The Critical Mass

The rhythm of Rochester

Does Rochester have a stronger music heritage than nearby Buffalo and Syracuse, as was postulated Thursday morning? Well, the arts is not a competition, folks. But let’s consider the rhythm section that will be joining the Rochester Music Hall of Fame when the seventh class is inducted in a ceremony and concert April 22 at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater.

Drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Tony Levin. Two of the most dominant and innovative musicians in rock, pop and jazz over the past few decades. Gadd is the go-to sticks for Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, James Taylor and damn near everyone else. His most-recent album, Way Back Home: Live from Rochester, recorded at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, won a Grammy. Levin is Peter Gabriel and King Crimson’s bassist, and a myriad of other acts, as well as his own projects. He’s known for his use of the Chapman Stick, a bass he plays with sticks. Gadd and Levin were young guys on the scene here in the ’60s, playing the clubs, studying at the Eastman School of Music, joining Chuck Mangione’s early bands as he was emerging as a jazz star.

Gadd and Levin will play together at the April 22 show, joined by their old bandmates from L’Image, a groundbreaking soft-jazz outfit that first appeared in the 1970s, although it didn’t release an album until 2010: Mike Mainieri, David Spinozza and Warren Bernhardt. And as a couple of Hall of Fame board members noted, there will be at least one special guest to be announced.

So we’ve got that. Add to it the Eastman School of Music icon John Beck, Emmy-nominated composer Ferdinand Jay Smith and the spectacular sacred-steel stars The Campbell Brothers, and this seventh class shapes up as one with not only a big and diverse pedigree, but one that could deliver memorable live performances as well.

As if the Campbell Brothers’ room-shaking blend of gospel, country, rock, jazz and soul isn’t enough – the band has played with The Allman Brothers, and Medeski Martin & Wood – it will be joined at the show by sacred steel star Robert Randolph. It was Chuck Campbell who gave Randolph his first pedal-steel guitar, from the House of Guitars, launching his career.

Beck, who’s been on the Eastman faculty since 1959, is a world-regarded professor of percussion as a performer, teacher and writer. And he always comes prepared, as we saw at a Kilbourn Hall show during a recent Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. When a fellow percussionist asked if anyone in the house had a drum key so that he could tighten one of his drum heads, it was Beck who jumped up from his seat and passed one down to the stage. At April’s show, drum key in pocket, Beck will play a set with the house band, Prime Time Funk.

Smith started his music career as a 15-year-old DJ before he moved on to promoting shows for bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Rascals and Fleetwood Mac. In 1973 he founded Jay Advertising, based in East Rochester, and began creating a string of musical themes and scores, many familiar to this day: The theme music for the 1980 and 1988 Olympics, HBO specials, movies, sports documentaries, even the theme song for Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous. He’s been nominated for two Emmys as well. There is no accurate way to measure this, but it is possible that more people, without being aware of it, have heard Smith’s music than the music of anyone else in the Hall of Fame class of 2018. Rochester’s Casey Filiaci will lead a medley of Smith’s music with a video salute at the concert.

Karl LaPorta opened Thursday’s press conference announcing that in June he is stepping down as the president of the Rochester Music Hall of Fame board of directors, and handing over the leadership to Jack Whittier. Whittier recalled how all of this started: LaPorta was at Whittier’s house, tuning a piano, when he suggested that Rochester needed a Music Hall of Fame, because Buffalo and Syracuse each had one and, “Frankly, we’ve got better music than both of them.”

It remains a work in progress. No physical building yet, although Whittier hinted Thursday that something might be in the works there, with projects that would push the Hall of Fame “past an induction ceremony.”

Big names – soprano Renée Fleming – have yet to be inducted, but that’s always a matter of availability. “Trying to get Steve has been a seven-year process,” the show’s concert producer, Bruce Pilato, said of Gadd. And there still isn’t much representation of the musicians who have been or were longtime, blue-collar voices on the Rochester scene: The Dady Brothers, The Colorblind James Experience. Maybe even Mastodon, one of the top metal acts now playing. It’s based in Atlanta, but two of its members crawled up though the Rochester club scene.

But perhaps the Hall of Fame is closing in on the present. This seventh class is the first in which all of the inductees are still alive. When this fact was pointed out to one of the board members, he immediately came up with a brilliant tag line: “The Class Above Grass.”

Tickets for the 7 p.m. April 22 ceremony and concert, ranging from $31 to $76, are available at the Eastman Theatre box office, and (585) 454-2100.

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