On Day 4 at the Jazz Fest, I immediately headed over to the Theater at Innovation Square for a front seat to one of my favorite acts from last year, the NYChillharmonic.
A progressive rock orchestra, the NYChillharmonic has 18 members including brass and string sections, a keyboardist, guitarist, bassist and drummer. The group is led by its vocalist, songwriter, and conductor, Sara McDonald, who remains one of the most entertaining performers I’ve seen take any stage at the Jazz Fest.
“Keep clapping, it takes a long time for us to get on stage,” she said as the 18-piece big band filed onto the stage.
It is an impressive sight to see these musicians up there, especially when they are navigating complex prog-rock style arrangements with odd time signatures, cacophonous builds and unpredictable song structures. The NYChillharmonic hits like a truck with each song building to incredible peaks.
It should be impossible to wield an 18-member band during a live show while also singing and playing a synth, but McDonald did it effortlessly. She used her arms to conduct and direct the band behind her while singing her heart out, attentive to every facet of her arrangements.
The band dropped a single a couple of months ago, and since then I’ve been itching to see them live. “To Covet a Quiet Mind” did not disappoint, with its fiery, bitter attitude, epic string stabs and intense ending. For the encore, they played a catchy, dance-floor influenced “I Don’t Even Want It,” which ended the show on a celebrational note.
“Go crazy, throw money at us, that never hurts,” McDonald told the audience, which predictably sat still and respectfully throughout the set. The muted crowd energy was unusual for NYChillharmonic, but it was no indication of audience enjoyment. It’s hard not to be overtaken by awe and wonder when you are faced with this ensemble, and McDonald left the crowd buzzing with excitement. I heard many people rave about the show while exiting the theater.
Monday’s headliner was the Eastman School of Music Jazz Ensemble celebrating the music of Chick Corea. It was cool to see some of the finest young jazz musicians perform pieces composed by the influential and legendary jazz keyboardist Corea in the beautiful Kodak Hall. The ensemble was directed by composer Christine Jensen, and featured special guests Tommy Smith on tenor saxophone and Peter Johnstone on piano.
The group’s performance of Corea’s “Quartet No.1 – Part 2” was a beautiful show of the technical abilities of these students, and also spotlighted Smith and Johnstone’s expert playing. The ensemble also performed an original composition by Jensen, a song called “Blue Yonder,” which had some breathtaking chordal structures that brought up imagery of the mountains that inspired its creation.
Next, I saw American Patchwork Quartet, which performed as a trio since drummer Clarence Penn’s flight was canceled. Even with this setback, vocalist Falu Shah, guitarist Clay Ross, and bassist Yasushi Nakamura still played a wonderful set of American folk and roots music.
American Patchwork Quartet is dedicated to keeping the immigrant spirit in American roots music. They recontextualize and reimagine folk tunes to emphasize the immigrant foundations that lie in American history, and American music history. The group is passionate about the oral music tradition, with Ross taking time before each song to explain where the song comes from, how the song varies depending on the different areas and cultures it is found within, and what the group did to make the song their own. It was a display of how traditional folk music evolves and why it is so culturally important.
Shah’s vocals make each of these interpretations special due to her frequent use of raga, a melodic framework and improvisational form that originated in Indian classical tradition. Raga is a complex musical system, and seeing Shah improvise it was beyond impressive. Witnessing these techniques used in the context of American folk music brought a unique feel to American Patchwork Quartet’s music, and drove home their mission of reclaiming American folk music through the lens of the immigrant experience.
Today marks the halfway point of the Jazz Fest, and the iconic Bonnie Raitt will be playing a sold-out show at Kodak Hall. I didn’t get a ticket, so I’m hoping if I stand right outside the concert hall, I’ll be able to hear bits and pieces.
Wish me luck.
For the Beacon’s Jazz Fest coverage, click 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].