CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival celebrates 21 years

Starting back in 2002 with a lineup that included Aretha Franklin, Norah Jones, and Sonny Rollins, the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival continued in 2024 for it’s 21st edition with acts that included Taj Mahal, Sheila E., John Oates, and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.

CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival
John Oates

Hosting over 1,700 artists from 15 countries at 20 venues, Rochester was transformed into a music mecca from June 21-29, as the annual music festival took to the streets surrounding Eastman School of Music.

With The famed music school in the heart of the festival, they provided three stages for use during for incoming acts. Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, Hatch Recital Hall, and Kilbourn Hall, all of which are housed in the same building along the makeshift Jazz St.

Kodak Hall is the largest of the venues, and played host this year to Taj Mahal, John Oates, Lee Ritenour, Laufey, and Samara Joy as headliners. While Mahal and Ritenour each garnered a respectable crowd the first weekend it was Laufey and Joy who each packed Kodak Hall, with fans lining up shoulder to shoulder to get their seats.

CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival
Rochester Regional Big Tent

Laufey, who hails from Reykjavík, Iceland, has risen to stardom in recent years after playing with Iceland Symphony Orchestra at 15 and competing on regional variations of The Voice and Got Talent. Winner of 2024 Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for Bewitched, she amazed the sellout crowd with her classic and smooth jazzy voice. A sound that transports the listener back in time where you had to adjust the AM dial manually. Bringing the classic jazz sounds to Gen Z fans, Laufey mixes in some pop music layers that keeps her audience on their toes, regardless of age. In the days after the show, I could still hear fans talking about her and how they can’t wait to see her again, or how it was one of the highlights of their week.

Samara Joy made her third trip to Rochester for the festival, this time as a headlining act. The Brooklyn native has played the previous two years on smaller stages and packed the house each time, so it only seemed fit that she played the Kodak Hall. Fans were packing the theatre for nearly 45 minutes prior to showtime, as they eagerly awaited the three-time Grammy winner to grace the stage.

With refined vocals and strong comparisons to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, Joy has delivered top tier performances three years in a row for the Rochester crowd, and she shows no signs of letting off the gas as she continues her current tour.

Playing to a much smaller crowd than other headliners, John Oates came into Rochester, and delivered an outstanding performance to the group of lucky fans who dedicated their time. Half of the 70s and 80s powerhouse Hall and Oates, the latter played a simple set of Americana/Roots, sounding like a rustic Mark Knopfler. With each song, came a story. A story of how a song became what it is, or a personal story like showing up to a meeting with a bucket list recording artist, while still recovering from a night in the Big Easy. A relic of a bygone era, John Oates needs to be on your concert wish list in 2024. Tour Dates

In addition to Kodak Hall, Hatch Recital Hall and Kilbourn Hall both hosted a series of shows with nothing less than excellence during each performance. Hatch Recital Hall is a classic hall with a handful of balcony seats available. The smallest of three theatres, Hatch offers incredible acoustics throughout and played host to some great piano pieces and woodwind sounds. Featured acts here included Franck Amsallem, Bill Charlap, and Connie Han.

Eastman Theatre

Kilbourn has more of an old world feel to it, and lends itself to little more diverse acts. ARTEMIS, Edmar Castaneda, and Django Festival All Stars were just a few of the amazing acts to serenade patrons of the hall.

Castaneda is a Columbian born harpist, who plays the piece flawlessly while laughing and having the time of his life. Not something you see or hear every day, the harp delivers majestic sounds with every strum that left the crowd in awe. Accompanying Castaneda on stage were a drummer who offered simple background beats, and a flutist who matched sounds perfectly as the show moved on.

Django All Stars (Samson Schmitt on lead guitar, Pierre Blanchard on violin, Ludovic Beier on accordion and accordion, Antonio Licusati on bass, Franko Mehrstein on rhythm guitar) played both Kilbourn Hall and Rochester Regional Big Tent across the street. For the smaller venues, each of these performances were nothing less than amazing and easily one of my favorites to watch. With duals that rivaled the banjos in Deliverance, this stellar group of artists bring the music of Django Reinhardt into the modern era and put their own spin on it in the process.

Moving on the smaller venues, The Wilder Room has become a go to spot for festival goers in recent years. A former club for affluent locals, the Wilder Room offers a beautiful space for music. Great acoustics with the open floorplan and high ceilings, Levin Brothers, Twisted Pine, and CMD were among the acts that graced the stage. CMD made their presense know on the last night of the festival and did not disappoint. I spoke with a couple fans who stayed late on this night just to see the band for second time. A trio of local musicians, CMD (Casey Filliaci, Mark Terranova, and Dave Cohen) delivers a jazzy spin on 80s pop and rock hits from artists like Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Lou Gramm that make the listeners hear an old favorite in a new way. All three musicians have other projects in the mix, but seem to have the right connection here and will have an album coming out in December.

“Jazz isn’t a style…it’s a feeling.”

C. Filiaci

Christ Church, tucked right inside the festival perimeter, is a hidden gem of venues. Darker in mood, the acoustics are truly amazing, as Alex Hitchcock, Andy Milne & Unison, and Kaisa’s Machine were able to create sounds that resonated all around the church walls and left patrons yearning for more.

With Milne on the piano, Clarence Penn on drums and John Hébert on bass, the trio jammed together perfectly, as they have for nearly 15 years. The audience was quiet as a mouse during each number, Milne showing why they won the 2021 Juno Award for Best Jazz Album by a group. Subtle, soothing, and mellow in classic jazz fashion.

While this nine-day affair was focused on music, you can’t have a festival without food. Enter food trucks. Grilled cheese, poutine, mac and cheese, and meatballs were just a sampling of the culinary delights you had to choose from. Local staples like Macarollin and The Meatball Truck Co were on site and always had a line. Newer trucks like Roc Dilla Food Truck and MelttruckROC came in this week and put Macarollin and The Meatball Truck on notice. Roc Dilla was the run-away winner for me, with quite possibly the best quesadilla I have ever had. Perfectly crisped shell with cheese blend and pork carnitas on the inside and then drizzled with homemade ‘dilla’ sauce and fried tortilla strips. Classically served with pico de gallo and sour cream, this quesadilla will give you the jazz hands as you head to your next destination.

As the festival hits day five, a new stage is erected on the grounds known as Parcel 5. The site of a former shopping center, Parcel 5 is now an empty lot that politicians and local developers fight over almost on monthly basis about what to do with it. Currently, there is nothing permanent there for activities, and it has been used for the Jazz Festival for the past seven or eight years, always drawing large crowds. Sponsored by mega grocery store, Wegmans Food Markets, these shows are all free, all the time. Surrounded by more food and beer trucks, the grounds become a gathering place for music fans and anyone who just wants to let loose. Artimus Pyle, Trombone Shorty, Bruce Hornsby, and Robin Thicke have drawn huge crowds in recent years. 2024 brought an amazing lineup that included Sheila E., Miller and The Other Sinners, Cimafunk, and Jon Cleary.

Shiela E. is no stranger to Rochester, as she has played this festival on multiple occasions, and still amazes anyone who shows up. Miller and The Other Sinners have made themselves known in Western NY in recent years and played to an amped up crowd. Bluesy, jazzy, and folky, David Miller heads the band with authority and everyone on stage plays up to the energy level set forth.

CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival

The best act from this stage has to be Cimafunk, where Afro-Cuban Rock is the name of the game and Erik Alejandro Iglesias Rodríguez knocked it out of the park with ease. Backed by an energetic group of eight fellow Cubans, Cimafunk’s music forces fans to get up and get moving before they can even think about it. Drawing inspiration from George Clinton, James Brown, and Prince, Cimafunk is more than just street beats, its a vibe like you have never heard before. A couple fans I encountered from Syracuse have taken road trips and even cruises to experience the shows. Look for them near you, and if you like to dance, you need to go see them.

For 21 years, the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival has graced downtown with a wide variety of musical talent from all over the world. Free shows, ticketed shows, workshops, fun, and food are all a part of what has made this event grow tremendously over the years. All this is thanks to producers and founder John Nugent and Marc Iacona who have worked tirelessly to build the festival to what it is today. 2025 will be here before you know it, so make plans now for June 20-28.

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