10 Standout Acts From Rochester International Jazz Festival 2016

On June 20, the entire Northern Hemisphere celebrated the Summer Solstice, while in one small corner of the world, many silently anticipated and schemed for the Rochester International Jazz Festival, which started a few long days later. Later, on July 4, while most everyone in the United States was busy celebrating the birth of our nation, many in Rochester quietly rested in their homes, recovering from nine full nights of wall-to-wall, street-to-street music and merriment. Indeed, the final night of the festival ended in an explosion of sound that was brighter than any fireworks. Trombone Shorty partied with a capacity audience at a lot that fronted the new Midtown Tower, while a block away the Wood Brothers filled the corner of East Ave and Chestnut Street, and just one block from there Mingo Fishtrap jammed to a crowded Jazz Street. Meanwhile, the indoor clubs were still brimming with music, the food trucks were slinging sandwiches and the buskers were making every street corner their own mini music venue. Then the clock struck 11 p.m. and the fantasy of a vibrant downtown Rochester slowly drifted back to reality.

Throughout the nine days, NYS Music made it to 41 sets, in 13 venues to see 38 different acts. Nine continuous nights of music can’t be beat, and the Rochester International Jazz Festival proves worth the anticipation year after year. Of everything we saw, these 10 acts (not counting the headlining series) stood out as the best and brightest.

10. Makoto Ozone and Tommy Smith

Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone and Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith make for an odd pairing nationalistically, but a masterful combination musically. Their duets ranged from beautiful classically leaning romantic landscapes to a bopping blues inspired by Gary Burton mistakenly orchestrating a popcorn explosion. But by far the highlight of the set came after Smith told a story of a keyless, legless piano that hung on the wall of the poor schoolhouse he attended as a child. He then proceeded to demonstrate how he would play his sax into the body of the piano, which caused the strings to reverberate. It was an incredible and gorgeous effect that we won’t soon forget.

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9. Orgone

Funk bands are a dime-a-dozen. It’s nearly impossible to rise above the fray. But Los Angeles’ Orgone has found the perfect formula and they have it down to a science. Starting with the supremely talented front of Sergio Rios on guitar and Dan Hastie on keys, they add in trombone and trumpet to a rhythm core of percussion, drums and bass. As an instrumental outfit the band takes the funk to rocking peaks behind Rios’ fierce shredding. But wait, there’s more. Enter Adryon de Len, with her Tina Turner hair in her Tina Turner dress shaking her Tina Turner moves. She’s got a voice that knows no heights, and soul that knows no bottom.

8. Red Baraat

Rochester-born Sunny Jain leads the international party band Red Baraat with a double-sided Indian drum called a dhol. The nine-piece band features an eclectic mix of instruments that when they all come together create what world peace must sound like — a reason to party indeed. Jain proclaimed the 5:30 p.m. set to be the earliest they had ever played, but was very excited for the capacity crowd that came to listen and dance. They opened with a spacey mix that slowly built around a distinguishable rhythm before exploding into a wall of sound. It was an announcement of their arrival, after which the usually seated Harro East crowd got to their feet to dance the early evening away. They mixed together their older material, which took on more of traditional feeling, with newer tunes which mixed in some guitar and horn effects lending darker edges to the otherwise happy affair.

7. Nicholas Payton

Nicholas Payton and his trio, with Joe Dyson on drums and Vicente Archer on bass, were cruising through Payton’s album Letters, with its cleverly titled tunes like “A” and “F for Axel Foley.” Payton was playing trumpet and his Rhodes piano, sounding like a one-man Keith Jarret/Miles Davis combination and pulling it off with master strokes. He had a pogo-stick-esque stand that held his trumpet up on his knee freeing his other hand for tickling the ivories. No sooner had we literally written how hot the playing was in our notes when the distinctive sound of the fire alarm came calling from just outside the theater doors. Then the confirmation, yes, we needed to evacuate, and soon found ourselves waiting to get back in with the band in the same alley suffering the same fate. Unfortunately, though it was a false alarm, it was deemed too difficult to get everyone back in the theater in a timely fashion, so the set was cut short, leaving us to wonder how good it could have gotten.

6. Mammal Hands

The Made in the UK series at the Rochester International Jazz Festival seems sure to send at least one emerging exciting young band that is moving the needle on jazz every year. This year Mammal Hands fit that bill. A piano trio with the somewhat odd lineup replacing the traditional bass with a saxophone. Saxophonist Jordan Smart carried most of the melodic weight, while Nick Smart banged out challenging rhythmic and textural undercurrents on the piano and Jesse Barrett drove the music with his unique and styled drumming. The music was at times catchy and hummable and at times ominously brooding with explosive improvisations and impressive full band interplay.

5. Claudia Quintet

Drummer John Hollenbeck formed Claudia Quintet in 1997 and they’ve been the same band ever since. Impressive in any genre, but particularly in jazz where ensembles are near-impossible to keep together over any extended period. Another unusual batch of instruments graced the stage, and each sound and each player were integral to the bands sound. Accordion, saxophone, vibraphone, bass and drums brought life to Hollenbeck’s compositions, which each had its own odd back story. One took a four-bar solo from “Night in Tunisia” and slowed and stretched it out to create an entirely new piece. Another was dedicated to beagles at Newark International Airport, while a companion was dedicated to beagles at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The music featured many syncopated complex melodic passages that were reminiscent of some of Frank Zappa’s more adventurous work, done acoustically and without a guitar. The vibraphone did a lot to bring this comparison to fruition, as did the boundless creativity in the writing and execution.

4. The Congress

We readily admit, the Congress, a four-piece out of Richmond, VA, took us by complete surprise. Ducking into the Big Tent on the way from one place to another, we didn’t plan on staying long. But a couple songs into their set, the Congress put a stop to whatever it was we were planning and we stayed through to the end, with a serious itch to come back for the late set. They moved seamlessly from outlaw country rock to soulful and groovy blues, including an out-of-left-field but nonetheless incredible cover of “Que Sera.” But the slower piano-led rock ballads, aided in no small part by the festival-provided grand piano, were where the band truly shined. Bassman Jonathan Meadows showed off impressive vocal range with his unique smooth-yet-gravelly voice. They closed the set on a lengthy jam that started quietly with a piano solo but slowly built to a raging climax that had us momentarily forgetting we were at a jazz festival.

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3. Judith Hill

Judith Hill made news prior to her appearance at the festival by recounting her story of being aboard a private plane with her close friend and producer of her album, Prince, when he collapsed weeks before his death. Prince was also her mentor, and her performance didn’t do anything to hide his influence. Her set was an action-packed entertainment-filled hour that was visually and aurally stunning and captivating. Colorfully eccentric outfits, coordinated dances and what must have been a first for the Jazz Fest, confetti cannons, adorned a set filled with piano ballads, soulful pop and straight-up funk outs. Her band was spectacular, featuring her mother on keys, who graced the audience with a gorgeous mid-set solo piano interlude, and father on bass. But there was never any doubt that Judith was the featured performer, and she had the talent and charisma to pull off every part of her act.

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2. The Wood Brothers

The Wood Brothers returned to the festival for the second straight year, graduating from their final day Harro East performance to their festival-closing set on the big free stage out on the streets of Rochester. The street lights remained working and had guitarist and singer Oliver Wood all confused as to which way he was going. Though clearly, the decade-long side project for Medeski, Martin and Wood bassist Chris Wood is still going up and up, leading us to wonder which band is actually the side project. Chris was back with his dance moves, his harmonica playing and of course his bass playing, which he split almost equally between electric and upright. Oliver lead the band through a set that spanned their catalog, featuring crowd-favorites “Luckiest Man,” “Honey Jar” and an encore cover of the Band’s “Ophelia.” The energy bursting off the stage was matched out on the street making for the perfect capper to a fantastic festival.

1. Nacka Forum

One of the real treats of the Rochester International Jazz Festival is the international aspect. Being exposed to music that otherwise you’d probably be completely unaware of leads to some fantastic and unique discoveries. Nacka Forum, a band made of four festival veterans, Jonas Kullhammar on saxophones, Goran Kajfes on trumpet, Johan Berthling on bass and Kresten Osgood on drums, was the show-stopping jaw-dropping discovery that highlighted this year’s international offering. Hailing from Sweden and Denmark, the band has been together since 1999, another jazz act bucking the trend.

Kulhammar was the spokesperson and kept his banter light with a very dry sense of humor, riffing on topics like the greatness of Dinosaur BBQ, how much he likes Rochester and how he needs to find an American wife. Osgood wore a TMNT T-shirt and a cheap trucker’s hat with “Fred Anderson” hand-written in permanent marker. Kulhammar quipped that their sets were always different, the only thing that would be consistent was Osgood’s outfit. And he wasn’t lying. We caught three of the four sets, each different, with the exception of Osgood’s clothes.

The humor was backed up by seriously good music. Almost impossible to define, each song presented it’s own adventure. It was highly rhythmic, with the horn players grabbing percussion whenever they weren’t playing, maracas, congas, tambourine etc., even at one point in an all-out four-part rhythm jam. They played mostly from their latest album, We Are the World, which Kulhammar repeated over and over to comic effect.

At times it wasn’t clear if you were laughing because something was funny, or because it was so incredibly amazing that there was just no other way to react. In their final of four sets, Osgood revealed that what seemed like a silly hat, was actually a touching tribute to a Chicago club owner who championed improvised music. Near the end of the set he put on sunglasses and snuck off to the side of the stage. It seemed like a joke, but he was actually heading to play the church’s pipe organ. Kulhammar then descended to the church’s other smaller organ and they engaged in a spacey jam with Kajfes belting out weirdness on an electric trumpet. Eventually Osgood’s organ found a groove that the bass picked up on and the band aptly turned an out-of-this-world improvisation into their rendition of Sun Ra’s “We Travel the Spaceways.” When we warned in our preview that each venue has its own unique character, we never imagined a venue would serve as one of the instruments — truly incredible.