Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jazz Fest Day 8: A four-letter word called Jazz, and Community Soul Project

Nicholas Payton
Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival
Nicholas Payton

The headliner had cancelled the tour. St. Germain, a French techno-dance maestro, was out after he broke a leg. Yet Friday night was much as we’ve come to expect on these Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival weekends. On Gibbs Street a tight knot of people watching The Community Soul Project, a Canadian band singing Motown songs. East Avenue and Chestnut Street closed, thousands of people milling about. It wasn’t quite the shoulder-to-shoulder of last week with the Brian Setzer rockabilly show, but it was nonetheless an impressive sight on this sultry night.

Friday’s headlining band had taken the gig just a few days ago. The Miles Electric Band. An eight-piece group, playing music from the Miles Davis electric era. That was Davis’ nephew, drummer Vince Wilburn, Jr., on drums. The rest of them all had some experience playing with Davis.

I’ve been asked why the jazz fest crowds seem to be mostly older people. That’s in the clubs, and the pricey Club Passes, and hour-long shows for $30 and $35. The young people are on the streets, where the music is free and you can drink beer from a tap on the side of a truck.

The nine-day jazz fest concludes Saturday, with Tower of Power the big free show.     

Payton’s four-letter word

Jazz bands are machines, with lots of gears for steep inclines and cutting loose on the open road. And for his first set at Kilbourn Hall, Nicholas Payton’s Front and Center accessorized well. Vocals by Payton. And his iPhone.

Payton is an impressive soloist, his pyrotechnic playing filled with flurries of notes spiraling upward.

Of course, there are a few players who can do that kind of thing.

He called his version of Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean” his “de-arrangement, I mean re-arrangement.” And then he sang it. He sang as well on his own “I’m Gonna Stay Right Here in New Orleans” following a drum solo like a second line snaking through the city’s streets.

Of course, there are a few trumpet players who can sing. Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker. Payton’s not going to knock Gregory Porter off the charts, but he respects the words and stays in his zone.

Where Payton separates himself a bit is his sense of place. On his blog, he calls himself “The Savior of Archaic Pop.”

Payton explained how the drummer Max Roach was writing a paper called “Jazz is a Four-Letter Word” when he died. Payton used that as a launching pad for a piece of that name, a vocal duet between himself and his iPhone, attached to a bracket on his microphone stand. “Duke Ellington, to me, is America’s greatest composer,” said an unidentified voice on the phone – Roach? – before Payton sang, “Jazz is a four letter word.” And the phone replied:

And this and that,

and this and that,

and this and that,

and this and that.

Then Payton got the Kilbourn audience to chant along with him: “Jazz is a four-letter word… Jazz is a four-letter word…” Until it was just the audience. And the rare moment where it is the people who came to see the show who got in the last word.

Today’s jazz haiku

Jazzman fedora

voice from another era

says, “and this and that.”

McKelle’s simple answer

The jazz fest is frequently alumni week. The vibraphonist Joe Locke on Tuesday, singer Robin McKelle Friday at Harro East Ballroom.

McKelle sites Sade as an influence, and you can hear that silk in her voice. Maybe a little Amy Winehouse, too, McKelle did a smoothed-out version of Winehouse’s “Back in Black.” Yet she’s also a woman of her own mind. When McKelle last played the jazz fest a few years ago, she was an R&B singer, aerobically bounding around the Gibbs Street stage. This time, in keeping with the sound of her new album, she was a sultry jazz singer. And in her second set, despite her vow of “without getting into politics,” that’s where she went.

“We have a lot of questions these days,” she said. “I don’t have all the answers.”

But, she assured the packed room, “Music is the uniting force. Music speaks the same way to everyone.”

And then she sang Sade’s “No Ordinary Love.”

It took a lot of helium scat singing to get the crowd into the show, but McKelle worked it hard and drew them in. And then the next song, the next political moment. McKelle said her grandparents were immigrants, leading into a song she wrote, “Simple Man.”

“It’s the story of a man, a simple man, who is looking for a better life for his family,” she said.

It was a strongly-worded plea to look at an immigrant, even one who doesn’t speak the language, with compassion and humanity. 

Jazz Fest Day Nine

Tower of Power, on its 50th anniversary tour, closes out the 17th jazz fest with the big free show at the East Avenue and Chestnut Street Stage. TOP goes on at 9 p.m., following the 7 p.m. show by Community Soul Project.

Matt Wilson’s Honey & Salt Band, 6 and 9 p.m., Kilbourn Hall. Wilson comes up with all kinds of interesting ideas. This one includes spoken-word pieces, poems by Carl Sandburg. The band includes guitarist Dawn Thompson, who’s married to XRIJF co-producer John Nugent.

Jeff Spevak
Jeff Spevak

The Rochester Music Hall of Fame Tour. Gap Mangione & the New Big Band has 6:30 and 9 p.m. shows at Xerox Auditorium. Bluesman Joe Beard and his band plays the free shows at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. on Gibbs Street.

Jeff Spevak is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.comHe will be reporting for WXXI throughout the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.