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Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival: Saratoga Springs, NY, June 30-July 1, 2012

Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival: Saratoga Springs, NY, June 30-July 1, 2012
R.J. DeLuke By

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Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Springs, NY

June 30-July 1, 2012

Fantastic music was plentiful at the 35th Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival. It usually is. But 2012 seemed to have the right vibe throughout. Part of it was the great weather on both days. Primarily an outdoor festival (though there is some covered seating), the people are always upbeat and cool at what is perhaps jazz's best picnic/party every year.

But something more was afoot. The consistency of the music was terrific, and each group—maybe cashing in on the atmosphere—played with heart. The people were happy. Producer Danny Melnick was happy. The fine people at the host venue Saratoga Performing Arts Center were happy. Attendance was strong.

It had great jazz of all sorts. Newer artists like Hailey Niswanger, Edmar Castaneda and Mario Abney. Piano virtuosos Michel Camilo and Hiromi, who both tore the house down. Exquisite big bands—the Mingus Big Band and Arturo O'Farrill's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Tried-and-true veterans like Christian McBride and Jeremy Pelt. Vocalists Diana Krall and Sachal Vasandani. Crossover music from the Yellowjackets and Trombone Shorty.

The Mingus organization came in and took no prisoners, an attitude that summed up much of the weekend. Soloists like Lauren Sevian on baritone sax and Alex Sipiagin on trumpet raged over the roaring arrangements of the great Mingus songbook. "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers" was delightfully tumultuous and the ballad "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," with the Joni Mitchell lyric, was quirky and delicate at the same time. The poignant "Don't Let It Happen Here," was riveting, with Ku-Umba Frank Lacy intoning the lyrics to the Mingus poem over the shifting, driving music. He soulfully rendered the lines from "One day they came and they took the communists, And I said nothing because I was not a communist ..." to the climactic resolve, "Then one day they came and they took me. And I could say nothing because I was guilty as they were, for not speaking out and saying that all men have a right to freedom," with immense passion.

The other big band naturally had the Latino grooves and fire. This band can move you. O'Farrill played a mean piano over his great band, playing strong, percussive licks, skating over the huge sound behind him. There are some fine big band veterans in this group and they speak. Loudly. "Forty Horses and a Burrow" was particularly hip.

Pianists Hiromi and Camilo are similar in that they both have prodigious technique, making the instrument sound like they have extra hands. They also exude great passion for their life's work. Hiromi is more in the jazz mainstream area, out of Oscar Peterson, and the joy she emits with Anthony Jackson on bass guitar and Simon Phillips on drums is wonderful. Camilo calls his current group the "Mano a Mano" with Giovanni Hidalgo on percussion and Charles Flores on bass, who bring the Latino flavor and were sparkling. Hildalgo's great work on various percussion instruments in place of the standard drum set added a savory flavor. Good-time and intensely creative music.

With two stages, sometimes it's hard to choose. Or one can run back and forth and get a taste of both scenes. McBride's outstanding Inside Straight band that features the fiery saxophone of Steve Wilson, and vibraharp wizard Warren Wolf, tore it up on the main stage. Steered by the thick, rich bass of the leader, this group covered a lot of ground in a short time, material by the likes of Freddie Hubbard, as well as original stuff. Captivating.

At the same time, Jeremy Pelt was strutting his mainstream stuff on another stage. His band had the fine sax man J.D. Allen, who is always stretching and investigating the elements of a composition. Intriguing to listen to every time. Pelt, clad in fedora and bowtie, looked almost professorial, but was pure down home when he blew the trumpet. Technique and style that have placed him in the forefront of jazz trumpeters were on display. His group is one of the finer jazz bands consistently out there.

As for the vocalists, Vasandani won the day. He's maturing more and his vocal instrument is getting better as well. His voice glided in and around captivating new originals he has written, and he was a joy to hear. Confident and expressive, his storytelling on standard themes like romantic awakening or getting over lost love was fresh and exhilarating. He had the wonderful Gerald Clayton on keyboards, who can elevate the proceedings of any setting.

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