Soothing the Raging Beast
Jazz as Theatre
Start off with everything under the sun and you have a tough time exploring the shadows. The diverse selection of over 400 musicians playing in 70 concerts and 20 venues at the 7th annual addition of the Rochester, New York International Jazz Festival can leave a jazz lover stranded in the middle of the street wondering where to go next. It’s nearly impossible to classify who’s doing what music, where, when and how, and then make a dash for it. But you make the rounds if you love the music; or, on less compelling grounds, you simply want to find out what’s going on.
Rochester’s own Gap Mangione Quintet opened the set for Frank Sinatra Jr, at the voluminous Eastman Theatre. Mangione and his big band have played at the Blue Note in NYC with Chuck Mangione, and he has also played at the Knickerbocker Jazz club with his own trio. In Rochester, Mangione often adds solo jazz piano, always satisfying, and there is no last call for alcohol whenever he plays.
Unlike the legions of Elvis Presley copy cat imitators, Frank Sinatra Jr. does not “impersonate” his father.
The opening headliner sang with grace and style the songs of the Great American Song Book that his father popularized; the songs of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, etc. Simultaneously he conducted a swinging, highly skilled orchestra of upstate New York musicians, with touch and go assurance, and intelligent design. What kept it all together was the exquisite musical phrasing that we associate with Frank Sinatra, and the desire of the audience of all ages to hear it again. In short, Frank Sinatra Jr. delivered a classy balancing act in more ways than one.
Cameroon musician Richard Bona is a wonderful bassist. He also has a reputation of “playing every instrument in sight”, including guitar, percussion, and songs that are uniquely his own.
Opening for Dee Dee Bridgewater, he stole the show. Bona and his musicians calibrate sound into unexpected heights of jazz, afro-beat, bossa nova, funk, etc. Wearing all white and a woven skull cap, Bona began with a sustained, other-worldly note, embodying his music with extraordinary sensitivity, often becoming one with his creations. Bona’s music is a rehearsal for ascension, a spiritual declaration, and an instrument of the muse combined. This fine musician was tightly supported by the rapid-fire hand work of percussionist Samuel Tones, from Bogotá, Columbia, and the punctuating keyboard riffs of Ernesto Simpson.
When Dee Dee Bridgewater burst on the stage , following the Richard Bona set, she wore her pink wig.
It had the opposite effect than the one she intended. Ditching the wig, going bald, she complimented Bona and his musicians, and then launched into a Broadway Wiz routine with Mali musicians. For me, the shock effect of her show biz approach never regained traction. Bona had set the bar high. Although her command of the stage was apparent, her overloaded delivery barely prevented the possibility of disaster. When she introduced an eloquently garbed musician from Mali as a “hunk”, I turned off. Her comment seemed strangely out of place and oddly superficial at that moment. Although the audience applauded Bridgewater with their usual generosity of spirit, her efforts just didn’t work for me.
Rochester’s Jazz Street and the East Ave/Chestnut outdoor stages, offered a variety of crowd pleasing jazz ensembles and bands, including well-rehearsed high school bands from around the city. Music in the Rochester schools is strongly supported, and the young people displayed their skills through 30’s, 40’s and 50’s big band numbers. I was especially impressed with the Greece High Schoolband. I have a strong memory of a young woman playing a sax with finesse. The instrument, I swear, was nearly as tall as she was.
Professional jazz ensembles included Jazzkamiaze from Denmark, led by saxophonist Marius Nesert; the Rochester Metro Jazz Orchestra; The New York Finest Jazz Ensemble, displaying brass with brilliant clarity; Beaucoup Blue, with father and son guitarists David and Adrian Mowry weaving folk associations into haunting shadows; and the Blue Vipers of Brooklyn working their way through Dixieland with lively guitar chops and satiric bite, and a host of others.
Whiz Bang Boomerang
The Buddhahood nearly paralyzed me with their one ton, redundant quake of shudders and amplified blasts. Some people apparently took to it instantly ravished by the blasts. Others, surrounding the outdoor stage, fell into an iron fisted trance, while snacking barbeque sandwiches with numbed grins. One bare-chested lost soul “danced” zombie-like in front of the speakers, stupefied. Buddha who? C’mon now, if this is music, I swear off it.
Max of Eastman Place is an eloquent showcase for fine music. Its large windows and its spacious environment breath with originality. With plenty of space to maneuver, Jacky Terrasson’s impressionistic solo piano work is marvelously inventive. He has a captivating, powerful way of picking up a phrase from songs like “America the Beautiful” and “La Vie En Rose”. With total command, creative brilliance and lyrical resonance, the jazz pianist suggests a poignancy that you swear had been there all along. His music has the courage, sensitivity and the power of possibility. Terrasson utilizes bass chords to embrace and radically shift discoveries right on the spot. His music is high wired, inventive, tender and fiery – sometimes all at once.
Al Green crashed on stage, tossing roses into the audience, like an Arkansas tornado. The six time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer combines gospel, soul and Motown, shifting his approach between the secular and the religious with a multi-faceted presence that at time borders on idolatry.
Al Green performs soul music with secular inflections and secular music with gospel inflections. He uses personal testimony to reveal the tug-of-war that energizes his singing. Describing how he had fallen into the depths of despair that eventually led him into a religious conversion, he prayed – but heard nothing from Jesus. “I paid for it, I worked for it, I begged for it!”, he shouted. Then he saw the light, with “what’s in my heart”. Uproar, clapping, hands raised, joyous shouts, the moment of transformation absorbed. Stepping into the light, he sang “Sitting On The Dock of the Bay”, with subtle variations and depth. A quality he is able to display without hesitation. Al Green has it both ways: He is a top flight entertainer and he is also Reverend Al Green leading his own full gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. How he manages to negotiate all sides of himself is a trait that legendary performers often express to their awed listeners. Star worship has a built in stress factor that exposes both the open and the hidden simultaneously, and when it borders on idolatry, well, you’re sitting on the dock of the bay/in the wind.
At the Harro East Ballroom, Dave Samuel’s Caribbean Jazz Project used vibraphone and marimba to secure the groundswell of melodic Latin rhythms. The team took off with tropical takes on bop, robust piano accents, and swift, classy exchanges that rowed the boat. “You and The Night and the Music”, with its definitive piano opening, and “One for Tom”, inspired by the Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim, were high points of the session.
New Orleans’ blazingly flamboyant Wild Magnolias nearly burnt the asphalt off the parking lots surrounding the Harro East Ballroom. Wild Magnolias are Mardi Gras “Indians”, dressed in feathers, elaborate beadwork, and gigantic, colorful head dresses.
Although they are not Indians, they do not indulge in stereotypes. I think of them as high fashion hogs taking on the fright wigs of booming chops. These Mardi Gras “Indians” are revered within the multi-cultural community of New Orleans. Their music is a composite of African, Creole, Spanish, and Caribbean influences.. Partial disclosure: My partner and I were invited by the Wild Magnolias to join them on stage dancing. I lost my reservations, grabbed my short hairs, and leapt on stage with my partner, the director and choreographer of Daystar: Contemporary Dance Drama of Indian America. Was it the Call of the Wild, or Custer’s Last Stand, that got me up there? Well, we were hell bent on dancing to the captivating and capsizing music of the Wild Magnolias. I lost my qualms entirely. As my partner expressed it: “the dizzying whirl of the rhythmic magic of music, dance, mob rule and the God Bacchus did the trick”. She’s right on target.
Over at the Robert Mondavi Big Tent, the Henderson-Owens 3 Feat starring Dr. Lonnie Smith, wearing his eloquent turban, a captivating grin, and a neatly clipped white beard, revealed in masterly jazz showmanship - in a quieter vein.
The doctor-at-call fingered the Hammond B-3 organ with class and ease. He captured attention in the hustle and bustle of portable seats being rearranged, and beer glasses tinkling, doing the feat with magical relaxed undulations and jamming thrusts of the organ. Accompanied by guitarist Mel Henderson weaving octave-based Wes Montgomery-like solos on the guitar, and drummer Ulysses Owens, the trio kept the rhythm flowing, and did the trick straight off, with no chaser.
The jazz dragnet ensconced the Nordic contingent of the Ola Kvernber Trio in the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, with violinist Ola Kvernberg as the head honcho.
Conservatory trained, Kvernberg has played with “a baroque/contemporary orchestra, the Scarlatti Ensemble, and a bluegrass/Norwegian folk trio”. He plays jazz violin with abandon and striking utility of purpose. Think of Paganini ripping away without losing notes and you get the picture. The trio included the highly supportive bassist Steiner Raknes and the erstwhile thick-in-the-middle of it percussionist Erik Nylander. I somehow managed to get to this Scandinavian offering. I was not disappointed.
With little nostalgia and much tribute, the high toned orchestra comprised of Eastman School of Music faculty, grads, and assorted special guests, including singer Dizzy Gillespie’s daughter, jazz singer Jeanie Bryson snagging the audience with songs and stories about her father.
The Dizzy Gillespie inspired music and compositions were delivered with striking orchestral brilliance and a variety of tunes – including the classic “Night in Tunisia”. The highlight of this much admired event was the incredibly keen and clean playing of Geary Niewood on flute and saxophone, and Bryon Stipling scaling the trumpet with enormous sophistication. Hallelujah!
Conflict is in the air again today, given how our low priority war has lasted longer than the Second World War. And although the producers of the jazz festival may not have had that in mind, I did. One need only to remove the covering of what is going on around us, to understand how the soothing melodies after the Second World War (like those of Frank Sinatra) quieted the memory of the battle fronts. The same is true now, for those going through another endless war firsthand, and those who struggle to end it. When the winds of war, and natural and unnatural disasters are all around you, as they are today, dodging the draft of history has much to do with the weather of the times. For the most part, the weather today is to blast your ears away and blind your eyes, whether it is the high-powered eye candy of TV ads, the amplified blasts of deadening “bands”, or the wagging tongues of news “commentators” playing egocentric games about who knows what about politicians, and who knows better. Well, all this ad nauseam amounts to a hill of undigested beans. Jazz has a way of releasing the bruising clamor of the times. In all its absorbing manifestations of good music and good will, it remains alive, kicking and willing despite it all.
Cover Photo “Gillespiana” - Don Ver Ploeg