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Day 3 of the jazz festival brings Ranky Tanky’s gospel and grits

CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival
Ranky Tanky.

Plus: The intensity of Kurtz and Frisell, and Cottone comes home.

When music is infused with special nods to a culture, you’re getting an extra layer of meaning. The Grammy-winning Ranky Tanky draws its culture from the Carolinas. Gospel and grits. And a sense of traditional, simple folk songs.

But 21st-century intrusions are tough to ignore.

Airline travel has been an issue for some of the acts getting to the jazz fest, but no musicians should take it personally. According to a news story, “a combination of rough weather, staff shortages and infrastructure challenges have left major carriers struggling to keep up with the surge in travel.” About 9,000 flights were delayed on Friday, and another 1,500 were canceled. The rest of the weekend was similarly disrupted.

Ranky Tanky can relate. “We had some interesting challenges with that recently,” guitarist and vocalist Charlton Singleton said during the group’s Saturday show at Kilbourn Hall, with a second set Sunday at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom, musing on why the group had to fly south to go north. On a flight delayed because a tire on the plane had to be changed.

A tire? An airplane hardly uses ’em.

A lot of people at the jazz fest were talking about the group after Saturday’s show, and its blend of gospel to groove, with an insistent jazz beat in the mix. Bass, drums, electric guitar, a Gabriel-like trumpet and vocals, often played with a church-like hush. The two lead singers, including the dynamic Quiana Parler, cooed over the lullaby-like “Turtledove,” in a set punctuated by hand-clapping and some dancing by Singleton and Parler.

As Singleton noted, there are many forms of dance, some characterized by the closeness of the partners. They’re not naive; that’s why we have so many Christians. “You slow drag with somebody,” he said, “you got an agenda.

“I’m gonna spread my joy,” they sang, “’cause that’s the only way.”

And the end-of-the-world Jesus shouters at the intersection of Gibbs and East Main Street didn’t hear a word of it.


Frisell a master class on taking risks

Enter into a Bill Frisell show with no expectations except the unexpected, and Frisell will meet them.

CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival
Bill Frisell.

Not simply limited to his electric guitar, Frisell uses all tools at hand, including effects pedals and playing over some looping of notes.

Unlike so many shows, where people get edgy and start streaming for the exits and the next show they’ve circled in their programs, most of the packed Temple Theater, which seats 700, stayed for the full hour. They had to see: Where was this going?

It was one hour of music, uninterrupted. Not a medley, but a collage of electric guitar potential. His trio was like going for a car ride on the freeway, each piece merging in the traffic of the next. Smoothly turning off an exit to explore a new neighborhood.

What were these songs, that seemed to drift from frail beauty to complex collisions to prog rock? Frisell took a moment to list them after the first set; there were only a half-dozen, all thoroughly explored, deconstructed and reassembled.

For those keeping a scorecard, the first four were Frisell compositions: “Blues from Before,” “Keep Your Eyes Open,” “Winter Always Turns to Spring” and “Strange Meeting.” And he closed with two covers: the James Bond theme “You Only Live Twice” and the Pete Seeger and Charles Tindley classic “We Shall Overcome.”


Today’s jazz haiku

An electric thought

runs from brain to fingertips

a bolt of Frisell

Kurtz falls in and out of love

Over at The Little Theatre, Dayna Kurtz was lamenting the fact that her two shows were at the same time as Frisell’s. Because she wanted to see him as well.

CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival
Dayna Kurtz.

So she missed a good one, and Frisell did as well. Kurtz has a big, heartbreaker voice that suits the lovelorn atmosphere of her songs. In a relaxed and chatty second show, she took requests for brilliantly emotional pieces such as “It’s How You Hold Me” and the surrealistic “Venezuela,” whose torn love and paper heart in a rib cage imagery came to her in a dream.

But she also has a sly and sometimes wicked humor, asking, “What would Jesus say?” of white evangelical Christians who want to mold the world in their own image.

And she might have the most captivating song lyric of the entire festival: “I don’t think you’re right in the head, but I think you’re just right for me.”


CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival
Mike Cottone.

Preview: Mike Cottone returns with a 'Thank You'

Rochester native and jazz trumpeter Mike Cottone is a soloist at heart.

Despite bolstering his career as a top-flight touring musician — having performed with legacy acts such as Don Henley, Bette Midler, and Blood, Sweat & Tears, as well as crossover sensation Postmodern Jukebox and Iranian pop singer Ebi — Cottone sounds most at home floating smooth melodies over his own compositions and arrangements.

Now based in Los Angeles, the Rush-Henrietta High School graduate and Eastman School of Music alum returns to the Rochester International Jazz Festival on Monday to play tasty soul, R&B, and funk tunes sprinkled with a jazz sensibility at the Innovation Theater.

His sets are sure to include selections from the 2020 album “Thank You,” a culmination of the cool and composed sound he’s honed over his career.

Long before “Thank You,” Cottone, now 37, studied at Eastman under a trio of teachers — jazz professor Clay Jenkins, RPO Principal Trumpet Douglas Prosser, and then-doctoral student Denver Dill — who helped him find his tone and musicality.

“Clay warmed up my sound, Doug Prosser made it ring, Denver Dill made it all easy,” Cottone says.

At Eastman, Cottone says he learned authenticity as a jazz musician, not only through playing with technical proficiency, but by understanding the historical struggles that made Black American music what it is and allowing it to inform his performance. But Cottone also notes that Eastman’s curriculum stuck strictly to traditional repertoire. “Playing something like a Marvin Gaye tune wasn't the norm at Eastman,” he says.

Cottone’s arrangement of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” made famous by Gaye, is a slow-burning highlight on “Thank You.”

It wasn’t until he went to pursue his master’s degree at The Juilliard School in New York City that he began to perform music that wasn’t part of the accepted jazz canon.

“Do you want to appeal to an audience that's already small and relatively closed-minded, and give them all the gratification of being able to tell you whether you're a good enough musician or not? You're picking the hardest path possible,” Cottone says of playing music that caters only to traditional jazz die-hards.

In addition to originals such as the appropriately named “Funky Sam” and the hot jazz-meets-funk of “98.6 Degrees F,” Cottone’s latest album features ’60s and ’70s hits such as “Killing Me Softly” and “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay.” Cottone says he made a conscious decision about the songs he chose for “Thank You.”

On his debut album, “Just Remember,” Cottone recalls writing songs with melodic hooks he believed in, but coming up with off-the-cuff solos was challenging. Now he prioritizes songs that feel good to play in front of a live audience, and not just whether a tune sounds good.

“Is it going to make it feel like I have handcuffs on or is it going to let me be free?” he asks. “And I think that’s why many times I like playing everyone else’s music because I don’t have any emotional attachment to it necessarily. And I can just play the way I want to play.”


Jeff’s Monday picks

  • Matt Savage Trio, The Wilder Room, 6 and 10 p.m. Savage earned rapturous reviews from many of the people who saw him at the festival four years ago. The pianist and composer has played with Chick Corea and prestigious venues such as the Kennedy Center. Now 30 years old, the Massachusetts native has released 15 albums.
CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival
Ana Egge.

  • Ana Egge, The Little Theatre, 7 and 9:15 p.m. A small-town Canadian native, Egge moved with her family throughout the Western United States before settling in Austin. Working in that songwriting community, she attracted the attention of people such as Steve Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, John Prine and Lucinda Williams. I once compared Egge, now living in Brooklyn, to an alt-country chanteuse who’s played here a few times, Eilen Jewell. Except much taller.
  • Ms. Lisa Fischer, Temple Theatre, 7 and 9:15 p.m. If you saw the documentary “Twenty Feet from Stardom” at The Little several years ago, you’ll remember Fischer as the vocalist accompanying Sting and, especially, Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter.” But she’s had success in her own right: Her song “How Can I Ease the Pain” won a Grammy in 1992 for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
  • Kaisa’s Machine, Glory House International, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. At this point in the fest, you’re probably screaming, “But WHERE are the Finns?” Double-bassist Kaisa Mäensivu now lives in New York City and is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, but she’s a native of Finland. As the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reports, “Poppoo on silminnähden hitsautunut yhteen.”
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.
Daniel J. Kushner is arts editor of CITY magazine, which works in partnership with WXXI News. He began writing for CITY in 2015 as a contributing writer, before joining the staff full-time in 2018.