4th Rochester International Jazz Festival (June 10-18, 2005) Concert Diary
With over a hundred concerts as options, it was difficult as a sole person covering the 4th Rochester International Jazz Festival for All About Jazz. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. But hard choices had to be made. And with so many acts, everyone could come away with a different festival, depending on whom they saw. Opening concerts started at 6 p.m. Friday, June 10, and I had several options for starting my festival: Bill Frisell's Trio, Sex Mob, Hilton Ruiz Trio, Faroese Islanders Yggdrasil, singer Paula West. Where to begin? After standing in line for a half hour and being informed that the Frisell group arrived late due to plane snafus and were still sound checking, I thought another line of attack might be in order so...
Sonny Rollins Quintet
Harold Danko Trio
Night of the Cookers
Willem Breuker Kollektief
Ted Poor/Third Wheel
Steve Swell Slammin' the Infinite
Ernie Krivda Quintet
Ethnic Heritage Ensemble
Dave Brubeck Quartet
Jacob Anderskov Trio
Paul Smoker Notet
I opted to start my RIJF with a performance by Sex Mob, Steve Bernstein (slide trumpet), Briggan Krause (alto sax), Tony Scherr (bass) and Kenny Wolleson (drums). They were also late in starting due to a mix up at the airport and no drums for Wolleson. ("Seized by homeland security was Bernstein's pronouncement). But as a band whose self-proclaimed mission is to "put fun into the music, such a situation wouldn't stop Sex Mob. Once the reserve kit was set up, the band launched into a wild and wooly non-stop hour-long performance flitting from tune to tune going from Prince to Duke. Bernstein won the crowd over with his personable introductions, humorous banter ("this is the furthest north we've ever been") and brilliant slide trumpet playing, a mix of Cootie Williams-like insouciance, Jonah Jones haminess and Roswell Rudd-like sonic explorations. Krause delivered a pair of idiosyncratic solos and Scherr and Wolleson (who seemed particularly fired up) held it all together. The end of the show saw the crowd on their feet and it was a great start to the festival.
Next up was one of the main festival events: the return of Sonny Rollins. Rollins played the festival two years ago and the performance seemed perfunctory, at best, marred by an overbusy drummer and a Rollins who didn't seem all that inspired. I was actually debating on whether or not to attend this one. But with Rollins you never know. Things got off to a shaky start when the band failed to show after the introduction, then each member casually sauntered onto the stage. One good sign: Al Foster was the drummer. The band launched into "Why Was I Born with a vigorous opening solo by Rollins' left-hand man, trombonist, Clifton Anderson. Then, rather than going into a solo, Rollins unexpectedly went into trading fours with Foster. That led into a lengthy drum solo. Finally, after about 10 minutes of anticipation, Rollins launched into a 15-minute solo that built slowly at first. He seemed to be emphasizing a wide vibrato, stretching the phrases in unexpected ways. "Everything Happens To Me followed and concluded with one of Rollins' patented unaccompanied cadenzas. A recent calypso, "Global Warming concluded the first set on a promising note. The band came out for the second set and launched into "Falling In Love With Love. From the first note it was evident this was it, the moment a Rollins fan waits for. For 15 minutes Rollins fired chorus after chorus of his improvisatory genius. Each chorus took the song off in a different direction. Big blustery phrases, short staccato bursts and langorous descending phrases were shadowed by Bob Cranshaw's electric bass, Al Foster's incisive drumming, and decorated with unobtrusive textures from an African percussionist (whose name I didn't catch). It was the Rollins performance of the evening. As I said, with Rollins, you never know and I'm glad I second- guessed myself.
Winding down the first night I decided to take in one of Rochester's great musical treasures, pianist Harold Danko. For the past five years Danko has resided in this city as the chair of the jazz department at the Eastman School of Music. He's had a spot at each year's festival and this year he brought the trio that's essayed four superb Steeplechase releases: bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Jeff Hirschfield. They've developed into one of the finest piano trios playing creative improvised music.
Danko was in a relaxed mood, joking with the audience on the intros. He announced the original "Waiting Time with the comment "the title is a description of my career. The band was obviously in the mood to play as they wended their way through expansive versions of material from their catalogue: Duke Jordan's "Flight To Jordan, "Monk's Dream, two from their recent Earl Hines tribute Hinesight and a pair of Danko's tasty originals including an exploratory rendition of "Smoke House. Danko really took off on a stretched-out version of Hines' "Cavernism, including a lengthy solo intro and a lot of inside-the-piano play over a funky second-line strut rhythm. It showed how to pay tribute to an influence and hero without aping his licks. Rochesterians are fortunate in being able to hear Danko on a fairly regular basis, yet many still turned out for this performance. Those who didn't missed out on a brilliant set that showed why Danko is one of the most under-recognized pianists in jazz.
The second night, a septet going under the moniker of a classic Blue Note album, Night Of The Cookers , had all the promise of being a hard bop rave-up. The original albums that gave this group its name (oddly enough, not among the more memorable Blue Note classics) sported the front line dual trumpet lineup of Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. This concert featured two of today's finest up-and -coming trumpeters: Jeremy Pelt (who led a quartet at last year's fest) and David Weiss. But the real draw of this group was the presence of two members who were participants on the original recordings, saxophonist/flutist James Spaulding and drummer Pete LaRoca-Sims. Tenor saxophonist Craig Handy completed the front line, and veteran pianist George Cables and bassist Dwayne Burno rounded out the rhythm section. Spaulding excelled and showed himself to be a player of undiminished powers, with glistening alto solos and lovely flute work on Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring (he performed the same function on that tune on Hubbard's 1966 Backlash LP). LaRoca-Sims laid down solid bop-based grooves giving the music power and energy to spare. Though named after the 1965 albums, this group didn't perform any material from them. Rather they did selections of tunes by Hubbard and Morgan, ending with a particularly fiery version of "Zip Code (a Morgan tune) where everyone delivered riveting solos. The concert was held in Kilbourn Hall of the Eastman School of Music, usually an excellent place to hear music. But it was plagued by sound problems: annoying feedback, inaudible bass, etc. But the band, troupers that they were, pulled through (Pelt had a particularly fiery night) and by the concluding piece they were firing on all cylinders, moving straight ahead as the music demanded.
On Sunday night, Milestones, a club venue, was SRO an hour before the start of the early show of the Willem Breuker Kollektief due to the buildup of a healthy word of mouth. The steamy air was pregnant with anticipation and the band delivered. Playing a seventy-minute set of old Kollektief favorites, interspersed with selections from Breuker's score for Murnau's silent classic "Faust, the band was fired up and bowled over the audience with a series of stellar solos and precision reading of the charts. Honors go to tenor player Maarten van Norden's rough-and-tumble leadoff solo that seemed to set the stage for the night. The band kept the joking to a minimum and toward the end of the set. The encore found Breuker crooning "My Resistance Is Low to the ladies in the audience, one of whom came up to the stage and engaged in a little ballroom dancing (well, as much as the club's small stage would allow) with the leader. This concert was definitely an early highlight of the festival.
Later that night at the Little Theatre, drummer Ted Poor led his trio Third Wheel through a beguiling set of free improvs, original compositions and a pair of standards. With Ralph Alessi on trumpet and Red Wierenga on piano (Poor's rhythm section mate in the Respect Sextet), they delivered a set that was deceptively low-key but was full of meaty improvisations. An Alessi original, "Equal Or Lesser Value centered around a left-hand figure from Wierenga and had the soloists weaving in and out of the figure both harmonically, rhythmically and tempo-wise. It was a hypnotic performance. A highly abstracted version of "I'll Remember April was the highlight of the set and ended with an extended wind-down with Wierenga essaying a repeated chord change, subtly varying the interior notes accompanied only by Poor's rhythmic figure on hi-hat and snare. The performance was a subtle gem.
After taking Monday off, Tuesday night it was back to Milestones. Representing New York-style free jazz at the festival was one its finest bands: Steve Swell's Slammin' The Infinite. With Sabir Mateen on his full arsenal of reeds, Matthew Heyner's bottomless bass and drummer Michael Wimberly (a last minute replacement for an ailing Klaus Kugel), they delivered a blistering set at Milestones that had the crowd applauding wildly. This is a band that's grown quite a bit since their last release. A comparison of the group's performance of "Box Set with the version on the album would attest to that. For this show, the energy level was cranked up (Wimberly's drumming style is rooted in classic New York energy) and with familiarity, there appeared to be a stronger handling of the material. Mateen delivered an alto solo that mutated from Bird-like agility to Dolphy-esque zig- zagging and ultimately to Ayler like shrieks and cries. Heyner's deep rumbling bass was a force all its own. Throughout the set Swell demonstrated why he is one of the most in- demand trombone players in New York. One untitled piece over an ostinato in 7 found him cutting up the rhythm in oblique ways, always keeping it fresh. After the set was over Swell eyed the audience, surprisingly large and with little of the attrition that usually occurs in free jazz concerts at "mainstream festivals) and commented, "This is more people than I've seen in New York in three years." Slammin' The Infinite was another festival highlight.
Later that night it was onto Max's, an upscale restaurant in the atrium of Eastman Place complex. It was an attractive setting to see Ernie Krivda's quartet, playing in front of a glassed in area with flashes of lightning occasionally bursting behind them. Krivda's music can be alternately brash and bracing and subtle and thoughtful. Both sides were on display this night. With long-time cohorts Bob Fraser on guitar and Jeff Halsey on bass and young guns Dominick Faranacci on trumpet and Carmen Intorre on drums, this band cooked for a set of attractive Krivda originals including a nice little piece in 6/8 "Alcara Li Fuse , a homage to his family's ancestral village. The performances were lengthy and Krivda took advantage letting his solos unwind at a leisurely pace, building to effective climaxes. Mention also has to be made of long-time band mate Bob Fraser who's possibly the most unassuming guitarist around. He's the quintessential jazz guitarist with a crystalline tone whose measured solos provided an effective contrast to the heated (and equally effective) improvisations of trumpeter Faranucci. If this band ever comes to your town, they're worth checking out.
The following night, free jazz Chicago style (AACM's "great black music, ancient to the future ) was represented by an appearance of Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Long time affiliate, saxophonist Ernest Khabeer Dawkins manned the saxophone chair. The real surprise was new member, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, a player who's just beginning to make a name for himself. His trumpet work was stellar. His tone could be clear as a bell, yet he would continually shade it with effective smears and growls. He had great technically facility but he wasn't continually hitting the listener over the head with trumpeting acrobatics. His solos had a maturity and intelligence that belies his young age (early 20s?). If there was a rising star at this festival, it was Wilkes. But it was the group cohesion that made this band so effective. With El'Zabar at the center, on both trap drums and hand drums and Dawkins and Wilkes flanking him on either side, they ran through a set of EHE favorites including "Ornette and Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance . A surprisingly effective "All Blues chugged along on El'Zabar's thumb piano and Wilkes delivered a solo that succeeded because it wasn't aping Miles' licks and displayed original ideas. By the end of the show, the almost-full house was on their feet. It was an indication that this type of adventurous music can be booked at jazz festivals and audiences, given half a chance, will respond to something different.
Thursday night, the Festival Tent was the destination to see Trio East with Clay Jenkins (trumpet), Jeff Campbell (bass) and Rich Thompson (drums). The trumpet trio is not the most common of formats so it's always a treat to hear these guys. Over a noisy, dining audience (it was around 6:00) they delivered a tasty set of originals and interesting covers (Coltrane's "Up 'Gainst The Wall , Duke's "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart , Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes). Jenkins is an interesting soloist and he seems to relish leaving open space during his solos. He knows his trio mates are more than capable of filling it in and maintaining the momentum, something they did time and time again. Set highlight was Campbell's "West End Avenue , title track from their first recording, which grooved along on a funky, almost Vernel Fournier-style beat, big loping basslines and Jenkins' incisive playing on top. A great set, whose subtleties were regrettably lost on the majority of the chowing down noshers.
The well-dressed crowd filled the Eastman Theatre for one of the festival's big events, the return of Dave Brubeck to the RIJF. He brought his quartet with Bobby Militello on alto, Michael Moore on bass and Randy Jones on drums. He appeared in a relaxed, almost playful mood. After an annoying heat wave earlier in the week, the weather broke and the day had been rainy and cool. "I'm not going to play the tunes I thought I was going to play because the weather has made me change my mind, Brubeck announced. And with that the quartet whipped into a series of rain songs including "Pennies From Heaven and "Stormy Weather . Only the first line of "Stormy Weather was alluded to in his solo intro and then he was off on his own fantasia of re-harmonization. It was up to Militello to let the audience know exactly what the tune was. "The Duke , one of Brubeck's greatest compositions was given a solid reading. Brubeck and Militello seemed inspired from the git-go but it seemed to take the rhythm section a little while to wake up. It was only on a new composition "London Flat London Sharp that they seemed to kick in, probably propelled by the intricacies of this nifty piece. It's impressive that at 84, Brubeck has maintained his creative output. He gave the audience what they came to hear but he also gave them a lot more.
Back to the Festival Tent to hear George Schuller's group Circle Wide. The cue for this group lies in that moment, just before Miles Davis totally electrified (ca. Circle In The Round, Filles De Kilimanjaro ). This edition of the band featured Don McCaslin on tenor, Tom Beckham on vibes, Brad Shepik on guitar and Dave Ambrosio on bass. It was interesting to hear a Miles-inspired band without a trumpeter. But the band brought the music to life with a set of originals, inspired by the looping themes Miles was working with around that time. The vibes of Beckham was an excellent choice for the band functioning with a far richer harmonic and textural palette than if Schuller had gone with a Fender Rhodes. Schuller's "Round About Now was a particularly effective piece with each soloist being accompanied by a different rhythmic backdrop, including a fiery duo between Schuller and Shepik that was the set's high point.
Friday night at Montage, Danish pianist Jacob Anderskov led a trio with the same players who backed Harold Danko: Michael Formanek (bass) and Jeff Hirschfield (drums.) Montage is a restaurant that regularly presents music and recently had facelift. It is now a more intimate space that was ideal to hear Anderskov's intimate music. Once the music unfolded, the trio had an intense communication going. By the time of the new piece, provisionally entitled "Scarf , they had achieved that quiet intensity and organic unfolding of the material that was perfected by Paul Bley's late 60s trios and achieved by few ever since. But, unlike that trio, Anderskov and company would also venture into a dense trio interplay that was equally effective. An added bonus to this set was getting to hear how Formanek and Hirschfield maneuvered their way around Anderskov's open structures as opposed to Danko's more tradition-bound, yet no less modern, approach.
Rochester-based trumpeter Paul Smoker brought his Notet, Steve Salerno (guitar), Ed Schuller (bass) and Phil Haynes (drums) to the Little Theatre for an electric set of group interaction. Working with a set of Smoker compositions, they took the music in all different directions and quartet permutations. On "Even Steven (a feature for guitarist Salerno) they came on as a fusion ensemble with brains not just muscle. It was impressive how Haynes and Schuller effortlessly slipped from a funky fusion-style beat during Salerno's solo to a straight ahead swing for Smoker's solo. An untitled new piece ended with a beautiful duet between Smoker and bassist Schuller. Haynes drove the set with his characteristic mixture of power and subtlety. Salerno was particularly effective accompanying with slashing chords at moments of climax and with effective, at times barely audible harmonics during quiet moments. The leader was in fine form clearly relishing this band and the way they were handling his compositions. Smoker's Notet was yet another festival highlight.
Final concert of the RIJF was the trio of David Eyges (electric cello), Arthur Blythe (alto sax) and Keno Speller (drums, kalimba) at the Little Theatre. This was a strangely disappointing concert and I'm not sure where the blame lay. Speller was a dynamo and ready to play. When Blythe started playing his beautiful, soulful sound shone through but his early solos never caught fire. Eyges seemed to be having problems with his electric cello. At times, especially when he was playing pizzicato (which was a majority of the time), the sound was harsh and unattractive, the plucking of the strings being rendered with a sharp percussive sound. It was surprising since Eyges is a musician whose recordings have almost always delivered. I'm not sure if the blame lay in the electric cello itself (the music would have surely sounded better with an acoustic instrument) or in an unfriendly sound system or perhaps it was just a lack of inspiration. The trio rarely seemed connected. But it was still nice to hear Blythe and when he broke through, particularly in a duet section with Speller, it was a thing of great beauty.