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Live Reviews

5th Rochester International Jazz Festival, Part 3-3

By Published: July 24, 2006
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Gray Mayfield / Mark Whitfield Quartet
Festival Tent
June 13
Gray Mayfield-alto sax; Mark Whitfield-guitar; Ryan Kotler-bass; Ted Poor-drums.

The Festival Tent is probably the least attractive venue of the festival. It's a huge tent erected in a parking lot across the street from the Eastman Theatre. The massive size of the venue and the food stalls makes it seem like it's an invitation to talk so if one is going to hear the music and not merely socialize, one is advised to sit up front close to the band. Unfortunately I was late to the venue and had to sit in the back row with people behind me who seemed to be annoyed with all that noise that was going on up front. (Sigh.)

Gray Mayfield is a saxophonist who's been based in Rochester for the past few years. (His wife is a dancer with Garth Fagan dance.) He's young and studied with Ellis Marsalis in New Orleans back in the early 90s. He's a fiery player and his style, an exuberant mixture of Cannonball and Coltrane, makes him an attractive proposition. Whitfield is a well-known guitarist whose recordings have never done him justice. Mayfield and Whitfield have been long-time friends. When Mayfield landed this gig for the festival, the original frontline partner was supposed to be trombonist Delfayo Marsalis, who couldn't make it. In the end, this turned out to be a good thing because Mayfield and Whitfield both seemed inspired to be playing together and played off each other beautifully. Their program turned to modern jazz standards: Monk's "Straight, No Chaser and "Trinkle Tinkle , Coltrane's "Spiral . Mayfield's solos were gleaming, sparkling statements that filled the festival tent, blocking out the chattering yahoos. But Whitfield was the real surprise. His solos seemed dense and edgy. Sure there was some Wes Montgomery in there and sure there was some George Benson in there but his solos took off on unexpected tangents with weird harsh dissonant chords, abstract linear detours and techniques one doesn't normally associate with Whitfield. Another surprise of this set was the presence of drummer Ted Poor (Respect Sextet, Cuong Vu Trio). He and Mayfield have a local history together. His open drumming and unerring sense of drive and swing helped propel this band through an exciting set. Ryan Kotler, an excellent local bassist rounded out the quartet and he worked hand-in-glove with Poor to drive this band. This was an exciting group and they played a great set. It was a good mix of players. It seemed the format liberated Whitfield to play beyond anything he's ever put on disc. It would be great if someone would record this quartet live. It would present Whitfield in a way he had never been showcased before. And it would give such a superb player as Mayfield an opportunity to gain some much-deserved wider exposure.

Stephen Gauci Trio
Little Theatre
June 13
Stephen Gauci-tenor sax; Michael Bisio-bass; Jay Rosen-drums.

It's to the festival's credit that they book little-known names like saxophonist Stephen Gauci. Gauci is an excellent player based in NYC, who has been garnering a reputation as an adventurous tenor player with something to say. Gauci had played the Bop Shop about a year ago and had impressed those who attended. The Little Theatre was about 60% full for this show, small by the festival's standards. But those who attended were treated to a 70 minute saxophone trio blowout that had the appreciative audience talking about it the next day. Gauci's trio came charging out of the gate. After an introductory bass solo, Gauci ripped into the first theme, a fast burner that ignited from the git-go. This trio has great rapport and as Gauci dissected the theme into jagged shards, he was supported by Bisio's bass rumbles and Rosen's incisive kicks. Gauci has been compared to several players (from Archie Shepp to Stan Getz) and all of these comparisons sell him short. If he's to be compared to someone it might be Sonny Rollins during his late 1950s trio phase. Like Rollins, his playing has a pleasing swagger and bluster that moves authoritatively through the material. But Gauci doesn't sound like Rollins. His saxophone sound is his own and it takes into account many of the players who have succeeded Rollins. He has a big, full sound, that can occasionally get gruff and aggressive but there's always an underlying warmth present. It's a sound that mixes the darker and light hues into an expressive palette. Although he can easily take his instrument into the extended range, he uses this technique sparingly and effectively. Frequently he seems content to mine the tunes for their harmonic content finding secret avenues hidden away in the material. All of this was to the fore on the five pieces he played this night. Supported by the rhythm section that backed him on "Long Night Waiting , the three musicians delivered a solid set of sterling saxophone trio music.

Jane Bunnett Spirits Of Havana Quartet
Kilbourn Hall
June 14
Jane Bunnett-soprano saxophone, flute; Daniel Virelles-piano ; Kieran Overs-bass; Francesco Mela-drums

Jane Bunnett took the Kilbourn Hall stage a little late and seemingly flustered but looking elegant in a lime green Chinese style jacket and black slacks. A little problem at customs regarding her two Cuban musicians caused problems getting into the U.S. from Canada. But once they saw the capacity crowd and heard the enthusiastic greeting, they were ready to play. Bunnett had played Rochester a couple of times previously with her large 10 piece Spirits Of Havana band but this quartet is the perfect vehicle to hear her instrumental prowess which is sometimes overshadowed in the larger group. The opening acappella soprano sax solo swooped and soared through the Hall. Then the band came in and they took off on a strong Latin opener. Of course, Cuban music has been the dominant force in Bunnett's music over 15 years but tonight it occupied a place beside her straight ahead jazz chops. Cuban musicians Virelles and Mela were able to work both sides of the musical stream. Virelles was particularly impressive. He had several unaccompanied intros which would draw from a rhythmically complex Latin base yet harmonically, at times Virelles was sounding like an expressionist pianist with dense, dissonant chords dotting his solos. Bunnett played many old favorites originally done with the large band and, in these stripped down arrangements the feel was looser and freer. Bassist Overs, who has been with her on her Cuban explorations since the beginning, held the band together with rock solid bass work. It was a joyous set filling Kilbourn Hall with a deft blend of Cuban music and great jazz, selling neither the music nor the audience short in the process.

Ben Allison Quartet
June 14
Ben Allison-bass; Ron Horton-trumpet; Steve Cardenas-guitar; Gerald Cleaver-drums

Bassist Ben Allison has been building quite a buzz (to cop the title of one of his albums) over the past ten years. And this late show had an air of expectation. His recent album Cowboy Justice was being featured heavily on this city's local jazz station and there was a full house for the 10:00 show. The one difference between the live band's personnel and that of the album's is the substitution of drummer Gerald Cleaver for Jeff Ballard. Although Ballard has been closely associated in many of Allison's groups over the years, Cleaver, consummate percussionist that he is, fit right in, which is not an easy task considering the make up of the group. An uncommon instrumentation, the most impressive thing about this band was its group sound. The blend of Horton's acrobatic trumpet, Cardenas' cogent blend of jazz guitar laced with the occasional crunchy power chords and a slight country twang made for an attractive frontline. With the leader's rich, rubbery basslines anchoring the bottom end and Cleaver's drumming alternately freeing up the music and reigning it in to tight rock patterns, it seemed an ideal group balance. Able to roar and bring up the volume with the best of them, this was a band as concerned with group dynamics as with the quality of their solos. The opener, "Tricky Dick alternated between sections of quiet anticipation and rushes of loud climatic surge. Schematically, it's not all that dissimilar to the grunge template. Guitarist Cardenas maneuvered the divide beautifully, shifting between quiet measured picking and wide-open power chords. Trumpeter Ron Horton was the centerpiece of the music. His solos ranged from a wistful fractured lyricism (on "Green Al ) to full-bore squeeze-every-sound-you-possibly-can-out-of-this-instrument style solos (especially on "Emergency ). Underneath it all, Allison held things together, guiding his fellow musicians through the rhythmically and harmonically tricky material. Brought back for an encore, the group concluded with John Lennon's "Jealous Guy which somehow fit right in with the other material.

Tom Harrell Quartet
Kilbourn Hall
June 15
Tom Harrell-trumpet, flugelhorn; Xavier Davis-piano; Ugona Okwego-bass; Rodney Greene-drums.

Tom Harrell's paranoid schizophrenia is a fairly well-documented issue. Still, never having seen him live before, it was a bit disconcerting to see him slowly amble onto and then slowly walk around the Kilbourn Hall stage during other's solos. Yet, when he was playing, he seemed totally immersed in the music. The concert proper consisted of four Harrell originals (unannounced) that attested to his compositional skills. Each seemed to have a series of changes that required instrumental agility, quick mind and a healthy dose of elegant and soulful playing, something Harrell and his rhythm section (Xavier Davis on piano; Rodney Greene on drums and bassist Ugona Okwego) easily possessed. Particularly memorable was a piece in ¾ time with a lovely melody. Harrell played a good portion of the concert on flugelhorn and his soft tone at times recalled Art Farmer yet there was more fire and passion in his playing. Harrell really lit up the stage when he hit his stride with the music. The set went on for about 45 minutes, then the group left the stage but was called back for an encore. They started playing "Body And Soul . Harrell played a little bit then shouted to Davis to stop playing and continued his solo. Yet he didn't seem to be connecting with the tune and it suddenly morphed unexpectedly into "I Can't Get Started which seemed more to his liking. Okwego and Greene with lightning fast reflexes followed without missing a beat. The trio continued (sans piano) with a lengthy dissection of the piece. The end brought one more encore, "Caravan , also sans piano until Harrell's modal solo ended and Davis jumped in with a fiery interlude. After a drum solo (throughout, Greene put a real drive into this material), the piece ended abruptly and Harrell and company exited the stage to rapturous applause.

Photo Credit
Gray Mayfield / Mark Whitfield Quartet and Jane Bunnett Spirits Of Havana Quartet by Paul Grigsby
Ben Allison Quartet by Garry Geer
Stephen Gauci Trio and Tom Harrell Quartet by Thomas P. Frizelle

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