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A Jeff Spevak preview: the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival

Mar 19, 2019

Famous actors – Jeff Goldblum and Dan Ackroyd – playing musicians.

Longtime favorites – Bill Frisell, Catherine Russell, Jake Shimabukuro and Trombone Shorty – meet unknowns such as Girls in Airports, which is actually five guys from Denmark.

Hometown favorites – Steve Gadd and The Campbell Brothers – stand alongside celebrations of jazz icons Nat King Cole, Cannonball Adderley and Art Blakey. Those are the boundaries set Tuesday morning as the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival announced its lineup for the downtown festival, which runs June 21 through June 29.

“We’ve seen what works,” said co-producer John Nugent. “Why break the mold?”

Yet significant venue changes mark this 18th edition of the jazz fest. Two of the largest club venues, Harro East and Anthology, are out following acrimonious disagreements between their owners and the jazz fest organizers. A third venue, The Little Theatre, is unavailable due to extensive renovations.

Harro and Anthology are the second and third venues to angrily part ways with the festival, following Abilene Bar & Lounge a few years ago. Nugent and fellow co-producer Marc Iacona were diplomatic in their assessment of the disagreement. “Business decisions are made,” Iacona said. “I am a person who cares about what we bring to the festival. I respect them both.”

“People have their own agendas,” Nugent said. “They’re doing what they do.” And downtown Rochester offers an organic opportunity for change. “It’s not like we’re creating the festival footprint,” he said. “It’s already there.”

That footprint expands to Parcel 5, the famous gravel lot alongside East Main Street. It will play host to two separate stages over the course of the nine-day festival. The Squeezers Stage @ M&T Pavilion is a tent that will hold 1,000 people. Over the first seven days of the festival, it will feature free music at 4:30 p.m. by local bands such as the Zion Hill Gospel Choir, the groove band The Buddahood and Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra trumpeter Herb Smith’s jazz project, Herb Smith Freedom Trio. Two sets of Club Pass shows follow, with what looks like a lot of body-moving funk.

Then, for the final two days of the festival, the Midtown Stage takes over Parcel 5, with free shows featuring The Allman Betts Band (with Devon Allman and Duane Betts, the sons of Allman Brothers Band founders Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts) on June 28 and New Orleans’ Trombone Shorty closing out the jazz fest on June 29.

Also new is Geva Theatre Center, which opens its two stages to the festival. The smaller Fielding Stage is home to a lineup of Americana bands, while the larger Wilson Stage presents a wide spectrum of sound from Shimabukro’s ukulele to percussionist Cyro Baptiste to the sublime rock band Over the Rhine to VickiChristinaBarcelona, the trio of women who perform Tom Waits songs and who were a hit at last year’s fest, as well as a show this past January at The Little Theatre.

The parade of politicos at Tuesday’s announcement at Geva Theatre Center included Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, who praised the festival for its contributions to quality of life and for “keeping Monroe County residents engaged, and happy to be here.” City Deputy Mayor James Smith offered the reminder that the fest is “not just about having a good time,” but the crowd – a record 208,000 last year – is also about job opportunities for the community.

The ticketed shows at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre have already been announced. The June 21 opening night show is the Steve Gadd Band, featuring the Irondequoit native, Eastman School of Music grad, Grammy winner and longtime favorite drummer of Paul Simon and James Taylor. Patti LaBelle is June 22, Marc Cohn and The Blind Boys of Alabama June 25, Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra June 26, and Grammy-winning guitarist George Benson June 27. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee The Steve Miller Band headlines June 28 with the support of a bluegrass star worthy of his own show, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives.

Goldblum, who has made a cinema career out of running from Jurassic Park dinosaurs and various and sundry aliens, is actually a fine jazz pianist. And he is not the first thespian to play Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre; Steve Martin and Woody Allen have chased their musical muse there as well. Nor is Goldblum the only actor to play this year’s festival. Dan Ackroyd, who teamed with John Belushi in The Blues Brothers, will sing four or five numbers with the Downchild Blues Band, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. That will be the free show on the East Avenue and Chestnut Street Stage on the opening night of the festival. On the following night, the closed-off intersection will play host to a free show with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes; John Lyon, a tremendous rock and soul vocalist, is a longtime member of the Bruce Springsteen Jersey circle.       

Free shows are also set for all nine nights on Gibbs Street, renamed Jazz Street and closed to traffic. The Fusion Stage will be set up in the parking lot adjoining the RG&E building at East Avenue and Chestnut Street. The Central Library will once again present free afternoon shows, and the after-hours jam session is back at the Hyatt Regency Rochester, hosted by Bob Sneider and Karl Stabnau.

Most of the Club Pass venues are familiar from years past, including Max of Eastman Place, Montage Music Hall, The Big Tent and The Wilder Room. Christ Church once again offers the “Made in the UK” series; a highlight of those shows could be Kit Downs playing the church’s incredible Craighead-Saunders pipe organ. The Lutheran Church of the Reformation has expanded its geography from Nordic musicians to the “Nordic and Euro Jazz Now” series.

Kilbourn Hall offers the likes of George Coleman, who played sax with a galaxy of stars that includes Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Kilbourn also has Kansas Smitty’s House Band, an acclaimed group of young London jazz musicians who opened their own bar, Kansas Smitty’s, so they would have a venue to play.

Tommy Smith, the acclaimed Scottish saxophonist, and Israeli bassist Adam Ben Ezra will break up the piano’s monopoly at Hatch Recital Hall, although Eastman School of Music profs Harold Danko and Bill Dobbins will be among the pianists otherwise taking advantage of the venue’s acoustic magic. At the Temple Building, Smith’s Scottish National Jazz Orchestra plays Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” on the fest’s opening night, with the astounding guitarist Bill Frisell and blues singer Catherine Russell at the venue later in the week.

To cut down on the time patrons spend standing in line, the fest will continue issuing wrist bands for admittance in the hours before the first set of shows at Max of Eastman Place, Kilbourn Hall and Geva Theatre Center. Club Passes will be shareable this year. That brought a round of applause at Tuesday’s lineup announcement, as the fest’s previous attempts to keep passes non-transferrable proved unpopular. The nine-day pass costs $254, plus a $6 service charge. The three-day pass costs $194, plus a $6 service charge. Tickets for Club Passes and the Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre shows are on sale at rochesterjazz.com and (585) 454-2060.

The complete lineup is available at rochesterjazz.com.  

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.