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Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival, Saratoga Springs, NY, June 29-30, 2013

R.J. DeLuke By

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Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival
Saratoga Springs, NY
June 29-30, 2013

Fiery music that burned with intensity, eclectic compositions that shifted in time signature and tempo, sweet melodies and down-home dirty blues—all were heard at this year's Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival in upstate New York, an event that is among the finest of its kind. It's a true outdoor festival where the musicians come to the audience within a venue that is gorgeous and relaxing.

The festival, forged by the father of all festivals, George Wein, 36 years ago, never slowed down when Wein stepped aside years ago, and this version was one of the very best in the last 20 years. There were the legends—McCoy Tyner, Tony Bennett, Buddy Guy, great veteran jazzmen—and young cats, and those in between who are really carrying the standard in recent years and building blocks to its bright future. So much fine music packed into two days, on two stages, enveloped by one grand picnic that officials at the venue—Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY—like to call "The Hang."

Producer Danny Melnick was even able to insert funk/pop and other elements that make some fans howl. It didn't adversely impact the proceedings at all. Jazz fans had all they'd need and then some, and the whole thing ended on Sunday night with one of the great showmen in rock and blues—mostly blues—who took off as only he can do. People smiling, laughing, dancing and going home happy, while at the same time having heard screeching, crying, preaching blues guitar from the guy at the pinnacle of his genre.

Melnick continues to hit home runs. He gets it. He was already thinking about 2014 as this year's giants wailed on stage—worthy of note, because some producers don't.

Guy, 76, can still testify, leading his tight-knit group through classics like "Damn Right I Got the Blues," "Hoochie Koochie Man," "Five Long Years" and more. His aura as well as his guitar lights up the place and his voice is strong. He's lived a lot of it, so his stories don't ring hollow. A staple of his shows is leaving the stage and walking through the audience while ripping off licks and toying with the crowd. The SPAC amphitheater, far more cavernous than a nightclub, didn't dissuade him. The people ate it up. These days, he also brings out his protégé on guitar, Quinn Sullivan, who is now 14 but started appearing on stage with Guy at the age of 8. The kid has got some chops and helped Guy burn through a few numbers. Fun stuff. Any time one sees Buddy Guy is a good day.



As for the other old-timer, Bennett came out and captivated the throngs at Saratoga like he does everywhere else. Always in a suit, this time white, he exudes class—not just in his music but the way he treats his audience. Warming and welcoming; talking to them in a very personal manner. He was about five weeks away from his 87th birthday, but the voice gave no indication. His range is limited (it never was grand), but he knows how to use what he has. Some lyrics he bellowed and held the notes long and strong. Of course, the music selections were of the Great American Songbook, irrepressible classics. "The Good Life," "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," "Maybe This Time." Ellington, Cole Porter, the Gershwins. Pure class.

Another band held some old-timers in terms of the calendar, but the music the Cookers played had nothing to do with age. Style was connected to bebop, perhaps, but neither they nor the music were dated. Bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Billy Hart and pianist George Cables have been around a while, but are first-rate. That trio alone would be an attraction. Toss in veteran trumpeter Eddie Henderson and you've got something. Add another fine older cat, Billy Harper on sax. Whew. Then a couple guys a bit younger: David Weiss on trumpet and Craig Handy on sax. The music flew. Swinging, but shifting and exploring. Mainstream at its best, with galvanizing solos. These guys are touring a lot, so their presence as a band, not as just stars from the Big Apple, was captivating. Scintillating, in fact.

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