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Live Reviews

Saratoga Jazz Fest Shines

By Published: March 12, 2004

Big names can disappoint and lesser known musicians can become great discoveries at a large jazz festival. This year’s edition of the Freihofer Jazz Festival – a George Wein-produced event at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY – was the best of both. The big names came through with flying colors and those unfamiliar provided great moments as well.
The two-day festival featured 25 bands on two stages: a main amphitheater stage and a smaller gazebo stage at the rear of the spacious and beautiful SPAC grounds. It was the 24th edition of the event, which has carried various names, from Wein’s original Newport label to the current moniker, thus dubbed because of generous financial support from a regional baking company. By and large, the music was good to outstanding. And unlike some years when non-jazz acts have been obtrusive, even given their task of being more of a “draw’ for a broader audience, this year it was largely jazz and more jazz.
Stalwarts like Wayne Shorter, Roy Hargrove, Arturo Sandoval, Joe Lovano and Chick Corea were outstanding. And yet stellar sets from the Lonnie Plaxico Group and Italian songstress Roberta Gambarini were among the highlights of the festival.
In fact, Gambarini was the find of the fest. The attractive singer is relatively unknown, though she finished third in the Thelonious Monk competition. She placed behind Jane Monheit, a singer who is getting some notoriety. But one has to wonder. Gambarini’s sweet tone, great sense of time and wonderful, experimental way with a lyric is far superior to the consistently mundane work that Monheit has produced thus far. Gambarini comes from Ella, through Anita O’Day and her tone is remarkably like the latter, as is her sense of bebop adventure. She speaks with a slight Italian accent, but when she sings, it’s pure American O’Day. Her song selection came from the standard bebop bag, but it was outstanding, swinging and sassy at times, soft and sweet on ballads. With singers in vogue, her star should be on the rise, and at a rapid rate. She scatted Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt on Dizzy’s arrangement of “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and created compelling and interesting ballads with “Everything Happens to Me,” and “It Never Entered My Mind.” She’s exciting and charming at the same time.

As promised, bassist Plaxico provided funky jazz in his first Saratoga set with his own band. Most of the music came from his Emergence CD, as well as Melange which is slated for a mid-August release on Blue Note. The band was tight, featuring strong jazz and funk based rhythms with the leader and vivacious percussionist Jeffrey Haynes adding strongly to the mix. Plaxico never soloed, letting his music speak for itself (just about everything was an original). The unit is fun and funky, but the solos are strong and the jazz roots are there. It’s not lite jazz. Marcus Strickland on sax was noteworthy. The band’s snappy version of Tower of Power’s “Squib Cakes” (from the new CD) garnered an encore.

Highlights from the first day was Shorter’s ethereal set with bandmates Brian Blade, John Pattitucci and Danillo Perez. The legendary sax man was cool at times and wild at others on soprano and tenor sax and his band cooked, particularly drummer-for-all-seasons Blades. David Sanchez was another tenor saxophonist who smoked through a set with his Melaza Sextet.

Corea, a colleague of Shorter’s in various Miles Davis bands, provided thoughtful piano trio music with gems like “Green Dolphin Street.” Michel Camilo’s trio was different – more laced with Latin and more effervescent, but creative and fun.

Dianna Krall was her usual solid self, bringing a lot of the songs she’s been doing for a while now to the stage, like “Peel Me a Grape,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” But she’s always on the mark and her bad was tight, as always. She brings class to any occasion. So did Nicholas Payton, who brought his 12-piece band to perform a tribute to Louis Armstrong, modernized versions of Pops’ classics, complete with some vocals. The band was hot, exemplified by the leader’s bold and brassy trumpet.

Sax man Steve Wilson had a solid quartet that included excellent pianist Bruce Barth and drummer Adam Cruz. The mainstream set included tunes as varied as Keith Jarrett music and Barth was superb. He performed double duty, as did Cruz, when they both later were part of Brazilian singer Luciana Souza’s set. She largely employed the wordless vocal, a la Flora Purim, but did so commendably. Her soaring voice was beautiful at times, though her improvisations were not always remarkable.

On Day Two, Joe Lovano wailed. And wailed again. His nonet may have been the hit of the fest. It swung like mad and the solos were great, especially the leader, who rocked back and forth as he spewed out everything from Coleman Hawkins through Coltrane. His tone is enticing and his technique was astounding. Whether swinging or moving “out” the group poured out emotion and tight ensemble playing. It’s no wonder he has gained such critical acclaim. And he has fun. He shows it too, which adds to the proceedings.

Sandoval’s set included works like “Rhythm of Our World” and “Hot House,” from the Hot House CD of 1998, but also tunes from his new Americana that touches on modern songs from the likes of Sting, Steve Wonder and others. His trumpet soared to the stratosphere, as is his nature, and the set was typically exciting and high-energy. Sandoval is all over the trumpet range and his enthusiasm is infectious. He never mails one in. Another trumpeter, Roy Hargrove, just seems to improve. His band, propelled by Willie Jones III, was crisp, hot and driving, as is his playing. His pure tone and sparkling technique seem to be growing, as is his sense of adventure. Indeed, he will be a voice for a long time.

It’s tough to catch every act on both stages, but the Jamie Baum Group sounded hot and progressive in a brief listen. The leader’s flute was solid and her mates on brass were experimental. Guitarist Richard Leo Johnson, a touted guitar wizard, was boring in a solo set. It was “look what I can do,” but it said nothing and his sound is bland. Speed kills ... a set of music.

Of the bands enlisted, allegedly, to bring folks in, Gladys Knight, Boney James and George Benson just don’t cut it. Knight’s Las Vegas revue was pitiful in its excesses. The rest. Well, my mother said if you don’t have anything nice to say ...

Overall, the Saratoga jazz festival proved to be a remarkable event and here’s hoping there’s many more. Consider it as a vacation spot next summer at the end of June.

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