A first look at the lineup for the 30th annual jazz festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY, June 23 and 24, suggested it would be over Pop-ulatedthe pop and smooth side of music occupying spots that could be held by jazz artists. Tastes notwithstanding, the weekend, aided by excellent weather at the scenic upstate New York venue, still had its share of outstanding music performed by superlative musicians. In sum, it would have to be judged another success.
The Freihofer Jazz Festivalnamed after the local baking company that has been a major and important sponsor for about a decade now but produced by George Wein's Festival Productionshad something for everyone,even for those who didn't go to hear jazz. Thankfully, there were also groups led by rising stars Anat Cohen, Esperanza Spalding and Sachal Vasandani, incredibly potent and fresh music from the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, and strong representations by the likes of tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, drummers Roy Haynes and Carl Allen, and the wonderful Trio Beyond (Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield and Larry Goldings) and more.
The festival runs for two days and has two stages, the main one a covered amphitheater and the other at the back of the spacious grounds, small and intimate, but growing ever more popular with fans. It means choices have to be made at times, but the double-venue presentation helps provide diversity for the fan and exposure for more musicians.
Regardless of choices, those who missed Trio Beyond and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey did themselves no favor. Both groups were wild, even cutting edge, at times yet rooted in the tradition, and consistently exciting.
Fans fortunately got two opportunities to see Jacob Fred, which played the main stage early Saturday and later that afternoonthis after getting done with a jazz cruise gig in New York City in the wee small hours of the morning and driving straight to Saratoga. The band was on fire with its own works as well as familiar songs like "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and Mingus' "Fables of Faubus." But familiar renditions they were not. The communication among members of the trioand this is a road-tested band, rest assured was outstanding. The fertile musical minds of pianist Brian Hass, bassist Reed Mathis and new drummer Josh Ramer are capable of subtle beauty, hard-driving swing, excursions to the edge and back again. One could hear elements of early jazz, particularly with Haas' two-handed barrelhouse comping at times, mainstream moments, and fusion, but with a fresh attitude. Particularly, the empathy between Ramer and Haas was extraordinary. The pianist got as percussive as the drums at certain points, and Ramer was a dervish, fitting varied and intense rhythmic patterns within whatever framework his partners provided. At times, Mathis used effects to get the bass to sound like a singing guitar but always with a melodic feel, even when playing "out." It was two sets of music that merited attention and rewarded with artistic and visceral satisfaction.
Of Trio Beyond, which started as a tribute to the music of the great Tony Williams' Lifetime jazz fusion band of the 1970s, DeJohnette said a few days before the show, "One of the reasons we decided to call it Trio Beyond is that the idea was not just to become a cover trio, but to be a tribute to Tony, yet extended... Between the three of us, we are able to play the music, but interpret it in our own way and extend it into now, using electronics and experimentation. It's not limited to just playing Tony's Lifetime music, but it expands to other musicians directly or indirectly related to the musicians in the Lifetime group, guys like John McLaughlin, Larry Young, Joe Henderson. Elvin Jones is in there, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and our own music too, including some original pieces."
It's a great amalgamation, intense and explorative, producing many moods and colors and drawing upon bebop and, of course, rock influences. They played music from their live CD Saudades (ECM), released last year but recorded live in 2004. DeJohnette was incredible: his drumming is... well... beyond. There were so many rhythms, and in so many combinations and clusters, that his performance alone was mesmerizing. And it all had meaning and purpose, serving the music and its vibe. Goldings is perhaps still unsung as an organist, but he cooked no matter what the vibe any given tune, creating a cushion for Scofield at times, and keeping the groove at others. Scofield sounded bright and was sharp as hell. His angular solos went on rock excursions, he also grooved like Wes, particularly on sections of their superb arrangement of Miles Davis' "Seven Steps to Heaven," primarily a DeJohnette showcase. This band wails, in the best sense of the word, and provides an air of "what's next" not only with each tune but during the course of any particular tune. That's hard to do, consistently.