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WXXI, the jazz fest and sleep-deprived haikus

I likely won’t be blogging for a bit. Starting Friday, and for nine days, I’ll be covering the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival for our public radio station, WXXI. It’ll be total immersion in music. An escape from a suddenly incomprehensible world where everything seems to be upside down. Where fiction is truth, where people seeking asylum from violence are equated with gangs.

It won’t be a total escape. Musicians, being smart and compassionate people, are likely to be poking holes in our festival cocoon and reminding their audiences of what’s going on in the outside world. Musicians have a habit of doing that. Speaking truth to power.

At the festival, I’ll see names you know: Seal, Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck.

And names you should know. Bluesman Jack Broadbent, All Our Exes Live in Texas, Ulysses Owens, Jr., and his “Songs of Freedom” show.

I’ll be providing daily web site content for WXXI. The first story, a preview of the event, has already been posted on wxxi.org. I’ll be filing reviews of each night’s shows, previews of the next night and interviews with musicians: The fabulous Moon Hooch, whose picture accompanies this post, is on deck.

You’ll hear me on the radio. On weekdays at about 5:50 p.m., I’ll be live from the festival site on WXXI-AM (1370) and WRUR-FM (88.5). And weekday mornings, at about 10:30 a.m., the “Jazz Corner” segment, and my sleep-deprived comments, returns for the third year on WRUR and Scott Regan’s Open Tunings show.

And yes, there will be jazz haikus.

Jeff Spevak is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.

Playing for the end of time

Connie Deming and Phil Marshall.

Saturday morning, I took my second stab at radio commentary. Just feeling my way through the airwaves at your expense. If you’re the kind of person who’s curious about train wrecks and zeppelin explosions – insightful comments from Connie Deming and Phil Marshall aside – here’s the text. And you can listen to a longer version of the commentary than the one that appeared Saturday morning on WXXI-AM (1370) by going to WXXI.org.


The measure of a society is how it treats its most-vulnerable citizens.

For much of the last couple of decades, Connie Deming brought her guitar and voice directly to people who could not venture out to hear beautiful music. And that’s what Phil Marshall has been doing for 17 years now. That is why, in part, seeing them play together Saturday at Lovin’ Cup Bistro & Brews is such an inspired pairing.

The show should be a no-brainer anyway. Deming is one of the finest singers in Rochester, a swooping, multi-octave performer with an engaging stage presence. And a string of recent CD releases, each one more confident than the last. I follow Deming shamelessly, like a dog trailing a pork-chop wagon.

Marshall was the guitarist with one of the city’s most-treasured rock bands, The Colorblind James Experience. He’s since moved on to front his own bands. Lalaland, various forms of Phil Marshall projects, more recently The Fox Sisters and the enigmatic jazz quartet Margaret Explosion.

But mostly, the Deming and Marshall summit feels like a concept evening. Because of their sensibilities, what they’ve done for others.

Deming’s son is autistic. He’s on the severe side of autism spectrum, allowing him to communicate only through a keyboard. She raised David into adulthood, before handing him over to a group home, a place that accommodates his limited social skills and the heightened levels of stimulation that the outside world sometimes frighteningly sends his way. It was an experience that served her well for the dozen years that she spent playing group homes for senior citizens. Brightening their days with Beatles songs.

CONNIE: Thanks to my autistic son, I had to learn to listen to the voice of intuition much more completely. So when you enter a silent room filled with unknowns, all you have is that inner voice, plus your intention of making a meaningful connection, and your own cache of songs. And when you do get out of your own way, it feels most enjoyable. Where did that song come from? It wasn’t on the list of ideas you planned.

And sometimes, that’s where Deming’s own songs come from.

Music as therapy. Phil Marshall uses it as well. But his audience is one step deeper than Deming’s was. Marshall’s audience is in hospice. We are all dying, of course. But the people for whom Marshall plays are much closer to the end.

Marshall has posted little vignettes about his work on Facebook. Here’s one:

PHIL: Sometimes the room is so quiet. The husband sits at bedside and holds onto his wife’s hand. She’s resting comfortably, eyes closed and relaxed breathing. There are others in the room. Grandchildren I suspect. There is no joy, only anticipatory grief. I play the songs the husband suggests. He thanks me but nothing changes. There are tears and profound sorrow. I don’t know if I made a difference. I only know that I do what I’m asked to do. And before I say goodbye to the husband, I tell him it was a privilege to play for him and his family. And it was, as it always is.

Some of Marshall’s stories are funny. He writes, “I found myself contemplating opening my own skilled nursing facility catering to the cowboys, gangstas, punks and poets who just need a final respite. Welcome to Lost Highway Acres! Here’s your barstool, your pint, your cigarettes and morphine. I finally have a vision of where this has all been leading me.”

Where is it leading him? Where is it leading us? Some of Marshall’s songs are drawn straight from the stories he’s witnessed while playing for time rapidly drawing to a close.

PHIL: I ran into an old acquaintance the other evening who started off by asking me, “Do you still play for the little old ladies?” Well, let’s see: among others I’ve got a 40-year-old husband and father of two actively dying. I’ve got a man my age who likes The Beatles and Stones who doesn’t have much time. I’ve got an angry 17-year-old with a Stage 3 brain tumor. A woman my age whose mother, sister and son are all holding vigil at bedside.

And guess what: hard to believe but I don’t think of the elderly women on my roster as “little old ladies.” I respect them all far too much. So yeah, I found the question to be condescending, insensitive and clueless. I don’t play for little old ladies. I play for people standing on the threshold of something literally no one can really wrap their brain around.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Setting radio back a few decades

This week I ventured into the world of radio guest commentary. It is a strange place to be, I’m not sure I belong there. My voice is a monochromatic instrument, it doesn’t know the difference between expressing admiration for a YouTube video of a dog wearing a hat and issuing a warning that an asteroid is about to strike the Earth. But the assignment was Tuesday morning’s announcement of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival lineup. And I felt comfortable with that subject.

So here’s the transcript, as heard on WXXI-AM (1370) and WRUR-FM (88.5). It’s actually the director’s cut, I ran a little long and a few things were omitted in the broadcast. And if it were the actual document, it would have a few whiskey-glass rings staining the margins.

SCOTT: I’m Scott Regan, host of WRUR-FM’s Open Tunings. Jeff Spevak has been a frequent guest during the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, and we’ve asked him to stop by the studios here to talk about the lineup for this year’s event, which was announced Tuesday.

JEFF: Thanks Scott. After 16 years, which in its first year we saw Aretha Franklin riding in from behind the right-right fence on a golf cart to close out the show at Frontier Field, the festival now runs on a well-established template. Nine days, this year starting June 22, ending June 30, all shows within downtown walking distance.

SCOTT: So, what do we have this year?

JEFF: The Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre shows have already been announced. It’s the usual diverse formula. R&B singers Seal and Jill Scott. The bluegrass-jazz of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. The bluegrass of Alison Krauss. The alt-rock jazz vocals of Lake Street Dive. The blues-pop of singer Box Scaggs, if he does “Loan a Dime” like he did last time he was here, a 10-minute version, that’ll be my fest. All of these shows have already sold well over 1,000 tickets according to co-producer and artistic director John Nugent.

SCOTT: So where are the big jazz names? Anything Marsalis.

JEFF: The key to the jazz festival is, to quote Paul McCartney, “And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” In other words, go all out, hit three shows all nine nights, and you’ll have a rewarding music experience. And not just in jazz. This is not so much a jazz festival as it is an international, all-genre music festival. It’s the National Geographic of music events.

The jazz fest doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it has to change a tire or two every year. Most notable is the addition of The Temple Building, an old, 1,000-seat church on Liberty Pole Way that also has a rock-club history in this city. Chuck Berry, The Replacements, The Ramones and The Brian Setzer Orchestra all played there. Later it was a dance club, to the disappointment of Rochester City Police. It’s been silent for a while, but is now beautifully renovated. It’ll be used eight on the night nights – on Sundays it’s still a church – and it starts out strong. Opening nighty is Joey Alexander, a pianist who has blown people away the last two years here, including sharing the Eastman Theatre stage with Chick Corea. I hesitate to say Alexander’s 13 years old, because you’ll think, ‘Oh what a cute kid.’ But everyone who’s heard him is astounded by his musical maturity. And the following night at the Temple Theater is the return of The Bad Plus, an out-there trio that accents its own compositions with inventive rock covers such as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

I mentioned Brian Setzer playing the Temple Theater years ago, and he’s back. His Rockabilly Riot is one of the free big outdoor shows at the East Avenue and Chestnut Street Stage. Tower of Power is a familiar name at the outdoor shows, but two new names could be quite interesting. Vintage Trouble is a band that’s opened for The Who and the Rolling Stones. St. Germain is a Paris electro-dance-rock outfit. Parcel 5 isn’t a part of this lineup. Instead there is an alt-country show at Martin Luther King, Jr., Park at Manhattan Square Park with Pokey LaFarge and Sara Borges.

Now we go indoors to the Club Pass shows. Vibraphonist Joe Locke, a Rochester native is a big show at Kilbourn Hall. Terrell Strafford and Nicholas Payton bring more jazz cred to the venue. And I like the idea of Songs of Freedom, a presentation of spirituals, and Matt Wilson’s arrangements of Carl Sandburg poems.

After that? I’m happy to see the great roadhouse country guitarist Junior Brown back at Anthology. The Made in the UK series at Christ Church and the return of singer Gwyneth Herbert. And Jack Broadbent is back, he was my favorite act a year ago, an English blues guitarist who played slide with a hip flask.

And lots of stuff to be discovered: If you want to hear the music of the jam band Phish played as jazz, that’s a group called Jazz, Phish. The Dmitri Matheny Group has been here a few times playing at Abilene Bar & Lounge, it plays what sounds like soundtracks for film noir. I’m particularly riveted by the idea of Hooch Moon, a trio of two saxophones and percussion, doing all Tom Waits songs.

SCOTT: So that’s the jazz fest?

JEFF: That’s the start. We have three months to figure out what these bands from Iceland and Norway will be doing at the Lutheran Church.

SCOTT: Thanks Jeff. You can read Jeff’s stuff on his web site, jeffspevak.com.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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