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Danielle Ponder takes control on final day of jazz fest

Danielle Ponder performs Saturday, June 25, the final night of the 2022 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival.
Fred SanFilipo
Danielle Ponder performs Saturday, June 25, the final night of the 2022 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival.

Also: Kurt Elling and the end of the world, and the best of the fest.

It took nine days, but on the final day of the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival, Danielle Ponder delivered the profound message that so many people had already gone to the streets in the last couple of days to speak for themselves.

“We will not be controlled,” the Rochester R&B singer announced from the stage early in her show at Parcel 5.

She was speaking, of course, of the Supreme Court’s ruling Friday — fear that had been building for many people all week — that threatens to shut down a woman’s access to abortion.

“I am sovereign in my soul,” Ponder sang. “I am sovereign in my body.”

She dedicated her show “to Black women all over this country who will suffer the worst.”

“You will make the choice completely for your own body.”

Ponder was offering soulful salve, and hope, for a wounded nation. And a final-night theme for a festival that has been quieted for two years because of COVID.

With G Love & Special Sauce set to close the night, the crowd continued to filter throughout Ponder’s powerful set in the open-air venue on this stunningly beautiful Rochester evening.

She paused to dwell on her early years here. Fifteen years ago, when she recalled singing for blueberry scones at Java’s on Gibbs Street.

Look at her now, listen to her now. Backed by a powerful band reverberating off the walls of the nearby buildings, Ponder’s emotion-laden, pain-laden, roughed-up siren of a voice carries the stories she’s led not only in her own life, but also as a Rochester assistant public defender.

Look at her now, listen to her now. Earlier this year, Ponder made her national television debut on NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” performing her single “So Long.” This summer, her music has been heard on NPR’s “World Café,” and she has opened for Leon Bridges. In August, Ponder joins Amos Lee’s national tour.

Her new album will be released in August. This was the new music. Hers is a powerful voice commanding attention. Slow-burning ballads escalated to caterwauling levels.

And Ponder spread community awareness from the stage. Early on in the show, she had promised nothing but new music. That was the only promise unfulfilled. Ponder slipped in a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” and as the show drew to a close, she amped up impassioned words for the new Clarissa Street history exhibit at RIT’s City Art Space, 280 E. Main St. An exhibit presenting the story of the city’s historic Black neighborhood.

And she championed Teen Empowerment Rochester, the not-for-profit group that creates community-improvement initiatives. Ponder noted that the jazz festival declined the opportunity to place a free ad in the fest program building awareness for these programs; the groups could buy an ad if they wanted. So Ponder announced she was using her Parcel 5 stage, with an audience of thousands by the time she got to this point in the set, to get out the word: “I’m giving them this time.”

Then a handful of young people in white T-shirts joined Ponder onstage for a rousing, show-closing version of The Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There.”

Nothing is guaranteed in life. But everything is in place for Ponder. She’s star quality, she’s the conscience of the times, she’s long ago moved on from singing for blueberry scones.

Today’s jazz haiku

High on the sixth floor

apartment windows thrown open

to ponder the moment

Kurt Elling
Cory Dewald
Kurt Elling

Elling and the end of the world

Kurt Elling minds no guardrails. On this closing night of the festival, he returned to Kilbourn Hall, where he has played in the past, this time as the “Super Blue” quartet featuring the electric guitarist Charlie Hunter.

Elling’s first set was filled with scat-singing, fast-talking hipster jive, and wild gestures, as he stalked the band and danced across the stage.

He mixed vocals with spoken-word sections about a full tank of gas, a pack of cigarettes and wearing sunglasses in the dark.

Jazz vocals and beat poetry. Musings about the last day on Earth meaning that, “Maybe I won’t go to the gym today.” And the story of poor Willie, who stepped outside his house, only to get run over by a runaway steam roller.

“The world,” Elling growled, “would have to end without Willie.”

Best of the fest

You mean Danielle Ponder? Otherwise, here’s a purely subjective, personal list of favorites. It’s not in order, except for No. 1, far and away the best show of the nine days. Your list will be completely different.

1. Ms. Lisa Fischer, Day 4, first set at Temple Theater. The one-time backing singer for The Rollings Stones 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.

Samara Joy, Day 6, first set at Max of Eastman Place. Dynamic for sure. And when not relentlessly upbeat, Joy was defiant. She mined a smoky era of women in jazz like she is the resurrection of Sarah Vaughan. Or Betty Carter; Joy did Carter’s “Tight” as a woman who’s had enough. “I don’t know where my man is. Where is he? Where is he?” Or how about, “I thought my man loved me, but he was lovin’ someone else.”

Samara Joy performs Wednesday, June 22, 2022, at the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival.
Fred SanFilipo
Samara Joy performs Wednesday, June 22, 2022, at the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival.

NYChillharmonic, Day 2, first set at Glory House International. 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.

Ranky Tanky, Day 2, first set at Kilbourn Hall. This group draws its culture from the Gullah culture of the Carolinas. Gospel and grits. And a sense of traditional, simple folk songs. “I’m gonna spread my joy,” they sang, “’cause that’s the only way.” Do we need that these days, or what?

Bill Frisell, Day 3, first set at Temple Theater. 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.

Big Lazy, Day 7, first set at Montage Music Hall. Guitar, bass and drum instrumentals. Highway twang. Spy music. A soundtrack of intrigue in tour-bus battered fedoras.

Joe Locke, Day 8, first set at Temple Theatre. “Don’t give up on people,” the vibraphonist said. “People can be pretty cool sometimes.”

The People. It was exhilarating to see thousands of people gathering for the free shows every night on Parcel 5. After two years of COVID uncertainty – and it’s certainly not over – Sheila E, Booker T, The New Power Generation were bringing us back together.

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.