Over the past four years, while no one was paying attention, Rochester, NY became host to one of the best jazz festivals in the country. Rochester NY???? Isn't that in upstate? Doesn't it still snow in June in Rochester? (No, it doesn't...usually). Why Rochester?
During the past decade, Rochester has developed into quite a music town. The Eastman School of Music has been here since the 1920s and covers not only the classical end of the spectrum but has a good jazz program as well. There are a number of long running clubs (Milestones, Montage Grille, The Bug Jar) that present jazz and cutting edge rock and folk. This city has several good independent record stores, one of which, The Bop Shop, frequently presents jazz/improvised music by name acts at no charge. A recent addition, the A/V Space has been presenting drone/noise bands and eai artists. Rochester has an available pool of good listeners for music of every stripe and it's developed into a very healthy scene.
Four years ago, promoter-musician John Nugent, who had developed the Stockholm Jazz Festival, breezed into town hawking the idea of a Rochester jazz festival. Many people eyed the event with suspicion The artistic results of the first two years were lukewarm but semi-popular: mostly crowd-pleasing acts (George Benson, Tony Bennett, Spyro Gyra, ) and a few quality jazz acts (John Abercrombie, Dave Liebman, Sonny Fortune, the Sun Ra Arkestra). But the modest success of the first two years allowed Nugent to get more sponsorship money to build the festival. The 2004 edition still had the crowd pleasing "big acts but more importantly, Nugent used a good chunk of the money to expand the number of venues for the festival and bring in even more top quality jazz acts, including a number of people who are not normally invited to mainstream jazz festivals (Billy Bang, Blood Ulmer, a Lou Grassi quartet, Vijay Iyer/Rudresh Mahanthappa, Jonas Kullhammar). Clearly, Nugent was aiming to present as full a picture of jazz as he could.
So how did the 2005 festival measure up? "Nine Days, more than 100 concerts and 500 musicians representing 15 plus countries trumpeted the blurb. The big concerts, presented in the Eastman Theatre were big: Sonny Rollins, Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck, Chris Botti and Madeline Peyroux and they had big prices attached to the tickets ($65 to $50, still modest by mega city standards but not within the means of those cutting corners). But, surprisingly those I attended (Rollins and Brubeck) appeared to be at least 75% sold and I heard the attendance at the others was higher.
Artistically, the results of those two concerts were satisfying. Rollins had appeared at the 2003 edition of the festival and it was disappointing. An overbusy drummer and an uninspired Rollins made for an unsatisfying concert, This year, with the redoubtable Al Foster on drums, Rollins' usual entourage (Clifton Anderson and Bob Cranshaw) and an African percussionist, the results were decidedly different. Although it took the first set a while to get going, by the end, the band was clearly getting into the groove. It was the opening number of the second set, a 20 minute version of "Falling In Love With Love , which was all Rollins, that made it all worthwhile. It was one of those performances that Rollins fans wait for.
Brubeck, too provided satisfying results. He also played at the 2003 edition of the festival. He had his usual quartet in tow (Bobby Militello on alto, Michael Moore on bass and Randy Jones on drums). Although Brubeck and Militello were in fine form from the beginning, it seemed to take the rhythm section a while to get a fire lit. It was only with a new tune "London Sharp London Flat that they seemed to kick into gear, perhaps inspired by the intricacies of this new piece. But Brubeck provided more than enough spark for everyone, proving at 85 that "age ain't nothin' but a number .