An electric first day at the Jazz Fest

Chris Botti captivates Parcel 5 audiences.
(Photo by Aaron Winters / All photos courtesy of Rochester International Jazz Fest)

As I walked from the parking lot to the Java Cafe, I was greeted by a familiar song played at the Jazz Street Stage. The song was none other than “Jump Up Super Star!” – the festive big band number from one of the greatest video games of all time, Super Mario Odyssey. The School of the Arts Jazz Band paid homage to one of the most criminally neglected areas of the music world: video game music. More and more recognition is falling on video game soundtracks over time (a jazz arrangement for a Kirby song won a Grammy a few months ago), and I couldn’t have dreamed of a best start to the festival. Blessed with the welcoming sounds of “Jump Up Super Star!”, with cute video game sound effects played on the marimba… the chef’s kiss.

Rochester Mayor Malik Evans with his family on Jazz Street. (Photo by Peter Parts)

The Rochester International Jazz Festival is finally back after two years of inactivity due to the pandemic, and the overall vibe on day one was electric. The streets were full, people were socializing, friends were reconnecting, and everyone was celebrating music together. And what a great day to kick off the festival too. Perfect weather; the sun was not overbearing, there was no rain. The only problem was the strong wind.

It’s great to be at a music festival after what we’ve all been through, especially with the terrible scale of jazz that’s been hit by the pandemic. Live music has suffered across the board, but jazz has suffered particularly as the genre revolves around live performance. Not only was it the return of Jazz Fest, but it was also kind of the revival of jazz music here. The genre felt alive and well, and nothing proves that more than the breadth of people who showed up to listen to some of the best jazz has to offer.

My day started at Kilbourn Hall with the Cookers, a seven-piece post-bop band of seasoned jazz veterans: Billy Harper (sax), Eddie Henderson (trumpet), David Weiss (trumpet), Donald Harrison (sax), George Cables (piano), Cecil McBee (bass) and Billy Hart (drums). This supergroup of jazz experts showed off their experience in spades, serving the audience intricate improvisational solos filled with all the technique they’ve learned over the years.

When not shedding solos, the horns speak in a singular body, synchronizing and creating a full sound. While the trumpeters and saxophonists were excellent, my attention was drawn more to the supporting roles: piano, bass and drums. My favorite combination of instruments (more on that later).

Pianist George Cables maintained that poised, loose and controlled presence on stage, dipping his fingers into the keys with each chord and running them fluently up and down the keys of the solos – his technique was fascinating. Bassist McBee was modest at first, doing what was expected for most of the performance. It wasn’t until his first and only solo of the set, on the last song, that he really caught my attention. He played a subtle and striking solo that caught all eyes on him. McBee maneuvered around the bass with incredible ease, one hand sliding over the fingerboard and his other floating over the strings. Yet, in my opinion, the star of the show was drummer Hart, who was by far the most expressive of the group. He didn’t get a lot of solo spotlight, but his playing was so engaging that I didn’t notice much. Hart grooved onstage, playing drums with a bouncy attitude that exuded infectious joy. Seeing how well this large ensemble was able to communicate with each other was impressive. There was a very laid back air to the way these musicians spoke to each other, whether through words or music. Although I would have preferred more energy from the band, it was still an exciting show they put on.

After the Cookers, the Bob James Trio played at the Temple Theatre. I wasn’t expecting too much from this show; Heard a selection of James’s material and enjoyed it, but didn’t expect it to be one of the best jazz shows I’ve ever seen. When I saw the trio, I was immediately taken aback. The other two musicians playing with James were very young, highlighting a contrast between them and the 82-year-old pianist.

James began his set with an acknowledgment from his bandmates, stating, “They share an important quality that I appreciate. Youth.” It was this generational divide and open-mindedness that made the Bob James Trio such a special experience. James – talented and trained – showed his fine skills on the piano and his ear for great composition, but the bassist Michael Palazzolo and drummer James Adkins brought a unique youthful energy to the table that kept things exciting.

Already the piano, bass and drums trio is perfect for me: how the bass plays with the left hand of the piano, how the piano feeds the drums with percussive patterns and how the bass supports the piano while developing a pattern ; everything about this set of instruments is divine. All of this applies to the Bob James Trio and more.

Palazzolo brings some of the most moving double bass playing I’ve seen in a jazz performance. You can tell he feels every note he plays through the power of his facial expressions and how effortlessly he creates a narrative with his improvisational skills. Adkins is a drummer with incomparable charisma. His playing is absolutely explosive, evoking countless audible “wows” from the audience and giving me chills repeatedly throughout the performance.

Bob James Trio drummer James Adkins brings energy to the performance. (Photo by Tim Fuss)

A few songs received standing ovations after ending with one of his intensely energetic drum solos. Not only does his ability surpass most, but he also collaborates expertly with James and Palazzolo, making for great musical conversations between the three. I don’t know which was better: the intense compromises between piano and drums during a breathtaking solo break, or Palazzolo’s euphoric expression as he silently watched them exchange musical ideas.

James was amazing too. Although he didn’t have as many transcendent moments as his two bandmates, he was instrumental in shaping this band and the tunes they played together, and his guidance elevated the skills of his bandmates on another level. There was a palpable sense of mutual respect within this trio, whenever one player was left alone soloing, the others stood in awe of what was playing. It created a great atmosphere of unrestricted expression and pushing boundaries that kept me on my toes. I could write a lot more about this performance. For now, I’ll say that Adkins and Palazzolo are some of the best young jazz musicians I’ve seen, and if you ever get the chance to see James play, don’t miss it.

After James, it’s time to see Day 1’s headliner: trumpeter Chris Botti, who performed on the expansive Midtown stage at Parcel 5 and summoned the biggest crowd I’d seen all day. . I was a little confused as to why Botti is the headliner of the festival. He’s relatively well-known and well-loved, but his music is the kind of soft jazz that plays as the background music in a fancy restaurant, not the kind of music you flock to a lot to hear at a festival.

However, I kept an open mind and listened to the first part of the set. It was pretty much what I expected, nice, slightly boring soft jazz that sat in the background while audience members socialized. I can see why it’s gained a large following, though; his music is very harmless and has a broad appeal. I just don’t understand why you sit and listen to soft, meandering jazz when Nikki Hill has an entire street going wild just a few blocks away. After missing Botti, I noticed that James had a second set that was about to start, so I rushed to that one instead, which ended my night on a pretty high note. .

It was just the first day, and there are eight more to come. I’m beyond excited to see what awaits jazz excellence. If you wanted to catch some shows during Jazz Fest, but didn’t know who to watch, check out our list of artists to watch here.

-Jess Williams

Take the tour on day 1

The high school bands wasted no time breaking it up and knocking it out of the proverbial park as I strolled onto the stage for a jingle jangle as one big, big band.

I settled into the Wilder Room for the Lew Tabackin Trio’s first set, in which Tabackin used his saxophone and flute to color the joint with all manner of colors and sepia.

Lew Tabackin (Photo by Marcie Ver Ploeg)

When he was making a track based on a story he had experienced in Spain, his drummer would fill the room with castanets which he chased around the surface of his snare drum like a hip game of “Whack-a-mole” or “Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots”.

Now I’ve seen Tabackin a few times and I don’t recall him knocking me out like he did with this set, which left room for quotes like “Skylark” mixed in with part of the nameless beauty that floated around her ensemble.

Nikki Hill (Photo by Dick Bennett)

Nikki Hill and her band came out like a 45 minute punch for their first set with Hill spending her evening popping the clutch between purring and growling. She has a twin guitar onslaught consisting of birthday boy (37!) and husband Matt Hill and ex-Kandye Kane, award-winning guitar slinger and one of my favorites, Laura Chavez. They both throttled their instruments with extreme prejudice as Hill moaned and roared his heart out.

I closed my indulgences with the first set of the Hot Club of Cowtown. I haven’t heard why fiddler Elan James seemed to play while seated with a cast on her leg. Either way, they played even tighter, even faster, even Cow-Townsier than I’ve ever heard them before.

Onward to day 2…

Watch me while I’m bawling with Derrick Lucas at 90.1 WGMC at 5.45pm every night of the festival. I’ll talk about what I’ve seen, what I’m going to see with the festival’s best-dressed man, Mr. Derrick Lucas.

-Franck De Blase

Jess Williams is an intern at Rochester Beacon and a student at Ithaca College. Frank De Blase is the music writer for Rochester Beacon. All articles from the Rochester Beacon Jazz Fest are collected here.

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