On Day 2, I enjoyed the immense sunshine rays as they mixed in the pop music rays that came blasting from the Parcel 5 stage. Wielding their sound like a hatchet, Rochester’s Grace Serene and the Super Clean dialed in on the funky and I mean the pop fresh squeezed right and juicy for the burgeoning scene that ebbed and flowed with the pop tide and groove. The band came more pop than anything but didn’t harsh the pop hooks of the well-received covers coming from the likes of Lake Street Drive. The crowd dug them big time. Me too.
Waiting for what some of us thought would be a six-string chanteuse, Samantha Fish got a splendid blast of heavy brass from the Dirty Dozen Brass band, who broke the silence with a horn drive, lead, and filled violence.
When Fish hit the stage, it was to thousands upon thousands of people who fist-pumped the air to Fish’s slide guitar. The sound was a bit problematic as it bounced off the downtown skyline of different height and girth. From where I was sitting, it was as if the sound was coming from a volcanic place, just a rumblin’ low. But as I strolled toward the porta-potties, the sound picked up and got gooder and more gooder, and when the lavatory stank was at its most, the sound was at its most righteous.
Fish’s playing was straight up Kansas City blues with some soaring arena-rock color. She mesmerized, cajoled, and seduced all of us. If you take in a Parcel 5 gig this week, you may have to search the joint for optimum sound. May I suggest the lavatories? It’s a funky place to start.
For a mellow-down stop, I pushed my way into the Temple theater, where the last I was there it was as a musician playing a big band show with the Brian Setzer Orchestra. I can assure you tonight’s event was sweeter and quieter than that night as Rochester hometown homegirl, Robin McKelle, took the stage to warble and coo from beneath a head of flame-red tresses.
Now you don’t just listen to this gal. You absorb what she’s doing to your soul. She took the audience on a silky journey with her most excellent combo getting soaked up with the rest of her deal. Pure captivation, jack.
Polyphonic melodies, joy and soul
The energy from the first day remained, as Jazz Fest continued downtown for its second day. It was a hectic crowd trying to fit as many shows as they could in a day. I was one of them. I started the day off trying to see Ranky Tanky, who sold out Kilbourn Hall immediately, resulting in me traveling over to the Wilder Room to see jazz quartet Kind Folk.
Kind Folk was an introspective change of pace after the more high-energy shows I’d seen up to this point. Saxophonist Alex LoRe, trumpeter John Raymond, bassist Noam Wiesenberg and drummer Colin Stranahan played a tight set of focused chamber jazz tunes that were full of thought and emotion. A quartet that formed in Brooklyn in a small apartment, Kind Folk presents the educated, poised jazz that could be studied in classrooms.
I was impressed with how the trumpeter and saxophonist often fell into polyphonic melodies, creating two streams of thought that merged beautifully. I also loved how the group frequently played with time signatures and tempo; on their rendition of the Kurt Rosenwinkel song “Mr. Hope,” Stranahan opened up with this great drum solo completely built around polyrhythms. This type of calculated sporadicity could be found all over their set. I greatly enjoyed my time with Kind Folk.
The second show of the day was my most anticipated of the week, and it did not disappoint. The NYChillharmonic “progressive big band” was a sight to behold: four string players, nine woodwinds, a bassist, a pianist, a guitarist, a drummer, and the mastermind behind it all on vocals. Eighteen musicians packed onto the Glory House International stage blasting progressive rock songs, complete with odd time signatures, obtuse song structures, twists, harmonic detail, all you can eat. Fronted by the incredibly talented Sara McDonald, a singer/songwriter who has succeeded in loosening up a Jazz Fest audience more than most.
“You can shout at us, you can throw money at us,” McDonald quipped, as the typically stiff Jazz Fest audience chuckled. She never missed an opportunity to talk to the audience, often making joking remarks about people leaving mid-set: “I’m sorry, I know that’s how festivals work, I’m just being a jerk,” or talking about how she forgot what some of her songs are about: “I don’t remember what any of these songs are about, we have to account for pandemic time. I was depressed.”
I would never expect this type of humor to land well with an older audience, but Sara is too charismatic for her jokes to flop–even when she goes on a tangent about a dream where she poisoned actor Daniel Craig.
Even more amazing than her comedic timing and crowd work is McDonald’s songwriting and degree of control over her mini-orchestra. Her compositions are strong and memorable, often offering numerous style and structural switchups as is expected of prog. The way these songs were executed by the 18-piece band proved the cohesiveness of the group, and showed off McDonald’s skillful methods of leading a massive group while being the lead vocalist. She fuses the body language of a performer with the motions of a conductor, using her arms to both direct the ensemble, and convey meaning to the audience at the same time. Not to mention her voice that somehow cut through the orchestral chaos behind her.
Speaking of the band behind her, it was so refreshing to see so many talented young musicians in this group, and the variety of instruments on display made for a captivating show. While none of them matched McDonald’s energy, each member of this group made great contributions to the performance. Forget less is more. You haven’t experienced prog rock like this before. Check out NYChillharmonic’s new 2022 single, “I Don’t Even Want It,” if you didn’t get the chance to see them play.
Finally, as the festival was starting to close out for the day, I was able to catch Ranky Tanky as they played their second show. The group definitely lived up to the hype. Hailing from Charleston, S.C., and directly pulling from Gullah culture, Ranky Tanky has an enthralling, authentic sound that won them a Grammy for their most recent album.
Quentin Baxter on drums, Kevin Hamilton on bass, Clay Ross on guitar, Charlton Singleton on trumpet, and the incredible vocalist Quiana Parler, Ranky Tankyis a group packed with talent and spirit. One of the first notable things about this group is that they love audience participation. On more than half of their songs they prompted the audience to clap with them, and on some songs there were call-and-response sections. Ranky Tanky aimed to bring the audience into the performance with them, which reflects how central clapping and stomping are to Gullah music.
The entire performance was full of soul, and the joy was incredibly contagious. Their set of life-affirming jams brought up the spirits of everyone in the audience. Parler, along with Ross and Singleton, who also chipped in on vocals, never passed up an opportunity to educate the audience on Gullah culture and tradition, so not only did everyone get to hear a great band performing, we also learned something as well.
If you missed out on Ranky Tanky, don’t worry, they will be playing two more shows: June 19 at the Hyatt Ballroom at 7:45 p.m. and 9:45 p.m.
Frank De Blase is Rochester Beacon music writer. Jess Williams is a Rochester Beacon intern and a student at Ithaca College. All Rochester Beacon Jazz Fest articles are collected here.
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