The Musical Dialect of America


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That is jazz, of course. It is recognized by many Americans as an experience of time in creating music, as a form of self-expression in communication, as a profession, or a hobby. And if it so happens that they do not play or sing jazz, then they actively listen to all its directions from gospel to contemporary and are an extremely oriented audience. Jazz is the social and cultural communication in the United States.

One of the world’s largest jazz festivals takes place in Rochester, New York. There were opinions on the stage that it was “the best jazz festival in the country”, the ‘Grand Slam’ of jazz festivals. And even if it is an exaggeration, the events that took place during it were impressive. Its editions have featured Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Nora Jones, Sonny Rollins, Dr. John and other elite musicians. This year, the festival celebrates its 20th edition. It was produced by Marc Iacona (CEO) and John Nugent (artistic director). They reformulated the striving to build community through music in the motto: “It’s not just who you know, it’s who you don’t know”.

Recently, the 100th anniversary was marked by one of the most elite music academies in the world – the Eastman School of Music, namely the Music Department at the University of Rochester, New York, which hosted the essential part of the jazz festival programme. Setting in the halls of the Eastman School, the theatres around and the street space, from June 23 to July 1, jazz conquered the central part of the city for 9 days, as expected: on 19 stages, in over 300 jazz meetings, with the participation of about 1,800 musicians, with five jazz workshops on various instruments, and with 100 free concerts for an audience not tempted by the big and expensive names in the program, but which takes over from this so iconic American sound atmosphere.

I have repeatedly dwelled on the exceptional importance of festivals not only as an artistic event and an act of cultural management, but also as an “architectural”, “urban”, social, educational task, why not public health, spiritual survival, etc. integral aspects of life. If we make a comparison with other forums of a similar scale, then the following can be said about the Rochester, New York Jazz Festival: wide-ranging in the different directions of jazz, in forms from sharing experience and improvised music, jam sessions, from club concerts through street jazz and to jazz legends on the big stages; with a high level of performers from young and promising to veteran leaders. All this is available freely or under a subscription scheme. Volunteering is widespread, as in many other areas in the United States.

I would start with the impressive performances of the headliners. The core of the festival program included the performances in Kodak Hall (with over 2,300 seats) at the Eastman School at 8 PM by amazing jazz and blues performers around with an average age of around 70: the remarkable Pat Metheny with the songs from his latest album Side-Eye NYC, the “eternal blues machine” Keb’ Mo’ and the blues artist Bonnie Raitt, whose music my generation grew up with. Unfortunately, the legendary 92-year-old Omara Portuondo cancelled her concert. Before these concerts, the audience warmed up daily to a dozen concert and club jazz stages, and as many to free outdoor stages in guarded spaces.

The step-by-step arrangement of the start time of the concerts and their repetition after 3 hours allows the audience to go through all the concerts, to feel all the styles and performers, entering and leaving the halls with a pre-paid club pass.

In a certain aspect, jazz turned out to be the music of the “old” not only among the stars of the stage, but also among the audience, in which viewers between 50 and 80 years of age were predominant. It is probably not just leisure and available money that is causing this. The “old” turned out to be the most serious fans, the most liberated in their reactions, they were the liveliest audience, loudly applauding, filling the halls with a roar of approval, whistling, dancing along the lines.

Of the entire program with over 300 events and over 1,800 participants, I would limit myself to general trends and a few highlights. First of all, of course, I share my pleasure in communicating with Pat Metheny, who also visited Bulgaria in 2011. Contacts with a brilliant musician like him are a rare happy occasion; with an incredible sense of style and form in complex large-scale pieces, with hearing, making and distinguishing multiple details, with remarkable invention. Metheny is impressive as a composer, improviser, and performer. He came from the Ravinia Festival (before the Rochester Jazz Festival), along with pianist Chris Fishman, a graduate of the Manhattan School, and percussionist Joe Dyson, a graduate of Berkeley College of Music. And after Rochester Pat Metheny continues to another landmark destination, the Montreux Jazz Festival. Each individual piece was a different story, incredibly attention-grabbing, guiding the imagination in the constant reinvention of oneself and in the dialogue with others. With Metheny, the mediation of the style, no matter what it is – progressive, bebop, fusion, contemporary, ethno (Latin), Americana, – falls out and what remains is the perfect musical communication between audience and performer. He included a piece on his 42-string guitar with incredible internal dialogue; he played an amplified acoustic guitar, spawned ideas both close to flamenco and far more interesting and varied. In the last piece, he showed that he is also fluent in some classical means of expression such as hidden polyphony, typical primarily for other types of music. It is no coincidence that he has three gold albums, that he is the winner of 20 Grammy Awards – the only one in the world, and they are in 10 different categories. Metheny is pure class. He also performed his own pieces with additional percussion instruments programmed to play without a performer, familiar to the Bulgarian audience from his album “Orchestrion”. Metheny “listens” to the musical fabric from the inside, is addicted to constantly rediscovering it and bringing his happiness from the work to the stage.

Keb’ Mo’ was the other jazz legend. A five-time Grammy winner, he is also a remarkable musician, masterfully captivating audiences with guitar, harmonica, and vocals, he has a style with different trends in blues: smooth-blues and Americana with influences of pop, rock, country, such as his wonderful song Good to Be (Home Again). He built incredible contact with the audience with a soft but captivating presence, with a casual and authentic demeanour and above all with a masterful command of style. Charming, calm, captivating, harmonious. Of himself, he says, “I may not be the best, but I am my best self.”

Bonnie Raitt, as we know, also ranks among the “blues dinosaurs” with over 50 years on stage and among the awarded performers: she has won 10 Grammy Awards in various categories. Singer, guitarist, and keyboardist, charming, temperamental, and dynamic, she is fluent in the blues in its interactions with rock, pop, and country.

In memory of Chick Corea, photo personal archive, December 2019

Another concert filled the Kodak Hall of the Eastman School – in memory of and with the music of Chick Corea, who would have turned 82 on June 12. And in the line of Grammy winners, Chick Corea is leading with his 23rd awards. The Eastman School Big Band, conducted by Christine Jensen, Canadian jazz saxophonist with her own concert at the festival, conductor of the Montreal National Jazz Orchestra and lecturer at McGill University. Other participants in the festival joined as soloists – Peter Johnstone, piano and Tommy Smith, tenor saxophone, musicians from the Royal Conservatory of Scotland. Tommy Smith played with Chick Corea, had his recommendation for gigs with Gary Burton, recorded dozens of albums. He plays free jazz, avant-garde jazz and joins the tradition of John Coltrane. He has also visited Bulgaria years ago.

Among the young musicians, I would mention the following two: Matthew Whitaker, keyboards, and Samara Joy, vocalist.  Matthew Whitaker is captivating with his improvisations and impresses with the career he made in his 22 years. Born with retinopathy, blind, he devoted himself early to piano and jazz; at the age of 16 he released his first album, played at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Kennedy Center, studied at the Manhattan School and the Juilliard School. At the concert, he combined piano, keyboard, and organ, with a magnificent style inspired by Oscar Peterson, and in places by George Gershwin as well.

Twenty-four-year-old Samara Joy already received her Grammy Award for Best Young Artist, and only at the age of 17 she won the Sarah Vaughan Award. As a fan of Sarah Vaughan, of her phenomenal colour, range, swinging intonations and subtle voice, I would say that for Samara Joy the prize at a competition is a great success even only because of being named after Vaughan.

 Gabrielle Cavassa, a soloist at one of the concerts on the first night, was also the winner of the same Sarah Vaughan award in 2021. She was probably also influenced by Billie Holiday’s gospel, as she was looking for her apertures, but her voice was different in tone and lighter in sound.

To the very interesting musicians mixing the standard with elements of ethnojazz I would mention Nduduzo Makhathini, piano and vocalist, from South Africa, very liberated and “minimalist” in his style; Albino Mbie, guitar and vocalist from Mozambique and vocal duo OKAN with Afro-Cuban elements.

Among the ladies of the piano jazz standard with a nostalgic motto were Deanna Witkowski with a concert dedicated to Mary Lou Williams and Laura Dubin Trio, with a concert dedicated to Marian McPartland.

I liked the Big Lazy Trio (guitar, bass, percussion) in the Americana style, with elements of jazz, blues, rock, surf, with intrusive bass and melodies. Luis Deniz Quartet falls in the same line, which was led by saxophonist Luis Deniz, with a contemporary, melancholy, swinging sound.

The Latin style of Diego Figueiredo, a Grammy-nominated Brazilian guitarist, and saxophonist Ken Peplowski ignited the audience with the improvisations in style proposed by the audience itself. Figueiredo is known in the jazz scene for his mastery, style, and temperament.

Catherine Russell conquered the lovers of standard blues. She has already been honoured with several awards, including Grammy, the award of the French Jazz Academy, the award of Billboard magazine. Apart from this, it is a known fact that she follows the “push” of her famous jazz parents: pianist Louis Russell, who worked with Louis Armstrong, and bass guitarist Carlene Ray, who played with Mary Lou Williams, who was also mentioned above.

Tatiana Eva-Marie, singing in French and English, with preference in cabaret style, chanson, the style of melodic jazz from the 1930s or with a “gypsy” sound, was different and less impressive.

Among the bright pianists two others who also led master classes should be mentioned – David Hazeltine and Bruce Barth in duet with Eri Yamamoto. Hazeltine is an admirer of Charlie Parker, playing in various concerts as a solo pianist and with a quartet.

A competition named after Mary Lou Williams was won by pianist Helen Sung. One should not miss her in the programme as a solo pianist with a delicate and articulate sound, classical fine pianism and an interest in mixing jazz with other genres.

An interesting style was shown by the pianist Christian Sands & Trio: an excellent pianist in a contemporary style, starting from ragtime, saturated with a lot of arpeggios, swing, bebop, progressive, fusion, and Latin. In his biography, he has appeared with famous names, including Winton Marsalis, Gary Burton, Bill Evans, Louis Hayes, and at traditional festivals in Newport, Montreux, and Detroit.

Pianist and composer Bruce Hornsby & Noisemakers is also a notable presence in jazz – he has sold over 10 million albums, collaborated with Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Don Henley, and won 13 Grammy Awards.

The saxophonist Harry Allen, who presented himself in a trio, with a remarkable vocal by the percussionist, was also impressive.

Many more participants can be added to the whole plethora of personalities from the festival poster: the contemporary style of Rich Perry from the Rich Perry & the Jon Ballantyne trio, the Norwegian funk band Oddgeir Berg Trio, the American style of the Corner House quartet (violin, guitar, cello, banjo), the psychedelic rock and funk of St Paul & the Broken Bones, the blues of Southside Johnny, the fusion and funk of the New York band The Erez Aviram Ensemble. To them, we can add all other performers on the open and closed stages: B. D. Lenz Group, Rich Thompson Trio “Generations”, Glen David Andrews, Houston Person & Eric Person “Person2Person”, Joona Toivanen Jazz & Fly Fishing, Cory Weeds Quartet, the Canadian singer Emily Claire Barlow, the vibraphonist Diana Herold & the Helium Orchestra – they have fully deserved their applause.

Not all participants can be mentioned. But I will note the jam sessions of Eastman School hosts Bob Snyder, guitar and Mike Cottone, percussion – all musicians with spontaneity, ease in dialogue, in taking over and passing the baton of improvisation. They ended each festival day, so that it could be continued the next day by the amateurs of the school orchestras. As a result, the most general impression of the jazz festival was of an active “conversation” in a musical language perceived as “national”, which is important for the self-awareness of Americans; this music is presented as knowledge, tradition, value, and form of upbringing that bears fruit; the audience understands this music, grows with it, communicates with the performers and responds very accurately to style and improvisations. Through the jazz fest, the audience finds another form to demonstrate some typically local traits – empathy, contact, and entertainment in a common spiritual area.

The Musical Dialect of America

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