Chris Botti and Tessa Souter just slide in under the jazz fest wire
Plus a hot meal from The Cookers, looking ahead to NYChillharmonic, and a jazz haiku.
A large black SUV swung into the parking lot, and to a smattering of applause from people standing in line at the door of Glory House International, Tessa Souter and her band spilled out of the doors. Two minutes before her show was scheduled to start.
Chris Botti, the headliner on Friday’s opening night of the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival, rode the razor’s edge of air travel as well. Like Souter, his flight to Rochester had been canceled. But his Parcel 5 show wasn’t until 9 p.m., so he had a little more of a cushion.
It wasn’t just the airlines. Giveton Gelin drove into town, and the young trumpet player from Nassau still showed up about 40 minutes late for his first show at Max of Eastman Place.
But in what could have been the worst night in 19 seasons of jazz festivals here, all was deftly averted, all was forgiven.
Souter’s drummer was still going through a sound check on his hastily assembled kit as the crowd was finally allowed inside Glory House, known to jazz fests of yore as Lutheran Church of the Reformation. Forty-one minutes late, it was finally showtime. During which Souter announced, a couple of times, her displeasure with Delta Airlines.
The crowd understood Souter’s dilemma, and rewarded her with a nearly full house for her first set. Looking cocktail-lounge sharp in a black dress, her character-filled vocals were accompanied by a relaxed, elegant trio of piano, bass and drums.
And, airline travails aside, she promised nothing but happy songs. “I recently got married,” she announced. A loose vibe prevailed. “This is what we call real jazz,” she said, “just making it up.”
Over on Parcel 5, a large, laid-back crowd sprawled out on the lawn seemed almost unaware that Botti had walked onstage, opening with a mournful, languid, long and oddly beautiful trumpet solo. A breeze — almost a wind at times — swept across the expansive courtyard as downtown buildings looked down on the show.
As expected, Botti moved on to the trumpet pyrotechnics. That is what is expected of the showman. But the quieter soundscapes were so interesting. Almost avant-garde, in a way that might not upset anyone who came to hear mainstream jazz.
Perhaps Botti was reading the room. Souter was giving us a much-needed moment of optimism. But after the last couple of years, we also need a melancholy soundtrack to these times.
Wild and peaceful
Meandering around onstage before their first set of the night, The Cookers were as relaxed and elegant as Souter, seven veterans of the scene. These guys have seen a thousand stages, and on Friday night, Kilbourn Hall was next.
Yet from there, the band created a complex synchronicity of scatter. Saxophonist Billy Harper’s “Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart” was the perfect entrée for this outfit. Opening as sort of a jazz noir, like Cadillacs swooshing down a dark and rain-slick street, it was piano, drums and bass fronted by two saxes and two trumpets.
Yet The Cookers kept evolving, and shifting. Wild and peaceful, as the song title said. Unrestrained, a cacophony of each player mindful of creating his own world. It wasn’t for some straight-ahead folks in the packed Kilbourn Hall, but for many others, this was jazz unfettered. No rules, no rules, no rules…
Today’s jazz haiku
The Cookers sizzled
piano, bass, drums, four horns
no corn dogs for you
Preview: NYChillharmonic puts jazz on the rocks
Preconceptions can be killers.
“I think people see us billed as a big band,” says Sara McDonald, the creator of NYChillharmonic. “And obviously, that evokes a very specific idea of what it’s going to look and sound like.”
How did this collective of 18 musicians look and sound to the audience at the Perth International Jazz Festival? This music from the mind of a woman who grew up on the twittering Icelandic vocals of Bjork and the deafening hammer of Nine Inch Nails? How did this kind of jazz, this kind of metal, this kind of techno, look and sound to the reviewers?
“It was like, ‘It was good. But this was weird,’” McDonald says. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if this review was good or terrible or what?’”
Now it’s our turn. The Brooklyn-based band plays at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, the second night of the festival, at Glory House International.
“It’s obviously not the jazziest thing in the world,” says McDonald, the group’s songwriter and singer. “But I also think that’s a pretty, at least in my opinion, ambiguous term at this point. Unless you’re really talking about, like, straight-ahead jazz.”
“Surface Tension,” the first track from the band’s self-titled 2019 debut album, is the mission statement. It slides from a shimmering minimalist opening, something like Philip Glass, to a chiming pop as McDonald’s vocals move in. As the piece unfolds, there’s a lot going in there, the music caroming from understated to energetic, then back again.
McDonald concedes that the group’s very name — NYChillharmonic — suggests a tongue-in-cheek attitude. A band that was supposed to be a one-off music moment, but has now played on five continents, joined along the journey by an estimated 400 musicians.
She now takes this project very seriously. “And while it started as a joke, now it’s like, you know, there’s some name recognition associated with the group,” she says.
This difficult-to-categorize outfit suits McDonald’s finely tuned sense of showmanship and chaos.
“Oh, there has to be a lot happening at once,” she says. “Like, I really kind of function in this organized chaos state of being and it’s like there are so many moving parts all the time.”
Growing up in a musical family, McDonald started performing in plays at 6 or 7 years of age. By the time she graduated from high school, she estimates she’d appeared in 30 or 40 musicals. She had a high-school rock band as well. A graduate of The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, McDonald was also a recipient of the ASCAP Foundation’s Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award.
She was covering a lot of territory in a short time.
“To me it was the norm,” she says.
A run-on sentence of norm.
“Like OK, every time there is a concert there is a million people here and there are a million things and it’s like you have to rehearse and learn all this music and everybody plays a part,” she says. “And each part is so integral to the overall, to the overall production and outcome and experience.”
McDonald is similarly musically scattered, managing a dual career as musician and artist manager. “So my whole life is literally just managing people and crisises,” she says. “Crisis, if you will, including my own.”
NYChillharmonic didn’t emerge fully formed, it’s been an evolution.
“I wrote the first song when I was 22, and I’m 31 now,” she says. “So really, just trying to find out what worked.”
It works like a complex piece of machinery: The components are rhythm section, horn section, string quartet, synthesizers and McDonald’s lead vocals. After the band released their debut album, COVID slowed their progress. New songs have been trickling out as single releases. And they’re sounding heavier than the band’s earlier work.
“Mean” is a complex, assertive prog piece. The lyrics — “You’re so mean to me” — are not a conversation between two people, but an internal conversation in one person’s head:
Split yourself to let me see
All the wars you’ve been hiding
Hold my eyes open and scream
“You’re so mean to me”
Good or terrible or what? If this is a jazz band, it’s on the rocks. In a good way.
“In the beginning, everyone was like really timid,” McDonald says. “Myself included, I couldn’t even make eye contact with people because I just didn’t have the confidence in myself or confidence in the project.”
But now? McDonald describes her band as “a little beast,” and one with a dual purpose: as dance band, and listening experience.
“I think writing lyrics in general is weird and hugely personal,” she says. “Whether or not you intend for it to be, because other people will expect it to be.”
CITY Magazine’s Daniel J. Kushner conducted the interview for this story.
Day Two: Jeff’s picks
- Devon Allman Project, 9 p.m., Parcel 5. Allman is the son of the late Gregg Allman, and that history isn’t ignored. At recent shows, the Devon Allman Project covered the Allman Brothers Band’s “Down to the River,” “Midnight Rider.” “Southern Rain,” “Dreams” and an Allman Brothers favorite, Sonny Boy Williamson’s “One Way Out.”
- Jay Collins & the Northern Resistance, 7 and 9:15 p.m., The Little Theatre. Speaking of Allman legacies, this saxophonist and singer was the Gregg Allman Band’s musical director for five years, and played on Allman’s Grammy-nominated album, “Southern Blood.” The band also plays the Big Tent on Sunday.
- Karl Stabnau & Friends jam session, 10:30 p.m., Hyatt Regency. You just never know. Sometimes a surprise guest from earlier in the evening shows up for a song or two. The Bob Sneider Trio, which has handled the jam session over the years, shares the week’s duties with Stabnau.