BY RON NETSKY
Yggdrasil has played at the Lutheran Church several times at past XRIJFs, but I’ve never taken in a set until Saturday night. I was afraid they might be a little too new-agey for my taste. Instead, I was blown away by not only the talent of all seven members of the group, but also by their deep-rooted Scandinavian repertoire.
Eivor, who was with them this year, is simply an incredible singer. At times she sounded like the lead singer of the great Irish group, Clannad. And, when Yggdrasil performed a magnificent Shakespeare sonnet set to music, she seemed to be channeling Kate Bush. These are compliments, but the best compliment is: most of the time she sounded like Eivor. It didn’t hurt that she looked like a storybook character, a good witch with long blond hair, accented by a long black dress with the texture of seal skin. (I don’t really think they’d go that far for authenticity.)
The group, made up mostly of names I can’t pronounce, was fantastic, from the fiddler to the flautist to the pianist and the rhythm section. Each had an unorthodox approach to his or her instrument and the combined sound was simply otherworldly. The good news is, you can catch Eivor and Mikael Blak tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. And Yggdrasil’s leader Kristian Blak goes solo at Hatch Hall at 5:45 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. on Sunday.
Earlier in the evening I caught Tom Harrell’s Debussy & Ravel Project at Kilbourn Hall. Both Impressionist composers are favorites among jazz musicians due to their experimentation with unconventional harmonies, melodies, rhythms, and voicings. So when Harrell and his superb band played an hour and 20 minute set of (and in the spirit of) their music, it just seemed like cerebral jazz.
Harrell, who suffers from schizophrenia, never made eye contact with the audience. He walked slowly with his head down, every movement deliberate. But when he picked up his trumpet or flugelhorn he came to life. And he got better as the set progressed, with the last three tunes (two of them by Harrell, one by Ravel) the best.
His ensemble, enhanced by violin and cello, boasted some top players. Especially strong on solos were Wayne Escoffery on tenor sax and Charles Pillow on various woodwinds.
I also caught pianist Bill Cunliffe, who played a far more traditional show at Hatch Hall, the Eastman School’s beautiful, new, and intimate (read: small) venue. Cunliffe took advantage of the intimacy and had an ongoing chat with the audience between tunes.
He reminisced about his days as a student at Eastman three decades ago, and even did a pretty good Rochester accent. And he talked about the first album he made after moving to Los Angeles, a CD of Paul Simon songs. He said he was skeptical at first, but then he listened. The story was followed by a four-song Simon medley that included a beautiful rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” But the high point of Cunliffe’s set was when he got deeply into a truly great composition, Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.”
Sunday night I’ll be in Kilbourn Hall checking out some great musicians in their new project, Ninety Miles, inspired by the music of Cuba. Then I’ll head over to Christ Church for the progressive British group Breach. And, finally, I want to hear what Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has been up to lately at Xerox Auditorium.