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Freihofer Jazz Fest: Return to Forever and More

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One thing seems certain at the annual Freihofer Jazz festival in Saratoga Springs, New York, each summer. Regardless of the quality of the lineup—too much pop or smooth incursion for some, too much straight-ahead jazz for others, not enough blues representation—there 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 appearance—as the feature band Saturday night, Day One of the two-day music extravaganza—and 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.
Freihofer Jazz Festival / Terence Blanchard 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.

He included songs from an upcoming album, including "Fly By Night," "Misunderstood," and "Lovely" Brown's trumpet would blare in and put of the rhythms, with great tone and hip ideas. It wasn't just hard blowing. As improvisatory as it might have been, there was also careful thought. He deserves a spot with Jeremy Pelt and Christian Scott as young cats who are really playing some super contemporary music, as well as really speaking with the trumpet. How good was the music? Too good to leave, even though Joe Lovano, Ravi Coltrane and Dave Liebman were on the main stage tearing through their Saxophone Summit set.

The "surprise" of the fest was 22-year-old singer Rachel Price, who, backed by a trio ran through several selections from the Great American Songbook with surprising ease and elegance. Her voice was rich and her improvisations gleeful, without losing sight of the song. It called to mind Anita O'Day at several points. "That Old Black Magic," "The Trolley Song," "Skylark" and the like were among her repertoire, but she wore each of those chestnuts well. She's a singer to watch.

Another singer, Andrea Tierra, brought a nice Latin band, featuring the talents of her husband, harpist Edmar Castenada and celloist Dana Leong. She did music from her South American homeland (she's Columbian), and not much in the way of English lyrics. But her voice was velvety smooth and her natural feel for the music was enticing.

Dee Dee Bridgewater, ever the enthusiastic performer with chops to spare, began with her trademark rendition of Trane's "Afro Blue," but then went into her African-influenced recent recording Red Earth, A Malian Journey. It included rich rhythms and some blues. She's always exciting to see. Dianne Reeves was, likewise, an elegant presence, always sure in her presentation and her music, her voice strong, flexible and confident. She too covered the territory of her latest CD, When You Know, including "Just My Imagination," and "Today Will Be a Good Day."

Lloyd, a fine saxophonist who scored with crossover hits in the 1960s, played a good set of music with Rueben Rogers on bass, Jason Moran on piano and Eric Harland on drums, the same young musicians who recorded on his ECM project Rabo de Nube that came out earlier this year, and their music came from that; thoughtful and exploratory. The group meshes well and Lloyd's sound is sweet and fresh even at the age of 70.

Freihofer Jazz Festival / Jenny ScheinmanTerrence Blanchard's group was superb, playing music from A Tale of God's Will: A Requiem for Katrina. It was dramatic and touching at times, smoking at others. He even did wordless chant-like vocals during parts, and then, using an electronic device triggered by his foot, played them back while he improvised trumpet licks. His playing is very strong, one of the finest trumpeters on the scene. And his band is great, propelled by the wonderful Kendrick Scott on drums, an under-appreciated but terrific musician. Brice Winston is a young saxophonist who lends a lot to the proceedings, scorching up the turf when called for and putting forth sweet melodies in the slower sections.

The Brubeck Brothers are always consistent. Drummer Danny and bass/trombonist Chris have played together for a long time with guitarist Mike DeMicco. They run through their sets with fire and forethought and always have moments of excitement. Danny is a smoking drummer that can fit into any setting, as reliable when it gets funky as he is when it's torrid jazz. The group closed with a hot version of "Take Five," naturally borrowed from their dad's book, but with a different and pleasing arrangement. If they can't do it, who can?

Jenny Scheinman brought a small group to the gazebo stage and did music that owed as much to folkloric influences than jazz. She's got two CDs out this year, so she's becoming more well known as time goes by as one of the better violin players. She didn't dazzle much with technique, but provided interesting melodies and heady statements over the soft sounds of her group. Her music seemed bent to take people on a journey. She has a nice, mellow sound.

Chris Botti is a trumpeter who's kind of pushed into the smooth jazz section, but that's not all he's about. He can play some trumpet and his band, with the superb Billy Kilson on drums, Mark Whitfield on guitar and Robert Hurst on bass has a strong jazz pedigree. The group has great bursts of energy and, when playing ballad's playing comes to the fore. It's good ground for him and his tone is pleasing.

Another young pianist, Jonathan Battiste from the Crescent City, did a set of music that owed a lot to that region . He even sang "What a Wonderful World," no doubt influenced by Satchmo. The set was well executed, but lacked any true spark.

The festival rolls on, less under the influence of Wein, of course. One wonder how many more bands like the O'Jays will clutter up improvisational music, but SPAC's event seems to be indefatigable nonetheless. One can't help but have fun.

Photo Credit

R.J. DeLuke

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