Final thoughts: Jazz Festival 2015 

It was nine days, more than 320 shows — including at least 90 free ones — at 19 venues, and about 1500 artists. And it was all over in a blue-tinged instant.

The 14th edition of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival ended its momentous run last Saturday, bringing packed crowds of people into Downtown Rochester. The festival has already announced the dates for its 15th year: June 24 through July 2, 2016.

"Rochester was alive in a most powerful way through music," said John Nugent, XRIJF producer and artistic director. "From the 12-year-old genius in Joey Alexander to the powerhouse soul of Trombone Shorty, Hollywood starlets to a local hero named Steve Gadd, people were able to find the pure ecstasy and enjoyment of music at every turn. Tens upon tens of thousands of people attended and without question I would put this as our best festival to date."

Several musicians with Rochester roots had homecomings, including Steve Gadd, Joe Locke, Katie Ernst, Robin McKelle, and Jon Regen. And impressively, five of the Kodak Hall headlining shows sold out: Diana Krall, The Steve Gadd Band (with an appearance by James Taylor), Wheels of Soul Tour with Tedeschi Trucks Band, Gary Clark Jr. and Beth Hart, and Jennifer Hudson.

Artists from 18 countries and the United States performed at this year's festival — a notable feat of planning. A computer glitch at the State Department, which affected people nationwide, did prevent Iceland band Arstidir and a few members of Jane Bunnett's band from making their scheduled performances, but for the most part, the festival saw smooth sailing.

City Newspaper's bloggers were out covering every night of the festival, bouncing around to as many concerts as they could, pulling late nights, and giving their thoughts on the shows. Below, Ron Netsky, Daniel J. Kushner, and Frank De Blase give their final thoughts on their favorite shows, what might not have worked as well, and what fresh ideas could add to future festivals.

What did you think of this year's Jazz Festival? Let us know in the comments below.

Over the last nine days I've heard a lot of memorable concerts. Here are some of my favorites:

The young prodigy Joey Alexander (11 years old last Saturday when he played, 12 now) proved to be every bit as astounding as I'd heard he was. He played the most complicated of Thelonious Monk's tunes like he owned them. The songs are hard enough to master, but he added just the right feel, dynamics, and the intangibles that make a jazz performance great. I just hope he's also getting a chance to be a kid.

The festival brought many great vocalists to town. My two favorites were Cecile McLorin Salvant and Tessa Souter. So far in her career, McLorin Salvant is mostly an interpreter of tunes from the early days of jazz, but she breathes new life into every one of them. Souter is far more personal. The drama in her songs often concerns her own life experience. At Kilbourn her voice was gorgeous and her performances were intimate.

Joe Locke has played at the XRIJF four times and each time he's come with a different band and a new musical vision. We've gotten to witness his musical evolution over the years and the latest chapter is the best. His new album, "Love Is a Pendulum," is his most ambitious to date and his performance of it was wonderful.

I had never heard Omer Avital in concert and went to see him by chance. His band was full of great players but that wasn't the main thing that made his concert magic. All of the musicians on the stage were having the time of their lives, inventing music as they went along, and the spirit was infectious.

The XRIJF continues to be the best thing that's happened to Rochester in the four decades I've lived here. Aside from the music, it's the one thing that seems to get a large segment of the population downtown for a great time.


Fourteen years in, the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival is a well-established entity with a proven formula that consistently draws large crowds.

That said, XRIJF is no place for those who pander, employ non-substantive kitsch, and rely on gimmicks to win over audiences rather than on the music. I'm looking at you, Sauce Boss. The festival has food trucks for a reason.

I can always do with having more experimental musicians on the bill, artists who use uneasy sonic moments that challenge us to broaden our individual perspectives on what constitutes meaningful music. The band that stood above the rest in that department was the High Definition Quartet from Poland. The musicians frequently delved into total cacophony before emerging on the other side with tight jazz licks with which listeners could more easily identify. The individual performance of quartet's pianist Piotr Orzechowski was my favorite of the entire festival — provocative, intelligent, tumultuous, and impossible to ignore.

Leaning more toward the traditional end of the jazz spectrum — but no less fresh and relevant — was the delightful American vocalist-bassist Katie Ernst. Possessing a gorgeous voice with chiaroscuro shadings and a clear delivery, Ernst tapped into the bittersweet emotion and concise wit of Dorothy Parker's poetry, aided by another brilliant young pianist worth remembering, Stu Mindeman.

My most prized musical discovery at this year's festival was the Austrian trio Mario Rom's Interzone, which bridged the gap between jazz familiarity and left-of-center noise experiments. My favorite drummer at the festival, Herbert Pirker fused fluid phrasing with explosive fills in an astonishing way. Interzone's music was so powerful and compelling, the instruments couldn't withstand the onslaught. During the last song of the set, upright bassist Lukas Kranzelbinder actually broke a string. I've certainly never seen that before, and it was a fitting end to a groundbreaking show.


Another Jazz Fest come and gone. I thank you for reading my reviews, agreeing and disagreeing with me. I've always said my brand of criticism isn't necessarily to pass judgment or endorse but rather to get a dialogue started. You've already read what I dug and what I didn't, so allow me to Monday morning quarterback it herewith some ideas for the future...

Three: I think artists should be considered for a third show and not necessarily for the same day. The coolest thing about the festival is the buzz on the street — "Holy shit did you see that guy" or "So and so really blew the lid off Kilbourn Hall." By the time the buzz hit, it was often too late. But it's also hard to predict buzz and how soon it'll happen. So I don't know exactly how to implement it. Again, I'm just starting a conversation.

Vibe: Though I think taking non-venues and attempting to give them a juke joint makeover is cool in theory, some of the venues don't click entirely. What would have typically been the line-up for Abilene (sorely missed) got thrown into The Sibley Building (WTF?), with its hike outside the Jazz Fest proper, Dream Police décor, bright lights, and AstroTurf. No vibe, Jack. Get Abilene back, get Flour City involved too, and dump some of these churches. Also allow for buskers, jugglers, mimes ... you wanna talk about vibe.

What about the children? The Jazz Fest seems to skew a little mature. Where are the kids? How about a specially priced student pass? And a festival-wide ban on khakis.

More matinees, so we can get even more artists for those who don't want to be up late. This could play into the concept of three shows perhaps.


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