Magical moments on Day 8

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Eri Yamamoto and Bruce Barth (Photo by Marcie Ver Ploeg/ via RIJF)

The CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival was still plagued by the hazy air from Canadian wildfires, but that didn’t stop the streets from being full and active, as festival goers enjoyed the penultimate day. 

Eri Yamamoto and Bruce Barth were first on my schedule. They are a piano duo, something not seen too often — at least to this degree, with Hatch Recital Hall being set up with two grand pianos facing each other, one for each pianist. These aren’t your typical piano duets. Yamamoto and Barth are some of the most incredible pianists I have seen at the Jazz Fest this year, and as a duo they are magical. 

They started their set with a Barth composition titled “Peaceful Place,” which drew up picturesque and pleasant imagery as the two pianists built beautiful chord structures and smooth melodies. They played overlapping parts that perfectly blended into each other; it was nearly impossible to tell who was playing what, but that just added to the polish of the composition. 

Yamamoto and Barth have clear chemistry; they exchanged glances, smiled at each other, admired each other’s playing, and supported each other. They even shared some of the same quirks; both of them tapped their foot consistently while playing a piece, and stomping it during especially climactic moments. They also both murmured along with their improvisations, in touch with their instrument, with their voices adding a certain human quality to instrumental improvisation. 

The piano duo played a full set of their own compositions, which highlighted both of them as composers. Barth’s relaxed and jaunty “Sunday” was the second song they played, which introduced another element to their performance with Yamamoto ditching her own piano and sitting on Barth’s bench to play on the same set of keys. I was already impressed with how well these two played together when they were on separate pianos, but when they are on the same one, they seem like an even more natural musical pair. 

The standout of the performance was Yamamoto’s “A Woman with a Purple Wig,” which is a song about Yamamoto’s decision to wear a purple wig, sunglasses, and a mask when going outside during the pandemic in order to feel more safe and dodge racism, sexism, and violence on the New York City streets. This is Yamamoto’s first song with lyrics.

Even though singing is not something she usually does, she said it came naturally when writing this song. The subject matter of the song is pretty serious, but the lyrics start off pretty silly, with her talking about buying the wig on the internet. It’s not until the song progresses that the deeper meanings shine through, with lyrics like “someday I want to walk like a free bird,” and “I’m just a woman, don’t hurt me.” It’s a powerful piece, and the title track to Yamamoto’s most recent album with her trio. 

Yamamoto and Barth ended their show with another Yamamoto composition, “Bumpy Road,” which as the title implies, is a chaotic and messy song. It is built upon these melodically scattered piano runs that overlap each other, converge, and split apart. It’s a perfect song for two pianos, and the duo nailed this complex polyphonic song perfectly, which ended the show in the opposite state as it started: with the two pianos projecting two different voices in controlled chaos. 

Joey Alexander Trio (Photo by Tim Fuss/ via RIJF)

Next, I headed to Temple Theater to see the Joey Alexander Trio, with Joey Alexander on piano, Tyson Jackson on drums, and Kris Funn on bass. The trio was absolutely amazing, putting together Jackson’s creative and dynamic versatility, Funn’s shredding solos and melodic proficiency, and Alexander’s prodigious, spirited piano playing.

I loved Alexander’s song “Summer Rising,” which he perfectly transitioned into following an introductory solo performance of Chick Corea’s “Crystal Silence.” “Summer Rising” is built on an uneven 5/8 time signature, with an infectious bass line that centers the song and gives it a danceable, groovy quality while still emphasizing the off-kilter meter. 

I saw the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra last, featuring trombonist Conrad Herwig, which brought a full orchestra sound to some classic jazz tunes. The ensemble started off with two John Coltrane songs from his masterpiece album, “A Love Supreme.” The two songs, “Acknowledgement” and “Resolution,” were led by Herwig on the trombone, whose creativity on his instrument displayed the full lengths of a trombone. 

Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra (Photo by Thom Bell/ via RIJF)

The Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra also expertly handled a difficult piece by Charles Mingus titled “Prayer for Passive Resistance.” The piece is a blues song, but since it’s Mingus, it is full of complex melodic forms, and has a heavy emphasis on free improvisation, which the orchestra took on with its full trombone section passing off solos. The free nature of these solos brought out the spirit of Mingus’ song, especially when the trio of soloists started playing all together, with three separate streams of improvisation happening at once. It was exhilarating seeing this 17-piece orchestra tackle an experimental big band piece like this one. 

There’s just one more day of the Jazz Festival, so if you haven’t made it out this year, today is your last chance. Performances by the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra, Richie Goods & Chien Chien, and a free headliner show with Trombone Shorty at Parcel 5 await.

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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