The Rochester International Jazz Festival kicked off 9 days of amazing music on Friday, June 10th. It boasts over 250 shows and 1000 performers in many downtown venues. In the last ten years, the RIJF has grown from an upstart festival to a major force in the jazz world. We have a very savvy and appreciative audience, and the musicians love the venue. It’s my most fun week in Rochester all year.
There are about a half dozen headliners featured at Kodak Hall, but I usually skip them (despite the slight possibility that Elvis Costello’s wife might unexpectedly show up to play some great jazz piano with him this week), due to their cost, amplified by the obscene 30+% Ticketmaster commissions. The real deal is the “Club Pass”–perhaps the most amazing deal in music history! For $130, you can go to as many of those other 250 shows as you can fit into, without paying another cent! And parking right next door to Festival Central costs all of $2, if you get there before the garage fills. Find that in New York City!
I like to start each year off with a classic if I can, so I opened my Friday with the Cedar Walton trio. Now 77 years old, Walton has all the nimbleness on piano, but also a lifetime of nuance and wisdom in his choice of notes. He’s a consummate performer. His trio was tight, and the bass solos of David Williams were amazing.
I sat with one of my former Eastman professors (and a personal piano idol) Bill Dobbins, who used to dissect Cedar Walton’s piano solos for our class. During our conversation he told me to be sure and check out pianist Bill Charlap as well (Oh yeah–see Day 2).
From there, I ambled over to the Nordic Jazz series to catch an exciting band playing their first-ever U.S. concert here in Rochester. This 15-piece Norwegian band calls themselves Ensemble Denada–a group built from nothing–three trumpets, three trombones, 4 reeds, guitar, bass, drums, piano and an electronics whiz who added synth percussion and sample sound loops, (with appropriate restraint so that it was an enhancement and not just an overdone gimmick). All of the music was written and arranged by bass trombonist Helge Sunde, who also acted as the comical MC for the show.
This band is just what I was needing, having been in mourning after the death of Willem Breuker in the past year. His Dutch band was my favorite and their future without Breuker is in doubt, but to paraphrase Laura Nyro, “There’ll be one band born and a world to carry on.” This group has the same strong musical “personality”, amazing chops and elements of both fun and danger that made Breuker’s “Kollektief” so enjoyable.
Also on my docket that night were visits to the “Girls with Guitars” down-and-dirty blues in the Big Tent, Mingo Fishtrap (good quality north Texas rock and soul, amped way too loud), and Filthy Funk (a good group that I avoided because my daughter was there with friends and I didn’t want to “harsh her mellow”).
Kevin Eubanks’ show had a long line outside Kilbourn Hall that started 2-1/2 hours before the concert, so I skipped it; plus I feared it might be the PPJF (“pasteurized processed jazz food”, see also Kenny G.) that I don’t really care for. Natalie Cole had packed the seats in the high-priced venue, and I finally went home after failing to secure a seat for saxophonist Tia Fuller’s late show. Jams go on till 3 AM, but you’ve gotta pace yourself, you know…
Back early for Bill Charlap, and I was not disappointed. How could I not have heard this guy before? He is absolutely one of the best pianists out there! He played off the old standards (nothing newer than Gerry Mulligan) and his style was fairly straight ahead, but his voicings and technique were stunning. A high point was a West Side Story medley of “Somewhere” and “Cool” that brought the house down. And hearing his trio in the acoustically-perfect Kilbourn Hall was a bonus. I think he was even shocked by the audience response and the standing ovation that followed.
After that tough act to follow, I caught some of the local acts on the free stage and then moved on to hear an encore performance of Ensemble Denada, this time managing to get front-and-center to immerse myself in their sound like a 16th band member. Awesome. Great compositions, from the whole-tone flavored “Io”, to the mesmerizing tone poem “The Arrow”, to a bumbling 10/8 syncopation about a stray moose that was seen randomly swimming across a fjord, far from home. They gave one more surprise at the end with a solo from the bass saxophonist, who hoisted that monstrosity up to the solo microphone and improvised as deftly and melodically as Mulligan used to on the bari sax. I broke my usual festival rule of “you can’t re-create the live experience” and bought both of their CDs.
If you think there’s too much “sax and violins” in our culture, artistic director John Nugent might change your mind. Although he usually stays behind the scenes at the festival, he took center stage in Kodak Hall last night for a free show to remind the audience that he is also a fine tenor saxophonist. Eastman’s Dave Rivello arranged an hour’s worth of standards for string orchestra, with members of the Rochester Philharmonic and an expert rhythm nucleus of Bill Dobbins on piano, Jeff Campbell on bass, and Mike Melito on drums. John played through a lush and inspired songbook. He also brought his wife Dawn Thomson out for a duet. I shared a show with her a couple of years back – she’s a fine singer and balladeer, but she showcased her jazz guitar skills on this number.
While each song was beautifully rendered in its own right, an hour of ballads and slow bossa novas left me yearning for some hot rhythmic contrast. I found it outside with the Eastman Jazz Workshop Honors students. Ever since my days studying composition there back in the 70s, the Eastman School has had one of the best jazz programs in the country, and to hear their best student performers is to hear tomorrow’s jazz stars.
There’s a lot more than I can report here. Six more days to go! Among others, I hope to catch 19-year-old saxophone sensation Grace Kelly, Gypsy guitarist Stephane Wrembel, Calle Uno’s Latin jazz, and to figure out if it’s worth lining up über-early for Bill Frissell’s latest pipe dream. Check it all out at www.rochesterjazz.com.