Politics doesn’t create miracles. Nor does war, strip mining, television evangelists or corporate funding of Adam Sandler movies.
Only the arts creates miracles. And there were two, at least, Friday night, opening night of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. Joey Alexander and Matt Savage. Both jazz pianists. Alexander, 14 years old, from the island of Bali. Savage, 26 years old, from Massachusetts, with 12 albums already out. Despite, or perhaps because of, an autistic-like diagnosis that labels Savage a “prodigious savant.”
Two intriguing points on Day One of the festival, which featured the English R&B singer Seal with a nearly sold-out show in Kodak Hall in Eastman Theatre. And the now-expected crowds filling the closed off Gibbs Street and the intersection at East Avenue and Chestnut Street, where the old-school R&B rock of Vintage Trouble drew a good audience, even though most people had probably never heard of the band until a few days ago.
The jazz fest resumes Saturday; but more on that in a few moments.
Lines were outside Hatch Recital Hall for both of Savage’s shows. It’s a small room, but the sound is pristine and while I missed it – can’t be everywhere – the reviews on the street were rapturous.
Alexander was playing the fest for his third-straight year, warranting a much-larger room, the 800-seat Temple Theater. He’s not a kid looking for approval. He’s not a kid simply copying his elders. He’s already challenging his listeners. He did Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” but now is writing his own compositions; rhythmically jarring, structurally nomadic. They’re not just variations on riffs and melodies. One moment he’s massaging the keys, the next he’s enthusiastically picking out notes like a kid pointing out seabirds at the beach. Alexander goes to daring, unexpected places that you wouldn’t expect of anyone so young.
As the music escalates, grows more frantic, Alexander stands over the piano, his body twisting over the keys. And while he’s still charmingly shy, he’s directing two older band members. He’s in charge of the trio. Yet mature enough to allow them room to play, rather than needlessly chatter at the keyboard.
Just a few days from 15, and playing the 9:15 p.m. show, Alexander is long past the joke, “He’s up long past his bedtime.” Already already sounds like his own man.
Today’s jazz haiku
The pianists’ notes
like raindrops, each a moment
leaves room for the next
Pretty good for a saxophonist
What’s a jazz festival without two or three versions of the laconic classic “Summertime?” How about that rocked-out version by Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers at Harro East Ballroom?
Wine tastes better in a glass, and it seems the tenor saxophone sounds hotter in black leather. Abair and her big-personality band turned the classic, smoldering “Summertime” into something that might have come out of Aerosmith’s attic; in fact, Abair’s early years included playing with the likes of those rockers, and Duran Duran. “Summertime” arrived after the band had taken stools at the front of the stage and, armed with a nose harp, cigar-box guitar and a cajón – that’s the percussion box that a drummer sits on, banging out a beat – turned Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child” into a swamp rocker.
Abair, a tenor saxophonist and singer (not at the same time) has been nominated for two Grammy Awards. Guitarist Randy Jacobs has likely won a few awards himself, at least in gymnastics, as he stomped, spun and leaped around the stage, even whipping his left leg over the top of his guitar neck while taking a solo during “Summertime” and managing to not tear a hamstring. These guys aren’t kids. Lots of rock-star posturing from Jacobs and bassist Derek White. Drummer Third Richardson took a soulful vocal turn on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” giving us the version as Blood, Sweat & Tears might have done it.
But Abair is the focus, turning her sax to the ceiling as her long blonde ponytail trailed behind, while singing songs of defiant women. “I Play to Win” was one. Another she dedicated to all of the accomplished, influential woman of the world who have to listen to the qualifier, “Pretty Good For a Girl.”
Terell Stafford: Mastering the da-doink
Kilbourn Hall is the house of pain to Terell Stafford. Playing for a full house in his first of two shows, he recalled being at the venue as conductor of the New York All-State Jazz Band. Feeling pain in his jaw during a rehearsal, he called his dentist, who instructed Stafford to drive to his office in Pennsylvania, where the diagnosis was: root canal. All fixed, Stafford drove back to Rochester. Only to have his face swell up. Another road trip, and the diagnosis: The dentist had left part of a dental instrument in Stafford’s jaw.
So Stafford has suffered for his art.
His quintet came out smoking on Lee Morgan’s “Hocus Pocus.” Morgan was just 33 years old when he was shot to death in 1972 by his common-law wife outside of a New York City club where he was performing. “If you don’t like Lee Morgan, you’re not going to have a great time tonight,” Stafford said.
Stafford has fashioned a fine career as a sideman, even as he was releasing his own albums. But recent tributes, including one of Billy Strayhorn’s music, seem to have given Stafford a louder profile. And he’s a clever player, adding lots of scroll work, embellishments and horse snickers to Morgan songs such as “Mr. Kenyatta,” and pulling out the mute for “Candy.”
These guys play in the key of cool. Stafford looked great in a blue, double-breasted suit. Saxophonist Tim Warfield, Jr., wore pinstripes. Jazz players like elegance. Stafford leaned on the piano as bassist Perter Washington took a solo, Stafford’s face reflecting each shift in Washington’s playing, right up to the look of delight with bassist’s song-closing “da-doink.” Da-doink, that’s a highly regarded piece of musical terminology.
Saturday: Jazz Fest Day Two
Boz Scaggs’ 8 p.m. show at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, is sold out. Deservedly so, based on his last appearance at the festival, a soulful show that closed with a memorable, 10-minute take on “Loan Me a Dime” from his 1969 self-titled album. Figure some of his ’80s hits, and some time well spent with his recent trilogy of albums that have explored the soul, R&B and blues songs that were his early inspiration.
Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot, 9 p.m., Chestnut Street and East Avenue Stage. Setzer has had an interesting career: The Brian Setzer Orchestra was a moment of swing revival, he’s played jump blues, and even recorded a rocking take on Beethoven on an album, Wolfgang’s Big Night Out, that received a Grammy nomination for Best Crossover Classical Album. But the Rockabilly Riot steers closer to his ’80s Stray Cats roots.
Jack Broadbent, 5:30 and 7:15 p.m., Harro East Ballroom. The young English blues singer and guitarist was one of the most talked-about performers at last year’s fest. He’s got the songs, the gruff-to-caterwauling voice, the out-of-the mainstream look and a ruthless guitar style. He created slide-guitar pyrotechnics by manipulating the strings with a hip flask, a multi-tasking tool for, as he said, “just in case I get accidentally sober.”
The Bad Plus, 7 and 9:15 p.m., Temple Building Theater. For 18 years, the edgy men of avant-garde jazz, the Minneapolis trio has caught a lot of attention for its quirky versions of rock and pop hits by bands such a Nirvana and Black Sabbath. But the bulk of its music is original, including the entirety of its latest album, Never Stop II, a wholly cross-genre delight.
Jeff Spevak is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com. He will be reporting for WXXI throughout the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.
Matt Savage performs Friday night at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival:
(video by Martin Kaufman)