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Freihofer's Jazz Festival: One Great Weekend


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Brubeck, near 90, is frail coming off a recent illness, but he is still focused, and his playing still evokes his halcyon days.
Freihofer's Jazz Festival
Saratoga Springs, New York
June 27-28, 2009
Freihofer's Jazz Festival, in its 32nd year, provided an outstanding array of music and musicians and added to its legacy—started by George Wein in 1978—in fine fettle on June 27 and 28 in the upstate New York community of Saratoga Springs.

For producer Danny Melnick, who took over for Wein when the latter sold his Festival Productions company a few years ago, it was his best lineup of jazz talent across the board at the spacious and striking Saratoga Performing Arts Center, from tried and true greats like George Coleman, Gary Burton and Dave Brubeck, to young talents like Julian Lage, Grace Kelly and Aaron Parks, to cats like Kendra Shank and Ralph Alessi who have been fixtures on the New York scene in recent years even if they remain relatively unheralded.

"Danny's a good kid and he knows what he's doing now because he worked with me for many, many years," Wein said the day before the festival began. "He was my talent buyer for years. So he's had the experience to know what to do."

With festival and concert producers worrisome about what this summer season holds because of the poor U.S. economy, Melnick can also be pleased that attendance at SPAC was up 1 percent from the year before, according to an announcement a few days after the fest.

The festival has two long days of music on two stages, and there was plenty to go around for jazz lovers. The highlight was the Kind of Blue @ 50 band, commemorating the half-century anniversary of the recording of Miles Davis' legendary album, Kind of Blue. Drummer Jimmy Cobb, the last living musician who played on the date, is leading the band on its extensive tour, and his choices to fill the big shoes of those who he performed with in 1959 were superb, particular the vital trumpet sound.

The band went through all of the album's five cuts in extended form, with trumpeter Wallace Roney making the music as fresh as ever. He's been called at times a pure Miles disciple. Misnomer. Sure, he was personally close to Miles, and the icon is an influence. But his playing contains elements of Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, among others. And like all great players—and Roney is that—those influences have been absorbed and distilled into his own sound. He's an influence, in turn, on younger players. His interpretations of the album's classic songs were expertly introspective, as on "Flamenco Sketches," and fiery on tunes like "Freddie Freeloader" and "So What." He didn't try to mimic Miles (who would have frowned heavily on that), and played much more horn than Miles did in 1959. Superbly executed.

Vincent Herring has always had a bit of Cannonball Adderley in his playing and kept that bouncy, bluesy feel in his solos. Heard in recent years with the likes of Carl Allen and Steve Turre = 10943}}, he seems to get better and better, and he, too, brought vitality to the music. Like Roney, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson did not try to walk the same steps as John Coltrane, but his shit was together, displaying great phrasing and energy and passion. Rhythm mates Larry Willis on piano and John Webber on bass were solid as can be, and of course Cobb was impeccable.

"Everywhere we go, we get a standing ovation," said Cobb—who looks 65, not his 80 years—backstage after the set. That held true at SPAC, where each tune had people standing. "You can't get better than that, I guess."

Another highlight goes again to Roney, who led his own band at the smaller and more intimate gazebo stage a couple of hours after playing with Cobb. He changes rhythm sections but just about always has brother Antoine Roney on saxophones. The two horns are always exploring amid shifting rhythms and moods. Antoine is an underrated player with a good sound and inventiveness. They played selections from the trumpeter's various C, as well as "Al Jarreau," a tune Miles played in his latter funk years, but this one far more multifaceted and complex. Great music.

Another exploring set came from Burton, whose quartet featured the dazzling Pat Metheny on guitar and the superb electric bassist Steve Swallow. It was a revisiting of a group from years gone by, except for drummer Antonio Sanchez, who was hired for this tour. Burton is a splendid technician on vibes, his two-mallet technique still quick and precise, and his ideas fluid. Metheny is always a crowd pleaser, his ideas expressed in quicksilver fashion that combine the best of jazz and also hop into rock and other influences. They played five numbers from their new release Quartet Live, recorded on the west coast, penned by the likes of Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett (Burton alumni), as well as Swallow and Metheny.

"Sea Journey" has that Latin tinge Corea was commonly using years ago when he wrote it, and the soloists soaring through its changes set the tone for the set. Jarrett's "Coral" was a ballad on which Burton and Metheny were more serene, but no less expressive.

Other highlights came from youngsters Lage and Kelly.

Lage, a guitarist discovered by Burton when the former was in his teens, joined his hollow-body guitar with somewhat different instrumentation than a usual jazz group in the form of bass and cello, sax and a drummer, Tupak Mantilla, who played his set all by hand, without typical snare or tom-tom drums but rather with what appeared to be leather, or cloth-covered, drums. "Clarity," from his debut CD Sounding Point, was a sweet melding of all the voices. "Motor Minder," from the same album, featured a great duet with guitar and bassist Jorge Roeder, before the rest of the group joined. Lage has an open musical mind with a variety of genre influences, and his guitar work is crisp and clean. The band was very tight, and the give-and-take communication was spot on.

Kelly, 17, led a quintet of youngsters through a set of familiar and unfamiliar. In addition to her excellent sax, she now sings and has a pleasant voice. It's a nice addition to the act. Her vocal offering "But Life Goes On" was a pleasurable romp about getting through woes. But her sax work is ever growing and speaks volumes, as exemplified when she pulled off the vocal to "Please Send Me Someone to Love" nicely enough, but then dug in for a bluesy, sensual solo on sax. Trumpeter Jason Palmer displayed inventive melodic ideas through the set. "Summertime" had some of her best playing. But her encore, "Over the Rainbow," showed just how mature she is becoming, full of emotion and squeezing out a degree of pathos without going overboard. It was thoughtful ballad playing for one so young.

Coleman, who cut his sax teeth years ago in Memphis and toured with B.B. King when King was a puppy, played mostly jazz standards, like Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring," Ray Noble's "Cherokee," and Horace Silver's ballad "Peace." He even got jazz-funky with a rendition of "Where Is the Love?" He still has a great, full, gutsy sound he brought to bands like those of Miles Davis and Ahmad Jamal, one of the last of the greats from that era. Pianist Harold Mabern was also sparkling throughout. Like Coleman, he's played with a full list of jazz greats, and his work on "Peace" covered all kinds of styles.

Brubeck's set was typical of what to expect from his gang, which included his son Danny Brubeck subbing on drums for Randy Jones. Sax man Bobby Militello was his usual strong, boppish self. Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn gems like "Mood Indigo" and "Take the A Train" were interspersed with Brubeck sparklers like "Unsquared Dance." Of course, the closer "Take Five" was a crowd pleaser. Brubeck, near 90, is frail coming off a recent illness, but he is still focused, and his playing still evokes his halcyon days.

Benson performed a group of Nat King Cole hits before segueing into his pop hits from more recent years. On the Cole numbers, such as "Nature Boy," "Unforgettable," "Mona Lisa," "Route 66," and even the cloying "Ramblin' Rose," Benson's voice was close to Cole's, velvet and clear. A good tribute, though without much of Benson's excellent guitar work.

Another "star power" act was the SMV Thunder tour, with bassists Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten. The three are super players, but the set was more "look what I can do," rather than an exploration of music and any kind of real communication of an established band. Many fans like that virtuoso type of display. Wooten's chops are incredible. Miller played bass clarinet on "When I Fall in Love," and churned out ""Tutu," the title cut from the album he produced for Miles in 1986, that had hints of Miles' "Jean Pierre." He brings the funk. Clarke showed his considerable acoustic acumen on "Milano."

Singers included Shank and R&B singer Bettye LaVette. Shank had a fine band, featuring pianist Frank Kimbrough. She made wonderful choices, including two Abbey Lincoln numbers, "Throw It Away," and "Bird Alone." Both showed her altering the rhythms somewhat, and her parsing twisted and turned, as well as caressed, the music, two of Lincoln's very best. A very slow Irving Berlin "Blue Skies" was pulled off with aplomb. There are many jazz singers coming out of the woodwork over the last few years, but many, though their voices may seem pristine, just don't have that something "extra," that feel for the genre and its improvisational ways. Not so with Shank, who has both a beautiful voice and the creativity and innate feel to go with it.

LaVette, 63—who began singing R&B at 16, but had only moderate success until a few years ago— showed a very strong and richly soulful way with a song. "You Don't Know Me," "A Change is Gonna Come," and "Little Sparrow" along with strength, emotion and style, and maybe a wisp of Tina Turner when she turned up the volume. Good stuff.

Latin music was represented by a few groups. Trumpeter Mark Morganelli has been playing out with a band that has a Brazilian flavor of late, and brought a Antonio Carlos Jobim tribute to SPAC. His playing is strong and though usually in the jazz mainstream showed a great affinity for Jobim, with consistently fine solos on selection like Jobim's "Desafinado," "Chega de Saudade," and "Felicidade." Singer Monika Oliveira added delightful and authentic touches to "Fotographia" and "One Note Samba" among others.

The Grammy Award-winning Spanish Harlem Jazz Orchestra (Across 110th St., 2004, Red Int./red Ink) was a high-energy, horn-and-percussion driven ensemble that had people dancing to salsa and other spirited Latin expressions. An all-star band from Berklee College of Music, La Timbistica, also added to the flavor, but with a small ensemble.

Trumpeter Alessi called his band This Against That, but there were no offerings from his CD of that name. Still, his pensive writing style, with its changing moods and different colors and textures, was a treat. He's a provocative storyteller on his instrument. And saxophonist Tony Malaby, a terrific player, with his own projects to attest to that, was an exquisite contributor to Alessi's collective.

Saxophonist John Ellis, known for a time for his work with guitarist Charlie Hunter, performed a very solid set of thoughtful and inspired sounds ably abetted by the excellent guitar of Mike Moreno. Both are strong players from which more will be heard as time marches on. Ellis's horn slithered through the selections with both dexterity and soul. Moreno has developed a personal sound with ample doses of passion and imagination.

Combined with the relaxed, picnic setting of the annual event, the high level of music made the 2009 edition an excellent one. Watch for the 2010 version.

Photos by R.J. DeLuke

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