As I walked from the parking garage to Java’s café, I was greeted by a familiar song being played at the Jazz Street Stage. The song was none other than “Jump Up Super Star!”—the celebrational big band number from one of the best video games of all time, Super Mario Odyssey. The School of the Arts Jazz band was honoring one of the most criminally overlooked areas of the music world: video game music. More and more, recognition falls on video game soundtracks as time goes on (a jazz arrangement for a song from Kirby won a Grammy a couple months ago), and I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the festival. Blessed by the welcoming sounds of “Jump Up Super Star!”, complete with cute video game sound effects played on the marimba … chef’s kiss.
The Rochester International Jazz Festival is finally back after two years of dormancy due to the pandemic, and the overall atmosphere on the first day 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; sun wasn’t overbearing, there was no rain. The only issue was the strong wind.
It feels great to be at a music festival after what we’ve all been through, especially with how terribly jazz was affected by the pandemic. Live music suffered across the board, but jazz especially suffered because the genre revolves around live performance. Not only was this the comeback of the Jazz Fest, but also in a way it was the revival of jazz music here. The genre felt alive and well, and nothing proves this more than the expanse of people who showed up to listen to some of the best jazz has to offer.
My day started off in the Kilbourn Hall with the Cookers, a seven-piece post-bop group with experienced 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 improv solos full of all the technique they’ve learned over the years.
When not spilling out solos, the horns speak in one singular body, syncing up and creating a full sound. While the trumpet and saxophone players were great, my attention was drawn more towards the supporting roles: the piano, the bass, and the drums. My favorite combination of instruments (more on this later).
Pianist George Cables held that postured, loose, controlled presence on stage, dipping his fingers onto the keys with every chord, and fluently running them up and down the keys on the solos—his technique was mesmerizing. Bass player McBee was unassuming at first, doing the expected for most of the performance. It wasn’t until his first and only solo of the set, during the last song, when he really caught my attention. He played a subtle, striking solo that got everyone’s eyes locked on him. McBee maneuvered around the bass with incredible ease, one hand gliding over the fingerboard, and his other hand fluttering over the strings. Still, 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 much spotlight solo-wise, but his playing was so engaging that I didn’t notice much. Hart grooved on stage, drumming with a bouncy attitude that exuded a contagious joy. Seeing how well this large ensemble was able to communicate with each other was impressive. There was a very laidback air to how these musicians spoke to each other, whether it be through words or music. While I would have preferred more energy from the group, it was still an exciting show they put on.
Following the Cookers was the Bob James Trio, playing in Temple Theater. I wasn’t expecting too much from this show; I’ve heard a selection of James’ material and enjoyed it, but I wasn’t expecting this to be one of the best Jazz shows I have ever seen. When I saw the trio I was immediately thrown off. The two other musicians playing with James were very young, highlighting a contrast between them and the 82-year-old pianist.
James started off his set with an acknowledgement of his bandmates, stating: “They share one important quality that I value. Youth.” It’s this generational divide and open mindedness that made the Bob James Trio such a special experience. James—talented and trained—showed off his beautiful piano skills and his ear for great composition, but bassist Michael Palazzolo and drummer James Adkins brought a unique youthful energy to the table that kept things exciting.
Already the trio of piano, bass, and drums is perfect to me: how the bass plays off the left hand of the piano, how the piano feeds off the drums with percussive patterns and how the bass supports the piano as it develops a motif; everything about that set of instruments is godlike. All of this applies to the Bob James Trio and more.
Palazzolo brings some of the most emotive upright bass playing I’ve seen in a jazz performance. You can tell he feels every note he plays through how potent his facial expressions are and how effortlessly he crafts a narrative with his improv abilities. Adkins is a drummer with charisma unlike any other. His playing is absolutely explosive, evoking countless audible “wows” from the audience, and giving me chills many times throughout the performance.
A couple songs got standing ovations after ending with one of his intensely energetic drum solos. Not only do his abilities surpass most, but he also expertly collaborates with both James and Palazzolo, making for some great musical conversations between the three. I don’t know what was better: the intense tradeoffs between piano and drums during a show-stopping solo break, or Palazzolo’s euphoric expression as he silently watched them toss around musical ideas back and forth.
James was amazing as well. Although he didn’t have as many transcendent moments as his two bandmates, he was instrumental in composing this group and the pieces they played together, and his guidance elevated the skills of his bandmates to another level. There was a palpable sense of mutual respect among this trio, whenever one player was left soloing on their own, the others sat in awe at what was being played. This created a great atmosphere of unrestricted expression and boundary-pushing that kept me on my toes. I could write a lot more about this performance. For now, I’ll say Adkins and Palazzolo are some of the best young musicians I’ve seen in jazz, and if you ever get the chance to see James play, don’t miss it.
After James it came time to see the headliner for day 1: trumpet player Chris Botti, who played at the expansive Midtown Stage at Parcel 5 and summoned the largest crowd I had seen all day. I was a bit confused why Botti is headlining the festival. He is relatively well known and well liked, but his music is the type of smooth jazz that plays as background music in a fancy restaurant, not the type of music you flock to a field to hear at a festival.
I kept an open mind, though, and listened to the first part of the set. It was pretty much what I expected, some pleasant, slightly boring smooth jazz that sat in the background while audience members socialized. I can see why he gained a big audience, though; his music is very inoffensive and has a wide appeal. I just don’t really understand why you would sit and listen to meandering background smooth jazz when Nikki Hill has an entire street going wild a couple blocks over. After getting bored of Botti, I noticed that James had a second set that was just about to start, so I rushed over to that one instead, which closed out my night on a rather high note.
This was just the first day, and there are eight more to come. I am beyond excited to see what is in store for jazz excellence. If you have been meaning to catch some shows over the course of the Jazz Fest, but don’t know who to watch, check out our list of artists to watch here.
Making the rounds on Day 1
The high school bands wasted no time in smashing it up and out of the proverbial park as I traipsed onto the scene for some jingle jangle in the form of some big, big band.
I got myself situated in the Wilder Room for Lew Tabackin Trio’s first set, in which Tabackin used his saxophone and flute to color the joint with all kinds of color and sepia.
When doing a piece based on a story he experienced in Spain his drummer filled the room with castanets that he chased around his snare drum’s surface like a hip game of “Whack-a-mole” or “Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots.”
Now, I’ve seen Tabackin several times and I don’t remember him knocking me out quite the way he did with this set, which allowed room for quotes like “Skylark” mixed with some of the nameless beauty that wafted around his set.
Nikki Hill and her band came off as a 45-minute punch in the face for their first set with Hill spending her evening poppin’ the clutch between purr and snarl. She has a twin guitar onslaught consisting of birthday boy (37!) and hubby Matt Hill and ex-Kandye Kane, award-winning guitar slinger and one of my faves, Laura Chavez. They both strangled their instruments with extreme prejudice as Hill wailed and roared her heart out.
I closed out my indulgences with the early set from Hot Club of Cowtown. I didn’t get any mention on why fiddle player Elan James seemed to play sitting down with a cast on her leg. Regardless, they played even tighter, even faster, even Cow-Townsier than I’ve ever heard them before.
Onward to day 2…
Check me out as I jaw with Derrick Lucas at 90.1 WGMC at 5:45 p.m. each night of the festival. I’ll be talking about what I saw, what I’m going to see all with the best-dressed man at the fest, Mr. Derrick Lucas.
-Frank De Blase
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