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All that jazz: RIJF in review 

With the third annual Rochester International Jazz Festival fresh in our minds, let's state the obvious: this is not just a jazz festival; this is the best thing to happen in Rochester in decades.

            It took an outsider, producer John Nugent, to see the potential of a city with rich musical resources and a population ripe for excitement.

            Nugent, who initially had help from musical and civic activist Ned Corman in opening doors, possesses the organizational skills to pull it off. Nugent is an accomplished musician himself; he was on a par with Eric Alexander on tenor sax at a festival jam session. His musical knowledge, and his years of involvement with the Stockholm Jazz Festival, have made him an excellent festival producer.

            And, with three years in Rochester under Nugent's belt, now marks the perfect time to reflect on this season's highlights and make our own suggestions for exciting new directions, many of which were already hinted at this year. Following is a compilation of our observations from countless joyful hours spent soaking up as much jazz as humanly possible.

Lasting reflections

We'll remember the throngs of people every night streaming into the Eastman Theatre. They witnessed legends like Oscar Peterson and Marian McPartland pouring lifetimes of dedication into brilliant piano solos. They heard the steel guitars of Rochester's own Campbell Brothers singing (we swear!) Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come."

            Crowds also packed downtown's clubs, eating, drinking, and listening to magical performances by Sliding Hammers, Trio da Paz, and Raw Materials, groups they had probably never heard before. And you didn't have to spend a dime to enjoy the great blues and soul of Walter "Wolf Man" Washington or good-time music by Paul Cebar & The Milwaukeeans on Jazz Street (the street formerly known as Gibbs).

            And we won't forget the sound of Dave Gibson's trombone as it bounced warm and sweet off downtown's usually lonely surfaces. Or Mose Allison's low-key cool.

            Thanks to RIJF, Rochester came alive in a way we haven't witnessed in years.

Mainstream to third stream and beyond

Marian McPartland wowed the Eastman Theatre audience with a Monday concert of trio and six-hand piano music. With her "Upstate Trio" (Eastman School of Music professors Jeff Campbell on bass and Rich Thompson on drums) she played standards like "Willow Weep For Me" in nicely articulated arrangements. At one point she transformed Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are" into a beautiful little fugue. McPartland didn't play it completely safe. After telling the audience not to be frightened, she took off on "Ramblin'," a composition (albeit a tame one) by Ornette Coleman.

            Audience members at Tuesday night's Eastman Theatre concert may have come primarily to hear Rite of Strings, but that didn't stop them from giving a standing ovation to opening act Elaine Elias and her band. And Elias deserved it. Her set, consisting mostly of tunes from her native Brazil, alternated between vocal treatments reminiscent of Astrud Gilberto and powerhouse piano work on Antonio Carlos Jobim songs like "Waters of March" and "Desafinado."

            Brian Lynch's first set at the Montage Grille kicked in nicely when he began to play "Autumn Nocturne," a gorgeous ballad from his latest album. Then Lynch and his band shifted into high gear with his tribute piece, "Woody Shaw," dedicated to his trumpet mentor. The furiously paced tune lent itself to excellent solos by Lynch and the other members of his band.

            Curtis Stigers caught us off guard. Based on much of what we'd heard on the radio, we thought he'd be a lukewarm singer. Instead, he delivered a high-octane performance on vocals and sax, while cementing his relationship with his adoring audience in the tent. His rendition of "Swingin' Down at 10th and Main" was preceded by a wonderful story about how he got to know jazz legend Gene Harris, the man who inspired the tune.

            Cedar Walton treated an overflow crowd at Kilbourn Hall to a rich selection of his vast repertoire. His own majestic "Holy Land" featured extraordinary solos by David Williams (bass) and Joe Farnsworth (drums). Walton was at his best when he let loose on a medley of tunes by Billy Strayhorn. His genius lies in perfectly contouring his playing to the mood of the composition, sometimes declaratively striking the notes of a simple melodic statement, other times adding richly filigreed flourishes.

            It was during the opening meditation played by Raw Materials during their Tuesday afternoon set that RIJF began heading in some wild directions. The duo, consisting of native son Vijay Iyer on piano and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, weaved a tapestry of minimalist patterns that recalled the ecstatically intricate compositions of Steve Reich.

            Neither musician backed-up the other in a traditional manner; much of their interplay consisted of converging and diverging melodic strains. While flirting with dissonance, they created a form of point-counterpoint that only the most masterful players could hold together. Strains of raga-like intensity added a third-stream dimension to their music, which was more modern classical than classic jazz. And the audience was rapt.

            When James "Blood" Ulmer, complete with G Unit T-shirt and gold chains, took the stage at Milestones on Wednesday, he seemed a bit nervous about playing without a band. But after a few stream-of-conscious instrumentals, he was ready to deliver a unique set of droning, open-tuned blues. Using a crunchy wah-wah sound, Ulmer managed to play bass, rhythm, and lead simultaneously.

            Ulmer's tunes ranged from classics like "Trouble In Mind" and "Money" to his own "Are You Glad To Be In America?" His gravelly voice added no shortage of drama to every one. For those longing for some of Ulmer's Ornette Coleman-influenced music, there was no shortage of unconventional harmonies. As far as rhythm went, Ulmer moved to beat of his own inner drummer. And when he busted out his flute, all bets were off.

            That same night, violinist Billy Bang tore the roof off the mother at Montage, leaving crowds in awe after each of his two sets. His charisma and adept skills as a bandleader set the stage for perhaps the most vibrant show in the entire festival.

            Bang's quartet played tunes mostly from his Vietnam repertoire (Bang is a Vietnam vet). Many of them would begin with abstract duets before Bang would snap the group into action, playing wicked heads with hot basslines and spot-on percussion that would send the crowd into wild cheers. When Bang would strum, stroke, or otherwise manipulate his violin into another stratosphere, it appeared that there was no limit to the group's musicality. And watching the resin from Bang's bow reflect in the light like smoke as he played was a stunning visual.

            Turmpet player Cuong Vu managed to create a similar buzz with his sets at Milestones. Vu and bassist Stomu Takeishi played their instruments through looping devices that would frequently allow them to simply stand back while drummer John Hollenback accompanied their loops with tight, creative rhythms. That the trio managed to keep its music's form and accessibility was a testament to its instrumental abilities and its technical know-how. By the end of Vu's Friday night set, the group was nearing full post-rock mode, diving headlong into heavy riffs that had all of Milestones, wait staff included, stopped in its tracks.

Our suggestions

The buzz created by some of the festival's less mainstream acts like Billy Bang and Cuong Vu is an indication that John Nugent could push the boundaries even further. If, say, for every David Sanborn Nugent is able to book a few acts like Ulmer, Bang, or Vu, he should be able to maintain the festival's commercial credibility while also slowly establishing it as a place to see cutting-edge acts from all over the world. And he would hold on to the younger crowd that tended to only buy individual tickets to check out sets like Vu's.

            A few acts Nugent might consider for future festivals: Norwegian improvisers Supersilent, Argentinean TV star-turned-outsider-pop darling Juana Molina, UK bass technician Squarepusher, Iceland's Mum, Germany's To Rococo Rot (imagine Vu's loop play only more refined and rhythmic), otherwordly Swedish reed improviser Mats Gustafsson, any configuration of the Chicago Underground, Tortoise, sax heavyweight Peter Brötzmann, piano warrior Cecil Taylor.... Heck, even the Magic Band.

            Why not? Any of these acts would lend the festival serious credibility across the region, bringing people far and wide for rare glimpses.

            But, believe it or not, there's more to RIJF than the music. Here are our non-musical suggestions for future fests:

            Once it's ready, take full advantage of Manhattan Square Park. Do what you can to close Gibbs Street all week and fill it with more free events. Go back to showing jazz films. Close the door to the restaurant at Max so conversations don't drift into the atrium and detract from the musicians' quiet moments. Start music earlier on Saturdays and Sundays. Keep the same number of acts but spread the festival over a few more days. Keep the wonderful RIJF Big Tent. And come up with a line of cheap RIJF T-shirts for people to buy.

            But, most importantly, keep this up. There were enough magical musical moments from June 4 to June 12 to fill whole chapters. And Rochester, with its rich artistic and cultural history, was the perfect backdrop.

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