Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Jazz Fest 2019, Day 4: Frank reviews The Willows, Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, and Bria Skonberg

Posted By on Tue, Jun 25, 2019 at 1:33 AM

The Delvon Lamarr  Organ Trio played it good 'n' hot at the Squeezers Stage on Monday, June 24, as part of the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival. - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • The Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio played it good 'n' hot at the Squeezers Stage on Monday, June 24, as part of the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival.

Bria Skonberg. Yup, Bria Skonberg. I was just gonna type her name here a few thousand times. But even that would leave a hole that needs explaining. Let’s talk about the music of other artists I witnessed on Monday night first.

Angelic splendor

The Willows
 arrived at Max of Eastman Place as if descending on a cloud. These three young Canadian ladies had me at “Bonjour,” and I was enamored of their sound already, just from the records I’d spun and the videos I’d found on their website.

They were charming and down-to-earth, but don’t include their voices in that analogy. Their pipes were nothing short of angelic splendor and spectacle, as they spun around each other with a blast of vintage voodoo.

I particularly liked when they paused between numbers to explain why they didn’t pause between numbers. They pulled out some Andrews Sisters, so we know they knew what’s what. The majority of the selections they performed were theirs, along with some post-Lindy Hop boogie woogie they had up their sleeves and in their shoes.

The Willows will perform again on Tuesday at The Montage Music Hall, at 6 and 10 p.m.


Loud and proud

Over yonder, I squeezed into the Squeezer’s tent for some of Seattle’s loud and proud Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. The guitar playing prevalently used a“Rainbow Bridge” style, complete with stretched string dive-bombing and screaming feedback. Lamarr was perched at the B-3, but seemed to take on more of a role in the rhythm section, rather than fronting the whole affair. I would have preferred more pumping organ rather than shredding guitar, though it really was good ’n’ hot.

The storyteller

I can’t tell at all where Bria Skonberg derives more of her joy from: singing or trumpeting. She did sing a lot more than on her previous visit. On this night, she let her voice tell the story, and it was one of beauty and heartache, but not without plenty of brassy fun.

She would sing a few bars, establish pace, grab her trumpet, and dive in with the rest of her most excellent outfit. The highlight this entire week for me will be her breathtaking take on Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” Bria Skonberg was the most, to say the least.

For those of you who still appreciate my advice, check out Paul Marinaro as he salutes Nat King Cole’s 100th birthday at Kilbourn Hall, as well as Mark Cohn & the Blind Boys of Alabama at Kodak Hall.

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Jazz Fest 2019, Day 4: Jeff reviews Enemy and Paa Kow

Posted By on Tue, Jun 25, 2019 at 12:49 AM

Paa Kow's Monday, June 24 jazz festival performance at The Montage Music Hall was heavy on percussion. - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Paa Kow's Monday, June 24 jazz festival performance at The Montage Music Hall was heavy on percussion.

Embracing the uncomfortable


When a band climbs onstage, a trio wearing all black, you will soon discover one truth.

There are many shades of black.

Cavernous Christ Church can make a band look and sound like trolls scuffling through a shadowy cavern. Enemy overcame that through sheer virtuosity during its first set Monday night at the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival. First the thrum of Frans Petter Eldh’s bass. Then Kit Downes reaches into the depths of his piano to elicit a new language from the strings. Drummer James Maddren is a timekeeper from many dimensions.

This is the kind of band that audiences might fear. Because the unfamiliar is uncomfortable, isn’t it? This is not Paul Marinaro celebrating the 100th birthday of Nat King Cole Tuesday night at Kilbourn. It’s more like when, after seeing Girls in Airports Friday night at Lutheran Church of the Reformation, a woman said to me: “What was that all about?”

Sometimes you don’t need an answer. Enemy only poses questions. The British trio comes together, then scatters. Tempos change: slow, fast, slow, fast. Now restrained, Maddren using brushes to hush, we’re listening for that common thread between the musicians. And there it is… then gone. No, it’s over there! Minimalist taps on snare drums and cymbals, then sudden intensity.

Swinging from a light breeze to the very definition of cacophony. Dichotomy, that’s Enemy. A song title gives away the game: “Children With Torches.” Downes explains how another song is inspired by Maddren’s hometown of Croydon, just outside of London, “a gray, brutalist part of the world. And a part of that is beauty.”

Ominous, then beauty. Enemy understands what it has just put its audience through. Eldh went to the microphone before the final song and admitted that this arrhythmia is not for everyone: “Thanks for understanding.”

Today’s jazz haiku

Bathed in pale blue light
subterranean echoes
boundaries broken

Electrical dysfunction

Paa Kow was the talk of the fest after its first show at The Montage Music Hall. An eight-piece, multiracial band, led by Ghana native Paa Kow, the band returned to the packed club for its second performance with three sets of drums up front, congas, and what looked like a few drums that had floated ashore and were hand decorated, including one the size of a small jet engine pointed right at the audience.

The band was a groove machine — with horns, electric guitar and bass and keyboards, a shaker the size of a basketball with a skirt of beads that rattled when you beat on it, plus a little cowbell and whistle. Paa Kow even dropped a little philosophy on the crowd, describing how we all had to work together; you need the left hand to wash the right side of your body, and the right hand to wash the left side. World peace as a hygiene lesson.

Then a loud pop as the band finished a song. The onstage electricity was gone, and the band walked off the stage. As it turns out, there was a water main break in the basement, affecting the entire building, and the knee-high flood had finally caught up to a circuit breaker. Indeed, pumps were working to clear the basement as the crowd filed out, with hoses on the sidewalk draining water into the street.
The Montage expects to be ready for Tuesday’s shows with The Willows at 6 and 10 p.m.

Day Five: Jeff’s picks

Marc Cohn & the Blind Boys of Alabama headline the 8 p.m. Tuesday concert at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Tickets are still available. By the way, Friday’s George Benson show at the venue is sold out.

VickiKristinaBarcelona, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., Geva Theatre Center’sFielding Stage. This trio of women were one of the captivating acts at last year’s fest, with their interpretations of Tom Waits’ songs. They were back in January for a packed show at The Little Theatre. It’ll be all Waits again.

Nat King Cole at 100 with Paul Marinaro, 6 and 9 p.m., Kilbourn Hall. You’re singing Nat King Cole? You better be good. This Chicago singer sounds up to the job.

Ozmosys, 7 and 9:15 p.m., Temple Building Theater. Omar Hakim, Rachel Z, Linley Marthe and Kurt Rosenwinkel. I gotta stop using the word “supergroup.”

On Tuesday, I’ll be at VickiKristinaBarcelona and Ozmosys. And if I can find a half hour to stick my head in Eastman Theatre for Marc Cohn & the Blind Boys of Alabama, that’s another night where dichotomy is the operative word.

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Jazz Fest 2019, Day 4: Ron reviews Cyro Baptista, Adam Ben Ezra, and Kari Ikonen

Posted By on Tue, Jun 25, 2019 at 12:16 AM

Double bassist Adam Ben Ezra's performance on Monday, June 24 at the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival was practically orchestral. - PHOTO BY MARTIN  KAUFMAN
  • PHOTO BY MARTIN KAUFMAN
  • Double bassist Adam Ben Ezra's performance on Monday, June 24 at the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival was practically orchestral.

The beat goes on


Cyro Baptista was a combination of Frank Zappa and George Clinton all rolled up into one mad Brazilian percussionist at Geva Theatre Center’s Wilson Stage on Monday night. In a furry yellow hat, Baptista ruled the stage with a table full of objects in front of him. With cymbals to the right and plumbing pipes to the left, Baptista gravitated from one “instrument” to the next.

Those “instruments” included miniature fans, a crazy group of strings holding a mass of colorful balls, and a megaphone. The plumbing pipes provided a highlight when a tune was coaxed out of them using small paddles. Baptista’s bandmates, who he said were playing together for the first time, were all excellent.

There were wonderfully wild accordion and guitar solos, ranging from slinky James Brown funk to machine-gun Dick Dale picking. Baptista told jokes, danced, sang in a growling manner, and played everything in sight — including the audience, which happily supplied waves of clapping on the final tune.

Ace of bass

Over the last half-century, the bass has gained prominence as a spotlight instrument because of greats like Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius and Victor Wooten. But all of them made their names with electric basses. Well, move over for Adam Ben Ezra and his double bass. Last night at Hatch Recital Hall, the Israeli bassist had the audience spellbound.


                                                                                                                                                                  VIDEO BY MARTIN KAUFMAN

Aside from his bass, Ben Ezra had a keyboard/drum machine, piano, harmonica, computer, two pedalboards, his voice, and a flute (which he never touched). Most of his tunes were multilayered, employing much of the above.

He would typically play a bass line, have that riff continue while he added percussion, have both of those behind a series of strums or arco playing, and keep building until he had a symphony of samples going. He played his pedalboards like an orchestra conductor, bringing in and dropping out parts at will. It was basically an exercise in counterpoint. Imagine Pachelbel’s Canon with every part playing at once.

I preferred the few times when Ben Ezra only played bass, because it was such a tour de force combination of virtuosic playing and hand percussion. These two elements were so intertwined that tonal phrases were completed with percussion and vice-versa.

Ben Ezra plays again Tuesday at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. at Geva Theatre Center’s Fielding Stage.

Impressionistic strokes

After all of that wildness, Kari Ikonen provided a more subtle conclusion to my evening. Most of his compositions started lightly and built gradually until the piano, bass and drums were going at full throttle. But there were no catchy heads or even concrete melodies; Ikonen’s tunes were more impressionistic, with clusters of notes filling the aural soundscape.

Tuesday night I’m looking forward to hearing jazz legend Harold Mabern play solo piano at Hatch Recital Hall. I’m also anxious to hear saxophonist Trish Clowes at Christ Church and Danish guitarist Mikkel Ploug at the Lutheran Church.

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Monday, June 24, 2019

Jazz Fest 2019, Day 3: Jeff reviews the Campbell Brothers and Circus No. 9

Posted By on Mon, Jun 24, 2019 at 1:24 AM

The Campbell Brothers brought church to the Squeezers Stage at the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival on Sunday, June 23. - PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • The Campbell Brothers brought church to the Squeezers Stage at the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival on Sunday, June 23.
A kind of church

Rochester’s sacred-steel gospel stars, the Campbell Brothers, parted ways with the House of God because the Pentecostal church wanted to keep the music within its walls. The Campbells wanted to take the sound to the world. It was a difficult decision for the Campbells, but jazz festivals throughout this country and Europe have been richly rewarded — the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival included.

So it was church for believers and heathens alike on Sunday night at the Squeezers Stage @ M&T Pavilion, on Parcel 5 — although it did take a while for the Campbells to properly loosen up their congregation. “We call this kind of music ‘Jump for joy,’ ” Phillip Campbell told the crowd of several hundred in the tent late in the second of two sets. And with that, the Campbells leapt into “Don’t Let the Devil Ride,” which did get the folks up and out of their seats, waving their arms and jumping for joy.

Yes, the Campbell Brothers are of the church. But they open their arms wide, with the three brothers – Phillip on electric guitar, Chuck on pedal steel and Darick on lap steel – welcoming ears of all faiths. It’s no wonder The Allman Brothers would welcome one or more of the Campbells onstage whenever the venerable southern rockers passed through Western New York.

In fact, with a rhythm section consisting of Phillip’s son Carlton on drums and bassist Daric Bennett, the Campbell’s opening number, “Wade in the Water,” sounded more like a rock anthem than the classic spiritual that it is. They brought out singer Denise Brown for the stomping groove of “I Ain’t Gonna Cry No More,” and then again on “Hell No Heaven Yes.” Chuck had his pedal steel talking in the signature whine of the sacred steel, mimicking the human voice, as Brown gave it the hands down for hell, hands raised for heaven. Phil leapt to his feet – the Campbells Brothers are generally seated while they play – and strutted across the stage, before clapping along in rhythm as his brothers’ instruments talked back and forth to one another.

“Amazing Grace” had more pedal-steel chatter, and then a break from the format — as the festival’s co-producer Marc Iacona was summoned to the stage with his trumpet for the classic blues of Miles Davis’ “So What.”

Perhaps next time, the Campbells will bring out the latest project they’re working on. A version of Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own,” which they’re recording for a Philadelphia group assembling a benefit for veterans and first responders.

Today’s jazz haiku

Notes spiral upward
Atheists break down in tears
God’s groove in the sky

Circus maximus

Circus No. 9 hits many of the traditional bluegrass tropes. Seems like I heard the word “sorrow” a couple of times during the Tennessee band’s first show at Geva Theater Center’s Fielding Stage.
But what about when Matthew Davis with his banjo, and Thomas Cassell with his mandolin, left the stage for a few minutes, leaving us with just guitarist Ben Garnett’s spidery string-raking and double-bassist Vince Ilagan’s solo? That was jazz, I swear.
Despite the frequent doses of sorrow, the songwriting often deviates from traditional bluegrass subject matter. Circus No. 9 writes about disappearing into your headphones. The band members are virtuosos, and they play like they came out of a music school rather than off of a porch. Circus No. 9 drifts from laid-back cool to railway grooves. What’s with Ilagan’s bowed bass? That’s chamber-music stuff.
Circus No. 9 is a band of young overachievers who have you thinking: I’ve wasted my life in pursuit of treasure and sexual partners. Look at these guys: They’re just happy to be bluegrass musicians.

Day Four: Jeff’s picks

Paa Kow, 6 and 10 p.m., The Montage Music Hall. Upbeat, percussion-heavy polyrhythms from Ghana. This sounds like a party.
Djabe, 8:30 and 10 p.m., Big Tent. The Hungarian band’s fourth visit to the fest. It’s worldly jazz with some exotic instruments. The festival’s co-producer John Nugent usually shows up with his sax.
Bria Skonberg, 6 and 9 p.m., Kilbourn Hall. Skonberg plays trumpet and sings – not at the same time – with big energy. Behind those smoke-laden vocals, her songs address topical issues such as civil rights and a world oversaturated by media, which means I stop writing right here.

I’m planning on hitting the shows by Paa Kow and Enemy, a trio whose members are based in London and Berlin, playing what sounds like some maddeningly crazy rhythms at Christ Church.

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Jazz Fest 2019, Day 3: Frank reviews Stefon Harris & Blackout, Over the Rhine, and Michael Winograd & The Honorable Mentshn

Posted By on Mon, Jun 24, 2019 at 12:31 AM

Over the Rhine gave a moving performance at Geva Theatre Center on Sunday, June 23 as part of the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival. - PHOTO BY KATIE EPNER
  • PHOTO BY KATIE EPNER
  • Over the Rhine gave a moving performance at Geva Theatre Center on Sunday, June 23 as part of the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival.

In memory of Jack Allen


I am dedicating this blog entry and all those to follow this week to the memory of Rochester big band leader and trumpeter Jack Allen. Allen passed away peacefully Saturday. He was 93. Check out this story we did on Allen back in 2005. R.I.P., big daddy.

Like a cool breeze

The drummer called dibs on Kilbourn Hall at the early set from Stefon Harris & Blackout. The whole band was in Harris’s pocket and connected at the hip and heart. Harris shot dynamic slings and arrows on the vibraphone, and the band caught and emphasized them back in return. It was a fair fight.

Toward the end of the set, the capable saxophonist took up what looked at first like a cross between a fluorescent light bulb and a flute. He talked into it and it came out sounding like auto-tune (yuck), but more futuristic and tolerable as he went on in a beeline to the future. It grew on you.

As the star of the show, Harris was blinding one minute, introspective the next. You could almost feel the mallet-induced wind emanating from the stage like a cool breeze. He gave a thrill when he asked audience members to shout out random notes. Mine was B-flat, by the way. He proceeded to riff elegantly with just those notes as if it were a card trick.

Over the moon

I walked what felt like 40 miles next to Geva Theatre Center. It was like walking toward the sun — it never seemed to get any closer. It was worth the hassle, this traverse through zip codes, to hear Over the Rhine.

                                                                                                                                                                                VIDEO BY KATIE EPNER

The band was a magnetic, poetic tapestry that wrung tears from those who could feel. The three-part harmonies were luxurious, and the atmospheric slide guitar painted big sky vistas. Over the Rhine had fans over the moon, where the dish ran away with the spoon. Wood and wire poured together. Pretty effing amazing.

What’s so fun about klezmer is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Walking into the Big Tent, I felt underdressed for the wedding. Michael Winograd & The Honorable Mentshn had the room in high gear with their rather onomatopoeia-esque toots and bleats and crashes. That and a frozen custard from Abbott’s, and I was done, son. Until another exciting adventure. Mazel tov.

Tomorrow I’ll be at the Willows’ show at Max of Eastman Place, Bria Skonberg's gig at Kilbourn Hall, and the Devon Lamarr Organ Trio's performance at the M&T Pavilion - Squeezers Stage. “Say goodnight, Gracie.”

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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Jazz Fest 2019, Day 3: Ron reviews Kit Downes, Bill Dobbins, and Jostein Gulbrandsen

Posted By on Sun, Jun 23, 2019 at 11:53 PM

On Sunday, June 23, Kit Downes became the first Rochester International Jazz Festival musician to play the Craighead-Saunders Organ in Christ Church. - PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • On Sunday, June 23, Kit Downes became the first Rochester International Jazz Festival musician to play the Craighead-Saunders Organ in Christ Church.
Pulling out all the stops

Kit Downes played an era-bending concert at Christ Church Sunday evening, creating decidedly 21st-century avant-garde improvisations on a late-Baroque organ. Christ Church is famous for its distinctive Craighead-Saunders Organ, a near-perfect copy of a 1776 organ that was built in East Prussia and now resides in a church in Vilnius, Lithuania. But over Christ Church’s many years as host of the “Made in The UK” series, no jazz festival musician has played it, until now.

Downes was out of sight, situated at the keyboard in the organ loft at the rear of the church, so a camera sent the live image to a large screen at the front. But I chose a seat on the side so I could see both the screen and the magnificent organ itself. Downes was surrounded by 100 pipes of varying sizes towering above him. Behind the console are over 2,000 more pipes. At one time or another, Downes literally pulled out just about all of the organ’s 33 stops that serve to “color” the music.

Downes’ music ranged from the most subtle of quiet touches to the loudest, universe-creating swells. He played some highly accessible, wondrous passages near the start, some patterned, almost serial music toward the middle, and then gradually got into heavier territory. Toward the end, his composition “The Last Survivor” included sections where he leaned into the keys with his arm or fist to create sounds that probably were not heard in the Baroque era.

Deep dive into the piano repertoire

Bill Dobbins led the audience at Hatch Recital Hall on a fascinating journey through different jazz piano styles. Playing works by Bud Powell, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and others, Dobbins pointed out innovations that in some cases had been attributed to others. For instance, he believes “Blue Rose,” by Ellington, may have influenced Miles Davis and John Coltrane in their use of modal music in the late-1950’s.

Dobbins also showed how one of the legendary teachers in jazz, Lennie Tristano, had students reinvent tunes. As an example, he played “Pennies From Heaven,” first in a major key and then in a minor key. He then played Tristano’s re-composition, “Lennie’s Pennies,” which highlighted Dobbins’ dazzling keyboard technique.

Breaking news: straight-ahead jazz at the Lutheran Church

Over the years many of the festival’s most experimental groups have played at the Lutheran Church. But Jostein Gulbrandsen and his quartet did something truly radical Sunday night: they played straight-ahead jazz. Gulbrandsen is a superb guitarist, playing some of the fastest legato runs and the most melodic solos I’ve witnessed. His band — with Megumi Yonezawa on piano, Mike McGuirk on bass, and Mark Ferber on drums — was equally strong.

The quartet focused on Gulbrandsen’s compositions, including “Cold Times,” which, though it was inspired by his native Norway’s winters, had a delightful country-swing feel. But one of the highlights of the set was a rendition of the standard “Lullaby of the Leaves.”

On Monday night, I’m looking forward to the fantastic percussion of Cyro Baptista at Geva Theatre Center’s Wilson Stage. I’ll also visit Hatch Recital Hall again to hear the dexterous bassist Adam Ben Ezra. And I’ll check out adventurous keyboardist Kari Ikonen at the Lutheran Church.

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Jazz Fest 2019, Day 2: Frank reviews Steven Taetz, Patti LaBelle, and Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes

Posted By on Sun, Jun 23, 2019 at 3:20 AM

My Saturday night was a tale of three singers.

During early set from Steven Taetz at Max of Eastman Place, the Toronto-based singer sang and rang like a veritable bell. His tone was pristine and clear as he wove in and out his set of originals and American Songbook classics.

Patti LaBelle has vocal range for days and can hit notes dogs don’t even know existed. But she totally overdid it at Kodak Hall last night. The soaring, skull-piercing notes began to grate on my ear and took on the life of a siren — not the kind that lure sailors to a watery grave — but that of a four-alarm fire. She tagged them on virtually every line. Sure it’s impressive, but it was clearly overdone. Her band was vicious and delicious, and played so in-the-pocket that they were covered in lint by the show’s ”Lady Marmalade” end.

                                                                                                                                                                PHOTO BY MARTIN KAUFMAN

The third singer I encountered last night — and the best, by my account anyway — was blue-eyed soul singer Southside Johnny, with his band, The Asbury Jukes. Johnny sings as if he’s truly heartbroken. I could hear him choke back the tears as The Asbury Jukes made it all better in front of a huge crowd.

Mom got to meet Jake “Jeff-as-she-still-insists-on-calling-him” Shimabukuro, which made her night. Come to think of it, it made mine, too.

After my jazz festival junket, I stopped down to Abilene Bar and Lounge to decompress and dig Toronto’s surf-a-go-go quartet The Surfrajettes. The scene was spilling out at the sides, and the arrival of summer finally announced the arrival of less clothes and cold beer. T’was sweet and sweaty.

Tomorrow, you can catch me as I catch Stefon Harris and Blackout at Kilbourn Hall, Over The Rhine at Geva Theatre Center’s Wilson Stage, and Michael Winograd & the Honorable Mentshn in the Big Tent. F out.

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Jazz Fest 2019, Day 2: Jeff reviews Bill Frisell Trio and Kevin Gordon Trio

Posted By on Sun, Jun 23, 2019 at 2:22 AM

Guitarist Bill Frisell and his band gave two memorable performances on Saturday, June 22 at Temple Building Theater. - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Guitarist Bill Frisell and his band gave two memorable performances on Saturday, June 22 at Temple Building Theater.
Off the top of his head

It’s a stunning moment when an artist allows us inside his or her head, to that lifetime-retrospective rattling around in the brain. But that’s what happened during the second show from the Bill Frisell Trio on Saturday night at the Temple Building Theater. This is the 18th Rochester International Music Festival. I’ve covered them all, and I would never pick an all-time best show. But this one would certainly be in the conversation.

Frisell opened with an uninterrupted, 55-minute medley of guitar, bass and drums. Fifty-five minutes — that’s supposed to be all there is, right? But after a moment’s pause, the Bill Frisell Trio went right back to work. Another 25-minute, uninterrupted medley.

Frisell is a modest man, both in style and words. I’ve met him a few times, and after previous shows at the festival he’s even graciously written down his setlist for me in my notebook. Frisell’s mind seems to fuse music and abstract art, reaching for whatever genre fits the mood he’s trying to create with his band of the moment. It’s a palette of jazz, blues, folk, rock and electronics.

His band on Saturday understood this. Bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen have played on and off with the guitarist for more than 20 years. There was no setlist, and Frisell never told his bandmates, who were leaning in less than eight feet from Frisell the entire show, what tune they were moving on with next. He’d just hit some notes, and they fell right in.

Frisell kept it deceptively simple, using just one electric guitar the entire night. What would he think of Jackson Browne, who lines up 16 or 18 guitars behind him at his concerts?

The songs from the seamless first set were set apart only by subtle shifts in tempo. A setlist spilling from Frisell’s head. After the show, I had to ask him to write them down. As best as he could remember, he had opened with Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” and tucked in there was Milt Jackson’s “S.K.J.,” Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Days of Wine and Roses,” John Lennon’s “In My Life,” and John McLaughlin’s “Follow Your Heart.”

That 25-minute encore included some of his originals: “Levees,” “Rambler,” “Probability Cloud,” “Strange Meeting,” “Small Town.” Then Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence,” Wes Montgomery’s “Bumpin’ on Sunset.” Then a gorgeous, heart-wrenching version of “Shenandoah,” slow and reverb-filled, with a soaring conclusion, before closing with an upbeat “What the World Needs Now is Love.”

Today’s jazz haiku

Carefully chosen
Guitar notes, shimmer and shine
Like an artist’s brush

Sly and scuffed up

By Day Two of the festival, the Jake Shimabukuro Ukulele Cult had moved on to Kilbourn Hall, leaving Geva Theatre Center in relative calm. It was a deceptive calm because, as Kevin Gordon explained, when you’re raised in Louisiana, there’s always something amiss.

Playing Geva Theatre Center’s Fielding Stage, the Kevin Gordon Trio rocked out as Gordon delivered sly lines like a scuffed-up John Hiatt. David Olney, maybe. Gordon now lives in Nashville, and hangs with the likes of Buddy Miller and Todd Snider. Lucinda Williams sang on one of his songs. That’s an elite crowd. Gordon fits.

Day Three: Jeff’s picks

Over the Rhine, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., Geva Theatre Center’s Wilson Stage. Named for the Cincinnati neighborhood where the duo of Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler come from, Over the Rhine is a beautiful sound of tiny moments and big ideas.

The Campbell Brothers, 7 and 8:45 p.m., Squeezers Stage @ M&T Pavilion. Rochester’s stars of sacred steel music are not simply a church experience. This is jazz, soul and rock.

Stefon Harris Blackout, 6 and 9 p.m., Kilbourn Hall. Here in Rochester, we know vibraphone. Joe Locke, the Rochester native who has played the fest several times, has taught us all about it. Stefon Harris will continue the lesson that the vibes aren’t merely cocktail jazz, they’re about having real conversation through music.

Kit Downes, 6:45 and 8:45 p.m., Christ Church. Downes will play the most spectacular musical instrument in Rochester, Christ Church’s Craighead-Saunders pipe organ. This will shake your sternum.

In addition to The Campbell Brothers, I’ll be checking out Circus No. 9 at Geva Theatre Center’s Fielding Stage, a progressive fusion of bluegrass and jazz from East Tennessee.

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Jazz Fest 2019, Day 2: Ron reviews Peter Johnstone & Tommy Smith, Gilad Hekselman, and Empirical

Posted By on Sun, Jun 23, 2019 at 1:31 AM

Empirical charmed the audience at Christ Church on Saturday, June 22 with a more abstract approach to jazz. - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Empirical charmed the audience at Christ Church on Saturday, June 22 with a more abstract approach to jazz.

Deep resonance


There were many great moments in the Tommy Smith & Peter Johnstone concert at Hatch Recital Hall on Saturday, but none of them beat Smith’s solo on Robert Burns’ “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose.” Smith played the song, written in 1794, on tenor saxophone, but he played it into the lifted lid of the piano, causing a gorgeous, somewhat dissonant harmony to rise from the vibrating piano strings. It was something akin to the haunting sound a theremin.

I’d seen Smith do this once before, but this time he told the audience the backstory. In the poor area of Scotland where he grew up, he said, his school had a piano. But it had no legs, no keys and no lid. The body with strings inside was mounted on a wall and Smith liked to play into it. Smith was highly conversational with the audience, but his saxophone spoke even more eloquently.

He and Johnstone, Smith’s excellent former student, played some standard repertoire, like Duke Ellington’s gorgeous “The Single Petal Of A Rose,” but they also went in some wonderfully unusual directions. After discussing both a saxophone lesson from a Turkish musician who did not play saxophone and a visit to Yemen, in which Smith played music where it had previously been banned, he and Johnstone played a harmonically challenging Yemeni song.

Johnstone was particularly spectacular on this tune, keeping up a complex bass figure with his left hand while his right hand played the Middle Eastern music as if he’d known it all his life.

A trio with simpatico

At the Lutheran Church, guitarist Gilad Hekselman led a tight trio in a set of mostly original tunes. Hekselman, bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Jonathan Pinson formed a triangle on the stage and constantly interacted with each other — nodding, leaning in, and transferring energy. With seemingly impossible dexterity, Hekselman had absolute command of his instrument. When he wanted it to sing, it sang; when he wanted it to growl, it growled. Most of the time, he employed a clear, ringing tone and a melodic approach in his solos.

Rosato provided an excellent foundation on bass and took some fine solos. Pinson was simply outstanding on the drums, by turns subtle and bombastic. Each time he soloed, he threw his entire body into it.

Abstract expression


Empirical won over the crowd at Christ Church even though the group’s set consisted of highly abstract compositions written as social commentary through music. At its best, the music was elegiac, perhaps enhanced by the cavernous church setting. Alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey tended toward John Coltrane-like cascades of notes. Lewis Wright was excellent on vibraphone, favoring a four-mallet technique. Double bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Shaney Forbes provided solid support.

Sunday evening I’ll be back in Hatch Recital Hall to see pianist Bill Dobbins. I also look forward to hearing another keyboard player, Kit Downes, at Christ Church, as well as guitarist Jostein Gulbrandsen at the Lutheran Church.

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Saturday, June 22, 2019

Jazz Fest 2019, Day 1: Jeff reviews Steve Gadd Band and Western Centuries

Posted By on Sat, Jun 22, 2019 at 4:28 AM

Rochester's own Steve Gadd and his band were the opening-night headliners on Friday at the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival. - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Rochester's own Steve Gadd and his band were the opening-night headliners on Friday at the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival.

After 18 years, the secret is out. The Rochester International Jazz Festival isn’t really a jazz festival. It’s actually a culture museum of many rooms.

But on Friday night, opening night of the nine-day event, the fest did have its giant jazz moment: the Steve Gadd Band, at Eastman Theatre’s Kodak Hall.

Gadd is a bona fide Rochester son: raised in Irondequoit; Eastridge High grad; Eastman School of Music; lived here for years. He’s one of the world’s most sought-after drummers; when James Taylor visited Gadd, people would see him strolling along the Erie Canal.

“It’s always great for me to come back here,” Gadd told the audience, which looked to be approaching 2,000 or so. “I love this place.” But, he added, it’s also frightening. What if the show crashes?

Relax, you’re Steve Gadd. The band is Taylor-made: most of the musicians are part of James Taylor’s band, including Gadd. These guys know what they’re doing. A lot of elegant, 4 a.m., blue-room jazz fusion. While the six-piece band included electric guitarist Michael Landau and electric bassist Jimmy Johnson, the fusion never turned into rock. Not even with the encore of Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow,” which they turned into a jazz crooner, with pianist Kevin Hays handling vocals – mindful of the late Mose Allison.

Hays and trumpeter-flugelhorn player Walt Fowler – who must be the wild hair here, after Gadd revealed Fowler once played in Frank Zappa’s band – were the jazz constants. Duke Gadd, Steve’s son, added the exotic textures with congas and hand percussion.

But this is Steve Gadd’s music. He may have spent decades playing with big-ticket names such as Paul Simon and Eric Clapton, but he’s recently been focused on his own sound. Gadd’s released four of his own albums in the last six years. The music is all grooves and natural textures, the band plays as a group and when they do solos, no one turns it up to 11.

The opening “Where is Earth?” felt spacy, and “Auckland By Numbers” was the kind of ballad these guys excel in. Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup” was a subtle highlight, with the rest of the band stepping away to watch as Steve and Duke engaged in a solo battle. No, it wasn’t a battle. It was a family conversation.

Today’s jazz haiku

Benevolent king
A snarl, a snare, cymbals rain
Easy-beat grooves, symbols reign

Cowboy evangelists

Exploring a dusty room of the culture museum, I discovered some excellent honky-tonk at Geva Theatre Center’s Fielding Stage. The band Western Centuries is loaded with three songwriters, although one of them was out of action for this gig. But amid the whine of pedal steel, the words of Seattle drummer Cahalen Morrison and guitarist Jim Miller – who’s familiar in these here parts for his work with Ithaca’s Donna the Buffalo – rang clear: whiskey and dancing.

And there was history as well. Miller sang about a Christian evangelist of a few centuries ago who paddled his kayak to an island inhabited by Native Americans. They weren’t particularly interested in being converted.

“They just went around and filled him with arrows,” Miller said.

“We call it country music,” added Morrison.

Western Centuries returns to Rochester in September for a gig at Abilene Bar and Lounge.

Day Two: Jeff’s picks

Patti LaBelle headlines in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, starting at 8 p.m. That crowd should be able to catch the tail-end of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, the soul-laden rockers who will be Having a Party, to paraphrase one of their songs, at the East Avenue and Chestnut Street Stage. The party starts at 9 p.m., after the Subdudes have stirred the drinks with their start on the same stage, starting at 7 p.m.

Bill Frisell Trio, 7 and 9:15 p.m., Temple Building Theater. Frisell is a frequent performer at the fest, but the shows are never the same. The prolific guitarist’s latest album, “Epistrophy,” ranges from The Carter Family to the James Bond theme “You Only Live Twice.”

Kevin Gordon, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., Geva Theatre Center’s Fielding Stage. Strange tales wrapped in swampy Louisiana honky-tonk. The characters who populate Gordon’s songs are, for the most part, tragically broken.

Scottish National Jazz Sextet
, 6 and 10 p.m., The Montage Music Hall. In a festival that features a handful of tributes to jazz icons, this is a night to remember Art Blakey. Rochester’s Bill Dobbins joins the group on piano.

Dawn Thomson’s Imagine That, 6 and 10 p.m., The Wilder Room. What is Dawn Thomson? Wes Montgomery’s guitar, Joni Mitchell’s lyrical musings? In previous appearances at the festival, she’s shown a true literary vibe.

Saturday night, I’m looking forward to seeing Gordon and Frisell. And if I can squeeze in Tommy Smith and Peter Johnstone at Hatch Recital Hall, it’ll be a great night. I’ve seen what Smith, a saxophonist, can do when there’s a piano in the room. In 2016, playing at Kilbourn Hall with Makoto Ozone, Smith walked over to the raised piano lid and placed his tenor sax into the body of Ozone’s Steinway, playing the sax until the piano’s strings could be heard vibrating and shimmering ever so slightly.

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