Sunshine and music of all forms highlighted the Freihofer Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY, on June 26 and 27. It marked the 27 edition of the event that always has its share of great music and surprises, even during times when people — depending on their point of view — feel that certain years the schedule has too many pop-oriented acts, or is too heavy in mainstream jazz. The 2004 edition had music from all over the stylistic map, as well as the geographic one, on the venue’s two stages. There was smoking bebop from groups led by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Miguel Zenon and trombonist Sarah Morrow; ethereal, eclectic and exquisite music from Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, backed by Dave Holland and Brian Blade; sweet and sassy vocals from Rebecca Parris and hip vocals from Peter Cincotti; World Music from Femi Kuti and the Positive Force and Youssou N’Dour; jazz-fusion blended with bluegrass from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones; jazz-pop from Boney James and Dave Koz, and more. Much more. Seemingly, there was something for everyone during the two-day outdoor party, blessed this year with plenty of sunshine and bearable temperatures. Produced George Wein has been alternately praised and criticized for the approach. But as he has said, “surviving” has been the name of the game, and not only has he managed it at SPAC, but this is the 50th anniversary year for his Newport Jazz Festival and its offspring. Last year’s version was highlighted by the pianists, but this year perhaps sax ruled overall. And it came in any form: the legendary Shorter, the young Zenon, the luscious tone of Joe Lovano, and firebrands Greg Osby and Branford Marsalis for those who like their jazz unblemished by pop or “smooth” sounds, and James and Koz for those who prefer style over substance.
The Shorter/Hancock/Holland/Blade aggregation was one of the highlights, the group playing a brand of jazz that soared in different directions. Hancock’s piano pointed the way, with fantastic support from Blades' drums and Holland’s incredible bass work. Shorter was in a contemplative mood. There were no “sheets of sound” from his days when he and Herbie shook up the musical world in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet. Instead of John Coltrane-influenced searches, Shorter used his tenor and soprano saxophones to splash color where it was needed, or to tread more delicately over the pieces. It was sublime. “Footprints” was totally reworked from what people usually hear and the path the group took to convey the Shorter-penned classic comprised perhaps the best moments.
Another stunning set came from Lovano, who played largely ballads, but with his trademark tone and heart and feeling. Lovano is one of today’s artists to whom the word “great” can be attached without a sense of over-hype. It helped that he had the venerable Hank Jones on piano, the virtuoso George Mraz on bass and Dennis McKrell on drums. They swung through selections from I’m All For You, the new CD, which included classics like “Stella By Starlight,” Monk’s Mood,” and “I Waited For You.” Even “Body and Soul,” done by so many over the years, was fresh and warm through the bell of Lovano’s tenor and off the fingers of Jones.
Pelt’s group featured the hot and steady drumming of Willie Jones III. The band cooked through complex items like Charles Mingus’ “Exerent,” and a host of other songs from his new CD, Close to My Heart. Pelt plays with a strong brassy tone and can also play sweetly on a ballad. His ideas are interesting and expertly conveyed regardless of tempo. The 27-year-old is definitely one to keep an eye on. He played sets on both stages, so hopefully many people got the word.
Osby’s set was strong, but competed somewhat with Zenon’s, who was at the small gazebo stage at the rear of SPAC while Osby occupied the main stage. Both were outstanding, but Zenon seemed to be more fiery and his solos reached more into free jazz than Osby is known for. But the young Zenon, from Puerto Rico, who had the fantastic piano of Luis Perdomo behind him, often laid out his licks over Latin grooves, while Osby’s were over more urban roots and maybe more subtly sophisticated.
Fleck and his ’Tones were smoking over the weekend. Jeff Coffin’s sax blended well with the band as they soared through jazz-rock fusion, Latin-influences at times, and madcap riffs that qualified as bluegrass ... with a modern, electric twist. Fleck was in good form, his chops strong as always, and electric bassist Victor Wooten continues to show he is among the best on that instrument, funky and experimental with chops galore.