A smokin’ set by Devon Allman on day 2 of the jazz fest
Also: Chilling with the NYChillharmonic, looking ahead to Gullah music, and Jeff’s picks for Sunday.
The CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival hit its FDA-recommended level of secondary pot smoke midway through the Devon Allman Project’s show Saturday. Discreet, yes, but definitely there. Or maybe it was the burrito truck.
Half the guys from The Allman Brothers Band are gone now. Duane Allman a few decades ago, Gregg Allman five years ago. All that’s left for these folks who’d gathered on Parcel 5, the downtown grass-filled square — there we go again, with the drug references — are their old albums, and Gregg’s son, Devon.
Backed by two percussionists (Dad’s old band had three) and a hard-working smoke machine, Allman and his band caterwauled through the slightly chilled June air, the guitars echoing off the surrounding buildings, all lit up like we’re having a party.
With the Allman Brothers Band’s “Dreams,” it felt like old times. And as the band worked through an extended version of The Spinners’ “I’ll Be There,” with extended guitar and sax solos, a drone with blinking green and red lights drifted spookily overhead. Allman called for beer and shots, “to show our humanity.”
He’d even done some deep research into Rochester’s ancient condiment history. French’s Mustard. We are, he reminded us, “the mustard city.”
— JEFF SPEVAK
Chilling with the NYChillharmonic
I came for the NYChillharmonic T-shirt. There wasn’t one. So I stayed for the music.
“I know it looks like a big band,” the creator of the 18-piece outfit, Sara McDonald, told the Glory House International crowd at the band’s first show Saturday night. “But it’s just a really big band.”
She’s not just splitting hairs with grammarians. There’s nothing Glenn Miller about the Brooklyn-based NYChillharmonic. It’s a sprawling idea of a band, ranging from the Philip Glass drone opening of “Easy Comes the Ghost” to dramatic rock arrangements that sound like a deconstruction of Led Zeppelin. Churning rhythms punctuated by chiming guitar. Lush arrangements. McDonald pushing a synth button on her keyboard for a Sputnik effect
Every one of the 18 musicians had their own sense of style. McDonald, in a black sequined jacket. A trumpet player in overalls.
The group’s founder, singer and songwriter, McDonald is a busy presence at the front of this band, her hands keeping time with the chatter of a cello, then holding her arms wide open welcome in the brass.
Not missing a beat. As McDonald suggested, “You can throw money at us.”
Some people left early, complaining it was too loud. But as the crowd streamed out of the room at the end of the show, the overwhelming sentiment seemed to be: Spectacular. As a couple of women — mature women who likely partied to vinyl copies of Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti as college kids, I might add — called it unbelievable. And unlike anything they’d ever heard.
The source of all this dramatic music? Drama, perhaps. “I don’t usually write songs about men,” McDonald said, recalling an old boyfriend. “Because I really didn’t want to break up with him. And then I did. And it felt great.”
That taking ownership of who she is, and her music, was McDonald’s introduction to a song called “To Covet a Quiet Moment.” More drama of Zeppelin proportions.
“It was obviously,” she said after the song, “a very successful breakup.”
— JEFF SPEVAK
Today’s jazz haiku
As Sedaka said
breaking up is hard to do
so chill, harmonic
Preview: Ranky Tanky’s Gullah music is gonna getcha
Long known for its eclectic programming, the Rochester International Jazz Festival explores new musical terrain in its lineup this year with Ranky Tanky, the South Carolina-based band that celebrates the region’s Gullah culture with a modern take on generations-old songs alongside originals that both pay tribute to and push forward the tradition.
Songs such as “Kumbaya” and “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore,” which have long been staples of the American folk-music canon, originated from the Gullah culture, based in the Sea Island region of the southeastern United States. (The word “Gullah” comes from West Africa and means “a people blessed by God.”)
Ranky Tanky played Kilbourn Hall on Saturday night, and has 7:45 and 9:45 p.m. Sunday shows at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom.
The four core musicians of Ranky Tanky — trumpeter Charlton Singleton, guitarist Clay Ross, bassist Kevin Hamilton, and drummer Quentin Baxter — met at the College of Charleston in the mid-1990s, and then formed a jazz band, Gradual Lean, in 1998. They eventually split to pursue other projects but reconvened in 2016 at Ross’s behest to explore the Gullah traditions of their native state. Singleton, Hamilton and Baxter have Gullah lineage.
With the addition of singer Quiana Parler — a fellow Charlestonian who has appeared on American Idol and performed with Clay Aiken, Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, and others — Ranky Tanky was born, taking its name from a Gullah phrase for “get funky.”
“We’d all been making music, slugging it out with other bands, and had been lucky enough to earn a living,” Ross said in a recent interview. “But then we formed this band, and really quickly things started to click. It was kind of like early in our career and late in our careers at the same time.”
In 2017, the band released its self-titled debut album, which made it to No. 1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart and garnered critical acclaim. Downbeat magazine reviewer Bobby Reed wrote of the work: “Whether Ranky Tanky is unleashing a high-energy dance number or carefully sculpting a lullaby, such as ‘Go to Sleep,’ the music always feels fresh. This band can take tunes from yesterday and make them sound as lively and relevant as 21st-century electronic beats.”
Ranky Tanky’s second release, Good Time, won a 2019 Grammy Award for “Best Regional Roots Album,” which Ross called a “mind-blower.”
Ross described Ranky Tanky’s music as providing several entry points for listeners, from the accessible lyrics to the blend of traditional Gullah influences with jazz, funk, R&B and gospel.
“I like to think of it as deceptively complex — there’s so many layers to this music,” he said. “You can really latch on to it, and it feels very familiar. But there’s a complexity in what’s going on underneath and the rhythmic dialogues that we’re having in the way that we’re improvising on stage, even in the context of this very specific musical language. And I think that’s what’s fun about it for us as the artist, and then that joy carries over to the audience.”
The band has an educational component to its mission, but it’s a subtle one, according to Ross.
“We just want people to have fun and enjoy great music,” he said. “That said, people in the audience are going to have some ‘Aha!’ moments where they realize what Gullah is, and how Gullah has informed and inspired so many of the musical styles that we know and love today — from rock and roll to jazz to country music. Gullah as a very specific African diaspora music in the Americas has played an important role in the bigger conversation of American music, so we share that and we connect those dots.”
Ross noted the Ranky Tanky’s sound continues to evolve.
“We’re like a different band than we were four years ago — it’s unreal,” he said. “I’m always doing new musical projects, and that really brings into focus how far we’ve come with Ranky Tanky in terms of developing a group sound, and working within a really specific vocabulary as a group.
“For a lot of my favorite groups, that’s really what it’s all about. It’s not necessarily about any individual in the group — it’s about the vibe that the band is able to create as a whole.”
— JIM CATALANO
Jeff’s Sunday picks
- Dayna Kurtz, 7 and 9:15 p.m., The Little Theatre. I’ve seen Kurtz a few times. She loves singing old cabaret tunes, or maybe Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” But it’s her own love-ripped material, such as “Venezuela” and “It’s How You Hold Me” that’ll break your heart.
- Bill Frisell Trio, 7 and 9:15 p.m., Temple Theatre. Speaking of ripping out your heart, I’ve sometimes confessed — to friends only! — that this guitarist is the only instrumentalist who has made me cry. Sunday is shaping up to be a tough one on my soul.
- Tommy Emmanuel, 9 p.m., Parcel 5. Speaking of guitar, the acoustic wonder of this Australian native has frequently been compared to Chet Atkins. Emmanuel once played for an audience estimated at 2.8 billion people: That was the televised closing ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
- Ravi Coltrane Freedom Trio, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., Theater at Innovation Square. A saxophonist, Coltrane has forged a Grammy-nominated career on his own merits. Yet he also keeps his parents close at hand. He has been known to play versions of Alice Coltrane’s “Turiya” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”