Gwyneth Herbert’s beautiful music, humor and humanity peeled away layers of cynicism Thursday at Max of Eastman Place. A packed house, and everyone surely left with the feeling that the world’s weighty problems might be eased with a beer and a kazoo. And by writing a letter, a fading exercise that Herbert suggested might be the answer to: “How can we listen to ourselves and each other?”
It was Day Seven of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. Lake Street Dive, which a mere seven years ago was playing Abilene Bar & Lounge, had a sold-out show at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Toronto’s Soul Stew was back, playing on this stunning summer evening for a curb-to-curb crowd on Gibbs Street. And at the Temple Theater’s “Jazz Goes to the Movies” show Mike Watters, the director of the Eastman School of Music’s Beal Institute, dedicated to creating the next generation of soundtrack wizards, announced that plans are underway to bring a soundtrack film festival to Rochester.
A film festival in Rochester? What’re we up to now, 45?
Oh, but that’s cynicism.
Herbert has a marvelously supple voice, at times a siren, even. Her charming and theatrical stage presence comes with engaging facial expressions and lots of waving of her arms and swooping about the stage. Unusual instrumentation is key. Her trio is also bass and piano, and Herbert adds the spice. Ukulele, drums, melodica, xylophone, megaphone, kazoo and a bottle of beer – now empty – as percussion. In her second show at Max, she closed the show by abandoning the stage and the microphone and walking through the crowd with her ukulele, just singing, before walking down to the Hyatt Regency hotel and the jazz fest jam session, where at 1:30 in the morning the high-energy Herbert sang the standard “Night and Day.”
Many of her delicately arranged songs are cabinets of curios. In “Tick Tock TICK” she sites Winnie the Pooh – “a very familiar quadruped” – and Maurice Sendak: “Boys and girls, come out to play, where the wild things are.”
She had to take a few moments to explain “So Worn Out,” inspired by a character she met, a guy who kept Star Wars action figures in one pocket, Star Trek figures in the other, never mixing the two. He also spoke Klingon, “Not a very transferrable skill.” And to keep the song’s setting in mind, she whistled like R2D2. One of the lines is: “You’re the droid I’m looking for.” Star Wars fans get it.
Yes, you too could write such songs, and be a hot commodity at comic conventions, if you hung out at the right bus stop.
Yet that’s simply the accessible surface. The deeper Herbert sings in prisons and schools, and worries about society’s ills. “Not That Kind of Girl” is about our obsession with self-image. “We are bombarded by images, what it means to be a beautiful woman,” she said. Her work in a refugee camp in France inspired “Until the Dust Settles,” relevant once again with the Trump policy of separating children from their immigrant parents and the heartache of, “Any parent who has had to say goodbye to their child.”
“Fishing For Squirrels” is the first song she composed for her next project, “Letters I’ve Never Written.” This letter, this song, was written after her close friend, Sophia, took her own life. Herbert’s regret, a simple act unacted upon, lingers: “I wish I’d stayed to tuck you in, for one extra night,” she sang.
Herbert returns for two shows Friday night at Christ Church, where she’ll debut a song she’s written about Rochester, using suggestions from the people who live here.
Today’s jazz haiku
Take it eee-easy
this is no time for The Eagles
take it eee-easy
Anatomy of a soundtrack
Jazz is danger, Mike Watters told the crowd at Temple Theater midway through “Jazz Goes to the Movies.” Danger, as in two dozen hitmen, and hitwomen. A stage bristling with teachers and students sporting Eastman School of Music pedigrees, including the fest-familiar faces of Clay Jenkins on trumpet, Jeff Campbell on bass, Rich Thompson on drums and the omnipresent guitarist Bob Sneider, who had to dash down the street immediately after this fun show so that he could host the late-night jam session at the Hyatt Regency.
This was a night of soundtrack compositions, accompanied by trailers and scenes from the movies. Watters, who also heads the Eastman’s Music of Music degree program in Contemporary Media/Film Composition, is himself a composer and arranger of some note.
Both the music and these films – most, anyway – are dramatic, thick with intrigue, and often stylish. There was Duke Ellington’s score for Anatomy of a Murder. Lalo Schiffrin’s Mission: Impossible and Bullett, accompanied by video of cars leaping over the San Francisco hills. Leonard Bernstein’s On the Waterfront was one of three pieces featuring the flute of Sara Andon, whose international presence includes significant Hollywood soundtrack work. Plus newer compositions such as Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” which appeared in Toy Story, and Beal’s “Monk Theme,” from the TV show Monk.
And Elmer Bernstein’s The Man With the Golden Arm, with the band playing as the audience watched Frank Sinatra shooting up on heroin and throwing a chair across his apartment.
On Thursday afternoon, as the fest was just warming up with high school bands on Gibbs Street, the most talked-about show from the previous night was Kilbourn Hall with Ulysses Owens, Jr., and his “Songs of Freedom.” Jazz interpretations of music by Joni Mitchell, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone.
And the two amazing singers. And their outfits. Alicia Olatuja, and her orange gown, swallowed in a turbo swirl of rustles. Theo Beckmann, and his… uh, what the heck was with those trousers? Kind of a Cubist cut with a misplaced crotch. Fashion-wise, Rochester’s about three years behind New York City. Can’t wait for those things to start showing up on the racks at Target.
Friday: Jazz Fest Day Eight
You’ve heard the old entertainment expression “break a leg.” You’re not supposed to take it literally. But that’s what had happened to St. German, the French musician – real name Ludovic Navarre – whose band was supposed to lead a techno-jazz dance party in the Rochester streets tonight. The tour has been postponed because Navarre, according to XRIJF, broke his leg. In St. Germaine’s place is The Electric Miles Band, a rotating group of musicians, some of whom played with Miles Davis, re-creating the jazz of Davis’ electric period. The band goes on a 9 p.m. on the East Avenue & Chestnut Street Stage, following opener The Klick.
Jill Scott, 8 p.m., Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. The final ticketed show of the festival, Scott is most frequently saddled with the label “neo-soul.” But that falls short of the soprano’s full sound, a mix of jazz, arias, R&B spoken word and hip hop.
Pokey LaFarge, 9 p.m., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Manhattan Square Park Stage. This show could be easily overlooked, as it’s a new venue for the jazz fest. But with Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles opening at 7 p.m., along with LaFarge’s vintage sound, this free show is where the Americana crowd will be.
Robin McKelle, 5:30 and 7:15 p.m. Harro East Ballroom. McKelle is a Rochester native who now lives in
Paris. There’s an upgrade for you; but not on these nine days of XRIJF. Her sound is a diverse palate of pop, R&B and jazz, which has allowed her to work with a diverse array of musicians, from David Bowie to Herbie Hancock to The Boston Pops Orchestra. Her new album, Melodic Canvas, is a collection of small-ensemble jazz tunes, some addressing the social questions of the day.
I’ll be on Scott Regan’s Open Tunings show, WRUR-FM (88.5) at about 10:30 a.m. Friday, and will file a brief report from the jazz fest at about 5:45 p.m. Friday on WXXI-AM (1370) and WRUR-FM.
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.