Tucked away in one of New York state's classiest tourist towns is a two-day jazz festival held around the end of June each year since 1978. It's one of George Wein's festivals and he's called it one of the great undiscovered festivals in the world. It's a pity, in some way, that "undiscovered" has to be attached to the proceedings at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs. But for those from all over the Northeast who attend each year, it's a gold mine. This year – the 23rd edition – was no exception. From big-name acts like Herbie Hancock, Diana Krall and Ray Charles, to the less famous - Brian Blades, Sara Jane Cion, and, yes, a man named Pucho - the two-day outdoor festival had something for everyone. The music was nearly always good, often outstanding. And the lawn party – and make no mistake, the festival at SPAC is just that – roared on. In recent years it bears the name Freihofer Jazz Festival, because the baking company has put up a considerable corporate sponsorship. The festival is set up like Wein's original events in Newport, RI. It's outdoors, except for a section of seats nearest the amphitheater stage covered by a roof. A sloping lawn allows people to sit out and enjoy a picnic as they enjoy the music. At the rear of the spacious grounds is a gazebo stage, smaller, with no real seating, but a favorite of jazz fans as a haven where "real" jazz is presented. Many times the band or performer names aren't well-known there, but the music is grand. And it's not always unknown. The likes of Nat Adderly, Roy Haynes, James Moody, Wallace Roney, James Carter, James Williams, Oliver Lake, Bobby Watson, Joanne Brackeen and many more have played on that stage. And if you didn't recognize many names before, you come away remembering them. This year again, the gazebo music stood out, though it had plenty of competition from the main stage.
It was at the gazebo where drummer Matt Wilson brought his wonderful pianoless quartet. The group was experimental, yet cooking, irreverent, and fun. Yes, it's safe to play jazz and still have fun. Honest. Audience members were chuckling at Wilson and his band of merry men - Andrew D'Angelo on alto sax, Jeff Lederer on tenor and Yosuke Inoue on bass - but they were also caught up in the music.
"If you came here looking for 'smooth' jazz, we ain't it," Wilson said as a preface. No shit.
He had songs dedicated to Lester Bowie and Don Cherry and the sax players soloed in that Ornette Coleman-related style. They played in bursts: shrieking, honking, wild blowing, with be-bop phrases thrown in as well as long tones. At times, they played in unison, and while both Lederer and D'Angelo seemed to be off in opposite directions, their paths would alternately run parallel as well as cross and out of it grew a different type of harmony.
(Warning: Wyntonites may have to be sitting to read on) Each member played with humor and joked around, as did their leader, who constantly, and often comically, chided his cohorts as they soloed, a smile never far from his face. But not to the detriment of his superb, flowing drum work that kept the whole thing together. No matter how far out the saxophones went, the path was always clear to the listener because of the work of the drums and bass, not an easy thing with no piano chords as a guide.
“Lester” was an offbeat blues; Tadd Dameron’s “Our Delight,” was the closest thing to bebop, but never exactly that. And “Nibble,” (“with a B,” he quipped) was a tongue-in-cheek “tribute” to big bands that swung, but also went way outside swing time. Wilson came up up front playing just snare drum with brushes. At one point, D’Angelo jumped back to the trap set, playing both his horn and the rest of the drum kit. “Schoolboy Thug” was a spoof of heavy metal bands in which D’Angelo played behind his back, between his legs, and even rolled round on his back. Wilson donned a long-haired wig and spoofed the typical mundane rock drummer solo. The band was wild, different and adventuresome. Wilson is a helluva drummer.
Saturday’s gazebo lineup included some a nice piano trio led by Sarah Jane Cion, a youngster who played largely original works. She’s competent, but not yet compelling. She’ll get better. Ruben Wilson fronted a group with his Hammond B-3 that was hot, with sax and guitar giving it that funky Blue Note feel from the 50's. Pucho and his Latin Soul Brothers proved to be a nice find, providing more than just Latin-based jazz. The leader, comical in his own right, took time out to sing a down home blues about a “whiskey drinkin’ woman,” mugging like Muddy Waters. The band also pounded out a sweet version of “Milestones” that jumped from Latin to bebop and was engaging.