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.
For the best in in-the-pocket mainstream jazz, fans had to look no further than a pair of drummers, legendary Roy Haynes and Carl Allen. Haynes' band was younger, but it played high-energy music propelled by the octogenarian's still massive and inventive chops. He's not a showman, simply a great musician who provides what's needed, and plenty of it. But it's hard not to focus on the person most drummers call the Main Man. Allen's energy is incredible and the band's breathing comes from that.
Allen's band was slick and hip, with the leader playing terrific drums that exemplified the best of the jazz tradition, done with style and class. Aaron Goldberg was a delight on piano, playing with power needed to complement Allen's playing, which would grow in intensity, and also delightfully strolling through medium-tempo tunes, at once tasteful and creative. Vincent Herring, a veteran alto sax man, was smooth as silk, incorporating the playful and soulful sound of Cannonball Adderley at times, and digging in with true grit at others. Tony Williams' "Sister Cheryl" was a great choice, but Allen's own "La Shea's Walk" personified not only the cool side of the band and each soloist but, with the mid-tempo swing number, set the tone for Sunday, as it jumped out across the venue at just after noontime to begin the day.
Intensity and groove were also a staple of Jean-Luc Ponty's group. The band was tight as a drum, whether it played Latin-ish grooves, or combinations of rhythms from other parts of the globe. The music moved beautifully. He played from his new CD The Atacama Experience, but also chose pieces including "Fast Lane" and "Point of No Return" from early fusion days. His violin was searing and soaring, and fit sweetly with the bandhe was far better than his appearance two years earlier with "all- stars" Bela Fleck and Stanley Clarke." It was one hot band.
Intensity is also a word that pops up when Ravi Coltrane plays. His tenor sax sound is strong and tough, and he has the sense of exploration that comes from both of his famous parents. "One-Wheel William" was a typical Coltrane song that flashed different colors, making it seem like the musicians were always looking for something new to say. Luis Perdomo on piano was a great sight and sound, and his playing went along with the concentrated nature of Coltrane's music.
For pure jazz musicality, the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Band, led by Slide Hampton, shined brightly. It's a collection of great musicians, but the arrangements of the songs were as much the heroes of the day as the individual solo efforts. Gillespie songs like "Manteca" and "Con Alma" were wonderfully realized. A highlight was the trumpet section work, particularly the solos of trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Claudio Roditi. Hargrove appeared in a particularly jovial bent, playing bright figures and dancing along, at times, to the band's powerful swing. All the sections simply rocked. The ageless James Moody played fine tenor and also scatted his famous solo set to vocalese by Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure"Moody's Mood for Love." Drummer Dennis McKrell (who also provided some of the best arrangements) drove the band expertly. The band had the audience on its feet howling after nearly every number. (Hampton joked that the ovations were making them feel like pop stars).
A pair of women, reed specialist Anat Cohen and bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding, provided fine sets at the gazebo stage. Spalding fronted her trio, showing superb chops on the contrabass, often singing improvisational wordless vocals over the various melodies, at times harmonizing with her bass work and at other times weaving through the chord changes. Sometimes, she improvised more with lyrics, like on "Autumn Leaves." The band was crisp.
Cohen's band was primarily the one she used on Poetic, one of two records she released this year (the other Noir). She displayed her beautifully melodic clarinet playing on songs like "The Purple Piece" and "Hofim" from the same album. Hers is an unhurried style, much welcomed, that creates emotion and melodic inventiveness with a luscious tone. On tenor, she also showed a slow syrupy side on her trip through "Never Let Me Go" but switched into high gear later on with facility and passion. Jason Linder was powerful on piano, and the support from Omer Avital on bass and Daniel Freedman on drums had Cohen beaming, and also playing her ass off.
The gazebo also featured the ever-solid guitarist Peter Bernstein in an organ trio (Mike LaDonne) that did a fine job of showing the tradition of that popular B3 configuration. Singer Vasandani did standards in a soft style that displayed a nice sense of time and phrasing. His improvisation is subtle, not soaring, but satisfying. And he's written some good songs, like "Please Mr. Ogilvy," one of his set's highlights.
Pop pretty much was exemplified by George Benson's band. He performed a variety of his chart-making hits, including "Give Me the Night," "This Masquerade" and "Breezin.'" Nothing new there and no attempt to freshen them. There were sets from the likes of the talented David Sanborn, soul songstress India.arie and Tower of Power. Sanborn sounded his R&B self, loud, yet probably exciting in its own way. (However these ears beat feet, as it were, for JFJO's second set at the gazebo while Sanborn's pop blared on.)
Al Green's act came out like a Las Vegas revue-style band, complete with dancers and over- arranged hype. He covered his hits from the past, as well as a segment with about one or two short lines from other people's 1970s hits, toward what purpose still remains a mystery. His band pranced around, the Rev. Al preached at times, and at other times seemed to rely on his signature high-pitched drone that led to the next phrase or next superfluous dalliance. As The Bard once said: "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Nonetheless, the 30th festival featured great and satisfying music, and its presence at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center is a great injection of American culture into the Capital District region. From the first day in 1978, when Dizzy Gillespie's kick-ass jam session went into the early morningRoy Haynes, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Ponty, Michael Brecker, Diz and more, cooking as George Wein tried, from the wings, to get Dizzy to bring things to a halt (only to have Diz laugh and keep going)to the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey this year, all thirty editions have been memorable and important.