Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine-inSight

july 2007

Hymns From The Republic Of Jazz

by Ned Bobkoff

Rochester, New York spurred on its 6th annual International Jazz Festival with a selection of prominent headliners, a host of established musicians, and a roster of formidable younger talent. With 18 venues and 70+ performances to attend, the festival swallowed up everything around it, as natural in its democratic atmosphere as A is to Z.


In short, the festival, which attracted over 100,000 people, has grown up. It's impossible to get around to every set, but here are some highlights that I managed to get to: 

Esperanza Spalding, at 22 already a bassist, singer, composer and teacher, is a joy to listen to. Sporting a mop of exuberant black hair, Esperanza invents vocal riffs to match her impressive bass work while she sings. Esperanza-Spalding-cr-p2Two fellow travelers sailed right along with her. Cuban percussionist Francisco Mela, with fine feathering and Brazilian style rhythms, and Leo Genovece on piano and melodium, using finger work swift with conjugations. Reprising the Billie Holiday favorite "Body and Soul", Esperanza delivered familiar phrases like my "heart is sad and lonely" and "I'm yours for the taking" with fresh impact. Max at Eastman Place with its upscale atmosphere, and large windows pouring down light, was the perfect venue for the trio. 

Guitarist Raul Midon opened a double whammy of a set at the Eastman Theatre with King Solomon Burke, who lives up to his name with unconscionable bravado. Midon utilizes an aggressive acoustic guitar, reminiscent of Richie Havens, and joins it with the hum and buzz of original percussive lip work – using his lips like a trumpet. He offers a variety of musical styles – "reggae, flamenco, jazz, Afro-Cuban, pop and soul"- and also delivers original work like "All Because of You"  and "All the Answers"- a satirical take on the Paris Hilton media fiasco. A duet between Raul Mideo and Esperanza Spalding would be a stylish and mean act to follow.

King Solomon Burke performed at the Eastman theatre like a ton of bricks setting sail. He has a reputation for delivering Barnum and Bailey theatrics, mixed with gospel tinged rock and roll, and it follows him like a cloud of Intergallectic dust. Photo - James DolanSitting on a red velvet throne, wearing a bubba breaking colorful blue jacket, Burke is a force of nature. He commands his musicians, the light technician, and his grand daughter, who also sings, with an easy wave of his hand.  King Solomon has spawned 14 grand daughters and claims 676 songs attached to his name, and also mines all the bases without a hitch; ranging from Tom Waits to Otis Reading's "Sitting On The Dock of the Bay". His thunderclap delivery could make a fundamentalist preacher cry out for relief.  Except that the shoe is on the other foot. 

Jerry Lee Lewis took over with his own brand of fireworks. Lewis at 72 is a rock and roll jelly roll of a legend; a master of stride piano. He still buckles the piano with infinite zest and dexterity.

Scene4 Magazine: Jerry Lee Lewis

And his musicians back him to the hilt with exceptional playing of their own. No longer acrobatic, Lewis wisely infuses his seminal work with both clarity of purpose and an unexpected dignity in his playing. He didn't even tap his toe. What's left is the excitement of hearing him play the stuff that made him famous. Add to that his version of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow", done with haunting effect, and you just about have it all. When he got around to  "There's a Whole Lot of Shaking Going On" and "Great Balls of Fire", the  "Killer" stopped with perfect timing,  stood, saluted, and then ambled off the stage. Jerry Lee Lewis has never lost his flash and fire at the piano. But there he was, roaming the range with the assurance of an easy rider. All the more power to him. 

Screaming amplified jazz it is not my favorite sport, by a long short. Yet the Stephane Wrembel Trio under the Big Tent was another matter all together. Frenchman Stephane Wremble devotes his trio to "Gypsy Jam" – world music dominated by a Gypsy guitar. The trio delivered an ingenious collection of  suggestive musical fragments from a variety of sources; abstracted and evolving at a high rate and level of absorption. Despite my initial hesitation, I enjoyed the experience. On the runway of Jazz you never know what's coming off next.  

At the High Fidelity club, Tessa Souter mesmerized her audience with original and lyrical songs. Souter delivers a soft peddling sensuality and versatility to whatever she sings. "Yesterday", for example, was delivered with exquisite liquefied expression.


A former journalist, Souter's words take on fresh meaning in a fluid context. Her original "You Don't Have To Believe" had an undulating middle eastern flavor; graceful, intimate, and shrewdly articulated.   

Mamadou Diabate is a profoundly gifted West African musician (Mali, the Manding people). He  plays a Kora, a 21 string instrument that sounds like a combination of a lute and a harp. A traditional West African polyrhythmic instrument of liveliness, energy, grace, and resonant depth, Diabate uses it with masterly command. With its cascading notes, the Kora has a fast Gambian style of playing.  Mamadou and his fellow musicians, who performed with a Bal phone, a mallet struck instrument with a melodic set of bars, and a Ngoni, an ancient plucked lute, collaborated with amazing precision. The music is deeply generic, breath taking and inviting. It traces its roots back to the 13th century when the Mali empire was in full swing. Although Kora music may not be associated with jazz, it is, at its roots, coming from the same place, using  remarkably resurgent and enveloping scales. with a similar improvisational dynamic. Easily one of the finest performances in the festival.

If you took a break from roaming through the crowd, from one venue to the next, and if you found a seat at the open air Jazz Street Stage; or, if you were brave enough, huddled with the masses surrounding the East Avenue and Chestnut/Alexander street stages, a solid lineup was always available. The smiling and eloquent Fred Costello on the electric organ, with his quartet, including singer Kimberly Westcott, made my glass of Riesling toe tap on the table top. The Los Lonely Boys, 3 brothers from West Texas, lead by fiery guitarist Henry Garza, tooled away with Tex rock, rhythm and blues, and Latin riffs. Upstate New York's Mambo Kings kept the starch out of the full court press of people surrounding them, with their own top cuts of Latin rhythms. Walter Wolfman Washington & The Roadmasters socked out hot New Orleans rock & roll and jazz. Rochester high school jazz bands proved their worth during the 8 day festival, with well disciplined and entertaining big band hits from the 30's, 40's and 50's. Note: If you know anyone from a school board who decides to leave no child behind by cutting the music programs, tell them to come down to Rochester's Jazz Street stage. I would be happy to throw the first stone. These kids did themselves up proud.      

Violinist Jean Luc Ponty & His Band's reputation is global.  Ponty has carved out more than a notch in the jazz world, he's everywhere. Ponty bowed his  jazzed up violin into evolutionary cycles, replete with high atmospheric riffs, immaculate in conception, immediate and free.


Three selections from his repertoire: "Nostalgia", "Desert Crossing", and "Mirage" crossed borders with striking effect. Keyboardist William Laconte parlayed the soundscapes from the jazzy to the soothing to the oceanic, always with ease. Bassist Guy Nsanque' Akwa added considerable grounding to their efforts. An exchange between percussionist Thierrg Arpino and Taffa Cisse' was riveting without self indulgence. Neither musician lost their sensitivity towards each other's efforts. Cisse' took off with round-robin drumming, from the robust to the sensual to impeccable feathering, without getting trapped by busting it all up for demonstration purposes only. He rose into a zenith and faded into a whisper of a conversation, without a hitch. His solo a concert in and of itself: remarkable.  

Celebrated jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, now in his mid-80's, sat in for the third time at the jazz festival, as an ambassador of good will.


Brubeck still explores the time signature configurations that made him famous. He plays with exquisite precision a variety of thematic material, without the occupational hazards of sounding redundant. He also charmed us with an original composition titled "Cassandra" . Brubeck takes pleasure in the contributions of his fellow musicians: Randy Jones on the drums, Michael Moore on bass (no, not the documentary film maker), and Bobby Militello, the Buffalo alto saxophonist. Militello is a big man. He dominates the stage just by being there. And he uses y arched saxophone riffs that transfer Brubeck's themes with impeccable swinging regularity. In the public mind no one can substitute for the legendary music of Paul Desmond's liquid sax on the historic "Take Five" recording. But Militello's music is first rate. He delivered an exquisite, sinuous "Rondo ala Turk". Brubeck's music has captured our hearts in his hands. And that is no mean feat. 

Madeleine Peyroux is a highly talented "country" singer and guitarist. She might be your gifted sister plying her musical wares. Her relaxed, natural and unadorned delivery surprises, not only because her significant choice of material, ranging from Bessie Smith to Tom Waits works, but also because her stylistically changeable, straight no chaser, unexpected impressions of well known songs  linger when she stops. Peyroux reveals an enviable talent for spontaneity.  Choices appear almost out of nowhere. What is phased in is also phrased with  easy going creative riffs to the point of being born again – for all the right reasons. She comes home with an impressive display of double edged lyrics like "The Heart of Saturday Night" (Tom Waits) and "Help Me Through The Night". Classy, satisfying and just right on, it was like hearing the songs for the first time.   

The Nordic Series, highlighted at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, brought together jazz groups and multi-media artists from Sweden, Demark Finland and Norway. The Peter Asplund Quartet, Asplund an award winning trumpet and flugelhorn player; Lotte Anker,  a free jazz sax player; In the Country, with impressionist composer Morton Qvebukd on the keyboards; and the Andreas Petterson Quartet, with Petterson playing double duty legato runs and powerful chords,  like his life depended on it. Have I left anyone out? Yes, I missed Wynton Marsalis' "Congo Square", "Trio Beyond", "Benny Golson", "Maceo Parker", and a host of notable etceteras, including the  Rochestarians Gap Mangione Quintet, with Gap on jazz piano, and the late night jam sessions with the Bob Sneider Trio – two fine groups I'm familiar with. If I didn't take a break, I might have grown wax in my ears. And that was one thing I did not want to do. Whew……   

Cover Photo of Fred Costello by Thomas Frizelle 

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About This Article

©2007 Ned Bobkoff
©2007 Scene4 Magazine

Ned Bobkoff is a writer, director, and teacher who has worked with performers from all walks of life in a variety of cultural and community settings throughout the United States and abroad.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media

july 2007

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