One thing seems certain at the annual Freihofer Jazz festival in Saratoga Springs, New York, each summer. Regardless of the quality of the lineuptoo much pop or smooth incursion for some, too much straight-ahead jazz for others, not enough blues representationthere is always a degree of great music. There are always very good bands on the two stages at the superb Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and always surprises: an unknown musician or band that creates a stir. And the people always have fun at the annual outdoor picnic/party regardless of the lineups. At this year's fest near June's end, the 31st since George Wein first brought the event to SPAC in 1978, not only were there excellent bands, but it included the group that has made the biggest news and noise in the jazz world this year, the reuniting of Return to Forever, with Chick Corea on keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass, Al DiMeola on guitar and Lenny White on drums. They were on everyone's lips before their appearanceas the feature band Saturday night, Day One of the two-day music extravaganzaand afterward as well. They inspired awe in their set, with their virtuosity, there multiple musical influences, and a chemistry that remains well in tact after 30 years-plus of being apart. Terence Blanchard
Other highlights of the two days included Conrad Herwig's Latin Side of Miles and Coltrane, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Terrance Blanchard, Charles Lloyd, The Brubeck Brothers, young trumpeter Maurice Brown and Diane Reeves.
As has been the case throughout their tour, Return to Forever forged through numbers from their four classic albums, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973), Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974), the Grammy-winning No Mystery (Polydor, 1975), and Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976). They exhibited sheer power, but also solos of beauty and delicacy, especially DiMeola and Corea. Each of the four got their own solo showcases, showing why they are considered among the tops on their instruments. White's drumming has probably the least "fame" among the quarter, but that shouldn't be. He's sounding great, with superior chops when needed, as well as funk and other coloring. The electric numbers were powerful.
White, in introducing a segment of the concert, referred to a proliferation of "boy bands," and straight-forwardly declared, "this is a man band."
As fine as the music was for fusion fans, the group also went into acoustic songs, with DiMeola showing his dexterity on his own custom Ovation guitar, playing at breakneck speed, and also with great beauty. Corea even segued into "Some Day My Prince Will Come," not an RTF vehicle but perhaps a nod to one of his great influences and former boss Miles Davis, who popularized the tune among jazz circles in the 1960s.
The electric explosions and energy brought the crowd to its feet after every number, but they also appreciated the special nature of the acoustic tunes, and even songs from the RTF period before DiMeola joined the band.
For great, straight jazz, one needed to look no further than the band of Herwig, an excellent trombonist who revisited the classic music with new and refreshing arrangements and Latin embellishments, fueled by drummer Robbie Ameen. Bill O'Connell, no stranger to Latin music, was the pianist, and the horn section with Herwig was excellent: Ronnie Cuber on baritone sax and Craig Handy on other saxophones and flute.
You wouldn't think "Flamenco Sketches" would sound good in a faster tempo, but it did. It carried more Cuban influence than Spanish, but was very hip. Handy's flute work on "Summertime" was first rate, and the rendition of "So What," that was more bouncy than Miles' version, smoked with everyone burning. Herwig took opportunity in his blazing solo to quote heavily from Coltrane's "Love Supreme.":
Maurice Brown has been garnering high praise recently, so he wasn't a pure "surprise," perhaps, but the Maurice Brown Effect was one of the treasures of the entire festival. The 27-year-old from south Chicago plays the hell out of his instrument, but his writing and arranging is also remarkable. He can play straight jazz, like "Rapture" from his debut CD Hip to Bop (Brown Records), but also puts his sound over modern, contemporary grooves and rhythms, in a tasteful way. The band smokes, and his enthusiasm on stage is unbridled and infectious. The Effect has a great energy and they tore it up.