The streets of downtown Rochester were hazy on Day 6, as smoke drifted in from Canadian wildfires.
Catherine Russell was first on my schedule, a jazz and blues singer who energized the audience with her soulful singing and her infectious joy. Russell is the daughter of jazz pianist Luis Russell, who was Louis Armstrong’s musical director. She has been immersed in jazz her whole life, and it shows.
Russell carried herself with importance and grace. On stage, she exuded an air of confidence that added power to her voice. Russell moved and danced through her songs with purpose, and her timeless voice was transporting. With a set full of entertaining songs, many of which land on her 2022 album “Send For Me,” Russell gave us a full hour of blues bliss.
Her band, especially young pianist Sean Mason, made a strong impression on me. Mason played with intention and feeling, knowing exactly when to reel things back and settle into a groove, and when to expand on a pattern or nail a fill. He plays with space really well, which made Russell’s music all the more impactful and danceable.
A stand-out moment came with the Dinah Washington deep cut “My Man’s an Undertaker,” which got the audience smiling and chuckling as Russell sung the lyrics “You better keep your mouth shut good and tight / ‘Cause my man’s an undertaker / And he’s got a coffin just your size.” Russell has a knack for winning over an audience with her animated storytelling and spirited attitude.
Akiko Tsuruga Organ Group was next on my list, featuring Jerry Weldon on the saxophone, Joe Magnarelli on trumpet, Byron Landham on drums, and Tsuruga on the organ. The organ can be an extremely powerful instrument when used correctly. The dense, unwavering sound of organ pipes can pack a lot of punch, even with just one chord or one note. Tsuruga is proof of this: every note she played felt vital.
Tsuruga is an outstanding jazz organist, with a habit of absolutely exploding on the keys in climactic moments. She builds towards moments of punctuated chord hits interrupted by glissandos and runs that take her solos to a transcendental moment. She exploits the full range of the organ, frequently varying the tone, volume, and timbre of the instrument. Tsuruga dances around the organ’s keys, stops, and pedals in organized chaos. Hearing her play is really a treat. Her organ was set up with its back to the audience, which is unfortunate because we couldn’t see her actually playing it, but we did get to see her constantly smiling while playing this deeply complex instrument.
Tsuruga’s compositions are catchy and memorable — from the jaunty “Funky Girl” to the playful and peppy “Dancing Cats,” which Tsuruga said she wrote for her two cats that chase each other around her apartment, an image that was vividly painted as she played. There is never a dull moment with Tsuruga, even when she’s catching her breath after a particularly involved song and turns to the Horace Silver song “Peace” to slow things down.
The members of the group complemented each other’s playing, with Weldon and Magnarelli trading off solos and setting the stage for Tsuruga to close out a piece with a strong ending. Magnarelli’s rapid, virtuosic trumpet runs, Landham’s unpredictable drum solos, and Weldon’s intense melodic phrasing matched perfectly with Tsuruga’s playing style.
After seeing some amazing organ playing, I decided to switch it up for some piano playing. I headed to Parcel 5 to watch Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers play their headlining set. By the time I got there, Hornsby was already playing, and people crowded the expansive venue.
Hornsby performed through the haze and underneath the orange moon as audience members enjoyed classics like “The Way It Is,” along with some of Hornsby’s newer material and deep cuts. Hornsby’s piano talents and songwriting skills were on full display on the big Parcel 5 stage, a strong closing for the sixth day of the festival.
Performances today include Ms. Lisa Fischer and a free headlining set from Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes at Parcel 5.
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].