Gray skies and periodic raindrops were no match for the bright faces and positive attitudes of the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival goers and music fans.
I began the first day of the Jazz Fest a few hours early at the iconic Java’s Cafe on Jazz Street. As I watched food vendors and tents prepare for the evening, I couldn’t help but notice the excitement among Java’s patrons. People eagerly discussed the shows they were looking forward to seeing over the next nine days.
As people trickled in, I saw friends reconnect and talk music. The intergenerationality of the Jazz Fest never ceases to surprise me, especially since jazz audiences typically skew older.
Pretty soon a line formed for Matthew Whitaker, more than two hours before his set. It was a long wait, but at least the CSE Music School Band and the Honeoye Falls Lima High School Jazz Band got things started right away on the Street Stage as the first free shows of the festival.
Whitaker has been recognized as a piano prodigy since age 10, when he performed at Stevie Wonder’s induction into the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame. Like Wonder, Whitaker is a top musician and performer in his league and also is blind. Stationed with two sets of keys on either side of him, an electric keyboard on top of a grand piano on one side, and two tiers of keys on the organ on the other side, he beamed at a packed audience, checked where each set of keys were in relation to his bench to calibrate, and then tore it up on the keys.
Whitaker’s music is full of elation. Audience members smiled and danced in their seats — sometimes out of their seats — throughout the set as Whitaker and his band played songs that felt as good as they sounded. I was going to avoid making Stevie Wonder comparisons if possible, but Whitaker lights up a room just like the legendary musician that he is often compared to.
Whitaker’s rhythmic proficiency is stunning. He leads a band of nearly all rhythm instruments including bass, drum kit, and auxiliary/hand percussion, which is fitting because his music is driven by rhythm. Funk grooves, odd time signatures, and spontaneous time and tempo changes populate each song. They feel like they are constantly evolving, yet each band member miraculously keeps up, following every single one of Whitaker’s subtle physical queues.
The highlight of the set was his rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” where the heavy involvement of auxiliary percussion and dynamic changes upped the drama and suspense. Another highlight was “Pilgrimage,” written by the legendary organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. It displayed Whitaker’s affinity for the organ, which he uses to its fullest extent, with the wide range of sounds and moods and tones from the instrument. The tension and release he exhibited on this song was breathtaking.
Whether he was playing jazz classics, or original compositions, Whitaker enthralled the audience with his danceable and elevating brand of jazz. He made sure to throw “The Lick” in there a couple times, which made me incredibly happy. For a second I wasn’t sure if it was intentional, but then he played “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire for his encore and threw in the melody of “Baby Shark” during the piano solo. He definitely knew what he was doing.
At Kodak Hall, Pat Metheny Side-Eye kicked off the headliner series with some combo jazz featuring some of his favorite young musicians, along with his own legendary jazz guitar work. Metheny started off solo, seated, focused and inward, displaying his virtuosic guitar work and complex compositional skills. As he started the next song, the “Side-Eye” half of “Pat Metheny Side-Eye” joined him with Chris Fishman on piano and keyboards and Joe Dyson on drums.
The trio brought some tight, focused musicianship to the table, and some seamless synergy as well. Even on the massive stage, the three of them carry the stable presence you get from three musicians mastering their craft. With each song, they settle into a pocket, supporting each other and highlighting each other; it’s pretty striking. Metheny made a great decision bringing on Fishman and Dyson. They made for some of the most impactful, jaw-dropping moments of the show, with Fishman’s fluent experimentation on the keys and Dyson’s punctuating drum solos.
Unfortunately, I only got to see them play a handful of songs before I had to move on to my last show of the night: the Afro-Cuban jazz band Okan, which played an electrifying set at Montage music hall to a packed audience. So packed that I had to stand in the back and couldn’t see them at all. At least I got to hear them because they were amazing. Lead vocalist and violinist Elizabeth Rodriguez engaged the crowd with her strong voice and magnetic personality.
In the spirit of traditional Cuban music, the members of Okan are always moving and dancing while playing their instruments. Rodriguez even did an audience participation section where she had everyone clap along to the clave beat: the rhythm usually played on the claves in which Cuban music is often built upon. Okan’s music is adventurous, mixing in more contemporary melodies and some darker harmonies, which keeps things interesting and unique. Hopefully next time I get to see Okan, I’ll be able to actually see them instead of just listening to them, because they played some really exciting stuff.
One day down, and eight more to go. The Jazz Fest is just getting started and there are many exciting shows coming up. If you want a run down of what is yet to come, check out our list of artists to watch here.
Jess Williams is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and a student at Ithaca College. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].