Jazz Fest

Friday, June 30, 2017

Jazz Fest 2017, Day 7: Ron reviews Youn Sun Nah, Manuel Valera, and The Walt Weiskopf Quartet

Posted By on Fri, Jun 30, 2017 at 4:00 AM

How did a South Korean singer with a fantastic voice end up on a Rochester, New York, stage singing Tom Waits' "Jockey Full of Bourbon" with a punk-metal vibe and earn a standing ovation and an encore?

That might have been the question on your mind if you had just arrived at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival from Mars. But by the time Youn Sun Nah reached the climax of her set at Harro East Ballroom, everyone knew to expect the unexpected.

The first time Sun Nah played at the XRIJF, in 2013, she was accompanied on a single acoustic guitar by Ulf Wakenius. Thursday night at Harro East Ballroom, she brought a rock band. Sun Nah stood center stage, surrounded by an organist and electric pianist with a ZZ Top-length beard, an electric guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer. Harro East is not the best room acoustically for such a large sound, but Sun Nah vocals cannot be diminished by a sound system.

Sun Nah is the definition of a world musician. Her repertoire is from all over, and her stylistic range spans the musical world. She used her other-worldly voice on tunes ranging from "A Sailor's Life," a traditional song made popular by Fairport Convention, to a Jimi Hendrix song, "Drifting." Where Hendrix might have held, twisted, and turned the last note on his guitar, Sun Nah did it with her voice, reaching high into what appeared to be the fourth octave of her range. It was stunning.

It was a totally different experience than the first time I heard her but I left saying the same word: wow!

You can find Youn Sun Nah's music at younsunnah.com.

Earlier in the evening I saw one of my favorite pianists, Manuel Valera in a solo concert at Hatch Hall. Valera was born in Cuba, and the island still occupies a giant place in his music. Early in the set he played an evocative original tune, "Water," based on growing up near the ocean. A few tunes later he played a beautiful Cuban bolero.

Later, Valera played a particularly gorgeous, mysteriously familiar tune. Only afterward did he reveal that he'd grown up playing classical music but was very reluctant to play it in public. He had just played an improvisation-filled version of Chopin's second nocturne for the first time in front of an audience. Other highlights of the set included a sprightly rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now."

Find more about Manuel Valera at manuelvalera.com.

The Walt Weiskopf Quartet filled the Xerox Auditorium with Weiskopf's muscular saxophone and his bandmates' excellent accompaniment on piano, bass, and drums. Weiskopf is particularly good at writing classic jazz tunes, the kind with great, catchy heads and strong chord patterns to improvise over. He and his band took off on strong solos on every tune.

Go to waltweiskopf.com for more on the band.

Friday night, I'll begin with one of the most highly anticipated concerts of the XRIJF: 4 By Monk By 4 with pianists Kenny Barron, Benny Green, Cyrus Chestnut, and George Cables at Kilbourn Hall. Then I'll check out one more pianist, Ariel Pocock, at Hatch Hall before heading over to Xerox Auditorium to hear singer Tessa Souter.

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Jazz Fest 2017, Day 6: Frank reviews Tommy Smith, Marcia Ball, and Mavis Staples

Posted By on Thu, Jun 29, 2017 at 4:00 AM

Tommy Smith played the Lyric Theatre on Wednesday. - PHOTO BY FRANK DE BLASE
  • Tommy Smith played the Lyric Theatre on Wednesday.

As Tommy Smith slowly strode down the aisle in the Lyric Theatre, I got to thinking how I would describe it. I first thought it took on the look and speed of a wedding march. Nope; that would be too happy for what he was playing on his tenor saxophone. How about a funeral march? Perhaps.

However you look at it, Smith made it to the band stand dramatically while playing something that had a somewhat dark mood within its happy notes. And for a brief instant, I thought he was playing the intro to Tom Waits' "Small Change."

Smith began the show with a piece that was roughly 10 minutes long (maybe even longer) called "Love is a Red, Red Rose." Everything he played floated throughout the room without any amplification whatsoever. It sounded outstanding with its punch, clarity, and sustain. Smith arranged his tunes rather curious and odd. It wasn't your stock call-and-response, modulate, repeat. It was more call, call, call, respond with yet another call.

Smith played it slippery, and the notes escaped like smoke in fog. This is the first time I'd heard him, but I know the next time -- even if he plays the same selections -- I'll hear something entirely different. It was mesmerizing.

Find Tommy Smith's music at tommysmith.scot.

Mavis Staples headlined Wednesday night at XRIJF 2017. - PHOTO BY FRANK DE BLASE
  • Mavis Staples headlined Wednesday night at XRIJF 2017.

Making sure we all had a ball, Marcia Ball threw a ball at the Harro East Ballroom. It was simply good ole rockin' roadhouse music with Ball up front on the piano and leading the charge of her hard-hitting bandmates behind her. Ball's voice was in fine form with just a hint of a sexy rasp and history. The band pumped and pummeled as Ball cracked the whip. And solo breaks allowed the sax player and guitarist to show out and show off what they could do, which pleased the audience to no end. Definitely the most rock 'n' roll show I've heard this week. I had a natural ball.

More on Marcia Ball at facebook.com/marciaballband.

At 77, Mavis Staples still has pipes to be reckoned with. She has that throaty purr that lingers at the tail of every note she sings. With little fanfare, this legend took to the stage with the Staples Singers song "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)."

Through her 90-minute set, Staples sang tunes by the Talking Heads ("Slippery People"), Buffalo Springfield ("Whatever it's Worth"), and plenty of Staples Singers staples, like "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There." She worked the audience into multiple standing ovations without preaching so much as leading by example on stage, exemplified by the number "Touch a hand, Make a Friend."

You can find Mavis Staples at livinonahighnote.com.

Tomorrow night, it's The Wee Trio in the Wilder Room and Sheryl Crow, who I owe an apology -- I'll explain tomorrow -- at Kodak Hall.

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Jazz Fest 2017, Day 6: Daniel reviews Shauli Einav Quartet, Electric Kif, and Klabbes bank

Posted By on Thu, Jun 29, 2017 at 4:00 AM

Shauli Einav Quartet's first set at Max of Eastman Place on Wednesday night was among the more traditional jazz performances I've heard at the festival so far. While this isn't exactly my style, the musicianship was impeccable, and the overall vibe was suave and sexy.

An Eastman School of Music alumnus, Einav's delivery on the tenor and soprano saxes was silky smooth, but as good as he was, pianist Nitzan Gavrieli stole the show with a flawless knack for melody and intuitive phrasing that was seductive.

Ultimately, the quartet's tight, downtown jazz had just the right combination of swagger and musical sensitivity.

Check out Shauli Einav Quartet at shaulieinav.com.

Electric Kif at Anthology. - PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • Electric Kif at Anthology.

The Miami-based quartet Electric Kif makes funk-rock fusion with big jam band vibes. During its first set at Anthology, this was a band that was heavy on the groove, and played "in the pocket": rhythmic expressivity was just as important as the melody.

Keyboardist Jason Matthews was the main attraction here. At the heart of Electric Kif was his indefatigable energy and effusive playing style. Matthews frequently dropped huge Hammond organ riffs on the audience.

The band powered through songs such as "See You at the Corner" and "Little Louie" -- from its new album "Heist" -- but the best was saved for last with a blistering cover of Radiohead's brilliant "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi." Matthews and company gave a faithful rendition that managed to be more moody and explosively emotive than the recorded original.

You can find Electric Kif's music at electrickif.bandcamp.com.

The sound of synthesizers is at the core of Swedish sextet Klabbes bank -- an indie pop band utilizing jazz instrumentation to achieve a cinematic, post-rock sound that fans of Sigur Rós and Godspeed You! Black Emperor can get behind. The group touches on all those signifiers without being beholden to any of the

The horn section -- tenor sax, trombone, and clarinets -- produced a truly beautiful, versatile result: at various times contemplative, cacophonous, sultry even. Combined with the keyboards, the instruments gave off a retro-80's essence that was still somehow contemporary. Think the music of M83, with fjords.

Klabbes bank closed its second set at Lutheran Church of the Reformation with "I'm the Sea," my favorite cut from the 2015 album "Z." Practically a dance tune, this fleet composition features a sleek horn riff that would be as home in a club as in a concert hall.

Klabbes bank is a band that requires repeated listening, and yet it is completely accessible on the first try. Its performance was a prime example of what makes the Jazz Festival so great: the discovery of fascinating artists committed to their sound.

You can find the band at klabbesbank.com.

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Jazz Fest 2017, Day 6: Ron reviews Charles Pillow Large Ensemble, George Cables, and Ryan Keberle & Catharsis

Posted By on Thu, Jun 29, 2017 at 4:00 AM

Charles Pillow led his Large Ensemble at Xerox Auditorium Wednesday night. - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Charles Pillow led his Large Ensemble at Xerox Auditorium Wednesday night.

When jazz aficionados think of Miles Davis and jazz orchestra music, the first thing that comes to mind is a series of recordings Davis made with arranger Gil Evans in the late-1950's. Wednesday night at Xerox Auditorium, the Charles Pillow Large Ensemble performed something fairly radical: jazz orchestra arrangements of some of Davis's most controversial works produced during his initial "electric" period in the late-1960's and early-70's.

I remember when "Bitches Brew" came out in 1970. Someone put it on at a party, and I couldn't stand it. Give it about five decades and an excellent big band and hey -- I like it. An Eastman School of Music professor, Charles Pillow wrote some fantastic arrangements of tunes from "Bitches Brew," "In A Silent Way," and "On the Corner." Maybe it's the time that's passed or maybe the fact that Davis's revolutionary recordings influenced so much that came after, but everything the ensemble played sounded good.

In the role of Miles Davis (sort of) were two of the top trumpet players on the scene today, Tim Hagans and Clay Jenkins, another Eastman professor. Both were superb, as was Pillow when he took saxophone solos and led the band from the middle of the sax section. The 16-piece ensemble was made up of top national players and some excellent Eastman students who rose to the occasion. My favorite of the arrangements was "Spanish Key," a Davis tune. I might have to check out those albums and give them another chance.

Find more on Charles Pillow at charlespillow.com.

George Cables began his Hatch Hall set by dedicating a song, "Lullaby," to pianist Geri Allen, who died today at the age of 60. (Allen, who played Kilbourn Hall at the 2007 Jazz Festival, was a jazz giant who will be greatly missed.) Then Cables launched into a series of standards, all of which were embellished greatly by his brilliant technique.

When he played "You Don't Know What Love Is" the tune itself seemed embedded in a larger blues composition. "Up Jumped Spring" became an impossibly intricate tour-de-force. And his version of "'Round Midnight" was more like "By Midnight," as in, it's 11:58 p.m. and we've got to get this song done by 12 -- I've never heard it so fast.

The best tune in the set was one of the few originals Cables played. "Helen's Song," a tune he wrote for his wife, is a lilting, lyrical, mid-tempo composition with great harmonies, surprising turns, and a melody I still can't get out of my head.

George Cables will play as part of 4 By Monk By 4 on Thursday at the Lyric Theatre, 4 p.m., ($30 or a Club Pass); and on Friday night at Kilbourn Hall, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. ($35 or a Club Pass) He is one of four excellent pianists playing the music of Thelonious Monk. georgecables.com.

Over at The Little Theatre, Ryan Keberle & Catharsis was playing with a unique front line. The heads of tunes were played by three horns: Keberle on trombone, a saxophonist whose name I didn't catch, and Camila Meza on voice.

Meza, who also played guitar, provided a vocal with words for the band's best tune of the night. After a free jazz improvisation, the band segued into "Al otrolado del río," by Jorge Drexler. Meza's vocal was wonderful and the band backed her beautifully with punctuated horn riffs.

Ryan Keberle & Catharasis can be found at ryankeberle.com.

Thursday night I'll be headed to Hatch Hall to hear one of my favorite pianists, Manuel Valera, in a solo concert. Then I'll head over to Harro East Ballroom to hear vocalist Youn Sun Nah. I'll finish with the Walt Weiskoff Quartet at Xerox Auditorium.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Jazz Fest 2017, Day 5: Frank reviews Vanessa Rubin, Postmodern Jukebox, and Hot Club of Cowtown

Posted By on Wed, Jun 28, 2017 at 4:00 AM

Vanessa Rubin performed at Max of Eastman Place on Tuesday night. - PHOTO BY FRANK DE BLASE
  • Vanessa Rubin performed at Max of Eastman Place on Tuesday night.

What a splendiferous, fantastical, and magical evening I had. After Monday morning quarterbacking the night before, and handicapping the upcoming schedule with the JAZZ90.1 jumpin' jazzperts, I dove right in to Max of Eastman Place once again.

This time it was to see Vanessa Rubin. What an absolute joy she was as she sang with elastic epiglottal electricity. She hit the classics -- "Moonglow," "Besame Mucho" -- along with her own stuff that shimmered with a casual effervescence that delighted the stuffed house.

Her between-song banter was cheeky and charming and hysterically self-effacing; she claimed to have "jazzheimers" when she couldn't remember a line to a particular song. No worries, she scatted through the blank spots like Ella or a trip to the moon on gossamer wings.

Just suffice it to say Postmodern Jukebox rocked me and a packed Kodak Hall like a hurricane. The band had it all: an in-charge emcee; three warbling chanteuses who could all crack the sky with their range; a tap dancer that looked like Josephine Baker; and a cracker-jack band with two ex-Rochester homeboys in the brass section, trumpeter Mike Cottone (of the band Holophonor) and trombonist Nick Finzer. All that was missing were a few flying monkeys and some pyro.

The way the band takes current and some classic pop and re-tools it into swing may sound like a gimmick on paper, but live, it's amazing. The band was rewarded with standing ovations throughout its 90-minute show. A bit of the irony was lost on me as I don't know a lot of the songs that PMJ re-upholsters, but even without the back story, they're still great tunes.

Radiohead's "Creep" brought tears to my eyes, and the band's take on Meghan Trainor's "All About the Bass" was probably one of the sexiest things I've seen or heard in a while. And the bands encore take on Fountains of Wayne's "Stacy's Mom" was the funniest thing I've heard in a while. The whole friggin' show swung like DiMaggio aiming for the cheap seats.

Hot Club of Cowtown played the Big Tent on Tuesday. - PHOTO BY FRANK DE BLASE
  • Hot Club of Cowtown played the Big Tent on Tuesday.

For a bit of decompression, I headed to my final stop of the evening: Hot Club of Cowtown, who swung light and tight like tumbleweeds made of velvet. They have a big sound for an acoustic-based three-piece and call to mind Bob Wills. The trio played their collective heart out, but alas I was shellac'd and couldn't take no more, so I stumbled home under a fingernail moon to tell you this tale. It goes something like this: What a splendiferous, fantastical and magical evening I had ...

Tomorrow night, its Tommy Smith, Marcia Ball, and Mavis Staples -- provided I wake up in time.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jazz Fest 2017, Day 5: Daniel reviews Mario Rom's Interzone and Ole Mathisen's Floating Points

Posted By on Tue, Jun 27, 2017 at 11:06 PM

Mario Rom's Interzone played The Little on Tuesday. - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Mario Rom's Interzone played The Little on Tuesday.

At The Little Theatre on Tuesday night, the Austrian jazz trio Mario Rom's Interzonepicked up right where it left off two years ago during its last appearance at XRIJF.

Interzone is almost too much fun, if that's even possible: Lukas Kranzelbinder continues to be one of the most riveting double bassists I've seen, and Herbert Pirker is as nimble a drummer as you're likely to hear. Mario Rom is an absolutely dazzling trumpet player, possessing a distinctive flair all his own.

Just as I remembered, they played fast and intense -- like repeated shots of musical adrenaline. Rom's dexterity on the trumpet was remarkable, dispensing extended melodic runs that were magic, plain and simple. This was especially evident during "Words of Advice," from the new album "Truth Is Simple to Consume."

For "Broken Image of Man," also off the aforementioned record, Kranzelbinder plucked out some downright bluesy bass chords as the foundation, while Rom's decidedly mellower trumpet was no less incisive or on-point. That's not to say his playing was flawless, but frankly, it didn't matter. His willingness to take risks made all the difference.

"Milking of the Mugwumps," a song inspired by American writer William S. Burroughs's infamous novel "Naked Lunch," had all the classic jazz signifiers, but just enough experimental elements to keep the audience honest. Amid the sounds of "Choose Your Vision," a subtle feature of Interzone's work emerged: the band's ability to smuggle in non-jazz rhythmic motives, virtually undetected. While Rom's trumpet grabbed all the immediate attention, more conservative jazz listeners took in rock and avant-garde elements, courtesy of Kranzelbinder and Pirker, who were always in lock-step yet able to let loose at any moment.

This band's performance may end up as the best-kept secret of the XRIJF. Mario Rom's Interzone is definitely on my shortlist for best of the fest.

Later on in the evening, Norwegian tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen and his Floating Points ensemble played a cryptic hybrid of contemporary classical and jazz during its second set at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation. It was telling that its first piece was "J.S.," an ultra-modern ode to Bach.

The performance of the "Floating Points" suite was the Jazz Fest at its most esoteric: Mathisen and trumpeter Amir ElSaffar intoned meditative drones that explored microbial harmonies; meandering lines were delivered like non-sequiturs; abstract interjections fluttered and spasmed, wailed and shrieked. This was jazz deconstructed, dissected even; all the bones were there, but the remains told a more abstract, disjointed yet compelling story.

The entire performance required intensive listening, and was not ideal for those uninitiated with the avant-garde. That's not to say the music wasn't rewarding. The sounds were some of the most bold and adventurous I had heard at the festival thus far.

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Jazz Fest 2017, Day 4: Frank reviews Marquis Hill Blacktet and New Breed Brass Band

Posted By on Tue, Jun 27, 2017 at 4:00 AM

Marquis Hill Blacktet performed at Max of Eastman Place on Monday as part of the 2017 XRIJF. - PHOTO BY FRANK DE BLASE
  • Marquis Hill Blacktet performed at Max of Eastman Place on Monday as part of the 2017 XRIJF.

The Marquis Hill Blacktet got my motor running right tonight with an outasight dose of the bop during the matinee set at Max of Eastman Place. His trumpet zipped and ping-ponged off the walls into a shimmery cascade that was straight from the fridge, dad.

Hill traded off liberally to his alto sax man while we all stood drop-jawed in awe of the monster behind the drums. He doubled his attack frequently on the up-beat where it sounded like he was playing more drums than were actually before him.

What really sent me was the righteous vibraphone player who danced and pranced the mallets over his instrument. One minute he was punctuating Hill's flourishes and flurries, the next he was letting fly with little bursts of rhythm only to bring it down to that of a mysterious chime of a music box. The funny thing is the quieter he played, the more you could feel the sustain of the notes reverberating in your bones. It made me pleasantly dizzy.

Here's a hint: if you want to entertain me, if you want to win me over as a fan, just don't tell me what to do. Don't tell me to make some noise; that's your job. This also holds true for screaming, waving my hands in the air like I just don't care, and stage diving. This is why Warped Tour sucks now. The New Breed Brass Band didn't break all those rules, but they fractured a few. And they yelled at all of us in the Big Tent. A lot.

The New Breed Brass Band at the Big Tent on Monday. - PHOTO BY FRANK DE BLASE
  • The New Breed Brass Band at the Big Tent on Monday.

The New Orleans-based band is essentially a parade trapped in a snow globe. They are kinetic and cool, and need to be out and about, marching down the street. I loved the sousaphone on the bass parts -- you could feel it way down in your guts. Individually, the horn players were masters of their instruments. All together, though, it was as if the transmission was slipping every so often. It was more blaring blasts of notes than songs, and my ears looked desperately to hang on to anything they could -- a hook, a riff -- but kept falling off.

New Breed Brass Band plays again Tuesday, June 27, at Montage Music Hall. 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. $30 or a Club Pass.

Tomorrow, you'll find me limping along the killing floor to see Postmodern Jukebox at Kodak Hall and Hot Club of Cowtown at the Big Tent.

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Jazz Fest 2017, Day 4: Ron reviews Miguel Zenon, Ikonostasis, and Red Hook Soul

Posted By on Tue, Jun 27, 2017 at 4:00 AM

Miguel Zenon let the music do the talking at Kilbourn Hall Monday night as his excellent quartet burned through selections from his latest album, "Tipico." Zenon was front and center with his saxophone, but the band also boasts one of today's greatest pianists, Luis Perdomo, and a superb rhythm section with Hans Glawischnig on bass and Henry Cole on drums.

For much of the set, Zenon played furiously, like a man who had an emotionally charged story to tell but can only speak saxophone. When Perdomo soloed he was equally strong, at one point doubling his melodies with both hands playing impossibly complicated riffs together perfectly.

In his music, Zenon explores his Puerto Rican roots, but the band is international, with Perdomo bringing his Venezuelan background to the table. (Glawischnig is Austrian and Cole is also Puerto Rican.)

The most overtly Latin song they played was the album's title tune, "Tipico." Zenon and Perdomo both let loose with gorgeously evocative solos. Toward the end, Cole took off on a fantastic drum solo in which he somehow transformed his standard drum set into timbales by accenting the beat in just the right way.

At the very end, Zenon finally came to the mic and spoke, but only to thank us for coming.

Red Hook Soul performed at Xerox Auditorium on Monday night. - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Red Hook Soul performed at Xerox Auditorium on Monday night.

Kari Ikonen, the force behind Ikonostasis, began his set at the Lutheran Church by performing a solo piece at the piano. It was a dazzling composition, somewhere between Bach and Brubeck, and it served him well because it demonstrated how deeply ingrained his background in music was before he turned to his right and made exotic noises with his synthesizer.

Ikonostasis is a trio with a sax player and drummer (I didn't catch their names), both of whom followed their leader into avant-garde territory. On one piece, Ikonen began by strumming the strings inside the piano. These strums became the chord pattern of the tune. The saxophonist was skilled enough to invent melodies over this highly unusual model theme and the drummer, who used his hands and some rattling beads as much as sticks and brushes, was quick to pick up the rhythm.

The last time saxophonist Michael Blake visited the Jazz Festival was in 2008 with his Copenhagen-based group, Blake Tartare. In that context, Blake (originally from Canada) combined strains of American and European jazz, leaning to the avant-garde side. But musicians have many interests and for Blake that was just one of them.

He started the band Red Hook Soul to explore the kind of music he played over the years in the dive bars of New York City. At Xerox Auditorium the six-piece band played Blake's funky and catchy creations (and a cover of Lana Del Rey's "Video Games"). Because of Blake's somewhat ironic point of view, the tunes are kind of a meta-pop-soul, caricatures of the real thing.

For instance, he said when the group toured Europe he kept seeing signs on the road for Sexy Shop. He never visited the store, but he did write a tune with that name that he hoped would evoke a 1970's porn film. Not being a connoisseur of 1970's porn films, I can't tell you if it was successful, but let's just say it was close enough.

Tuesday night, I'm looking forward to two pianists: Steve Kuhn at Kilbourn Hall and Eri Yamamoto at Hatch Hall. Then I'll head over to Christ Church to catch saxophonist Dave O'Higgins and his band.

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Jazz Fest 2017, Day 5: Ron reviews Eri Yamamoto, Steve Kuhn, and Dave O'Higgins

Posted By on Tue, Jun 27, 2017 at 4:00 AM

Saxophonist Dave O'Higgins. - PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
  • Saxophonist Dave O'Higgins.

Eri Yamamoto was so charming at Hatch Hall Tuesday night that the audience was in love with her before she had played a note. Once she began to play her fantastic bluesy opener, "You Are Welcome," we only fell deeper. She explained that it was the first tune she wrote when she moved from Japan to New York City because she was intrigued by the way Americans thanked each other.

Becoming a New Yorker was the subject of her next endearing story. Classically trained, she knew little about jazz when she visited the city as a tourist. She went to see Tommy Flanagan's trio at a club and was so taken with the music she approached the pianist and said, "I want to be like you." He told her to move to New York, and a month later, she did. Long story short, 21 years later she is a lot like Tommy Flanagan.

Yamamoto played all original tunes and every one was superb. She played an exuberant composition titled "Life," about experiences like the one above. She seemed genuinely in awe of the unlikely events that led up to that very moment that she was at the festival playing for us. It was all incredibly sincere and the music was wonderful.

Another tune, "Half Moon," was written as a reaction to glimpsing a shining moon in a dark sky at just the right angle from her apartment window, which is mostly blocked by tall buildings. You could almost feel the weight of the dark sky in her brooding bass notes and see the brilliance of the half-moon in the jubilant melodies of her dancing right hand. It was a gorgeous musical metaphor for her celebration of life.

There was much more, like the touching "Echo of an Echo," she wrote when she heard her late father's voice while practicing. For me, Yamamoto's set was the highlight of the festival so far.

Earlier in the evening I heard another excellent pianist, Steve Kuhn, at Kilbourn Hall. Kuhn's set featured standards like "Stella By Starlight" and "My Shining Hour" with a lyrical touch that was matched by the musicians in his excellent trio.

Drummer Billy Drummond had a near-symbiotic relationship to Kuhn; after two decades with the pianist, he seemed to anticipate every move. Drummond also had a fascinating habit of spinning the stick in his left hand and playing portions of tunes with the blunt end of that left stick.

The set was consistently strong, but I thought Kuhn saved the best for last when he played two of his own compositions: "Trance" and "Oceans in the Sky." The former lived up to its name with hypnotic melodies featuring clusters of notes that always seemed to come back on themselves while the latter had a euphoric quality to match the grandeur of the concept.

The audience was definitely into saxophonist Dave O'Higgins at Christ Church, so I'm sure it's just a matter of taste, but I found the group to be a bit buttoned up (literally -- they were all wearing coats and ties). Every time O'Higgins took a solo, it seemed loud and brash. This could work on a bold tune like George Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So," but it robbed Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" of its mystique. The best moments (to me) were those when pianist Jeb Patton was taking a solo. He was excellent.

Wednesday night I'll start with pianist George Cables at Hatch Hall. Then I'll check out Ryan Keberle & Catharsis at the Little Theatre. I'll close out the night with the Charles Pillow Large Ensemble at Xerox Auditorium.

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Monday, June 26, 2017

Jazz Fest 2017, Day 3: Ron reviews Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan, Jochen Rueckert, and Adam Kolker Trio

Posted By on Mon, Jun 26, 2017 at 4:00 AM

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan performed in Kilbourn Hall on Sunday night as part of the 2017 XRIJF. - PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
  • Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan performed in Kilbourn Hall on Sunday night as part of the 2017 XRIJF.

When guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan picked up their instruments at Kilbourn Hall Sunday night, they eyed each other playfully. But when they began to play, almost the entire first tune was a sort of musical primordial soup. There were notes and chords and deep bass responses, but they were all in search of a context. The second tune began the same way, but eventually was shaped into Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk." It was good, but seemed a bit simple for players of this caliber.

Frisell has been to the festival in different configurations five or six times. This was the simplest group -- just guitar and bass -- and although he had a full array of the pedals he uses so skillfully, he only employed them on one tune. Most of the early set was pure electric guitar and double bass. It was evident from the start that Morgan is as much a virtuoso on bass as Frisell is on guitar, but it took them a while to get in the groove.

Some of their best work came late in the set when they played two pop songs: Marty Balin's "Hearts," and Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now."

For more than two decades, I have greatly respected Mark Turner's work on the saxophone. I have also admired the work of Mike Moreno on guitar every time I've heard him. And more recently, I've had a very positive response to Orlando LeFleming's work as a bassist. These three musicians were all side-men in the Jochen Rueckert Quartet at the Lutheran Church. And I should add that Rueckert is an excellent drummer.

So why was I so disappointed in the group's performance Sunday night?

Maybe it was because there was so little energy on the stage. Turner, Moreno, and LeFleming seemed like hired guns, not fully involved in the music. And the music itself seemed lackluster. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the kind of jazz tunes that begin with a head; a tune you can have in the back of your mind that peeks out from time to time through the solos. Rueckert's tunes seemed abstract from start to finish. Some of them were almost morose. It seemed like a waste of these great players (including Rueckert).

I was more impressed by the Adam Kolker Trio at The Little Theatre. Kolker began the set by telling the audience not to be alarmed by the absence of a bassist. He explained that the group had been a quartet when, distracted by being a new dad, the bassist didn't show up for a gig. Kolker, guitarist Steve Cardenas, and drummer Billy Mintz played the gig anyway and liked the sound, so they've kept the group bass-less.

Judging by the sound, that proved to be a great idea. It was refreshing to be able to hear every note of the sax and guitar, every stroke of drumstick or brush. Kolker's trio is a subtle group. In fact, when they kicked off the set with Harry Warren's "I Wish I Knew," it reminded me of John Coltrane's "Ballads" album, just a beautiful melody played with gorgeous tone by great players.

Among the set's highlights were four tunes by Monk: "Four In One," "Epistrophy," "Ask Me Now," and "Evidence." It's appropriate; 2017 is the 100th anniversary year of the birth of the great jazz composer. Kolker and Cardenas played the heads like a horn section in harmony. When they weren't playing excellent solos, they bounced musical ideas off of each other with ease. Mintz wasn't afraid to keep quiet when the tune called for it; he's among the most tasteful drummers I've seen at the festival.

Miguel Zenon is one of my favorite saxophonists; I can't wait to see his group at Kilbourn Monday night. I'll also catch Ikonostasis at the Lutheran Church and Red Hook Soul at Xerox Auditorium.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to correct a reference to drummer Billy Mintz.

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