The Rochester Residency is a new yearlong series being put on by Three Heads Brewing in Rochester. Every month, a local musician takes up a residency on the Three Heads stage, performing each Thursday night. Thus far, the musicians have played with different bands each night, culminating in a final night full album cover. In March, it was violist Zac Lijewski’s turn at the wheel. The month opened with his bluegrass band, The Honey Smugglers, and continued in the second week with a free-for-all dubbed Zac’s Love-In.
We were able to make it out for the final two nights of the residency, the second of which featured Big Jazz Small Band, a quartet made up of Lijewski, KC Sullivan on guitar, Mike Wall on bass and Dylan Niver on drums. The brewery was feeling as jazz-clubby as it could, with tables and chairs fronting the stage and a mellow and attentive audience. The band played some jazz standards, like “Autumn Leaves” and a pair of Thelonious Monk tunes, “Blue Monk” and “Rhythm-a-ning.” Sullivan’s hollow body guitar emanated with the typical jazz guitar sounds. But overall, and at its best, despite their jazzy name, they weren’t very traditional jazz at all.
The original material, improvised or scripted, were creative instrumental explorations that ranged from the Scottish Highlands to the depths of the human inner psyche. It could be floating and atmospheric one moment, then dive into a deep groove the next. Spoken word meditations, a penny whistle and some wind chimes added unique flavors to an already unique mix. They could be reminiscent of some of The Flecktones’ work. Intricate but not weighted down, it remained accessible throughout.
Jump cut to a week later. Same place, same time, same stage with Lijewski, Niver and Wall again at the helm. This time, they were joined by the rest of their bandmates in A Girl Named Genny. The all-instrumental band had transformed into an Americana band and they were about to play a full-on cover of CSNY’s So Far, an album heavily reliant on wonderfully complex vocal harmonies. It’s hard to imagine a more drastic shift in focus: Instrumental to vocal; the freedom of improv to the discipline of a tight reading; playing to a small crowd of open-minded music lovers to a full house of anxious onlookers awaiting the performance of material they knew by heart from a lifetime of listening.
The band put over two months of work into learning, practicing and perfecting the music for the occasion and with good reason. The near-impossible vocal harmonies featured on So Far can’t easily be matched by the most experienced singers. On top of that, they were performing this beautifully nuanced music inside a crowded and noisy bar. Softer songs like “Guinnevere” had a hard time competing with the din of noise, while “Helplessly Hoping” was aided by six-part harmonies (that’s two vocalists per C, S and N there!)
Regardless, the band nailed it, vocals and all. From the album-opening “Déjà Vu,” with it’s residency-appropriate lyrics (“We have all been here before.”) to the rousing closer “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” they brought the album to life while still adding their own bits of flavor. The mostly-guitar affair on the original was translated with a rotating cast of instruments, including viola, banjo, mandolin, keys and of course some guitars as well.
Despite the song titles, the band did receive help on “Helplessly Hoping” and “Helpless” from Brian McDonald on vocals. Kurt Johnson added even more depth to “Helpless” on pedal steel while also joining to play Jerry Garcia’s classic pedal steel part on “Teach Your Children.”
Playing it mostly straight ahead, the biggest departure from the original came during “Woodstock.” The song was written by Joni Mitchell, who also created the album artwork and was a good friend of the band. So to honor that, Lijewski invited up Maria Gillard, who first introduced him to folk music by playing songs around the campfire during his childhood. She sang the song in Mitchell’s original style, backed only by keys and Lijewski’s sparse harmonies.
The band returned for an encore, with all of their guests in tow, to perform a rousing soul-inflected version of “Love the One You’re With.” With all of the love emanating from the stage every Thursday in March, it was an appropriate way to close out Lijewski’s monthlong residency.