Hot, humid, and healing music 

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Connie Han (Photo by Tim Fuss/All photos courtesy of Rochester International Jazz Festival)

Day 6 started off with something that we have luckily avoided up until this point: rain. 

It was pouring during the hours prior to the start of the festival, and even though it managed to stop just as the first shows started up, some outdoor shows were canceled. It was a hot, humid, gross day, but good music heals all wounds.

Connie Han was an artist I was interested in seeing leading up to the festival. I missed her solo performance on Tuesday, but she played with her trio at Montage Music Hall yesterday. I’m glad I didn’t miss her this time, because the trio offered some of the most exciting contemporary jazz I’ve heard so far this week. 

Everything about the Connie Han Trio oozes personality. Bassist Ryan Berg plays thoughtfully and elegantly, and drummer/producer Bill Wysaske plays with a certain type of constant experimentation that you can only get from a producer. Han herself is a strong personality, playing with an unbreakable fervor that isn’t typical of your average jazz pianist. 

“Playing some hard-hitting jazz at a metal bar, I dressed the part,” she says, wearing one of the sickest outfits I’ve seen any jazz musician wear. Han clearly has an eye for aesthetics. Her setlist contains a wide array of her work, including an arrangement of Sondheim’s “Pretty Women,” and some new material from a yet-to-be-released mythological concept album about Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love.

Han and her trio succeed at pushing and bending jazz to their will while still holding to tradition where it matters. It was hard not to be enamored with this group’s raw energy and talent. Definitely keep an eye out for whatever Han has in store for the future; that concept album should be out soon enough. 

Joonas Havista Trio (Photo by Dick Bennett)

My next show was the Joonas Haavisto Trio, a group from Finland featuring Joonas Haavisto on piano, Joonas Riipa on drums and Antti Lötjönen on bass. With an array of the same instruments as Han’s trio, Haavisto crafted a more contemplative and patient jazz palette for the audience.

In spite of the lack of air conditioning in the Glory House venue, the Joonas Haavisto Trio cooled everyone down with a focused series of melody-based sketches, while wiping the sweat off their foreheads with towels thrown up to them by the venue operator. 

The trio drove a single point home throughout their set, and that point was the power of space. Each member excelled at providing space for each other, and used space within their playing to emphasize musical phrases and give the arrangements room to breathe. One of the stand-out moments of this set occurred during one of Lötjönen’s bass solos, which had lengthy pauses scattered throughout it. During these pauses, Haavisto filled in the gaps with slight minimal riffs that quietly echoed the bass, creating a blissful echo. Absolutely beautiful.

Wednesday brought the one headliner that I was really excited to see: ’80s pop artist Sheila E. Dubbed the “Queen of Percussion,” Sheila E.’s strong vocals and energetic performances are made unique by the drumming abilities that caught the attention of Prince back in the ’80s. She had her fair share of pop hits, “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre” being her most recognizable, and even today she is still engaging audiences with her burst-of-energy drum solos, and her crowd-working abilities. 

Sheila E. (Photo by Mark Druziak)

Sheila E., like all the other headliners I’ve seen this year, split her set between original songs, and covers. She started her concert off with a cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together,” and near the midpoint, she went on a fulfilling James Brown detour with a cover of the song “Super Bad.” Sheila E certainly beat out some of the more lackluster headliners this week, and I’m glad the Queen of Percussion herself graced Rochester with her ’80s pop magic. 

It seems like the rain will be out of the picture for the last three days of the Jazz Fest, so enjoy the festival before it’s too late! 

-Jess Williams

A 45-minute sax solo

I think Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith just broke a record. He casually strolled onto the Temple Theater stage and proceeded to play for a straight 45 minutes. That’s right, Sluggo, a 45-minute sax solo full of quotes, mentions and hits. When pressed for what they could hear directly or in the man’s hints, they shouted out things like “Over the Rainbow” and ‘‘’Round Midnight.” Me, on the other hand, I could clearly hear Smith punch out “Itsy Bitsy Spider”— or was it “Eensy Weensy Spider”? I’ll check with my mom. 

Tommy Smith (Photo by Aaron Winters)

Anywhat, Smith was a tonal master rendering classic sounds out of his horn that sounded as much as horn as not, especially when he switched from the standard rattle and honk to milk chocolate smooth. Got damn delicious. 

Between a sultry warble and coo, and an effortless switch to the violin, Samara Joy was riveting and captivating at Max of Eastman Place … which sounded like Sarah Vaughn; a lot. She sang with twists and turns of her apparent love of Vaughn. Joy pushed and pulled the dynamic velvet as it revealed jazz.

Sometimes you gotta get away from the time signatures that require slide rules or calculators. But there’s not any hard stuff. Here comes Paul Beaubrun, New York by way of Haiti. Guitar wildman. He’ll remind you of a tropical Hendrix. It’s blues rock with a jungle beat. It’s just what they needed in the Big Tent last night. And if you couldn’t make it down I’m sure you’ll find your rocks are still on.

-Frank De Blase

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

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