Review: Patience pays off for Day 3 at jazz festival

11:46 PM, Jun 23, 2013

Christian Wallumrod Ensemble (Photo provided by XRIJF)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

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With six more nights to go at the nine-day Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, this can be written with assurance: Nowhere else at this festival will you hear a group that takes playing the silence between the notes as seriously as the amazing Christian Wallumrod Ensemble.

And to the post-hole diggers who walked out after one or two songs Sunday at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, you missed an event that had to be seen from the opening notes of the harmonium and violin to the final tinkle of the child’s piano at the end.

Oh, I can understand your uncertainty. Wallumrod and his fellow Norwegians — and one Swede — are disciples of minimalist John Cage. But this was Cage in solitary confinement, so minimalist, I had to check to see if the musicians were wearing shoes. They were.

Watching Wallumrod squeezing notes out of the harmonium, basically an accordion in a box, and then tinkling away at the piano to time signatures only he could hear was a test in patience. His five-piece band seemed to manage only hushed popping, breathing and valve-clearing noises from its instruments. The musicians moved as mechanically as the figures on a clocks in an ancient European town square as Wallumrod played keys No. 86 through 88. At one point you may have even been asking, “What’s that noise? Is the refrigerator in the break room going bad?”

Then, a dramatic shift halfway through the hour-long set. The drummer was keeping a beatnik beat, and melody emerged. So elusive, you wanted to rush the stage with a butterfly net. All of the drifting pieces now came together. The drummer/vibraphonist began playing a musical saw, which joined the cellist and violinist, plucking and bowing their strings to create notes spiraling into outer space.

The Christian Wallumrod Ensemble was a breathtaking experience. All it needed was a little time to breathe.

Stretch the fest

One way to stretch your dollar at the jazz festival is to pick an act that’s two things in one. Or three or four in one. The schizophrenic Stretch Orchestra, which bills itself as the world’s tallest jazz band, fits those hats.

It was a technically enhanced trio of pickers at Montage, with irregular string shredding and cello chamber music meeting King Crimson. Canadian, for the most part, led by guitarist Kevin Breit (6 foot, 5 inches), who suffers from his own identity crisis. He’s played the fest at least three other times, always with a different band. Cellist Matt Brubeck (6 foot, 8 inches) and drummer Jesse Stewart (a mere 6 foot, 3 inches) added up to a loose, engaging and funny set.

The Stretch Orchestra was probably more familiar with the U.S. than Americans are with Canada, Breit insisted. “I know who your prime minister is,” he joked. “And your first lady is Palin.”

True to the Woody Guthrie slogan written on Breit’s guitar amp – “This machine kills fascists” – music rebellion ensued. Breit started out with an electric mandolin, looping it layer upon layer for a mini-mandolin orchestra. He engaged Brubeck in a mandocello-cello duel, then a whimsical ballad sung by Breit in the midst of the otherwise instrumental set was followed by a churning industrial jazz jam. He even played slide guitar by using the end of his necktie.

Breit was fine with blaming the uninhibited energy on his cellist who, “being a Brubeck is incapable of playing anything in 4/4 time.” He was referring to the wild time signatures of a jazz legend who played this fest several times, the late Dave Brubeck; Matt is his youngest son. Matt Brubeck later contributed one of the most poignant moments of the set when he sat at the piano and played a piece for his brother, who passed away a few years ago. The title, “I’m Alrighty” was something his brother frequently said, a theme to an upbeat and reassuring song in which the piano refrain spoke those words. “I’m alrighty.”

Breit did seem to catch his bandmates by surprise when he told them at the start of the final number that it was time to “fill the sausage.” Stewart laughingly confessed he had no idea what Breit was talking about, but from the show it should have been obvious: This set was round and firm and fully packed.

Today’s jazz haiku

Jazz rumble, pulls heat

from deep within the grotto

of Stretch Orchestra