When Oscar Peterson walked out on the Eastman Theatre stage Saturday evening, the Rochester International Jazz Festival audience responded with a tremendous ovation. Peterson appeared frail as he walked to the piano, but as soon as he began to play, all concern disappeared.
Although the stroke that befell him a decade ago has slowed down his left hand, Peterson's incredible right hand has more than compensated. With each solo he unleashed a rich torrent of notes that were, paradoxically, wildly free and meticulously controlled at the same time. It was as if his fingers, tempted by every joyous nuance of musical possibility, couldn't resist exploring every nook and cranny on the way to their destination.
In the middle of his performance Peterson talked about what a sad year it had been in jazz, with the deaths of Ray Brown, J.J. Johnson, John Lewis, and his best friend and manager, Norman Granz. He dedicated a new piece, "A Simple Requiem," to them. Audience members knew they were hearing one of the last surviving giants of jazz's greatest generation.
In songs almost equally divided between standards and originals, high points included a lovely treatment of Neal Hefti's "Li'l Darlin" and a dazzling rendition of Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll."
Among his own compositions, "When Summer Comes" was the most beautiful of several stunning works. Peterson's drummer, Alvin Queen, nicely evoked waves rolling to the shore with his brushes.
Every member of the quartet was outstanding. Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen may be the greatest acoustic jazz bassist playing today. In a manner reminiscent of saxophonist Paul Desmond, every solo Orsted Pedersen played was gorgeously melodic.
Guitarist Ulf Wakenius can only be described as the Oscar Peterson of the guitar, cramming more notes into a phrase than seems possible, but never failing to create cohesive musical statements.
Peterson's quartet's performance was the highlight of the second night of a nine-day festival that already seemed too rich to keep up with.
The great Mose Allison kicked things off Friday evening, wowing a capacity crowd in Kilbourn Hall with his caustic wit and superb keyboard skills. Allison's vocal style is the opposite of Peterson's piano technique; he doesn't use too many notes. But in Allison's case less is truly more. The same can be said of his pithy lyrics, which reflect a skewed world of incongruities and disconnects.
While David Sanborn's fans watched their saxophone hero at the Eastman Theatre, I got my sax fix by heading out to Shadow Pines Golf Club to catch the opening night of the Swing 'n Jazz Festival. Local players like Vince Ercolamento and Terrance Bruce and visitors like Andy McGhee did not disappoint. The concert, Saxophonists Night Out, also featured a rare appearance by Ned Corman, the director of The Commission Project, in a five-baritone-sax band called Bottom's Up.
Back at the RIJF, Sliding Hammers, the sister-led, trombone-centered band from Sweden, won over many fans with their excellent musicianship and wonderful personalities. One highlight of their set was a tribute to another trombone duo, J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding (Jay and Kai), on "Israel."
Some of the best entertainment could be found at the free outdoor stage on Gibbs Street. Walter "Wolf Man" Washington has got to be one of the greatest r&b/blues musicians touring today. He howled and growled his way through one great tune after another from Teddy Pendergrass's "Close the Door" to down-home blues and irresistible funk. His band, with only trumpet, sax, and a rhythm section, delivered one of the richest sounds of the festival.
Eric Alexander's trio played two electrifying sets at the Montage Grille, including a breathtaking rendition of John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C.," dedicated to the memory of drummer Elvin Jones. Alexander's drummer Joe Farnsworth was more than up to the challenge.
Alexander and Farnsworth were just getting warmed up. Later, at the jam session held at the Crowne Plaza's State Street Bar & Grill, they joined the Bob Sneider Trio in a blistering rendition of Hank Mobley's "Breakthrough." Also playing wonderful solos were John Sneider on trumpet and festival promoter John Nugent on tenor sax. They were still going when I left at about 1:45 a.m.