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Opening notes: Jazz Fest in review

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Four years along and the Rochester International Jazz Festival seems to be doing just fine. Throughout opening weekend, almost every Club Pass venue was filled to capacity as late-comers were turned away. But our music writers were there for all of it. Following is a compilation of their impressions from the festival's first couple days.

Sonny Rollins was in top form Friday night at the festival's opening Eastman Theatre event. By not performing any of his best-known tunes, he seemed to declare that he is still growing, still moving forward.

            Although Rollins' first set was plagued by too much reverb, the second set flowed seamlessly with a perfect sound mix. Rollins loves to throw quotations into his solos ("Camptown Races," "Deep in the Heart of Texas," etc.) Unfortunately, his bandmates also like to quote; the result, at times, was too cute.

            Still, Rollins once again displayed his saxophone prowess. Swaying about the stage like a Muppet in oversized Pro-Keds, he improvised with more range and intelligence than anyone playing today. And his tone was magnificent throughout.

            The festival got off to a shaky start earlier in the evening, when Bill Frisell's plane arrived late from Atlanta, necessitating a late soundcheck, which, in turn, caused a major traffic jam in the Eastman School lobby. When the concert began a half-hour late in Kilbourn Hall, Frisell worked his magic with his guitar and a host of electronic devices. Unfortunately for the guitar heads who came to dig Frisell's technique, he played the show facing his band, obscuring his obviously dexterous digits.

            His stream of music, often flowing directly from his guitar tuning, ranged from a beautiful, ethereal "Shenandoah" to a raucous "A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall." Frisell understands all of the electronic possibilities at his fingertips and squeezes every ounce of emotion from his guitar.

            Poor Juana Molina. Despite the fame and experience she'd gathered as a television comedian in her native Argentina, she's an admittedly insecure musician. Imagine how she felt, then, when she walked into Max of Eastman Place Saturday afternoon for her soundcheck and found a room full of festival-goers waiting for her show. Inexplicably, the RIJF volunteers manning the door allowed people into the venue way in advance, often without checking for passes.

            After some initial resistance, festival producer John Nugent managed to convince the crowd to give Molina some privacy and she sped through her soundcheck in what must have been record time. Not that it showed, as Molina's enchanting folk was augmented by shimmering electronics and her subtly endearing personality. Capable of live-looping her vocals, keyboards, and acoustic guitar, Molina seemed to present endless sonic possibilities. Then she went even further, suddenly bursting into a chorus of dog yelps, laying down a rhythm of human beatboxing, and playing set of keyboard lines recalling Terry Riley.

            Saturday evening found the Night of the Cookers in Kilbourn Hall, and the group lived up to its name. Saxophonist-flautist James Spaulding and drummer Pete La Roca Sims, both veterans of the original 1965 Blue Note session, were joined by a mostly younger contingent that included David Weiss and Jeremy Pelt on trumpets and Craig Handy on sax. But the show was just about stolen by an older generation pianist, George Cables. At times recalling the cluster-chord approach of McCoy Tyner and at others the superhuman dexterity of Art Tatum, Cables just glowed.

            Over at the Big Tent, pianist Al Copley was unmatched in his energy. He played with a Jerry Lee Lewis boogie-woogie attack, approaching the piano with his feet, head, hands, and ass.

            Sunday night at Kilbourn Hall, Ravi Coltrane proceeded to play one of the most challenging sets of the RIJF so far. His tunes were like bodies without heads; there were few melodic themes to hang the solos on.

            The Willem Breuker Kollektief filled the stage at Milestones with a large band capable of a full-tilt, off-kilter sound. But the focus was often on Breuker, who, at one point, induced the audience to gasp along every time he concluded an extended phrase.