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Covering the 5th Rochester International Jazz Festival this year turned out to be as pleasurable and frustrating an experience as last year's. Held from June 9-17, and with a slate of 170 concerts, the festival came into its own this year with lots of local media coverage (especially of the "big events" such as Woody Allen, James Brown, Etta James), the backing of the city and county governments and the crowds that came out in force. Over 80,000 people strong (nearly a 20% increase over last year's figures) attended various events and this upstate New York city buzzed with the excitement that jazz can produce.
Following the successful template used in previous years, the festival presented the event concerts at the Eastman Theatre, a 3,000 seat capacity concert hall, with individual ticketing per concert. The remaining concerts were held in various clubs, the beautiful 500 seat Kilbourn Hall, Eastman's smaller venue, and the Festival Tent, erected in a parking lot kitty-corner from the Eastman Theatre. These shows were accessible with a "club pass" which cost under $100 and was useable throughout the festival's 10 days. Additionally there were free nightly concerts on the Gibbs St. Stage, (which was renamed "Jazz St."...yeah it's hokey but...) a small cross street that was blocked off for the festival's ten days. This allowed people to sit and listen or roam around sampling the various food vendors and restaurants in the area. Everything happens within a three block area and for those ten days, it seemed as if jazz was all that mattered in Rochester, NY.
The festival was also a good demonstration that all the various stripes of the music can peacefully co-exist and be presented in a manner that's respectful to all genres. Almost every concert I attended (and I tended to go to see what would normally considered the more "marginal" artists) was at or near capacity. And people seemed to be listening, even when the music was "difficult". Sure there was some attrition but it was great to see say, violinist Billy Bang or saxophonist Stephen Gauci, taking an audience on a journey into their music and finding a majority of the people stayed until the end. It puts lie to the idea of marketers that music has to be mainstreamed and presented in just one way and it must be frustrating as hell to them. But what was frustrating as hell to me was there were so many acts and not being the type who likes to jump from concert to concert, having to miss some that I would have really liked to see because of scheduling conflicts. But what I saw was, for the most part, a satisfying mix of music with some genuinely thrilling moments.
Henderson-Schonig Trio featuring Dr. Lonnie Smith
Dr. Lonnie Smith-Hammond B-3; Mel Henderson-guitar; Jared Schonig-drums.
Although the band was billed as the Henderson-Schonig Trio featuring Dr. Lonnie Smith, it was the Turbanator's show all the way from the moment he took the stage, cutting a striking figure in black turban and robes. He sat down at his Hammond B-3 looked at the full house in Montage, a club that holds about 200 people, smiled, played a couple of introductory chords and the band was off on "The Whip . It was a roller coaster ride of a tune that took off practically from the beginning. One of its sections had Smith essaying a series of chromatic chords while he "conducted Schonig who was given free reign to fill as he pleased and the drummer carried the sequence off with taste and aplomb. Smith, a Buffalo native, seemed to be enjoying himself, reminiscing about playing roadside dives in Henrietta and Leroy (small towns between here and Buffalo) back in the day. He seemed to know half the people in the room. They played songs from his last album, Too Damn Hot and his forthcoming album, Jungle Soul but it was about four tunes in where the music really shone. A version of Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me which, while taken at a slower than average tempo, swung like hell (more kudos to Schonig), contained a tasty, crystalline solo by Henderson and a deeply rooted solo by Smith which told everyone just where his music was coming from. A little vocal shtick (imitating Johnny Mathis on "Misty and Steve Wonder on "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life and the sound of a vinyl LP) also reminded the listener of where this music came from with its chitlin circuit humor. A great moment came when Smith talked about recently playing in New Orleans and then kicked off his song "N'Orleans with instructions: "Jared, give me a New Orleans beat and don't worry. Whatever you do, I got ya covered. Then Shonig kicked off a funky second line strut rhythm that was perfect and the band was off with local saxophonist Gray Mayfield sitting in. A final funky, "Yo Mama's Got A Complex closed a lengthy set (almost 90 minutes). But one final flourish, a 30 second race through "Oleo at Concorde speed let you know this band was firing on all cylinders. A great opening set that set the tone of the festival for this listener.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
Gibbs St. Stage
Brian Haas-electric piano; Reed Mathis-bass; Jason Smart-drums.
Leaving the good doctor's set in high spirits I sauntered over to the open air Gibbs St. stage to hear the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. A band that has built a large following over the last several years, they seem to appeal to the same crowd as Bad Plus, who entertained at last year's festival. JFJO performed a serviceable rendition of Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring . This was followed by a lightly funkified version of Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood with a lengthy bass solo. A couple of originals were performed that didn't make much of an impression. If putting rock moves into jazz (that bassist sure had his fancy footwork down) makes this group the "current anonymous titleholders of avant-garde piano jazz , as one poor benighted local critic had it in the local paper's review, then Holland's Trio Braam-DeJoode-Vatcher better get their fancy footwork patter down. But for those who were around 30 years ago, they sounded like that pleasant band that you heard opening for a major jazz act in the 1970s, only the 70s band had cooler moves.
Cedar Walton-solo piano.
Pianist Cedar Walton played the festival two years ago with his trio and was a resounding success. So there was a certain measure of anticipatory enthusiasm building for this solo set. Walton strode out onto the Kilbourn Hall stage looking elegant and ageless, which was a great way to describe the music he played. He opened with "Cedar's Blues a tune that has cropped up repeatedly in his discography but never in a solo rendition. Here the bluesy twists and turns that dot the tune were shown in stark relief and this solo version made it seem so much more than a mere standard blues. But this was a night where Walton was in a standard mood, so one heard marvelous renditions of "Every Time We Say Goodbye , "I Didn't Know What Time It Was , "Sophisticated Lady and best of all an expansive version of "Skylark which seemed to go through a series of kaleidoscopic variations that fell in and around themselves. It was a master at work. During a concluding "Willow Weep For Me , Walton (as he did on the opener) mined the august composition for its bluesy twists and turns. The sold out crowd received it all rapturously and the concert was one great example of what this festival does right: present a jazz master in the right context. Hearing Walton solo was the best way hear one of jazz's finest pianists. The only complaint about the concert was that Walton didn't perform any of his own compositions such as "Ugetsu , "Bolivia or "Twilight Waltz . But what he did play became his.
Dominic Duval / Jimmy Halperin Duo
Dominic Duval-bass; Jimmy Halperin-soprano sax.
Later that evening, bassist Dominic Duval and saxophonist Jimmy Halperin took the stage at the Little Theatre. This is a small-ish venue, Rochester's art house theatre, that holds about 150 people. For my money, it's my favorite of the festival's venues: usually good sound, relatively comfortable seats and usually smaller crowds. Duval and Halperin were presenting an all Thelonious Monk program. Halperin stuck to the soprano sax and that could have been a deadly mistake. Obviously when one thinks soprano saxophone and Monk, one thinks of Steve Lacy. But any potential comparisons to Lacy were diffused by Halperin's own sound (full with a slightly reedy tinge) and his own ideas on how to approach Monk. After the spry opener, "Trinkle Tinkle , they soon abandoned the individual song format and turned the set into a medley performance weaving in and out of Monk tunes in a manner that seemed almost stream of consciousness. Halperin was in fine form all the way. His acappella opening to "Round Midnight was lovely, taking in not only the famous intro but doing a full chorus of the song unaccompanied before Duval entered. Duval's prodigious technique was to the fore yet with a surprising angle. Those who only know him as a free jazz bassist with Cecil Taylor and Trio X (and countless other avant-garde sessions) might be surprised to hear Duval's melodic penchant coming to the fore in this format. It's obviously material he loves to play and he's one of those players who can find hidden contours in material and excavate it with aplomb. And that's exactly what he did during this set. Duval and Halperin made the evening a fine, intimate affair inviting the audience in to hear a unique take on some well-worn material.
Street Scene and Cedar Walton by Don Ver Ploeg
Dr. Lonnie Smith and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey by Thomas P. Frizelle