the four songs I stayed for. But the finer details I was hoping to catch were lost in the church immensity and displays of Christian torture.
Thirty years together culminated in a nice set from Bobbie Henry and the Goners at the Squeezer’s department store stage. Henry never ceases to amaze me with his flipped southpaw six string attack as he trilled and filled the space with lightning runs slap-back twang. I won’t lie to you, this is my jam and it’s the Goners; too, ‘cause jelly don’t shake like that.
Abeebaduh-beebaduh- beebaduh, That’s all folks. Frank has left the building.
When the Clifton Anderson Quintet took the stage at Kilbourn Hall Saturday night, it was a gathering of veteran players. Five of the men had earned their strips with greats like Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, and others. Only one, pianist Tadataka Unno, was in a younger, 30-something, generation. That made for a fairly old-school approach to the music, and no one was complaining.
Trombonist Anderson shared the front line with saxophonist Eric Wyatt. They played the heads of tunes in harmony or in counterpoint with each other and both had plenty of solos. Anderson’s trombone ranged from the sort of gruff sound normally associated with the instrument to the beautiful French horn-like tone the trombone is capable of.
He employs a particularly rich rhythm section with Essiet Okon Essiet on bass, Steve Williams on drums and Victor See Yuen on a world of percussion from Conga drums to chimes.
The strongest performance of the night came on Anderson’s “Remember This.” But a close second was the final tune of the night, a jazz treatment of “Tomorrow” from the Broadway show, “Annie.”
This year’s XRIJF featured no shortage of excavators, musicians who dug deep into the history of jazz and came up with some all-but-forgotten classics. Pianist and singer Champian Fulton resurrected some fine tunes to the delight of the audience at Hatch Hall.
For her first several selections she displayed her prowess on the piano. Since there was no microphone, and since Hatch is known as the piano venue, I didn’t expect her to sing. But she did, with a distinctive voice that carried nicely in the acoustically perfect hall.
My favorite of the songs was Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf’s “I’d Give A Dollar For A Dime,” a great tune about a juke box and how much music can mean to people. Instrumentally, Fulton channeled the great Errol Garner, playing wonderful renditions of “Moonglow,” “Indiana,” and “Misty.”
I ended the evening, and the festival, at Xerox Auditorium with the Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra featuring Ingrid Jensen on trumpet. This sister act was unique, considering the fact that the band has 17 regular members, all men. Christine conducted the group in her own gorgeous arrangements of her own compositions. She is superb at all three jobs.
Christine’s compositions, for this concert, were mostly about journeys, allowing her to paint aural pictures of dramatic voyages. She did so with a full palette of musical colors using distinctive voicings.
In most cases Ingrid took extended excursions on her trumpet, sounding a lot like Miles Davis when the mute was in. But, as Christine pointed out, this band is full of leaders (some of the top musicians in Canada) and everyone who stood up to take a solo was a formidable player.
He had played at the XRIJF twice before, so I wasn’t sure what the “New” in Kurt Rosenwinkel New Quartet was about, but it didn’t take long to find out at Kilbourn Hall Friday night. I knew he had used a small lapel microphone to vocalize with his guitar for years, but Friday he had a small head-set mic and used it a lot during his solos. The guitarist best known for wordlessly singing along with his guitar is George Benson; Rosenwinkel’s approach is entirely different. Unlike Benson, his voice is not out front. Instead, it provides a subtle enhancement, changing the texture of his guitar solos.
Another new aspect of Rosenwinkel’s performance (at least to me) was a more audience-friendly approach. He actually spoke a bit (not much talk the last two times) and even his repertoire seemed easier to penetrate. The first tune he played, “Cycle 5,” was downright catchy. And, during a beautiful ballad by pianist Aaron Parks, Rosenwinkel (one of the fastest guitarists anywhere) slowed down and played a gorgeous melody.
The performance turned out to be two for one in a way. I had forgotten that the superb pianist, Parks, was in Rosenwinkel’s band. Parks is worthy of a show of his own (and had one at the festival a few years ago). He was featured in long solos on several tunes and never disappointed. Eric Revis (bass) and Allan Mednard (drums) were also excellent.
Saxophonist Denys Baptiste and his group Triumvirate (Larry Bartley on bass and Moses Boyd on drums) seemed to have a novel idea at Christ Church. Baptiste, who had a great rapport with the audience, said they would play one long piece with snatches of the music he’d heard growing up, mainly from the 1960’s, although he was born in 1969. I thought that sounded terrific; the great pop music of the 1960’s would lend itself nicely to a stream-of-conscious jazz treatment.
The thing is, I didn’t hear any music from the 1960's. And I know that music. I was there. In fact, I still attribute my failing of several high school Trigonometry tests to the fact that I had too many lyrics of 1960’s songs swimming around in my head to make room for sines and cosines and tangents.
What I did recognize was Paul McCarney’s “My Love,” especially the repeated line “My love does it good.” But that was from the 1970’s, from Sir Paul’s insipid period. And then, toward the end, he got caught up in Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Not a bad tune, but from the 1980’s.
That said, the group was really good, with enviable simpatico. Despite the fact that they were improvising the entire set, they stuck together beautifully. Boyd was especially good at not over-drumming. He obviously was sensitive to the acoustics of the church. This concert sounded great.
I was glad that Melissa Aldana (& Crash Trio) asked the audience if we wanted to hear one more song at the end of her show at the Little Theatre because the group’s final tune, “Back Home,” was its best. It was, she explained, dedicated to Sonny Rollins, whose music inspired her to put down her alto saxophone and pick up a tenor. The tune related to Rollins in more ways than one. Musically, it recalled his syncopated melodic style and, like her, Rollins sometimes played in a piano-less trio.
A piano-less trio is a bold move, putting a great deal of emphasis on the saxophonist (although bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jochen Rueckert were excellent). Aldana mostly rose to the occasion but the set got a bit bogged down by tunes that sounded similar in terms of rhythm and tone.
It was refreshing to hear the one cover she played, Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good,” and she played it beautifully. And, toward the end of the set, it was good to hear Rueckert (who had been pretty subdued) come alive with some hot percussion. A few more tunes like that wouldn’t have hurt.
I’ll start the last night of the festival at Kilbourn Hall with trombonist Clifton Anderson and his Quintet. Then it’s on to Hatch Hall where pianist and singer Champian Fulton will be playing. And finally I’ll head for Xerox Auditorium for Canadian Christine Jensen’s Jazz Orchestra featuring her sister, Ingrid Jensen, on trumpet.
Jazz Fest 2015, extra shots: Ikebe Shakedown
Before New York City-based pianist Emmet Cohen began playing his second set at Hatch Recital Hall on Friday night, he let the audience know it was going to be "loose." "It's jazz -- if you wanna scream, comment, say 'boo,' whatever."
Those present elected to stay quiet and attentive for most of the set, erupting into cheers and applause only after each selection was finished. The performance was certainly worthy of such a response. Cohen played with a striking and effusive elegance. He moved all over the keyboard with understated, self-assured flair.
His arrangements were completely uncluttered, allowing the melody and bass to take precedence. The relationship between the two elements is where the true beauty of the songs resided. Cohen's playing was often jaunty and whimsical rhythmically, breathing a lighthearted air into the proceedings.
The pianist's set wasn't perfect, however. When playing the upper reaches of his instrument, there were times in which Cohen was unable to articulate all of his ideas. Stray notes were inexact, and certain phrases required a stronger touch in order to be made fully audible.
But these infrequent sins of omission were trumped by Cohen's consummate charm, as well as his remarkable knack for shaping melodies with a smooth touch, connected phrasing, and a keen ear for what creates a compelling narrative arc.
Whether interpreting the music of Benny Golson, JuleStyne, Horace Silver, Cole Porter, or Billy Strayhorn, Cohen plays music meant to be heard in the witching hour, in which magic is conjured and love is made.
During Cohen's original composition "You Already Know," which was written only a few months prior to this performance, his signature jauntiness returned to interrupt moments of more somber balladry. And yet there were spurts of youthful, impetuous violence too, which soon found their way back to Cohen's distinct style of clever tunefulness.
The pianist ended the set with a powerhouse sequence of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," "Wail" by Bud Powell, and an especially hyperactive version of George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." Cohen is a young musician to watch for years to come.
Some voices were meant to meld -- that's the guiding principle behind the vocal jazz trio Duchess. The group opened its second set at Max of Eastman Place with a sweet-sounding, if rather patronizing, song equivalent to former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy's mantra "Where would you rather be than right here, right now?" but quickly settled into bubbly, close-knit harmonies on tunes such as the Doris Day classic “Que Será, Será" and "Three Little Sisters" by The Andrews Sisters, and The Boswell Sisters' "Heebie Jeebies."
The members of Duchess -- Hilary Gardner, Amy Cervini, and Melissa Stylianou -- are perfectly competent singers on their own, but in harmony their voices gain special resonance. While Duchess;' brand of 1930's and 40's-style vocal swing tunes is a total throwback, there's nothing gimmicky about the songs or the performances. The trio sang earnestly, but with a clear commitment to fun. If you like your jazz old-school, the music of Duchess might be just what you're looking for.
Gadd-zooks Batman, that Steve Gadd can really beat the tubs. Celebrating his 70th birthday in front of a sold out, hometown crowd, Gadd and his black clad band were greeted enthusiastically and jumped right into a tight and progressive set.
Though the audience clearly loved what was going on, the band struck me more as players’ players; more for their peers than the average Joe. Gadd-damn it’s beautiful, but you can’t dance to it unless your spine is double jointed (wasn’t that the point in Zappa’s “Be Bop Tango?”). And in some cases you need a slide rule to follow along.
Songs by the likes of Keith Jarret and Jan Hammer permeated the set along with original pieces composed by the band. All players were spot on and prolific especially Gadd with his trademark Kettle-o-fish tom tom riff. Now this was Gadd’s 70th birthday concert and in tribute to the man, Mr. Fire and Rain, James Taylor showed up for two tunes and even came back for thirds during the encore.
The show was precise and serious in its tone and complexity and the fans ate it up showing Gadd plenty of gratitude and Gadditude.
I began Thursday at the new festival venue which is one of the oldest auditoriums in Rochester. Pianist Bill Charlap played at the Lyric Theatre and, with its gorgeous dome, it is absolutely magnificent. I don't know about other kinds of musical acts, but for solo piano, the acoustics couldn't have been better.
Charlap is a human jukebox. You don't have to put money in, and I swear he could go on forever without repeating a song. He played everything from Scott Joplin to George Gershwin to Duke Ellington and on and on. And he never just played the song. There was enough embellishment on "Tea For Two" to transform it into the "Tea For Two Sonata."
I couldn't spend much time at the Lutheran Church with Polish saxophonist Maciej Obara and his group, Obara International. The group went on 20 minutes late and I had to leave early if I wanted any chance to see Stanley Clarke. But, if the group's first two tunes where any indication, this band is intense start to finish. At the beginning of its set they were already in overdrive.
Both of the Stanley Clarke shows at Xerox Auditorium were filled to capacity and it's not surprising. Last time he was at the festival he was in Kodak Hall; it's rare to have the chance to see an artist of his stature in a fairly intimate venue.
Clarke was a phenomenon when he came onto the scene in the early 1970's and he is still a great bassist. His ability to create worlds of sound by thumping and slapping his electric bass and bowing, plucking, and tapping his acoustic bass is unsurpassed. The highlight of the show for me was his rendition of Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat."
He surrounds himself with exceptional young players who stand out from the crowd the way he did early in his career. Some of the best moments in the show came when he walked over and dueled with them. One of his two keyboard players is Beka Gochiashvili, who is now 19. A few years ago, he was the Joey Alexander-like teen sensation in the jazz world. He still plays piano beautifully, but also plays electric keyboards in the band with somewhat exaggerated body language and expression.
The drummer is 20-year-old Mike Mitchell, another phenomenon. His set had eight cymbals and at least eight drums and he used them all, seemingly all the time. At one point he was doing more with his feet than most drummers do with their hands and feet. Of course a power drummer means that everything else has to be turned up and I was glad I brought my earplugs. They were protecting my ears for the entire electric bass portion of the show. With earplugs in I could hear everything just fine at a reasonable level.
But I didn't really know what loud was until after Clarke's show when I walked by the outdoor stage where Soul Stew was playing. They are one of the world's great cover bands but I felt like I was from another planet as I walked down Gibbs Street covering my ears while everyone else in the huge crowd seemed fine. A few times I took my hands away to see how loud it was and each time I couldn't believe people were okay with it.
Then I went into the big tent where the real soul man (not a cover band) Sonny Knight was playing to a crowd of maybe 50 people. He was great but I had to put my earplugs back in fast. As I was leaving I took them out and once again could not imagine how anyone could tolerate that level of volume. Maybe I'll just have to return to my home planet. But not until the festival is over.
Friday night I'll start with innovative guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and his New Quartet at Kilbourn Hall. Then I'll be checking out British saxophonist Denys Baptiste at Christ Church before going over to the Little Theatre to catch the Chilean saxophonist I've heard good things about: Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio.
When the nearly 30-year-old trumpeter Theo Croker took the stage at Kilbourn Hall on Thursday night, he did so with a group of young professionals both exceedingly vibrant and undeniably mature. It's hard to imagine five musicians more dialed into one another than Croker and his band -- keyboardist Michael King, tenor saxophonist Anthony Ware, bassist Eric Wheeler, and drummer Kassa Overall.
With regard to phrasing, the chemistry was unparalleled, each instrumentalist intuitively vibing off the others. Collectively, the group's approach to dynamics was superb, and the subtle, sophisticated rhythmic changes demonstrated the highest levels of musical cohesion. Arrangements never became too busy, and solos were delivered with sparkling clarity.
Croker boasts a beautiful legato tone, and his ability to make many phrases sound as one fluid thought is the sign of a truly masterful musician. His trumpet radiated cool -- an ideal balance of detachment and care, passion, and nonchalance. The variety of timbres that Croker coaxed from his instrument was kaleidoscopic: rounded, flutter low notes; otherworldly cries in the upper register; muted drones with strange, deep overtones; searing, non-tonal sounds. All required a rare mix of control and innovation with regard to embouchure that one only achieves through serious study and countless hours of exploration.
On the song "Bo Masekela," Croker made ingenious use of the wah pedal during a slow funk groove, prompting me to wonder how I had never heard the effect used with a brass instrument before.
All in all, Croker and his band may have been the most polished ensemble I witnessed all week. The music they played was exceedingly articulate and engrossing. Croker's compositions are made of the stuff you'll want to return to again and again.
The country-bluegrass outfit Mama Corn succeeded in sounding relaxed without sacrificing energy in its performance. While the songs themselves may not have been the most memorable, the lovely vocal harmonies used by the group at every turn were supremely listenable, rich, smoky, and smooth. In fact, every song seemed to build with anticipation toward the blessed moment in which the harmonies kicked in.
It should be noted that Mama Corn, though usually a five-piece, performed as a quartet during its performances at The Little Theatre. And yet the music wasn't lacking in texture or development. In addition to the overall competency of the musicians, their rapport with one another was obvious and entertaining, as the between-song banter reflected an easy camaraderie. One got the sense that the band members loved each other's musical company so much that they would have been just as at home playing for one another as they were for the appreciative jazz festival audience.
It was also nice to hear Americana music outside of the Squeezers venue on the second floor of the Sibley Building on Main Street, where it would have been easy for festival organizers to relegate such music for the entire nine days. It was comforting that one could wind up hearing music of virtually any style regardless of the venue. I believe this kind of accessibility can only help listeners to find even more artists with whom they may have been unfamiliar.
There will be no pictures this evening of Doyle Bramhall II because the cat played in the shadows with no spotlight. Regardless, he sounded great. He was the second loud guitar player on stage in a poncho this week which added to his good, bad, and ugly guitar-slinger mystique. His guitar was an intense, psychedelic grumble and scream. It sonically mimicked Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" in spots along with The MC-5 at the Democratic National Convention. He conjured this apocalyptic thunder by playing with a phase shifter and tremolo left on for the entire set. It was rather ferocious, dense, and vicious and did most of the talking as Bramhall was a man of few words, opting to focus his attention on the task at hand: taming the dinosaur in his amps.
Still surfing on that R&B high that Sonny Knight and the Lakers put me on, I was ripe and ready for Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings. It was an amazing show with The Dap Kings laying down a solid groove as Jones bounced around the stage like a pinball. Things almost got out of hand during the band's send-up to Gladys Knight when Jones suggested a few females join her which got interpreted as "All the ladies make for the stage." Her voice was raw emotion with purpose. She shared about her cancer scare which made the jubilee on stage that more poignant as she danced a non-stop celebratory tantrum to the delight of the packed house.
Tedeschi Trucks Band had the unenviable task of takin' to the stage after Jones and the Kings leveled it. I've never been one for huge bands (except for big band); there doesn't seem to be enough room for air between the notes. In this case I was wrong. What struck me most was Derek Trucks' slide guitar as it slithered around everything else on stage. It was positively magical as he brought it from a whisper to a scream. It was mesmerizing.
Told ya! Tia Brazda is a talant to keep an eye on!