Jazz Stars Unite Across Generations in Rochester

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Joey Alexander (left) and Chick Corea play a duet at the Rochester International Jazz Festival in Rochester, New York, on June 28.

(Photo: Jim Dolan)

Pianist Chick Corea is touring ceaselessly in 2016, appearing at many summer festivals prior to his historic residence at The Blue Note in New York this fall, but his June 28 performance at the Rochester International Jazz Festival offered a first: a duet with Joey Alexander.

The 13-year-old Indonesian piano prodigy had opened the show at Eastman Theatre, so it was not terribly shocking that he came out onstage for Corea’s encore, particularly as the 75-year-old master has a penchant for bringing up guests to close out his shows. But this was the first time that the two pianists had played together, representing two extremes in career evolution.

Rochester, New York, is so far upstate that it’s near the Canadian border, within easy striking distance of Niagara Falls. The relatively small city has managed to establish a disproportionately gig-crammed feast over the last 15 years, and this year’s edition had a copious nine-day program chock-full of shows. The entire central downtown area was taken over by jazz from June 24 to July 2, as streets, bars and restaurants were flooded with music fans.

Corea’s trio includes bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade (his bandmates on the acclaimed triple album Trilogy). The set opened with “500 Miles High,” followed by an interpretation of “Alice In Wonderland.” It soon became evident that Corea and McBride were playfully competing for the lightest and fastest touches, both chasing after the King Of The Dexterous crown.

Corea probed the piano interior, skimming directly on the strings, then rolled deep down with his left hand, prompting rapid bass and drum exchanges. This led into a springy funk reading of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise,” with McBride bowing and Corea playing multiple voices in schizophrenic fashion.

McBride grabbed a lot of the applause with his solos, illustrating his bass primacy, filling each section with almost impossibly detailed fingerings, before starting “Sophisticated Lady” alone, displaying a more serene aspect.

But back to that encore with Alexander: The pair exchanged phases around Corea’s “Spain,” with both players perched on the same piano bench. Alexander was clearly star-struck, but still game for the challenge. Corea was avuncular, nodding positively, and visibly impressed by Alexander’s conversational powers. McBride set up a slap vibe, Blade catching the beat, and then all four got busy with their fleet, complicated exchanges.

A much calmer form of piano mastery was displayed three nights later, as pianist Tord Gustavsen brought his latest trio to the Lutheran Church Of The Reformation, an acoustically impressive venue. This was some of the quietest, most concentrated music imaginable, the sound of dusk birdsongs accompanying softly from just outside the stained glass windows.

Gustavsen uses extremely subtle electronics to shape a bass presence, a faint hum that’s matched by Jarle Vespestad’s deep drum sound. Gustavsen himself tinkered down at the low end, with one hand inside the piano, dampening its strings. A pair of old Norwegian hymns opened, but sung in Pashto by the German singer Simin Tander. Her gestures were flamboyant, but her voice sounds more restrained, though equally expressive.

Gustavsen’s current approach is to blend ancient traditions from different lands, uniting them in a fresh, pan-cultural existence. “Your Grief” and “What Was Said To The Rose” included a voiceless passage, with piano and drums accompanied by extremely low bass electronics, swelling to a crescendo that provided a transcendent conclusion.

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