Bringing heart and soul to the stage

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Helen Sung (Photo via RIJF)

Skillfully dodging the forecasted rain, Day 2 at the Jazz Fest kept the energy high and the festival streets full. Everywhere I went people were planning their night, and two names came up consistently: Helen Sung and Samara Joy. Luckily, I was able to see them both, and they did not disappoint. 

I missed Sung’s quartet, which played yesterday, but I did get to see her solo performance. I adore solo piano performances; they feel intimate and special, and this one was no different. Sung is an engaging performer, locking in the audience immediately with her complex and ornate compositions. 

Her fingers danced across the keys nailing obtuse rhythms and expressions, frequently using dynamics to fill Hatch Recital Hall easily with just one piano. Some of the runs Sung did were almost improbable; her level of accuracy and precision is wildly impressive. She also has a strong sense of rhythm, weaving in gratifying rhythmic patterns through her melodies, which kept me on my toes for each song. 

My favorite part of her set was “Feed the Fire,” a composition built off of mesmerizing piano runs and hypnotic chord movements. The entire piece was entrancing; it etched my brain in just the right way, and provided a nice break from the occasionally stressful, fast-paced music festival environment. 

Next, I headed to Temple theater to see Vicki Kristina Barcelona, a Tom Waits cover band with Rachelle Garniez on accordion and banjo, Mamie Minch on guitar, and Amanda Homi on a variety of percussion instruments, including finger cymbals and a washboard vest. All three of them are songwriters and vocalists, but together as Vicki Kristina Barcelona, they redress songs by the legendary Waits by adding in their multi-instrumentalist and theatrical touches. 

When Garniez and Homi walked on stage in sequined outfits, and Minch picked up a beautiful resonator guitar, it was clear that it would be a fun show full of surprises. They breathed new life into well-loved songs with some gorgeous three-part harmony and an infectiously joyous stage presence. 

Vicki Kristina Barcelona emphasized folk elements in Waits’ music, and brought out the vocals with cleaner presentation. “Hang On St. Christopher” was my favorite, where they added a driving beat and some dynamic harmonies to what is usually a rather gray and mysterious song. It was really cool to see one of my favorite songs painted in this way. 

Samara Joy (Photo via RIJF)

As the day reached its end, I filed into Kilbourn Hall—which had a line that stretched out the door—to see Samara Joy. Coming off of a Best New Artist win at the 2023 Grammy awards, and ever-increasing attention and acclaim, you could just feel Joy’s momentum as she graced the stage with her velvety, unfaltering voice. I was familiar with Joy’s music before this, but even then I wasn’t expecting her voice to sound as perfect as it did. Every note she sang was like a weighted blanket. It is something you have to experience for yourself. 

Joy sang classic jazz tunes like the tearfully hopeful “‘Round Midnight” and the playful “Can’t Get Out Of This Mood,” along with some of her originals like the quick and punchy “Linger Awhile.” Each song stirred audible reactions from the audience, including many wows, woos, and three standing ovations. She really won us all over all. 

Her band was also on point, with Michael Migliore on bass, Ben Paterson on piano, and Evan Sherman on drums. The three supported Joy incredibly well, providing skillful improvisation breaks and vamping for when she was talking to the audience. 

Joy was a lively presence. She never passed up a moment to engage with the audience by involving them in the songs she was singing, or telling stories about her recent travels on her international tour. It’s impossible not to feel her excitement about performing for so many audiences around the world. 

So many more artists and ensembles to look forward to over the coming days. Keep an eye on the weather, though. The next couple days might call for an umbrella.

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]

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