Jazz Fest 2017, Day 9: Ron reviews Donny McCaslin, Matthew Stevens Trio, and Benny Green


Donny McCaslin played Xerox Auditorium on Saturday night at the XRIJF. - PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
  • Donny McCaslin played Xerox Auditorium on Saturday night at the XRIJF.

The final night of the Jazz Festival was a disappointing end to a great festival for me. For instance, I expected a lot from Donny McCaslin's set at Xerox Auditorium. McCaslin is a fine saxophone player, and his recent involvement in David Bowie's final album has given him new visibility. But if tonight's show is any indication, he has become pretty much an electronics artist and left jazz behind.

There were occasional melodies, but much of the set was spent setting off petals that provided effects like echoes, delays, and at one point, turned his sax into an elephant screeching. The same can be said for the excellent musicians in his band. Jason Lindner, who has enhanced several groups at the festival over the years and released excellent albums, was reduced to playing simple patterns on synthesizers or other electronic keyboards over and over again with little variation.

About three quarters of the way through his set, McCaslin paused to give a little speech in which he came out against President Trump's misogyny and racism. He was obviously preaching to the choir and got some applause, but it seemed to me to be pandering. He was at a Jazz Festival, not a Ted Nugent concert.

For more on Donny McCaslin, go to donnymccaslin.com.

McCaslin's set was way too loud, but at least it was in a fairly large venue. Earlier in the evening, I tried to listen to the Matthew Stevens Trio at the Wilder Room. Stevens sets himself apart from other guitarists when he plays choral melodies over complex rhythms, as he did at times early in his set. But when electronic loops and effects were added, along with bass and drums, it just got absurdly loud for such a small room. It was uncomfortable, and I just couldn't stand to stay.

Find Matthew Stevens at mattstevensmusic.com.

The only normal listening experience I had Saturday night was with pianist Benny Green at Hatch Hall. Green has kind of a shy, nerdy personality, but when he sits down at the piano, he's a monster. He played an excellent set of tunes by McCoy Tyner, Duke Pearson, Sonny Clark, and others, along with an evocative original, "Enchanted Forest."

His technique was phenomenal, especially when he launched into a two-handed doubling run, which he did for long periods several times. From my vantage point in the balcony it looked like twin spiders running down the keyboard but sounded much better.

Benny Green can be found at bennygreenmusic.com.

Looking back over the nine days of the XRIJF my favorite artists included three singers who were back for a second (or in Tessa Souter's case a sixth) visit to the festival. Eivør brought her ethereal sound and haunting tunes to the Lutheran Church; Youn Sun Nah unleashed her other-worldly voice at Harro East; and Souter charmed audiences at Xerox Auditorium and Christ Church with her understated but gorgeous vocals.

It was thrilling to hear saxophonist Miguel Zenon and his band (including the great pianist, Luis Perdomo) blast through tunes from his latest album, "Tipico," at Kilbourn Hall. Eri Yamamoto was glorious in her piano playing and personality at Hatch Hall. Charles Pillow at Xerox Auditorium turned me on to "Electric Miles" with big band arrangements of "Bitches Brew," "In A Silent Way," etc. 48 years after I rejected that side of Miles Davis. And finally, I loved overdosing on Thelonious Monk with the four pianists in 4 By Monk By 4 at Kilbourn Hall.

One complaint: the outdoor shows are so loud that music from one of the stages several blocks away was leaking into Xerox Auditorium during Souter's show Friday night. Nobody cares about this -- not the people who run the festival and not the city health department. But it's a serious situation; a lot of people stand right in front of those speakers.

All things considered, it was another great year with no shortage of great music for a wide range of tastes. If only we could find a way to multiply these nine days (and the days of the Rochester Fringe Festival) and bring downtown Rochester to life all year round.