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Rochester International Jazz Festival 2006
Rochester, New York, June 9 – June 17, 2006
by John Coltelli

Fai click qui per leggere la versione in italiano

Flight 20 takes a hard left and points us northwest bound as we leave the towering skyscrapers of the Big Apple in the distance and hurtle towards Rochester, N.Y and its fifth annual Jazz Festival. Located near the banks of Lake Ontario, bordering Canada, this city of 225,000 will provide nine days of Jazz, Soul, Blues and world music of the highest order in thirteen venues ranging from old world style theatres and recital halls to small, dark clubs and white outdoor tents that billow like a young woman's, flowing, wind-swept skirt in the afternoon breeze.

Performers will be attending from more than ten countries and by festival's end there will have been 170 concerts performed by more than 600 musicians in this maiden by the Genesee. Major artists from McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, James Brown, Etta James and Phil Woods will have been in attendance and all eyes, both national and international, will be watching for Rochester Jazz is the fastest growing Festival in the country and has eclipsed the long standing Monterey Jazz Festival in size. Last year, more than 65,000 music lovers came out for the proceedings and expectations this year are for continued growth.

As flight 20 bobs and weaves its way towards this northern border town, gently rolling hills give way to the river valley that is home to the city. Below, the Genesee River snakes its way through this town which is steeped in deep musical tradition and culture. Opera has always been loved and appreciated and this town, enriched in the modern era by the good fortunes of Kodak, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb and other major corporations, has had classical music as a firm foundation for years.

Centered in and around one of the city's greatest cultural institutions, The Eastman School of Music, the festival closes down Gibbs street for the interim and strollers have easy access to all the music venues which are located within walking distance from one another. Screeching tires quickly bring the short flight to a halt and soon the cool windblown streets, located in the modest downtown area, will be blearing with the hot strains of America's music.

On Saturday June 10th, Kilbourn Hall, which sits majestically within the confines of the Eastman School of Music, was host to pianist Cedar Walton who entered the building, said a quick hello and was ushered to his dressing room. The ornately detailed entrance corridor leads into a chestnut paneled room, seemingly out of an old English Tudor, with a renaissance style ceiling and large chandeliers.

The music played by Mr. Walton was equally as elegant and consisted of a program of standards from "Skylark", "Every Time We say Good-Bye", and "Time After Time" to originals like "Cedar's Blues". Aside from his funny asides and charismatic personality, Mr. Walton was quick to lay down a very serious, tone-rich and lyrical presentation on his piano that captivated the capacity crowd of 500 rapt listeners. The former Coltrane and "Messenger" alumni quickly warmed up the cool Rochester night with his smooth and at times funky voicings.

With frescoe paintings and puti looking on, liquid runs spilled off the stage and through the crowd, enhanced by the fine, clear, yet warm acoustics of the hall. His new CD, "Underground" is dedicated to the New York City subway system and the deep, dark, subterranean chords accompanying the music certainly paid homage to the trains that wind their way through the caverns below Manhattan Island. Leaving aside an unconscious slip that seguayed the pianist back into a prior tune, "Everytime We Say Goodbye" while performing, "I Didn't Know What Time It Was", Mr. Walton was a living testimony to what great musical knowledge and many years of experience can produce.

Though this room and this music spoke of a different era, outside the hall, at an outdoor stage, a high school band was performing their take on Jazz improvisations thereby ensuring a future for this most eloquent art form.

Exiting Kilbourn Hall of the world-renowned Eastman School of Music, there is a sense of the enduring legacy this institution promotes. Founded in the early 1920's by Kodak magnate, George Eastman, alumni have including such greats as bassist Ron Carter, drummer Steve Gadd, trumpeter Chuck Mangione and many others. It is, in fact, the University of Rochester's college and graduate school of music and currently has 800 students and 150 faculty members.

"Ever since I was little I've looked up to this place as being one of the great music centers in the world and have always wanted to go here", says 19 year old Nick Brust, Eastman student and saxophonist. "I just feel like they're constantly doing what they can to further music in the world and especially here in the Rochester area."

Later in the evening, this staid town was witness to the wild antics and exuberance of the legendary James Brown and the Generals of Soul! Folks filled the Eastman Theatre's lobby and spilled out onto the celebratory streets and mused about Mr. Brown's age and whether or not he was still the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business". While the 3,000 seat venue slowly filled, the band numbering 11 with 4 back-up singers prepared to go onstage. Drummer Mousie Thompson, who has played with Mr. Brown for 14 year's spoke backstage about his time with the Godfather of Soul. "His chemistry, how he really puts things together, it's surprising, something which I never understand cause it's always somethin' new. He's a great man to work for, I've been blessed to have had an opportunity to work for a man like James Brown.", the drummer said. "Just having him up at the microphone is the best thing that could happen to music right now. We don't have any of the synthesizers or anything, everybody's playing, actually playing", he goes on, "we talk music all the time, just talk music, he's always coming up with new concepts".

Moments later, the band, dressed in bright red tuxedoes, storm the stage. Under the glare of orange lights, the band appears to be a raging flame burning into the night. They jump into a funky groove with a tight, hard horn section and sex takes the stage when 4 female back-up singers dance their way up to the microphones. Mr. Brown's MC for the past 40 or so years appears in his white tux and exhorts the roaring crowd to welcome, "The Godfather of Soul!", "The Sex Machine!", "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business!". James Brown appears to a very warm welcome and the man starts the proceedings. From a raucous rendition of "Popcorn" and "I Got You" to the classic R & B of "Try Me", Mr. Brown proceeds to open up the book of soul before this ecstatic gathering, and starts preaching as he has for five decades. The soul-groove he and the band were navigating belied Mr. Browns' 70 plus years. On his 50th anniversary tour he is proving that Soul is Soul is Soul.

"I feel good and with every beat of my heart, I feel better", he uttered. It's this inner beat, this inner rhythm, which supplants his very heart and keeps him young and vibrant despite the passing years. In fact, it is his very heart that acts as a third drummer in the band, an unending groove that's winding its way through five decades of ups and downs and sideways and everything in between.

In passing, he gives tribute to those soul men that have fallen recently, Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett and Ray Charles. Herein he does, "The Night Time is the Right Time". In a pre-show interview Mr. Brown shared some thoughts on his good fortune and longevity,

"God is my main secret", then turning to the press and public, "…the next, ya'll cause you've been very good in helping me out and I thank you so very, very much for helping me have a life, a life I never would have had, and the good people I got surroundin me. Those are the things that help me out, realizing we got one God, whatever we call him whether it's Buddha or Allah, he's still God and we look forward to him. We can't knock people for their religion but we gotta knock through for people to love each other. We got to learn to love each other! If we love each other we can make it work!".

On through "Sex Machine" and "Living in America", Mr. Brown dispelled all pre-show chatter about his abilities in the new century. He still sweats, screams and shouts and in the process says more than acts 50 years his junior. There are some who might say this was only an exersize in rehashing old music. On this night, this crowd saw nothing staid or robotic about this performance, this was bona-fide essence of soul upon soul! As one patron was heard uttering while leaving the theatre, "…anyone who says this is old stuff don't know what they're talking about, they don't understand. Really, they're not even alive!".

Out on the very cool, almost blustery late night streets the crowd lingered and discussed what they had just been witness to. With Italianette styled buildings in the distance, cast against crisp black night skies, Rochester Jazz Fest, felt at this time, like San Remo with sweaters!

At the Jazz Street Stage, an outdoor venue on the corner of Gibbs Street and East Avenue, a six piece Hungarian band named Djabe were playing some very inspiring music. Some fairly eclectic pieces verging on funk and fusion were played. From a sporadic thumping funkified bass to a muted Miles Davis-type trumpet attack, some African beats thrown in by the percussionist, all combined to make Djabe one of the great discoveries of the festival. They produced one of the freshest sounds heard over the weekend.

Leaving aside technical skill and improvisational ability for a moment, one of the greatest assets this band had was great sound. The band as a whole, when you stepped back and simply listened, sounded great. It was this sound that captivated the audience so. As the band played on, elements of cool jazz and rock also intermingled but never in a contrived manner, the music always sounded very natural. Lyrical playing and strong melodic structure definitely lent a sense of European flair to the music.

With the iron curtain broken open, many bands in what was formerly the eastern block are finding the freedom to play the music they love. With this new found freedom comes the unbounded joy of expressing oneself and Djabe exhibited this in spades. Djabe is definitely a band worth watching.

This European sensibility wafting about in the late evening air is buoyed by the knowledge that Rochester is a sister city to Caltanisetta, a small agricultural town located deep in the countryside of central Sicily. There are more emigrants from Caltanisetta that have settled in Rochester than in any other city in the world. Therefore, in 1964, the two cities joined in sisterhood and have celebrated their twin destinies.

Walking several hundred feet away at the East Avenue Stage, Little Feat were found to be dispensing justice outside the Supreme Court building located on the corner. They held court with an unwavering swagger, and rocked as hard as in their glory days of the early to late seventies. They are still playing a very "roots" oriented sound that travels between Blues, Rock, Jazz and Soul. Heavy licks from the slide guitarist and colorful muted trumpet playing made for some high octane music, definitely post internal combustion engine music. Hits such as "Dixie Chicken" were well greeted from the crowd as was "Tennessee'.

On Sunday the 11th, Montage, a very hospitable, comfortable, roomy club opened its doors at 6:00 in the evening for the Roberto Occhipinti Quintet. "We're going to be traversing the globe this evening", he says and proceeds to take the sold out crowd on a musical journey that warmed the night. From Brazil to Cuba with touches of Southern Italy, Mr. Occhipinti led the way with complex compositions that flexed the muscles and stirred the mind.

The notoriously focused and clear-eyed bassist-leader is an eagle that oversees, surveys the proceedings, and orchestrates a well balanced, ferocious attack meant to rouse all from their slumbers. Many selections were from his new recording on Alma records entitled, "Yemaya". Recorded in Canada, with strings recorded in Russia, and Percussion and Vocals recorded in Cuba, "Yemaya" reflects Mr. Occhipinti fascination with world influences and certainly distills them into entrancing combinations.

"As much as I like to think of myself as being Italian, I am from Toronto, in Toronto everybody's hyphenated, not in the sense that you've got a funny last name, but in that you actually live in two cultures at the same time….the new generation says we're happy to be living in both worlds and that dichotomy of holding dual citizenship, a dual mentality is a very Canadian sense in that you can be a number of different things at the same time. That is what informs my Jazz", Mr. Occhipinti said.

As he pilots us on this world journey, we're treated to "Maracatres" and "Yemaya", he steers us homeward with an impromptu, solo rendition of Puccini's, "E Lucevan Le Stelle" that segues beautifully into a lush, "A Ilha", a warm ballad evocative of scented Brazilian nights and distant beaches strolled.

Well versed in classical music and opera, Mr. Occhipinti feels it's Jazz that brings all of his influences together. "The reason I like to think of myself as a Jazz musician, cause I think of Jazz as the first world music, it's a universal music, it knows no boundaries", he says.

Speaking of European Jazz he goes on. "As you can see, there's a high level of playing, for instance in Italia, the level of playing in the last ten years has increased greatly, there's all sorts of really great players. It's for that reason it appeals to me. It encompasses everything I ever want from music….it gives me the lyricism of the opera, gives me the groove of the R & B band, the sense of the Blues, it's got the sacred and the profane at the same time, it's intellectual and earthy, this is what appeals to me."

The touring band shines with the likes of two Cuban musicians Manuel Valera on piano and Dafnis Prieto on drums who blazed on a solo that ended the show. Blending beautifully on horns are saxman, Kelly Jefferson and Kevin Turcotte on trumpet. "….the more we play, the horn players up front, the more we learn about what's really supposed to be happening so that we're not just playing generic latin music. It becomes a nice combination of authentic Cuban rhythms, Brazilian rhythms and pure Jazz as well so that the mix becomes really strong to form the truth", says Turcotte.

The journey ends and we have been transported by a truly first rate band, a band that's taken us to far off reaches and brought the world to a small club located just off the corner of Chestnut street.

Adding greatly to the Rochester music scene is radio station WGMC 90.1 FM which broadcasts Jazz 24/7. Begun back in 1975 and believing that Jazz is a living art, the station concentrates on new and current talent at least half of their air time. Broadcasting to a 60 mile radius, the station has helped raise awareness of the Jazz Fest and increased its popularity. "We've been there from the beginning of the festival, we broadcast live from the festival each year and each year our involvement has gotten bigger", says Ed Trefzger, a station volunteer.

Worthy of a show hosted by P.T. Barnum himself, The Robert Mondavi Big Tent presented Brazilian singer/songwriter Badi Assad. With her long dark curls and black embroidered pant and overcoat, Assad took the stage looking like a child of nature. This solo performance had her going through several vocal acrobatics that created the sounds of the South American forest. Vocally re-creating the sounds of birds, crickets, frogs, and the wind, with clicks and pops added in, Assad sang her way through a set of Samba and Bossa Nova inflected tunes that transformed songs like Bono's, "One Love" and Tori Amos', "Black Dove" from her most recent CD entitled, "Wonderland".

Though many of the songs were sung in English, the music seemed to excel when sung in her native Portuguese. The native tongue rendered a greater poetic impact to the sound and created a dreamy landscape.

Joel Harrison's most recent CD, "Joel Harrison Plays George Harrison", has given the singer/guitarist an opportunity to cover some of the ex-Beatles songs he finds most intriguing. Using a sparse approach, Harrison performed at a club called Milestones and brought this late evening to a quiet conclusion. His unique, Blues tinged voice gave great color to the tunes in which he also sang and the mellow approach highlighted the songs and lyrics.

Free guitar and sax runs on The Beatles, "Within You Without You", at times took on an Eastern tinge and created a somewhat acid raga that cascaded through the club. This was electric-flair down by the Ganges, an experience even the Beatles on their 67' trip to India could not have imagined. It needs to be added that Mr. Harrison's slide guitar work produced purity of tone that was exemplary.

"I've been playing slide for years, but it's particularly important for me on this project because George Harrison played slide, more importantly, because Indian music is a part of the influence on this project. I've tried in my own simplified way to emulate a little bit of the sound of Indian string instruments with the slide and I've really tried hard to produce really good tone to the instrument too", Harrison said.

"Beware of Darkness" was handled beautifully and given an added layer of depth by drummer, Dan Weiss. The band, rounded out by David Ambrosio on Bass and David Binney on sax, whose sound at times was reminiscent of Dave Liebman. "Isn't it a pity" highlighted Mr. Harrison's bluesy voice well and the show continued with two original compositions, "My Father's House" and "You Bring the Rain". "My Sweet Lord" ended this quiet presentation with a heartfelt vocal.

The musicians, venues and atmosphere of this fifth annual Rochester International Jazz Festival have once again made it a resounding success. Much of this can be traced to the vision, energy and organizational skills of Creator/Producer extraordinaire John Nugent. Seen strolling the Festival's streets from morning till the wee hours, Mr. Nugent showed great enthusiasm for all involved and for his mission. "I came here originally as an educator as a guest of Jon Faddis to a swingin Jazz kind of event, people here in town said, ‘why don't you consider doing an event', cause at the time I had just gotten involved with Stockholm, I produce the Stockholm Jazz Fest as well….now after five years the Rochester Festival is well accepted, people are enjoying it, it's growing, we have a lot of people from around the country, the region, and from Europe too", said Mr. Nugent.

Concertgoers continued filing into the Mondavi Big Tent as we spoke, "It's all about music and it's growing quickly…" added Nugent.

With the Big Tent filling quickly, Mr. Nugent smiled broadly as a satiated circus ringmaster and went on, "I believe that in the future we're going to have an event here that is one of the best in the world!"

John Nugent
John Nugent at the Bob Sneider Trio Jam Session
State St. Bar & Grill - Crowne Plaza Hotel
Photo by Thomas P. Frizelle

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