Read on for City Newspaper's profiles of the acts in this year's Rochester International Jazz Festival.
Friday, June 6
George Benson had firmly established his career as a jazz guitarist when he began to highlight a unique method of scat-singing along with his solos. Before long, his voice took center stage. In the 1970s Benson topped the charts with his jazz-inflected vocals and voice-guitar solos on songs like "This Masquerade" and "On Broadway."
Chris Potter Quartet
Two years ago saxophonist Chris Potter decided to pay homage to the sax players he revered. The resulting album, Gratitude, contains nine original tunes, serving as tributes to greats like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Lester Young. What stands out is Potter's ability to write in styles reminiscent of each without losing his own signature sound. At 32, Potter is one of the most versatile, prolific, and imaginative musicians of his generation.
David Liebman Group
After playing with fusion group Ten Wheel Drive in the late 1960s, saxophonist-flautist David Liebman landed a job with John Coltrane's former drummer, Elvin Jones. A stint with Miles Davis (1970 to 1974) and a world tour with Chick Corea kept him busy until the late-1970s, when he established his own group. The latest incarnation is a top-notch ensemble making optimum use of Tony Marino's bass and Vic Juris' guitar.
Dawn Thomson Quartet
She sings tunes by Antonio Carlos Jobim with an understated beauty recalling Astrid Gilberto, and she can swing with the best jazz singers. But Dawn Thompson has an additional dimension; she plays the guitar in a style that combines rhythmic chord leads with percussive legato runs. Thompson's recent album, Imagine That, showcases her guitar chops and vocal prowess on tunes ranging from Joni Mitchell's "All I Want" to her own ethereal "Sleep Impressions," based on a Carl Sandburg poem.
The jazz festival already has a well-earned reputation for bringing in hot acts from around the world, so you might show up to see The Fins expecting jazz from the fjord. It's cool alright, but more on the order of 1950s hipsters playing and singing rockabilly-swing originals. Hearing this music will remind you that "fins" also refer to the sides of a vintage Cadillac.
Saturday, June 7
The voice serves as an instrument for many singers; for Al Jarreau, it's a multi-instrumentalist capable of sliding over octaves like a saxophone, bleating with the urgency of a trumpet, and punctuating the rhythm like a drum. Some fans are still attached to the jazz sound of his debut album, We Got By. Others love his vocal gymnastics on tunes like Chick Corea's "Spain." A large audience favors pop hits like "We're In This Love Together."
Lizz Wright Band
Emerging from Atlanta and her church-choir roots, Lizz Wright combines elements of r&b, gospel, and jazz in performances tinged with an effervescent spirit. On her debut album, Salt, Wright covers a broad aesthetic territory from "Walk With Me, Lord" to "Afro Blue" with engaging originals like "Silence" hinting at a bright future.
Kurt Rosenwinkel Band
Kurt Rosenwinkel dropped out of the Berklee College of Music after two and a half years. Why stay in school when you can go on tour with vibraphonist Gary Burton? Rosenwinkel has gone on to become one of the most hard-swinging guitarists of his generation, adding his lightning runs and languid ballad style to recordings by Burton, Mark Turner, and others. On his latest CD, The Next Step, Rosenwinkel just flies through tunes like "Minor Blues" and "Filters."
Sonny Fortune/Rashied Ali Duo
Both Sonny Fortune and Rashied Ali began their careers in r&b groups in Philadelphia. Fortune moved to New York and worked with Elvin Jones, Mongo Santamaria, and McCoy Tyner in the 1960s and 1970s. Ali also left Philly in the 1960s, playing with Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, and John Coltrane. In the decades since, both have been among the most active performers of avant-garde jazz. See the interview with Rashied Ali on page XX.
Roberta Piket & Alternating Current
She's demonstrated her acoustic piano chops with Dave Liebman, Rufus Reid, Lionel Hampton, and others, but this time out it's all electric for Roberta Picket. Playing Wurlitzer electric piano, Picket has created a vocabulary of sounds that hovers somewhere between electronica and progressive jazz. Her composing ability, which earned her second place in the Thelonious Monk Competition, is evident on her latest album, full of moody tunes, titled I'm back in therapy and it's all your fault.
Ryan Kisor Quartet
After winning the Monk Institute's trumpet competition in 1990 at 17, Ryan Kisor paid his dues with the Mingus Big Band and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Now touring with his own band, Kisor has an assured technique reminiscent of early Freddy Hubbard. If his latest album, Kisor II, is any indication, look for fresh takes on great standards.
Sunday, June 8
Rich Perry with The Eastman Jazz Quartet
His new CD, Rich Perry at Eastman, provides a preview of what's in store when Perry joins the Eastman Jazz Quartet. Recorded in 2001 at Kilbourn Hall, the album features the same excellent line-up with Perry playing blistering solos or dueling with trumpeter Clay Jenkins on tunes like Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing." Rounding out the quartet, Harold Danko has a wonderful touch on the piano and Rich Thompson (drums) and Jeff Campbell (bass) provide a solid, swinging rhythm.
Kevin Mahogany Trio
Kevin Mahogany handles standards beautifully, but he wants to expand the repertoire. His latest album, Pride and Joy, offers popular Motown songs reinvented with jazz-based arrangements and scat-singing. "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" and "Reach Out I'll Be There" become street-corner doo-wop tunes, "The Tears of a Clown" a meditative ballad and "Never Can Say Goodbye" a lively samba.
Mark Whitfield Trio
Not long after Mark Whitfield graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1987 his reputation as a jazz guitarist landed him gigs with Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Smith, McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey, and others. A more pop-oriented side of his playing emerged later in his work with D'Angelo, Mary J. Blige, The Roots, and Chaka Khan. As the above list suggests, Whitfield is among the most versatile guitarists working today.
Yggdrasil featuring Eivør Pálsdóttir
Born in Jutland, Denmark, Yggdrasil founder Kristian Blak has spent the last two decades in the Faroe Islands (in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Norway). That's where he met Eivør Pálsdóttir, a Faroese singer with a beautiful, ethereal voice. Yggdrasil (World Tree in Norse mythology) is sure to be one of the most exotic acts in the festival.
Monday, June 9
Maria Schneider with ESM alumni & ESM Jazz Ensemble
Dave Rivello Ensemble
Some composers favor the small group, others the entire orchestra. Dave Rivello falls somewhere in between, communicating most eloquently in the language of the big band. Rivello knows the colors and textures of his ensemble well. In beautiful ballads and intense up-tempo tunes, he fully exploits the possibilities of his highly skilled and expressive band.
Mynta --- Music From India
If your knowledge of Indian music begins and ends with Ravi Shankar, Mynta will expand your horizons. Most of the drumming is done on tabla, but Fazal Qureshi is also adept at mouth percussion. Along with the tanpura, members of Mynta employ electric bass, violin, guitars, keyboards and saxophones. You've never heard ragas like this.
After studying with Mike Mainieri, vibraphonist Lalo embarked on a career that has taken her throughout the United States and Europe as guest soloist with orchestras and jazz ensembles. Her shimmering mallet technique is perfectly suited to original compositions that are highly accessible but by no means simple.
Tuesday, June 10
Dave Brubeck Quartet
Listening to The Essential Dave Brubeck, it is difficult to overstate the brilliance of Brubeck's compositional ability. Few composers have combined imagination and experimentation so effectively, producing wonderful tunes like "The Duke," "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and "It's a Raggy Waltz." Brubeck may be over 80, but on his latest live album, Park Avenue South, he sounds as fresh as ever on classics like "Take Five." Added bonus: His band features Buffalo's Bobby Militello on sax. (An interview with Brubeck will publish in next week's edition of City Newspaper.)
Avishai Cohen/Jason Lindner/Marc Gouliani
It's hard to tell what Avishai Cohen might be up to next. Since 1998 he's lent his expertise on the bass to Chick Corea's Origin and New Trio. On his own albums he explores more eclectic territory. His latest, Unity, with his International Vamp Band, is an engaging exploration of modal jamming with Cohen doubling on keyboards. Judging by his festival bandmates, especially adventurous pianist Jason Lindner, Cohen is guaranteed to offer an inventive set.
Matt Wilson's "Carl Sandburg Project"
Over the past decade drummer Matt Wilson has been a mainstay on the New York jazz scene. Known for albums venturing into avant-garde territory, Wilson has embarked on an unusual course. In his "Carl Sandburg Project" Wilson interprets the poems of Sandburg in a variety of ways. Dawn Thompson guests on guitar and vocals.
U Street All Stars --- from Finland
Someone forgot to tell the U Street All Stars that they live in Finland in the 21st century. They've somehow emerged playing American bebop and fusion circa 1960s-1970s. It's a nicely weird mixture of Charlie Parker-style sax with John Scofield-style guitar and propulsive drumming.
Somewhere between a classical brass ensemble and New Orleans street band lies Streetnix. The arrangements of Bill Mahar are uniformly engaging whether they feature a snake-charming alto sax, deep melodic lines on the tuba, or funk riffs.
Wednesday, June 11
His heart may be in San Francisco, but as long as Tony Bennett brings his voice with him to the Eastman Theatre his fans should be satisfied. It's all but unheard of for a singer's career to span six decades. Bennett has not only endured; in 1994 his Unplugged album won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
Kenny Werner Trio
Kenny Werner attended the Manhattan School of Music headed for a career as a concert pianist. Feeling the need for a change, he transferred to the Berklee School of Music, where he focused on jazz. Since his first recording in 1977, Werner has brought his distinctive piano style to concerts and recordings with a host of greats, including Jaki Byard, Joe Henderson, Tom Harrell, Chico Freeman, and Joe Lovano.
Kevin Dean's B3 Band
For the past two decades Kevin Dean has served as director of Jazz Studies at McGill University in Montreal. During that time he has also built a reputation as a fine jazz trumpeter and B-3 organist.
Claudia Acuna Band
Quite possibly the most sensuous singer working today. Claudia Acuna's readings of "My Romance" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily" on her latest album, Rhythm of Life, are gorgeous. Her take on "Nature Boy" leaves no doubt she'd know what to do with him if she found him. But that's just the beginning. When Acuna, who is from Chile, sings tunes like "Ay Mariposa" in Spanish, language barriers melt away.
Ray Barretto & New World Spirit
Conga king Ray Barretto surrounds himself with some of today's best players in Latin jazz. If that's not enough, Barretto's latest album, Homage to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, is an endlessly energetic tribute featuring Latin takes on Blakey's signature tunes. This should be one of the hottest shows of the festival.
Prime Time Funk
Prime Time Funk has the tightest and funkiest horn section in Upstate New York. Fronted by vocalist Ronnie Leigh, the band includes top Rochester musicians: drummer David Cohen, keyboardist Andy Calabrese, and saxophonist Vince Ercolamento. One listen to Ready and Willing, produced by Jeff Tyzik, is all it takes to know that this group can tear it up with the best of them.
Thursday, June 12
For a long stretch in the 1970s and 1980s you could hardly turn on a radio without hearing catchy melodies like "Shaker Song" or "Morning Dance" by Spyro Gyra. The group, led by Buffalo's Jay Beckenstein, is still going strong and still garnering radio airplay with a seductive blend of jazz and funk on its latest CD, Original Cinema.
Curtis Steigers Band
Curtis Steigers is somewhat reminiscent of Chet Baker. He's not a classic vocalist, but sings with an appealing vulnerability. And he occasionally picks up the saxophone to play a solo. Although his own "Swingin' Down At 10th and Main" is among the best tunes on his latest album, he tends to favor standards, both old ("Days of Wine and Roses," "Body and Soul") and new (Ron Sexsmith's "Secret Heart").
The Afro-Cuban sound of Rochester's Mambo Kings has earned them gigs with symphony orchestras across the country. The group, formed by Peru native Richard Delaney (piano) in 1991, features two percussionists, Freddie Colon (timbales and congas) and David Antonetti (congas and bongos) along with John Viavattine (saxophone) and Bob Stata (bass).
Victoria Corrigan Quartet
Her youthful good looks belie a voice reminiscent of a veteran blues singer. Her originals, "Crazy Before Her Time" and "Twelve O'Clock Moon," are reminiscent of Rickie Lee Jones. But perhaps the most impressive thing about Victoria Corrigan is her ability to transform unlikely pop tunes, "Hot Stuff," "Spooky" and even "Abracadabra," into credible blues songs.
After winning the grand prize of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal in 1986, Canadian pianist Jon Ballantyne, moved to New York City, where he studied with Barry Harris and Kenny Barron. In the decades since, he has played with the Woody Herman Big Band, Buddy De Franco, and Clark Terry, and toured the world with his own group.
Friday, June 13
Jazz artists seeking relevance to a new generation may sneak a few pop tunes into the mix, but they usually stick to the tried and true: Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles. Alex Skolnick throws that formula out the window by taking on Aerosmith, Kiss, and Black Sabbath. His album, goodbye to romance: standards for a new generation, is a hoot. Skolnick is such an engaging guitar player, he makes these tunes sound good.
Leni Stern Trio
In her native Germany Leni Stern was known for acting. Since moving to the United States in the late 1970s to study at the Berklee School of Music, Stern has earned a reputation as a jazz guitarist. In recent years she has evolved into a formidable singer-songwriter. The title track of her latest release, "Kindness of Strangers," is a beautiful tune, sung with the perfect touch of frailty.
David Leonhardt Trio
David Leonhardt is an excellent pianist, composer, and arranger who, a few years ago, arranged and recorded David Fathead Newman's excellent CD, Under a Woodstock Moon. At the RIJF, Leonhardt takes on the role of Pied Piper, leading children to jazz with swinging renditions of tunes like "This Old Man," and "Never Never Land."
Medeski Martin & Wood
Saturday, June 14
Saxophonist Joe Romano may be known for touring the world with the bands of Buddy Rich, Les Brown, and Louie Bellson. He may have conquered Los Angeles with Bill Holman, Stan Kenton, and Pearl. But in Rochester he's known as a local hero who graduated from the Eastman School of Music, played on the first Chuck Mangione album, and provided countless great shows in local clubs.
California Guitar Trio
They first met at Robert Fripp's Guitar Craft Course in 1987, but the members of the California Guitar Trio didn't come together as a group until 1991. Since then they've been dazzling audiences with meticulous arrangements and brilliant technique. The charm here is the repertoire, ranging from the sublime ("Waters of Eden") to the ridiculous ("Bohemian Rhapsody").
Bob Sneider Trio
Maybe it takes a jazz festival with acts from around the world to put things in perspective. The Bob Sneider Trio (Sneider, guitar; Bob Stata, bass; Mike Melito, drums) is a world-class group that we're lucky to have in Rochester. Once again, they host late-night jam sessions at the Crown Plaza. Watch Sneider squeeze every drop of cool out of his guitar while guests range from students to stars.
Gap Mangione Trio
On his recent album, Ardis, pianist Gap Mangione is joined by greats like Steve Gadd and Tony Levin on a tasteful collection of originals and standards. Mangione, one of Rochester's favorite musicians, is particularly adept at coaxing the jazz elements out of pop tunes like The Beatles' "Yesterday."
When Eileen Ivers starts fiddling, scores of men and women have been known to cross their arms and madly launch into hours of non-stop Irish dancing. At least that's what happened when the nine-time All-Ireland fiddle champion was the featured musician in Riverdance. Born in the Bronx to Irish immigrant parents, Ivers has done a lot more than traditional fiddling over the years, including a stint with Hall & Oates. In the last decade, her own albums and tours have made her queen of the Celtic fiddle.
Also playing at the festival are Nancy Kelly, Rik Emmett, Bill Carrothers Trio plus One, the Greater Rochester Jazz Orchestra, Anders Osborne Band, Two Siberians, the East Hill Classic Jazz Group, Gypsy Jazz with the Stephane Wrembel Trio ,and the Greece High School Jazz Band.