Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Jazz Fest 2015, Day 4: Daniel reviews Blue Highway, The Soul Rebels, and Stephane Wrembel (again)

Posted By on Tue, Jun 23, 2015 at 4:00 AM

On Monday night, the members of Blue Highway brought a more traditional bluegrass approach to the Squeezers Roots & Americana Stage. This sound had less swagger and more twang than The HillBenders from three nights before.

click to enlarge Blue Highway performed on the Squeezers Roots & Americana stage on Monday, June 22. - PHOTO BY FRANK DE BLASE
  • Blue Highway performed on the Squeezers Roots & Americana stage on Monday, June 22.

And while the music of Blue Highway was perfectly pleasant, it felt staid -- almost commonplace -- lacking the spontaneous improvisational energy and combustible chemistry between players trading searing solos. That's not to say there weren't cohesive, whip-smart licks or beautifully blended harmonies (as in the a cappella song "Someday"). The instrumental textures were wonderfully lush and you're not likely to hear a more pleasing country voice than that of multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lane.

That said, the band's self-described "hillbilly jazz" was safe and laid-back, even during the brisk numbers. I came away merely appreciating the music. What I wanted to do was get lost in it.

In search of something more dance-inducing, I ventured over to the Rochester Regional Health Big Tent, where New Orleans octet The Soul Rebels got my blood pumping with rousing funk rhythms, brass hooks on overdrive, and old-school hip-hop inflections.

Front-loaded with two trumpets, two trombones, tenor saxophone, and the tuba-like sousaphone, The Soul Rebels' tunes got under my skin the best possible way. But the most musically satisfying moments occurred when individual band members such as saxophonist Erion Williams and trumpeters Julian Gosin and Marcus Hubbard took solos, revealing great depth of skill and an intuition for melody.

I couldn't help thinking how much more amazing the experience would have been had the band played on one of the outdoor stages, where the party could somehow feel less inhibited. In other words, we need to dance more, Jazz Fest fans! And if you were at one of the four Soul Rebel sets over the last two days and you weren't at least tapping your toes -- well, that's completely on you.

Once again, virtuoso guitarist Stephane Wrembel and his band brought his jaw-dropping music to a captivated Jazz Fest audience, this time outdoors on the Jazz Street Stage. One thing I'm afraid I failed to state clearly enough in my review from last night is just how spectacular Wrembel's supporting cast of musicians is.

Rhythm guitarist Roy Williams was a dynamic and mesmerizing soloist in his own right, so much so that at times I had look up to be sure of exactly who was playing. Bassist Kells Nollenberger quietly set both the pace and mood of the songs in an unassuming but no less impressive manner. I would have liked to hear more solo interludes from him. And drummer Nick Anderson was an unequivocal tour-de-force. His kinetic, flowing style could be thunderous at times, but it never came across as brash or ostentatious. His stamina and hyper-articulate rhythms were astounding, making him the most exciting drummer I've seen at this year's festival so far. But the 2015 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival isn't even halfway done, so who knows for sure....

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