RIJF Night 8 | The return of Joey Alexander, and what’s the F in GMF? 

There are a handful of musicians who are associated with these 20 editions of Rochester International Jazz Festival. Guitarist Bill Frisell, certainly. And what about Joey Alexander?

Close your eyes, and if you wanted to hear a 60-year-old veteran of the New York City jazz scene, that was possible. A native of Indonesia, Alexander first played here when he was 12 years old. He wasn’t just a sideshow, or a curiosity. But a real jazz pianist. Although, one whose goal beyond playing his two shows that first trip to Rochester was to visit The Strong National Museum of Play.

click to enlarge Joey Alexander plays at Temple Theater on Friday, June 30. - AARON WINTERS/RIJF
  • AARON WINTERS/RIJF
  • Joey Alexander plays at Temple Theater on Friday, June 30.
Alexander seemed a little self-conscious, or perhaps modest, on Friday night when picking up the microphone and stepping to the front of the Temple Theater stage to introduce a song — explaining what had happened, what was about to happen. But he was confident when behind the keyboard. Alexander and his music have grown together; most of what he played during Friday’s first of two shows was music he had written.

No less an authority on jazz than the late Chick Corea had picked up on the vibe. The two played a Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater show, and Alexander payed tribute to that friendship Friday night with a performance of Corea’s “Of Silence.” Then Alexander moved on to a beautiful and very complicated instrumental version of The Beatles’ “Blackbird.”

It’s not like someone put a notch on an East End streetlamp post, marking how tall Alexander is with each visit. Yet it’s intriguing, watching a musician blossom before our eyes. Now he’s 20 years old, playing his fourth time here. Clearly more mature. But… still a kid.

Today’s jazz haiku

Smoldering forests
heavy in the air, mingling
with sax notes

Kelso and the Jazz Exiles are one GMF

Mark Kelso is familiar to jazz fest explorers as the drummer with Canadian band Soul Stew, yearly regulars playing free shows on Gibbs Street. With his other band, Mark Kelso & The Jazz Exiles, he has been nominated for a couple of JUNO Awards (the Canadian Grammy). Although Kelso – who is actually a native of Northern Ireland – notes that being nominated and not winning makes the quintet “a two-time loser.”

There is irreverence in the air. Songs such as “Project GMF,” with the letters, he says, standing for Group Mother… uhh, Francine, yes, Francine, he suggested. “Get your mind out of the gutter, this is a family show."


That’s if your kids are into jazz-fusion. Or perhaps they’re into metaphors. What kids aren’t? The fast-moving, rhythmic bustling of “Dragon Tail” is one such literary device, Kelso said, citing the dangers presented by a dragon’s teeth, flaming breath and whip-snapping tail. In pointing out the influence behind “Dragon Tail,” the festival experienced what is perhaps the only jazz tune influenced by actor and martial arts fighter Bruce Lee.

Spevak’s picks for Saturday, July 1

Harold Danko, Hatch Recital Hall, 5:45 and 7:45 p.m.
The professor emeritus at Eastman School of music is a jazz pianist who’s been riffing on Igor Stravinsky.

Curtis Stigers, Kilbourn Hall, 6 and 9 p.m.
The super-cool jazz vocalist.

The BuddaHood, Wegmans Pavilion, 7 and 9 p.m.
This Rochester groove collective is the perfect accompaniment for all phases of the moon. It’ll be a waxing gibbous moon Saturday night, so dress appropriately.

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Parcel 5, 9 p.m.
Yes, he’s jazz. But the frequent Rochester International Jazz Festival performer drifts into funk, soul and rock.

Jeff Spevak is senior arts writer for WXXI and CITY Magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].
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