Review: Rocky Lawrence brought his ghost to jazz fest

11:56 PM, Jun 26, 2013


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

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Ghosts arrive at every jazz fest on the same planes and tour buses as the musicians. Rocky Lawrence just spends a little more time introducing them to his audience. “I like to say I make my living because of a dead 27-year-old kid from Mississippi,” he said.

That kid would be Robert Johnson. Blues icon.

Playing two packed shows at The Little Wednesday night at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, Lawrence has more than a fedora and awesome black-and-white patent leather shoes as his pedigree to the blues. Over the years, he’s played with three of Johnson’s peers who managed to make it into old-blues age: Hubert Sumlin, Honeyboy Edwards and Robert Lockwood Jr. “By proxy, that makes Robert Johnson my great-grandfather,” Lawrence told the crowd at the second show. “I tell myself, ‘For a poor black child from New Haven, Conn., you did OK.’ “

Describing himself as “a reefer-smoking, scotch drinkin’ bluesman,” Lawrence has selected an elusive role model in Johnson. He died young, and only one photo, and maybe a disputed second, exist. We know cigarettes, whiskey and women were a part of the story.

He did “Love in Vain,” which you may know as a Rolling Stones song, but was actually written by Robert Johnson. And Lawrence does his own songs, like “Katrina,” which he notes was “the third-worst natural disaster” in American history. And since his second set was quite different from the first, he meandered over to a Christmas piece that he wrote, “Santy Claus,” kind of a “Rodney King, can’t we all just get along” thing. “I prayed to ‘em all all, might as well try Santa Clause. I just like to see everybody happy. A little peace.”

But there’s little peace for most bluesmen. When his woman boots him out of the house, he takes his Robert Johnson suit, his cat and his iPad. “I’m a modern bluesman,” he said.

Today’s jazz haiku

Is that you Robert?

Throwin’ down poison whiskey

Leavin’ a good corpse

A dangerous cocktail

Eyes closed, hands clasped, shaking and nodding her head, the slightest of smiles crossing her face, Gretchen Parlato took subtlety to a new level. That may not seem like we’re saying much since, linguistically speaking, subtlety’s levels are quite limited. But those who packed Kilbourn Hall came for just such a singer, one whose phrasing was a breath of thoughtful melancholy. That’s when you lean forward to listen.

On Day 6 of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival of 95 Percent Female Singers, Parlato’s charm was unexpectedly woven from the same kind of gentle fragility as the folk-pop singer Suzanne Vega. Sometimes a phrase soared, but Parlato has not seen the industry memo entitled “Oversinging Your Way to Stardom.”

Accompanied by piano, bass and drums, which sometimes broke free to push Parlato to vocal heights, the set list ranged from Simply Red’s ’80s hit “Holding Back the Years” to Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly.” Pianist Taylor Eigsti reached inside the piano — I’ve been seeing a lot of this rebelliousness at the festival — and ran his water bottle along the strings, producing spidery notes.

Parlato resorted to occasional hand claps and fluttering vocalese, and showed an interest in accompanying herself with exotic percussion, including a set of wicker shakers that she handled slowly and seductively, as though she were mixing a dangerous cocktail.

Sax, rap and iPhone

The sound at Christ Church didn’t seem to be up to what Soweto Kinch was throwing at his audience. It was a lot: avant-garde alto sax, rap and lyric poetry that was a bit of a throwback to Gil Scott-Heron. Sure, there was a steady stream of veteran jazz lovers politely leaving with that “We gave it a shot” look. But accompanied by bass and drums, he was a hip-hop version of a night at a ’50s beatnik coffeehouse.

Near the end of his first set, Kinch called for the audience to call out words starting with each letter of the word “festival.” They gave him festering, ecstatic, severe, trouble, ignorance, valiant, angry, lyrical, which he then freestyle rapped while eying the list he had discreetly typed on his iPhone.