Ever since her eloquent, ruthlessly efficient public dressing-down of John McCain at last Friday's New School convocation, 21-year-old Jean Rohe has been at the center of considerable media attention and controversy. While I'm sure she has no regrets about taking the stand she did, I'm also quite sure this is not the way she envisioned making her mark in the world. The New School degree Rohe received a week ago (one of a pair, in fact) was in vocal jazz performance, and her set earlier tonight at the Rockwood Music Hall is among the finest performances I've heard by any singer since moving to NYC three years ago. Fans of Luciana Souza and Gretchen Parlato, especially, should take note. Rohe led a fine band of new-to-me players -- including Ilusha Tsinadze (guitar), Liz Kosak (piano), Benjy Fox Rosen (bass), and Hector Morales (percussion) -- through a very appealing set of mostly Brazilian and other South American-inflected tunes. Rohe's voice is beautifully clean, agile and supple (and her Portuguese is thoroughly convincing), but just when I started to wonder if there was perhaps not another side to her, she cut loose with a Tom Waits cover that began with a hushed, Norah Jones-like intimacy and slowly built up to almost overwhelming levels of gritty intensity. A thoroughly impressive performance from someone who is clearly a singer to watch.
Rohe's hit was preceded by an equally impressive early set by trombonist Alex Heitlinger's sextet. The classic three-horn lineup was rounded out by a pair of outstanding players, Shane Endlsey on trumpet and Mike McGinnis on alto saxophone and clarinet. Alex's music is very much in the exploratory spirit of Booker Little's amazing early 1960's sextet -- and, of course, Dave Douglas's series of 1990's sextet records furthering and updating Booker's legacy. Each member of the front line often had an independent role to play (trombone-driven bass lines behind alto solos, etc.), which made the climactic concerted moments that much more effective. Heitlinger's writing is melodic and sonorous, full of appealing hooks and rich harmonies, and often evocative of people and places in his life. Special praise is due drummer Owen Howard for his supportive-but-provocative playing.