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Ms. Lisa Fischer leaves ’em in tears on day 4 of jazz fest

Ms. Lisa Fischer.
CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival
Ms. Lisa Fischer.

Plus: From jump shot to jazz trumpet with Nabaté Isles.

Ms. Lisa Fischer delivered the stunning “wow” moment of the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival. And not just this year’s. All of them. And I’ve seen all 19 of them.

People were crying in their seats at Monday’s first show. With vocals soaring to the high ceiling and lifting the packed room of 700 people out of their seats for several standing ovations, she was taking them to church at Temple Theatre, itself a former church.

“This room would not be without your heartbeat,” she told her audience. But this was a two-way exchange of hearts, as Fischer worked the stage, gestured emphatically, hitting R&B and gospel notes, her voice a whisper to a scream.

Does Fischer have an opera background? No, she merely had to out-sing The Rolling Stones as one of the band’s backing singers for years. Maybe you saw the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” about a decade ago, the story of the musicians working alongside the biggest names in the business. That was Fischer, caterwauling alongside Mick Jagger in “Gimme Shelter.”

She sang with Tina Turner, Sting and Luther Vandross. Always in the background, until she released an album in 1991, which produced “How Can I Ease the Pain,” which won a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance/Female. Yet she slipped away into the background again, until she finally began touring on her own — without Mick, or Tina, or Sting to hide behind — at age 57.

In the first of two shows at the Temple Theater, Fischer spoke of “the life experience to breathe into the melody.” She connected with the audience through self-effacing humor. “What I love about 64 is … free Medicare.”

Everything was a perfect fit on this night, right down to her black, loose-fitting parachute pants outfit topped by a towering, off-kilter, wide-brimmed hat. And she wasted no time in showing off her amazing voice, with an a cappella version of “Crossover,” before she was joined by Taylor Eigsti on piano for the rest of the set. He was perfect, right down to the juke-joint piano. Brushing aside calls for “Gimme Shelter,” Fischer closed the set with one of his songs.

Contrary to her stunning vocals, Fischer talked between songs in a husky whisper. She could be hip-shaking sassy and finger-snapping saucy, stepping down off the stage at one point to walk a few rows into the audience, cordless mic in hand, trailing a finger along the shoulder of a guy sitting on the aisle.

She mined classics such as Ella Fitzgerald’s “Blues in the Night,” and its classic opening line, “My mama done told me, when I was in pigtails….” And Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” And obscurities such as “Broken Instrument,” a metaphor for a damaged and discarded soul.

“Your instrument’s not broken!” someone shouted from the audience.

And as she was stalking the stage, how many people in the audience realized that the tortured ballad she was singing was “Hurt,” by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails?

The crowd was calling for “Gimme Shelter,” but Fischer didn’t give it to them. Sorry to report to those folks, but a slow-burn version that was like a Greek siren calling sailors to the rocks came with the second set; a second set that, quite frankly, wasn’t nearly as electric as first.

But that one would be hard to top. They might as well shut down the jazz festival now.

Today’s jazz haiku

Naked human voice

calling to your tired soul

opening your heart

Nabate Isles.
CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival
Nabate Isles.

Preview: Jazz trumpet is Nabaté Isles’ business

Maybe if Nabaté Isles had developed a better jump shot, you wouldn’t be reading this.

Those junior-high dreams faded long ago, although the Manhattan-based trumpet player has nevertheless created a bit of a presence for himself in the sports world. He’s done public-access broadcasts, production work for ESPN, and has his own podcast, “Where They At,” where he’s interviewed sports figures such as George Foreman, and even sports fan Chuck D of the hip-hop icons Public Enemy.

But it’s the music that matters for Isles at the Rochester International Jazz Festival, with two shows on Tuesday at Max of Eastman Place.

His résumé is a dizzying array of top names in the industry, including Jill Scott, Dianne Reeves, The Mingus Big Band and dozens more. He’s composed music scores for a handful of short films. His debut album, “Eclectic Excursions,” is a collage of disparate genres and musicians, ranging from bassist Christian McBride to rapper Elzhi. Isles has been a part of three of McBride’s Grammy-winning albums, and was with McBride’s band when it played the Obama White House.

Isles even had a hand in the acclaimed HBO series “Treme.” He taught the actor Rob Brown, in his role as Delmond Lambreaux, how to play the trumpet. Or, at least, how to look like he was playing it.

Despite the crowds he moves in, like a film director allowing actors the space to express themselves, Isles says musicians must have room to work as well. Because musicians are actors, and music is storytelling.

“If an actor reads a line, and they say a line,” Isles says, “you can say it in different ways, the director encourages the actor to say it in different ways. Because you never know, that could be a better way than what is in the script.”

As that analogy tells us, Isles is a fan of films as well. He’s Bogart with a horn. “I think feeling, and expression, that really means a lot to me,” Isles says. “I really focus on sound and tone.”

And sometimes, social issues. Isles wrote a piece, “Same Strife, Different Life,” a reflection on racism and oppression. The opening movement is trumpet, drums and the clatter of slave chains.

For the Rochester gigs, Isles will be accompanied by guitarist David Gilmore, keyboardist Mike King, bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Eric Carlin.

Isles was an Eastman School of Music student from 1995 to 1999. And even during that short period, he says he witnessed a dizzying evolution in the music business. And that emphasis was toward the business end. When he arrived as an Eastman freshman, this thing called the internet was just arriving. Napster was alive, record labels were dying.

“It’s all about, we have to be able to know how to promote ourselves,” Isles says.

Master the business end, so the musician can devote more time to what matters.

“Because,” Isles says, “you want to focus more on the art at the end of the day.”

CITY Magazine Arts Editor Daniel J. Kushner conducted the interview for this story.

Jeff’s Tuesday picks

  • Jeremy Pelt Quintet, Kilbourn Hall, 6 and 9 p.m. The New York City trumpeter has a keen interest in jazz and his fellow jazz players. So this show could explore a number of different avenues.
Brubeck Brothers Quartet.
CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival
Brubeck Brothers Quartet.

  • Dave Kikoski Trio, Wilder Room, 6 and 10 p.m. Due to her mother’s illness, Helen Sung canceled her shows Tuesday and Wednesday. Kikoski has a significant résumé that includes winning a Grammy with the Mingus Big Band. Kikoski will play as a trio Tuesday and go alone Wednesday at the piano-centric Hatch Hall.
  • Brubeck Brothers Quartet, Hyatt Regency Ballroom, 7:45 and 9:45 p.m. The sons of Dave Brubeck, Dan plays drums while Chris composes and plays bass, trombone and piano. The quartet generates its own music, but does not shy away from Dave Brubeck classics such as “Blue Rondo a La Turk.”
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.