Harnessing vocal power

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Day 7 of the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival started off strong with Gretchen Parlato and Lionel Loueke, two musicians who have been working together for more than 20 years. Their synergy is especially notable, with the duo perfectly in sync as they breeze through complex melodies and overlapping rhythms. 

Both are vocalists, Parlato doing most of the melodic heavy lifting, and Loueke in charge of vocal harmony and percussion. Loueke places clicks and other vocal syllabic fragments in between singing, making his voice an entire rhythm section. This multi-purpose vocal approach, along with his guitar playing support to Parlato’s voice as she sings pleasant and catchy songs that are often written and arranged by the two of them. 

“She’s my sister from another mother,” Loueke told us.

It’s mesmerizing how well the two understood and supported each other; this type of musicianship can really only be found in a pair as tight as this one. The musicians seemed to enter a flow-like state in each song, completely involved in what they were playing.

Most of the songs they played are from their new album “Lean In,” which was released a week ago. The album, just like the set they played at the Jazz Fest, is full of vocal jazz songs influenced by Latin and West African music, as well as pop and R&B music. They were pretty experimental too, especially with Parlato’s song “Juju,” which Loueke transformed with some unpredictable and dissonant guitar texturing. This song, as well as the rest of their performance, was unique and enchanting. 

Next, I went to Temple theater to see Ms. Lisa Fischer with jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti. Fischer is a vocalist who has collaborated with legendary artists like Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Nine Inch Nails and Chaka Khan. Her voice is one of a kind and it makes sense why she is brought in to work with so many people.

I have never heard anything like Fischer’s voice. It can pretty much do anything. She can go from a shout to a whisper in an instant, perfectly controlling her tone, her cadence, her timbre and her pitch. Fischer’s voice covers much distance and she knows how to use the tools available to her to stun the audience. Not only does she have incredible vocal skill and talent, but she also puts her heart into it, and you can tell she feels every song she sings. 

Lisa Fischer (Photo by Aaron Winters/ via RIJF)

Fischer used two mics while performing, one set up normally, and one with heavy reverb and delay effects that carried her voice and made everything feel spaced out. It brought out a unique element to her performance, with her switching mics depending on what her vocal phrases called for. She would start singing into the normal microphone, and then would lean into the second one to emphasize certain parts. Both mics were also very sensitive, picking up Fischer’s powerful voice even when she was holding the mic far away from her mouth. She would change up how close she held the mic to add even more variance and control over how her voice was picked up, adding to the depth of her skills. 

Fischer was an audience favorite. She frequently interacted with the crowd, even physically during her version of “Porgy” where she walked to the front row of seats and touched someone’s face and held another’s hand. She was very amiable too: There was a time when an audience member’s phone rang loudly, and as it echoed through the theater, all Fischer could do was laugh for a full 10 seconds before moving on. She was a lovely presence on stage, and even though she’s blessed with an amazing voice, she still somehow seems approachable. 

“Thank you so much for your gift of presence, enjoy,” she smiled at the crowd before singing an emotional rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Her version of the song is slowed down, contemplative, and focused. She changes up the melodic structure of the song and deconstructs its elements, bringing it to its raw center. Fischer clearly knows the song well, and is able to do it justice. It helps that she toured with the Rolling Stones for more than 25 years, giving her an extensive familiarity and perspective. After a build into a climactic finish, the performance brought some people to tears. 

Though Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes played a headlining set at Parcel 5, I decided to stop by the Wegmans Pavilion to see local rock band Violet Mary play their set. Violet Mary brought a lot of energy to the stage with some bangers that fused alternative rock, progressive rock, dance and funk. The five of them got people smiling and dancing.

Violet Mary (Photo by Thom Bell/ via RIJF)

The band is led by its vocalists Mike Muscarella and Mel Muscarella, who are talented and charismatic, with strong voices full of personality. The group played some originals, as well as some more well-known covers like Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” and through every song they played with strong chemistry and a fun-loving attitude. Violet Mary brought about an energetic and fun close to my Day 7 at the Jazz Fest. 

Two more days to go! Today will feature performances from many artists including Tatiana Eva-Marie, the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra, and a headliner set from the Artimus Pyle Band as they celebrate the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd. 

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]

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