Bringing down the house

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Thousands gathered to watch Rochester’s Danielle Ponder.
(Photo by Mark Druziak/All photos courtesy of the Rochester International Jazz Festival)

Julia Nunes hasn’t played a date on the road in five years. You can blame it on COVID, but you can thank her for accepting the offer to play this Jazz Fest with her dad—that Occasional Saint himself—Paul Nunes. Her dad seemed over the moon with the invite and I couldn’t fight the tears. It was a beautiful example of a bring-your-dad-to-work day. The Bacon Brothers made no attempt to acknowledge Nunes, so I’ve got nothing to say about them.

Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band (Photo by Thom Bell)

Also on Friday, I went back to the Little Theatre for another helping of Big Lazy, confirming the fact that they were my favorite group of the entire festival. Yup, they were, but Danielle Ponder on Saturday threatened to upturn their standing in the polls, with a big boogie breakdown with a come-to-Jesus kick in the pants. The closing-night set was redoubled in its effect on the 10,000+ crowd with dancing teenagers, a rapper and a conga player all invited on stage to raise the highs even higher. With a hip shot and a wink, Ponder brought the house down with the roar of the crowd. And there were those goddamn tears again.

G Love and Special Sauce brought the hip hop and blues pop that didn’t stop. They took the stage and blew just about everyone’s top. But I’ve seen them a bunch and the Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band was just a-waiting to decapitate me and the biggest crowd I’ve seen on Jazz Street so far. The Rev worked his way through a pantload of vintage guitars, ripping them up with a totally vicious slide a la Hound Dog Taylor or Elmore James. He worked the crowd into a positive frenzy. Which made it hard to exit the festival, what with the skull-less state Peyton left everyone in, wandering aimlessly about the place. You try it, it’s hard.

-Frank De Blase

A stacked Saturday and a look ahead

The final day of the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival 19th edition was bittersweet, and things seemed to be low-energy because of it. But Saturday was stacked with incredible shows to keep things exciting.

Grace Serene (Photo by Aaron Winters)

After Davina and the Vagabonds had to cancel due to a member getting COVID, their four performances needed fill-ins. Fortunately, Grace Serene & The Superclean were able to cover the Saturday shows. Grace Serene and her band are a funk group, and often they do not play with genre boundaries in mind, veering into pop, rock, soul, and wherever their music takes them. 

Grace Serene takes the stage with limitless energy, completely involving herself in the music, and constantly moving with it. She belts out songs with ease, but her vowel shaping and trained voice control show her thoughtfulness as a vocalist. Her performance on stage was raw, and had me smiling and dancing in my seat throughout. 

The band is full of talented musicians, but nothing was more impressive than seeing them have to adapt with the circumstances they were placed in. Since this show was on short notice, the band lineup changed slightly to make up for a member who couldn’t be there. They stated at the start of the show that this was the first time that this set of people had ever played together, but they had me playing guessing games trying to figure out who was an original member and who was a fill-in. It’s just a testament to how flexible these musicians are and how naturally they can form chemistry with each other to make for a stand-out show. If you are interested in this Rochester-formed band, check out their new single “Slow Down” released this month. 

Danielle Ponder (Photo by Peter Parts)

The sounds coming from Parcel 5 drew me as I walked past. It was there that I caught the last moments of Danielle Ponder’s passion-filled performance. Ponder is an attention-demanding artist with her unstoppable vocal prowess, and her life-affirming messaging. She had the masses of people gathered at Parcel 5 hanging on to every word as she ended her set with a freestyle poem that led to her actual final song: a cover of “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” which raised the spirits of everyone in earshot.

Born and raised in Rochester, Ponder frequently expressed her love for the people of the city who greatly impacted her life and career. During the last moments of her set she spoke on the importance of elevating the voices of youth, specifically Black youth, while shouting out Rochester organizations like Teen Empowerment. One of my biggest regrets of the festival was not being able to see her full performance. If Ponder is back next year, she will surely be a priority for me. 

The most intriguing show on the bill this week was the drum battle between Joe Farnsworth and Justin Faulkner. I’ve never seen or heard of a “drum battle” before and I couldn’t wait to experience it. After watching the full-hour drum battle including a 30-minute encore, I am happy to report that this show was one of the most jaw-dropping, off-the-walls performances I have ever seen. Farnsworth and Faulkner are a joy to see interacting with each other. They frequently recognized and praised each other’s drumming abilities, and often cracked jokes with each other. When they said they only just met, I almost didn’t believe them. 

Drum battle between Justin Faulkner and Joe Farnsworth. (Photo byGarry Geer)

Both drummers have extensive experience, and are unstoppable forces on stage. Farnsworth plays with technical strength, forming his drum solos around ingenious patterns and calculated bursts of energy. Faulkner has a more chaotic approach, frequently experimenting with new ideas, and playing along with the spur of the moment. 

Vanessa Collier (Photo by Aaron Winters)

So who won? Well, it was less of a competition and more of a rally back-and-forth. One of the most impressive and fascinating aspects of this performance was how they would take ideas from each other’s solo and build off of it. As solos were traded between the two, certain fills or patterns would emerge and grow. This is not really unique to this show, this is what jazz musicians do all the time, but in this case you could see it happening in quick succession with the same instrument, framed as a “battle.” Seeing these two trade off wild solos and pushing each other to their limits was a treat. If this event doesn’t return next year, I will be pretty disappointed.

My last Jazz Fest show of the year was blues singer/songwriter and saxophonist Vanessa Collier, who presented her fiery set of incredibly danceable blues, soul, and rock songs with a great backing band and a receptive crowd. After watching a few videos of her performing prior to the festival, I knew I had to catch her show. 

Collier is one of those performers who is born for the stage. It is incredibly difficult to hype up a room of adults at 10 p.m., but by the end of her set clusters of people gathered to the sides of the stage to dance along with the music. I could have not chosen a better show to cap off my week of non-stop jazz excellence, 

The grand return of the Jazz Fest was a successful one. It was a blast seeing live music again, and watching many enthusiastic audience members soaking it all in. Even though it is over, there are many reasons to be excited for next year’s festival. The 2023 festival will be the 20th edition, which may lead to some more ambitious plans. We’ll just have to wait and see. 

-Jess Williams

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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