Fringe Fest 2013 Reviews: Al Biles and GenJam, Geva Comedy Improv 

click to enlarge Al Biles
  • Al Biles and GenJam performed at Little Theatre Cafe as part of the 2013 Rochester Fringe Festival.

Computers are everywhere these days. We use them at work, they hide in our pockets in the shape of phones, and we've even seen them beat some of our smartest human minds on “Jeopardy.”

But in the musical world, technology can be thought of as the enemy. Outside of certain styles of music, computer processing or help with a musical performance can be seen as a weakness, not as a strength, (read: Auto-Tune), and the idea of a computer taking the place of a live performer is a radical one at best.

That's what makes what trumpeter Al Biles is doing even more interesting. Working with GenJam (the Genetic Jammer) at the Little Theatre Cafe, Biles has created a unique jazz experience that combines live soloing with a perceptive computer program that analyzes, adapts, and performs live alongside Biles.

It's the same idea as the jazz music you’re used to, just one of the performers happens to be a computer. Using the software, GenJam listens to Biles' improvisations and answers back, just the same way another musician would follow the call. It's really cool live, especially in the moments when Biles himself was smiling and surprised by how the computer responded. There were a few times the program seemed to mirror Biles a little too closely, or the computer's runs were hard to distinguish from the scripted sections of the songs. But it still showed a glimpse into software that could one day change how jazz players not only perform, but also how they practice improvisation. Jazz fans looking for something new and truly on the fringe this week should check it out. And hopefully GenJam won't put all jazz musicians out of a job.

Al Biles and GenJam will perform again at the Little Cafe Sunday, September 22, Friday, September 27, and Saturday, September 28. The show is free.

Next up I went back to Geva for some comedy with Geva Comedy Improv's Zero Gravity, Zero Hope: An Alien Horror Show. Unlike some of the group's shows, this was an entirely scripted affair, aiming to combine horror and comedy into one 75-minute adventure spoof.

Given that everything was scripted, you would think this could lead to a stronger and less impromptu performance. However, this alien-horror show aimed high and didn't really deliver much in terms of laughs or scares.

The strongest laughs were drawn from prop and stage set gags, not dialogue (aside from a nicely placed Netflix joke), and the show relied too heavily on generic elements of the genres without drawing humor from them. A fairly predictable 11th hour twist and a needless love story bogged down the adventure, which drew heavy inspiration from "Alien" and other deep-space films.

Science-fiction and its reliance on special effects is not an easy genre for a local performing group. Some of the best scenes were when the group used this limitation to its advantage for comedic effect (the space flying sequences, doors opening and closing, and the miniature astronauts landing on the asteroid sequences, for instance). But, the limitations of a live stage, even with the impressive sound effects, worked against them in the horror area as well. Despite considering myself someone with a low scare threshold (I'm still terrified by "The Ring") the scary elements, perhaps because the rest of the play didn't take itself seriously, never really amounted to anything.

Zero Gravity, Zero Hope: An Alien Horror Show repeats Saturday, September 21, Friday, September 27, and Saturday, September 28. Tickets cost $16.

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