Opening night of jazz festival most ambitious yet

09:25 PM, Jun 20, 2013

From left, Cara Rager of Rochester, Kristin Tutino of Irondequoit and Peter Wayner of Rochester, all with the WXXI and The Little Theatre, assemble their jazz fest tent Thursday. (KRIS J. MURANTE//STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

Jeff Spevak’s Day 1 picks

Pink Martini, the worldly cocktail combo from Portland., Ore., has played Rochester two previous times, both with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Fronted by a stylish female vocalist, China Forbes, the group will have about a dozen members onstage when it plays at 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Tickets are still available.
Nikki Yanofsky, 5:30 and 7:15 p.m., Harro East Ballroom. Just 19 years old, the much-discussed Canadian singer is already under the wings of music impresario Quincy Jones. Yankofsky is particularly noted for her ease in interpreting the catalog of Ella Fitzgerald.
Dr. John, 9 p.m., free East Avenue and Chestnut Street Stage.Dr. John’s potent Creole voodoo-swamp boogie should make this free show a party. Josh Panda & the Hot Damned warms up the stage starting at 7 p.m.; Panda and Phish’s Jon Fishman of Phish are in the Guinness Book of World Records for “Largest Cowbell Ensemble.”
Kat Edmonson, 7 and 9:15 p.m., The Little. The Two Siberians had to drop out of the fest because the duo couldn’t get a visa out of Russia, but Edmonson is no mere fill-in. Part singer of standards, part retro pop singer, the young Austin, Texas, native has a breezy style that ranges from “Summertime” to Brian Wilson’s “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”

For tickets

The Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival features performances by hundreds of artists at nightclubs, auditoriums and venues (indoor and out) throughout downtown Rochester from June 21 through 29. Some club passes are available for $194. Individual club shows (cash-only at the door) are $25 for Kilbourn Hall; $20 at other venues. Prices vary for the Eastman Theatre headliner shows. There also are dozens of free shows. For information, call (585) 454-2060 or go to rochesterjazz.com.

John Nugent was antsy. He wanted to talk about the music.

Yes, the weather forecast is good for opening night of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. Yes, there’s a new shuttle service.

But, musically, Friday might be the biggest opening night ever in the 12 years of the event, said Nugent, the festival’s co-producer and artistic director.

For the first time, opening night includes a free street party with a major act, Dr. John, on the East Avenue and Chestnut Street Stage. Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre’s first-night show is Pink Martini, a charming jazz combo to quiet the highbrow critics who insist that most of the Eastman shows to come — Willie Nelson, David Byrne and St. Vincent, Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson and Peter Frampton — aren’t jazz acts at all.

And young, much-talked-about Nikki Yanofsky and Rochester native Robin McKelle, who some writers compare to Amy Winehouse minus the self-destructive tendencies, signal the start of nine days of music that this year is dominated by singers.

To come are Gretchen Parlato, Gregory Porter, Carmen Souza, Marti Brom, James Hunter, Youn Sun Nah.

But first the details of the festival, which goes through June 29. Site setup started a bit earlier than usual this week, although Thursday saw brisk activity, with pianos and other equipment delivered to venues, street vendors setting up and signage going up.

As Nugent and co-producer Marc Iacona, the nuts-and-bolts guy, sat earlier this week in the jazz fest ticket office on East Avenue, the two were confident that the details were accounted for. The Big Tent on the northwest corner of Main and Gibbs street was up. The Newfies — Nugent’s pals from his native Newfoundland in Canada, — were on their way here to help run the dozen official club venues, including the new one for this year, The Little Theatre.

Also new this year is a free shuttle service that will take people from the city’s parking garages to the fest, with stops, for example at the South Avenue and Sister Cities garages.

Last year’s festival drew 187,000 people, another year of steady growth.

A core team of 25 people, plus hired professional help, started the big push to be ready about 90 days ago, said Iacona, who also is owner of local communications design company Simcona Electronics Corp. Ninety percent of that help is local.

On top of the paid staff, volunteers started helping on Monday.

As has always been the case, the International aspect of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival is with a capital I. Acts from 17 countries are playing. Many, particularly the European musicians, are traveling here on subsidies from their governments. And many are making Rochester their first stop.

They know how important this festival is in terms of American jazz,” Nugent said. “When they go and ship 150 CDs to our office, you know they’re excited to be here.”

Of course, with an emphasis on international musicians comes added issues of visa troubles and other logistics. The Two Siberians didn’t apply for visas in time and were replaced by Texas singer Kat Edmonson (a coup for a replacement). Cleveland Watkiss faced issues in the United Kingdom and was replaced with the Phil Robson Trio on opening night of the Made in the UK series at Christ Church.

Nor can organizers control Rochester weather.

If we have a wet night, it is not going to kill our jazz festival,” Nugent said.

In spite of the relaxed demeanor of the co-producers, the relationship between such an event and its neighbors is tricky. Last weekend, the East End Nightlife Festival enjoyed an estimated crowd of 14,000 people on these same, closed-off streets. But some residents and businesses have been circulating a petition in the area against this event that helped lead the East End renaissance. Iacona and Nugent saw the petition against the East End Festival, but declined to sign it.

In all American cities, all events need to co-exist,” Nugent said.

He and Iacona emphasize the need for the private business aspect of the XRIJF to intersect with public interest. It is the city that budgets the money to pay for some of the free outdoor shows.

Just because we’ve arrived doesn’t mean we don’t need support anymore,” Iacona said.

They also acknowledged the need to continually work with area businesses and their own club venues to try to meet their needs.

The key, though, is emphasizing the city’s continual support of the arts, they said.