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Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival 2015

R.J. DeLuke By

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Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival 2015
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Springs, NY
June 27-28, 2015

While jazz is closely associated with horns (even though there are few instruments now employed at some point across the genre) it was a couple of guitar slingers that helped light up the skies at Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival in June when the sun refused to do so for two days at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

The 38th edition of the festival ran into unusually bad luck, as music fans and revelers on the lawn were doused with rain—small amounts on day one but constant on day two. Nonetheless, music wiped away the woes, led in large part by guitarist Ronnie Earl's blues band, the Broadcasters, and Al Di Meola, who returned to his electric roots and blew people away. Then there was the Christian McBride Big Band, an organization that doesn't get enough gigs but is an utter delight.

The festival is held on two stages—a small gazebo stage at the rear of the scenic grounds and the main amphitheater stage that has some covered seating. The rest is a huge lawn picnic.

Earl, who squeezes all the blues of out of a piece of music, but also has great jazz-like ideas, was a bit more showman this year than 2014 when he also played at SPAC. At one point, he got down on his knees on the main stage while he played a particularly hot phrase. Otherwise, he paced back and fourth, playing some old hits and tunes from the soon-to-be released Father's Day. Solid stuff.

Much of Di Meola's work since the 1980s has been acoustic, in various formations, and a lot off that work in Europe. But he's currently on a tour that harkens back to his famed Elegant Gypsy album, after Chick Corea's Return to Forever, his dream band by the guitarist's own admission. His town is clear and sharp, and Di Meola doesn't just say "look what I can do" with his notes. His melodies are strong and his ideas explore the structure of the tune. He uses space while expressing his thoughts, which keep the listener hanging. And, naturally, his arpeggios are stunning when unleashed.

McBride's unit was not just musically superb, but fun. That started with a glossy introduction by Danny Ray, the longtime announcer for soul legend James Brown. The 16-piece band jumped into the leader's composition "Shake N' Bake" and took off. "Brother Man" showed not only McBride's compositional skills, but also his chops as a bass player. He's been writing for big bands since even before he formed one on 2011 and released the Grammy-winning The Good Feeling in 2012. The group has another recording finished. It includes the words of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks set to music. "We're just waiting for the clearances from their estates. Hopefully we can get this baby out very soon," McBride said couple weeks before the festival.

Saxophonists Steve Wilson and Ron Blake provided great solos. McBride played mostly the support role (though he either wrote or arranged every piece), but when it came time he manhandled the bass as few people can.

Cassandra Wilson did her usual stellar job, with music from her newest recording Coming Forth By Day, which pays tribute to Billie Holiday. Her smoky, rich voice has little in common with Holiday's vocal instrument, but imitation isn't tribute. Wilson's arrangements of classic tunes like "God Bless the Child" took different directions, but great emotion and the guts of the blues—something Holiday had—carried the day.

The festival features varied musical genres, but jazz dominated Saturday, as young trumpeter Theo Croker blared away at the noon kickoff, playing like a demon, even on a Stevie Wonder tune. Croker is the grandson of Doc Cheatham, but his playing is far more scorching. The band of youngsters played hip, but straight from the tradition. Similarly, a young band led by trumpeter Etienne Charles got people moving with the groove and intensity. Charles' band leaned more into Afro-Cuban rhythms than did Coker's. Both have bright futures.

Another sizzling band was led by bassist Omer Avital, a longtime associate of Anat Cohen. They also had infectious swing and drive. The group featured two saxophonists, Greg Tardy and veteran Joel Frahm. They aggressively explored each chord change with interesting twists and turns. They were among the most polished groups of the day, with Jonathan Blake stoking the fire on drums. Before taking one of the sax chair's with McBride, Wilson led his own band. An alto saxophonist with monster chops, his band was tight and swinging. On a softer song, he broke out his soprano sax which he plays with great tone and feeling.

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