Patti LaBelle, Jake Shimabukuro shine in first weekend of Rochester Jazz Fest

Fans open arms to genre’s brightest for the 18th annual event


ROCHESTER — At 75 years old, most veteran singers usually lose a step or two.

They might drawback on their dancing or they realize the days of bringing 2,000-plus crowd members to their feet may be long gone.

But this isn’t in Patti LaBelle’s character, as the singer’s presence roared Rochesterians on Saturday night.

LaBelle, a soul legend, brought the heat at the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Fest during its first weekend. The fest, now in its 18th edition, often brings the best and rising artists in jazz for performances and concerts jam-packed with musical electricity and fire.

And, so far, 2019 has been no different.

LaBelle, a Grammy-winning artist known for her long-standing history in R&B, led the charge with a soul-packed performance in Kodak Hall. LaBelle came out flexing her vocal range, hitting notes with ease as her 12-piece band backed her at every turn.

The singer nailed covers of “I Keep Forgetting” along with “What You Won’t Do For Love” early on before skirting into one of her classics, “Love, Need and Want You.”

The singer made sure to remind the crowd of the artists that have flipped or remixed the song, like Outkast and Lloyd. 

“Don’t get it twisted, I did it first,” LaBelle said.

From there on, LaBelle’s performance became something of magic, as she and her band shied toward a dominant number that rocked the Rochester venue. As LaBelle left the stage to change from green to red, her drummer broke out his vocals and made his way closer to the crowd with butter-smooth dances.

It all led to a delightful ending, with LaBelle bringing men in the crowd on stage to strut their stuff to the joy of thousands. She concluded the evening with an “Over The Rainbow” cover along with a tribute to music legends the world has lost over time, a touching way to wrap up a show loaded with emotions.

Before LaBelle’s Saturday performance was Jake Shimabukuro, the Hawaiian ukulele player who performed in front of a full house in Kilbourn Hall.

Courtesy of Jared Gavin

Jake Shimabakuro's abilities have gone viral in the past but his stardom hit overdrive during his Saturday performance in Kilbourn Hall.

Shimabukuro, occasionally along with bassist Nolan Verner, jammed to perfection in a plugged performance littered with folk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll.

The player opened up with precision, hitting every line on his solo of “Over The Rainbow.” During the performance, and throughout the night, Shimabukuro sprinkled his honest, delightful personality in between songs. Shimabukuro cradled his ukulele like a child but, at times, impressively played it with two hands stroking the chords.

Courtesy of Jared Gavin

Shimabakuro whittled and plucked away at the highest and lowest of strings on stage.

The player schemed the crowd all night with a perfect mix of rhythm and attitudes toward his songs, with his heart and dedication on full display through covers –– “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” for one –– and originals –– “Go For Broke,” a solemn number dedicated to veterans.

He excited the crowd throughout, and jazz fans would be hard-pressed to find a performer of Shimabukuro’s nature who is more in tune with their instruments.

Shimabukuro wrapped things up with “Dragon,” an effects-driven performance inspired by Bruce Lee, and a sing-along to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which the player helped lead.

In the same venue on Sunday evening, Stefon Harris & Blackout were in-the-pocket and cool as the other side of the pillow in front of a packed crowd.

Courtesy of Jared Gavin

Stefon Harris & Blackout performed numbers from their latest record "Sonic Creed" which features a doozy of jazz and displays Harris' vibraphone abilities at the fullest.

Harris, a former Eastman School of Music student, noted his roots in the concert hall. The vibraphonist said one of his first performances with the instrument happened at Kilbourn Hall.

Given his history, there was no question why he and his band were as natural as ever on their respective instruments.

Courtesy of Jared Gavin

Harris put an emphasis on jazz's deep "empathy," something he said people years from now will look back on in adoration.

Ben Williams (bass), Marc Cary (piano), Terreon Gully (drums) and Morgan Guerin (saxophone) backed Harris with a cohesive sound on their opening Art Blakey number. Harris was quick throughout as he impassioned every hit of his marimba and vibraphone with ease.

Harris also played "Chasin’ Kendall” and “Now,” one backed with Cary’s flowery piano taps and the other sung by Guerin through a voice box effect, respectively.

Things came to a close with a bit of improvisation and Harris’ smarts combined with his skills led listeners on through a rapidfire display of scales, ending in thunderous applause.

The jazz fest continues Monday through Saturday throughout locations in downtown Rochester. Club Pass options are available on the fest’s website and over the phone at 585-454-2060.

Benjamin Blanchet is the engagement editor and can be reached at and on Twitter @BenjaminUBSpec


Benjamin Blanchet is the senior engagement editor for The Spectrum. His words have been seen in The Buffalo News (Gusto) and The Sun newspapers of Western New York. Loves cryptoquip and double-doubles.