JAZZ FEST 2013, Day 1: Ron reviews Christian McBride, Thiefs, Patricia Barber, Trondheim Jazz Orchestra

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Hearing all of the Scandinavian groups at the Lutheran Church over the years, I’ve often been curious about their distant, thrice-removed perception of jazz. After all, they are not only more than half a century away from the golden age of jazz, they’re also a continent and culture away.

Friday night Norway’s Trondheim Jazz Orchestra answered my question better than any other Scandinavian group has before. For an entire hour, with hardly a pause, the group painted a surreal aural image of American jazz from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. It was as if someone fell asleep in a European movie and dreamed of jazz.

The eight men wore zoot suits and fedoras; the one women had a flower-patterned dress and her hair up as if she had just stepped out of a Billie Holiday album cover. They played brilliantly but never played it straight.

The woman sang mostly abstract vocalese -- incomprehensible things that just evoked jazz. Toward the end she sang an absurd amalgamation of just about every jazz classic (lyrics like: what’s new, tenderly, some day my prince will come, I remember April…) gorgeously, with no hint of irony.

There were two odd characters in white who did not play instruments but performed a weird purification ritual, reaching into chalices to wash their faces with what turned out to be white powder. There were many other theatrics. The musicians went out into the audience and at one point everyone just died. But they got up, one by one, swinging hard.

The good news is, you can catch Trondheim Jazz Orchestra at Xerox Auditorium Saturday night.

Earlier in the evening, I was impressed by Christian McBride’s Inside Straight at Kilbourn Hall. The tunes, mostly originals by McBride and his group members, were all strong. And the arrangements were beautifully fleshed out with plenty of room to improvise.

Every member of the group was a virtuoso player. Alto and soprano saxophonist Steve Nelson was especially creative on every solo he took. (He’ll also be back Saturday in a duo with Bruce Barth at Max of Eastman Place.)

In his solos McBride demonstrated why he is just about the most in-demand bassist in jazz. And even when he is not soloing he is an unusually commanding player. He was also pretty hilarious when he explained why he did not make it to Rochester for last year’s show.

Speaking of virtuosos, the three men in Thiefs, which performed at Xerox Auditorium, were ridiculously talented. The drummer, for instance, was also an excellent singer. And he didn’t even need his drum set to create convincing beat-box percussion.

Thiefs’ saxophonist had an array of electronic devices in front of him that could turn his sax into just about anything. He could play chords, he could create a drone and solo over it, and he could make his sax into an organ.

I ended the night with Patricia Barber at Max of Eastman Place. Barber is a quirky singer given to odd hand gestures, contorted facial expressions, and occasional vocal outbursts. Her first utterance, during her group’s opening instrumental, was, “Shit!”

Her quirkiness seemed to be about making the experience of playing music real. This was no routine. Her group (guitarist, bassist, and drummer) paid close attention to Barber because they weren’t sure where she would be going. The guitarist, GiladHekselman, was especially good, with beautiful tone and wonderful solo flights.

Barber is an excellent pianist who plays with real emotion. She is also a strong singer of originals and covers like the standard “The Thrill Is Gone” (not the B.B. King tune). She has always been good at taking a pop tune and bringing new life to it. I remember years ago she actually made me appreciate a Sonny & Cher song. Friday night she did a great rendition of Smokey Robinson’s “Being With You,” which, I hasten to add, was always a great song.

Saturday night I’ll be checking out Bruce Barth and Steve Nelson at Max of Eastman Place. I’m curious about what Matt Herskowitz will have up his sleeve at Hatch Hall when he combines classical music and jazz. And after he just about blew the roof off last time he was at the Montage, I can’t wait to hear Terell Stafford there tomorrow night.

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