A Little Bit of Rita: This Rochester World Jazz Band Knows No Borders

Words and Photos by Gianluca D’Elia

You don’t have to do much searching to find great jazz in Rochester, NY. We’re home to one of the biggest jazz festivals in the U.S., a world-renowned music conservatory, and live jazz shows in ever corner of the city year-round.

If you take a deeper look, you’ll also find musicians who are pushing the boundaries of genre in innovative ways.

On a stormy Monday night, Kristen Shiner McGuire’s basement doubles as her home studio and becomes home to a world of sounds.

Shiner is the marimbist in a chamber group called the Rita Collective. Yarn mallets in almost every color of the rainbow line the corner next to her window as she stands sandwiched between her marimba in front, and a shiny, silver vibraphone behind her. She’s surrounded by her bandmates, all of whom came from a full schedule of day jobs and families to practice: Aaron Staebell on drums, Kyle Vock on the

bass clarinet. Combining these disparate instruments, this ensemble describes their musical style as “tea with world leaders at the U.N.”

Founder Dean Keller started the group because he wanted a place to improvise on bass clarinet, an instrument he describes as “mild-mannered.” It’s not an easy instrument to feature in an ensemble, especially among louder instruments that are more typically seen as the centerpiece of jazz bands, like saxophones and trumpets.

Forming a band around the bass clarinet as one of its lead instruments is exactly what makes the Collective unique, Keller said.

“The Rita Collective is unlike any other jazz or chamber music in Rochester — first is our unusual instrumentation,” Keller explained. “Bass clarinet, marimba, acoustic bass, and drums are definitely not your usual jazz quartet. These instruments together lend themselves to exploring non-traditional sources for jazz improvisation, including original compositions, as well as folk melodies from far away places such as the Middle East and Africa.”

The group’s fascination with world cultures is even reflected in their name, which takes on North African roots: it came to Keller after he heard an Austrian bass clarinet player named Klaus Gesing playing on a recording by Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, titled “The Astounding Eyes of Rita.”

“The combination of traditional middle eastern instruments like oud and hand percussion, with electric bass and bass clarinet, provided a rich tapestry for the use of the unique voice of the bass clarinet,” Keller said.

The band is also happy to call the Flower City’s ever-growing jazz scene its home.

“The Rochester jazz scene is truly an embarrassment of riches,” Keller said. “We are blessed to have amazing performers that explore all facets of jazz from solo piano like John Nyerges, to large ensembles like The Dave Rivello Ensemble, straight ahead jazz like Bob Sneider and Rich Thompson, and smooth jazz styles like Bill Tiberio.

“There is always something good to hear live in ROC.”

If you get the chance to catch the one-of-a-kind Rita Collective live, here’s a heads up from Keller: expect the unexpected.

“Be ready to hear some new sounds! The big black stick is really a bass clarinet, and the thing with the wood bars isn’t actually a xylophone, it’s a marimba,” he said. “When we play, we like to explore some of the fringes of the jazz genre, and we also like to surprise each other with new, improvised ideas.”

The Rita Collective most recently performed at South Wedge Mission on May 8, and they have more shows on the way. Keep up with the band and find their recordings at RitaCollective.com.



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