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2009 Freihofer's Jazz Festival: One of the Great Jazz Lawn Parties

Ken Franckling By

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Freihofer's Jazz Festival
Saratoga Springs, New York
June 27-28, 2009
My return visit to to Freihofer's Jazz Festival after an eight-year absence reminded me very quickly that this two-day event remains one of the summer season's great jazz lawn parties. The ampitheater and spacious park-setting of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center provides dual tugs—trips into the shed to hear favorite acts, while thousands sat on their tarps, blankets and/or lawn chairs, enjoying the sounds and the outdoor conviviality, many wandering to or camping out for the daylight hours at the pleasant little gazebo stage that featured smaller acts. The combined two-day attendance on June 27 and 28 exceeded 12,000.

Singer Kendra Shank opened things on Saturday with a set favoring ((Abbey Lincoln}} material ("Throw it Away" and "Bird Alone") and Cedar Walton's "Mosaic." Her nice version of "Blue Skies" felt like she wanted to chase away the first of several gentle showers that afternoon. There were several isolated cloudbursts before a brief heavier rain visible on one side of the venue, while the sun shone brightly on the other. Hey, it's been that kind of "summer" in the northeast, with at least some rain virtually every day for the past six weeks.

Trumpeter Mark Morganelli's Jazz Forum Brazil Project featured a full hour of Jobim material with Brazilian singer Monika Oliveira stirring up the vocals with complementary support from guitarist John Hart, bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Adriano Santos.

Drummer Jimmy Cobb, the sole survivor from Miles Davis's Kind of Blue recording 50 years ago, brought his Kind of Blue @ 50 project to SPAC, with a faithful runthrough of virtually all of the classic album, with fresh soloing from trumpeter Wallace Roney (in Miles mode), Javon Jackson on tenor and Vincent Herring on alto. Pianist Larry Willis pushed the music forward a bit in his own way, the crowd reacting knowledgeably as he dropped a chorus of The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" into "All Blues."

Other performers included the Gary Burton Quartet Revisited with Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow and Antonio Sanchez; the Spanish Harlem Jazz Orchestra, SMW and Patti LaBelle, while tenor saxophonist John Ellis's quintet held my interest most at the Gazebo, where La Timbistica, the Berklee Latin All-Stars opened the day with a hot set.

Sunday's closer was dominated by Bonerama, which had the crowd on its feet with its New Orleans funk, including boisterous versions of Fats Domino's classic "I'm Walkin" and the traditional blues (updated by Led Zeppelin) "When the Levee Breaks" in which Mark Mullins seemed to pull out all of the electronic effects for his solos alongside fellow trombonists Craig Klein and Greg Hicks.

Dave Brubeck's set was billed as another golden moment, 50 years of Time Out, but his set turned out to be half Ellington material. Before his traditional "Take Five" closer, Brubeck explored his more recent time signature experiment, "Unsquare Dance." He explained: "This tune is in 7/4, which I hate, because you're always waiting for that eighth beat—and you're not going to get it."

Soul singer Bettye Lavette performed a heart-felt set at mid-afternoon, drawing from vintage and recent material in what she said has been the best year in her 48 years as a singer—compared to some years where she only worked a few times. Now, she's contemporary blues artist of the year and was featured at the Barack Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on January 18. She reprised that appearance with a solo version of Sam Cooke's "The Change is Gonna Come," and was also powerful on "Please Let Me Down Easy." The crowd demanded an encore—and got a soulful a capella "I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got."

The 17-year-old alto phenom Grace Kelly and her quartet wound down the Gazebo Stage on Sunday with a mix of originals and standards. She closed with an adventurous version of "Summertime" and an encore that was one of the most passionate instrumental versions of "Somwhere Over the Rainbow" that these ears have heard.

George Benson closed the weekend with a 60-minute Nat King Cole tribute set, backed by a 28-piece orchestra and six backup singers. The vocal similarity between Benson and Cole was striking on this material which opened with "Mona Lisa" and closed with a funked-up version of "Nature Boy." He segued to his own many hits for the final half hour. It became a Benson dance party in the aisles and on the lawn, particular for "Give Me the Night" and a 10-minutes-plus encore of "Broadway."

Photo Credit

Ken Franckling


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