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Freihofer's Jazz Festival: One Great Weekend

R.J. DeLuke By
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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 Julian "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.


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