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Grander than you can imagine... 

Excitement seemed to build higher during the final six days of the Rochester International Jazz Festival, with a full house for Tony Bennett at the Eastman Theatre on Wednesday evening and a sold-out Water Street Music Hall for Ray Barretto, despite the poor sound.

            Festival promoter John Nugent says the 2003 festival made a modest profit and that he fully expects to go forward with a festival in 2004. But, as in the past two years, this will depend on community support.

            "It's become clear to me that Rochester has an opportunity to embrace this event in a way never before seen by the community," Nugent says. "With an appropriate level of funding to expand on the high level of music I demand in my festivals, this event could become the number-one jazz festival in the northeast, if not the entire nation. I know that's a bold statement, but I believe 100 percent in my ability to produce and deliver on what I say I am going to do. I hope I've demonstrated this."

            Among the major acts at this year's festival, an overriding theme emerged: the Eastman School of Music as an influential jazz powerhouse.

            Maria Schneider is the most direct product of this, having been a graduate student at the school, studying arranging with Bill Dobbins and Rayburn Wright.

            In introducing her recent work, "Three Romances," last Tuesday evening, Schneider explained that the second section, "Pas de Deux," was based on the breathtaking motions of her favorite dancer. She joked that the audience should try to imagine this, despite the fact that the two soloists were not-so-graceful guys. This proved not to be difficult as Schneider herself danced her way through conducting the piece.

            Although Schneider would be the first to downplay the fact that she is a woman, there is something undeniably significant about a woman composing and arranging a magnificent work like this and conducting it in front of an all-male band in a branch of jazz that is overwhelmingly male-dominated.

            The concert also included saxophonist Rich Perry as featured soloist on Schneider's beautiful arrangement of the love theme from Spartacus. The student ensemble, rehearsed by Dave Rivello, was excellent; percussionist Ted Poor was particularly outstanding.

            The next evening it was Dave Brubeck's turn to credit the Eastman School and Rayburn Wright for opening an important chapter in his career. His composition, "Elementals," was first played in the Eastman Theatre and recorded with Wright and the Eastman Orchestra in 1963. Brubeck went on to perform it all over the world.

            At 82, Brubeck played with the dexterity and dynamic range of a 20-year-old, but also with the intelligence and assurance that can only come with age and experience. His involvement in the music has not diminished. On tunes like "On the Sunny Side of the Street," he leaned deeper into the piano keys as each chorus of his solo grew more intense than the last.

            Brubeck's band was marvelous throughout, but near the end of the concert, on "Take Five," saxophonist and flutist Bobby Militello, bassist Michael Moore, and drummer Randy Jones outdid themselves on absolutely glorious solos. While his band took the spotlight, Brubeck watched with genuine interest, like a proud father. This is appropriate because, in the world of jazz, Brubeck has more offspring than he'll ever know.

            Tony Bennett paid tribute to the grandeur of the Eastman Theatre. "They don't build them like this anymore," he said. "I'll show you what I mean." Bennett then told the technicians to turn off the microphone and he sang "Fly Me to the Moon" with no trouble reaching the upper balconies.

            But Bennett also talked about how, in a way, he owes his career to three Eastman graduates --- Goddard Lieberson, Mitch Miller, and Alec Wilder --- who signed him to Columbia Records to record the first of his over 100 albums.

            If anyone had any doubts about the strength of Bennett's jazz roots, he dispelled them with tunes by Gershwin and Ellington and a band to rival any at the festival. Guitarist Gray Sargent was simply phenomenal. Perhaps Bennett's most stirring performance came early, when he sang Charlie Chaplin's "Smile."

            Among those who went to meet Bennett after the show was vocalist Claudia Acuna. Her two performances at Max's were standing-room-only, which is no surprise considering her rising star. With full-bodied renditions of "My Romance," "Ay Mariposa," "Nature Boy," and other tunes that she has made her own, Acuna did not disappoint.

            On Thursday evening, Rochester's own Mambo Kings brought down the house at Kibourn Hall with compositions by a range of composers, from Michel Camilo to Horace Silver.

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