The annual Freihofer Jazz Festival in Saratoga Springs, NYa 2-day event at the venerable Saratoga Performing Arts Center, was tinged with elements of music other than jazz in its 29th edition, perhaps most notably R&B.
While some opined it was music that fell under a broadening jazz definition, clearly this was not the case for many things. Etta James performed the R&B she has been known for years, music that has her entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Smokey Robinson's Las Vegas style, greatest hits show was pure pop and circumstance, a stroll down memory lane for those who like it. Sleepsville for others. But hardly jazz. Similarly Catherine Russell, who was an R&B hit on the venue's back stage. She put across that style with class and a strong flexible voice. Sonya Kitchell played modern folk music.
But there was plenty of jazz to go around, as always, on two stages through more than 34 hours of music.
One could say, however, that the "jazzâ‚¬ guys did cover a gamut of music.
James Carter's organ trio could get as funky as James Brown at times, and then soared into outer stratosphere at others as he hurled sound across the theater with his mammoth sound like Zeus hurling bolts from the sky, at times. Herbie Hancock was also funky with dashes of R&B, but his band veered off into world music for much of its set. Dave Brubeck was right in the pocket, as one would expect, with thoughtful improvisations and steady swing. Stanley Clarke and George Duke, as well as the Grover Washington tribute band (Kirk Whalum, Jeff Lorber, Gerald Albright, et. Al.) served up the poppier side of the music.
Arturo Sandoval carried the Latin banner, and the music of New Orleans was carried by the emblematic Preservation Hall Jazz Band and a "Clarion Callâ‚¬ group of trumpeters giving tribute to the Crescent City's jazz roots.
Vocalists like Tierney Sutton, Jamie Cullum and Sarah Pedinotti served up different styles; Sutton more traditional, but stellar, and the latter two youthful singers giving their own modern interpretive zest to their vision of jazz.
Robin Eubanks band was futuristic, and youngsters Christian Scott (trumpet) and Edmar Castaneda (harpâ‚¬¦ yes, harpâ‚¬¦ not James Cotton blues harp; Harpo Marx harp) wowed the crowed with their energy and modern approach to the musiceach vastly different.
And Susan Tedeschi played the shit out of the blues, she of the soulful voice and strong guitar chops.
For jazz fans, Scott, a 22-year-old trumpet player from New Orleans, his new CD Rewind That doing well on the charts, was something to see. The music is modern, with elements of funk, hip-hop, jazz and whatever that springs from Scott, who is composer and arranger. The beats never hit what one would call mainstream jazz, but they were provocative and the music vibrant. A gracious leader, he often acquiesced to Matt Stevens on guitar before he would step in for his statement. Both excelled. Stevens is modern with an edge, but also melodic with a style that may develop into something special. So too with Scott, whose chops are sweet, but who often slows to tell a story with a fat and burnished tone. They played the CD's title cut and "Rejection.â‚¬ A fine ballad was a song he said he called "My Ladies Eyes,â‚¬ that is, until he broke up with her. Now he's calling it "Ifâ‚¬¦,â‚¬ he quipped. They ended with a burner from the Big Easy, "Cissy Strut,â‚¬ which heated up the already scorching day with burning solos. The saxophonist, whose name slipped away, (turned out it was Louis Fouche) was also a fine young firebrand who played with heart.
Marty Ehrlich's quartet was also superb, playing selections from his latest News from the Rail recording. His playing on both clarinet and alto was sweet, perfect intonation and outstanding chops, but also fresh and flowing ideas that matched, for example, the odd time signatures and moods of "Seeker's Delightâ‚¬ every step of the way. "Hear You Sayâ‚¬ and "Hymnâ‚¬ each had moments that veered away from the mainstream, happily so, and constantly held interest. Each tune helped grandly by the varied and hot rhythms of drummer Allison Miller, who played her trap drum set differently to suit each different nuance. Pianist James Weidner also excelled, including dabbling with the melodion, a keyboard the player blows into like a woodwind instrument.
Castaneda was a marvel, playing with a triosort of. In addition to the drummer, there was Dana Leong who played cello, cranking out eerie sounds with a bow, classical sounds, bass lines, and all kinds of textures to compliment, or indulge, the wild varied sounds coming from the harp. But at the next minute, Leong played slide trombone with a big sound; blaring and boisterous, as well as bluesy. Castaneda certainly plays the harp like few people have ever heard it. It's a guitar. It's two guitars. Or it's two guitars, a bit of bass, and percussionsometimes simultaneous. The music has Latin tinges, befitting his Columbia heritage, but covered a lot of other ground. Killer.
Carter's organ trio of Gerard Geddis on the keys and the steady and funky Leonard King on drums was typical of the protean saxophonist. Always full of bravado, Carter makes the sax make sounds one might not think possible. And when he dips into the balls of the tenor, its soulful, hot and swinging, with a deep dark sound. He also soared off on soprano sax, which he plays with ease, on "Along Came Betty.â‚¬ "Little Hat's Odyssey,â‚¬ though, had him playing flute, which was a treat. Less frantic, Carter showed the melodic side he can dig into when so inclined and had a delectable tone on the instrument. The set cooked.
New Orleans is still struggling with the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Five members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band lost their homes. But, like bassist Ben Jaffe says, musicians in that city play music to uplift, no matter what, and play at times when music isn't traditionally played elsewhere, like marching though the streets of a city with the funeral mourners, who are eventually turned into celebrators. At the SPAC stage, things were no different. Energy and élan abounded, as the band ripped through "Basin Street Blues,â‚¬ "Bourbon Street Paradeâ‚¬ and the like. "When the Saints Go Marching Inâ‚¬ had people literally dancing in a long line that moved through the auditorium.
No funeral here. Celebration. But to see spirit soar for people who are still not done getting their lives back together was inspiring. And fun.
Crescent City was also displayed by the Clarion Call: three trumpeters Marlon Jordan, James Andrews and the aforementioned Scottplaying traditional music. The trumpeters started by blaring from the back of the amphitheater and walked down the aisles to the stage, where the rhythm section was already playing, pounding out a New Orleans beat. Each trumpeter was featured on their own songs from home, then they played together, blowing phrases back and forth, almost trying to outdo the other. Scott was boisterous here. Jordan (who spent five days on his rooftop, barely making it to safety, but helping save his neighbors in the process, and losing most everything, including trumpet) could be sweetly melodic at times before bringing the noise. Andrews was growling and gruff and howling, and he also added great vocals from the city at the mouth of the Mississippi.
Brubeck turned 85 in December and the crowd sang "Happy Birthdayâ‚¬ as he slowly made his way to his piano chair. Once there, the years disappeared and there was the legend, percussive at times and delicate at others, but always inventing and attractive. The group did standards like "Sunny Side of the Streetâ‚¬ and a sweet, poetic version of "Over the Rainbow.â‚¬ And of course, Paul Desmond's "Take Five.â‚¬ Reed player Bobby Milatello continues to be a great foil for Brubeck and his music.
Hancock started out fine, with a very different, slippery, funky version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprintsâ‚¬ and the band kicked along in that vein for a while. But he then handed much of the show to African guitarist Lionel Loueke, who was interesting in his guitar phrasing while harmonizing with himself in a wordless vocal. For a time. But it went on. The violinist Lili Haydn came on for an all-too-long and sappy (also sleepy) attempt at world-music exploration. Ad nauseum. Then the band left. The crowd, understandably, wanted to see Herbie, one of the true geniuses of the music, and many voiced their disappointment through the day and into the next.
Eubanks set was interesting in that the band, with Michelle Rosewoman on electric piano and other sounds, and Kenwood Dennard on bass, used computer technology to get different sounds and even loop some of their phrases as part of the overall concoction. Cool at times, maybe not so much at others. It was a different and energized take on things. And the sound of Eubank's trombone was superb; he wailed as few can on the instrument.
Sandoval played his typical high-energy set, taking the trumpet to the outer limits with screeching high-note runs, but also featuring a mellow and fat tone when he would bring it back down to earth. The Dizzy-influenced Cuban native also pounded out percussion when he wasn't soloing, and jumped on the piano at one point, displaying some pretty fine chops there too. Solid set that proved people can dance to the music. His improvisations are gymnastic, which isn't always necessary, but they sure do make you marvel at the pure technique. Good stuff.
Among vocalists, Pedinotti (Saratoga Springs' own) was a marvel. Her voice seemed smallish at first, but proved to have flexibility, heart, nuance and sweetness to produce a superb set. She started off with a sultry "Summertime,â‚¬ then did mostly her own tunes, where she showed a great ability to tell stories in a poignant way, sometimes funny, often cool. She was almost a cross between Maria Muhldaur's voice through the hip, thoroughly open eyes of Rickie Lee Jones. A pleasure.
Britain's Jamie Cullum comes with a young man's take on jazz, playing decent piano with his polished band. He carries a distinctive voice, a lot of energy, and gives songs like "Blame It On My Youthâ‚¬ and "What a Difference a Day Makesâ‚¬ an enjoyable twist, as he does with some other standards. He also did "I've got a Womanâ‚¬ from the Ray Charles book and tosses in songs of his own, some which fit nicely with the overall groove, swinging or soulful, but some that veer into pop and are trite. He also sprints back and forth across the stage at times, for theatrical purposes one would surmise, and musses his own hair with his hands (?), and pounds the piano with his feet or jumps on it. That might resonate with the other twentysomethings (Cullum is 26), but Jagger he's not. It might behoove him to relax a little let the music do the job. That actually works.
Tierney Sutton was classy, taking songs like "Fly Me To The Moonâ‚¬ and "Dancing Cheek to Cheekâ‚¬ and giving them a nice spin, improvising easily over a good group of musicians. "Softly As In a Morning Sunriseâ‚¬ isn't hear much from vocalists. It was experimental, yet held the song's natural beauty.
Susan Tedeschi probably isn't in the "vocalistâ‚¬ category, since she is a fine guitarist and blues representative. But her voice was emotional, expressive, strong and clear. Like her guitar work. She did a group of tunes from her debut CD on the Verve jazz label, Hope and Desire which includes tunes by Dylan ("Lord Protect My Childâ‚¬), Keith Richards ("You've Got the Silverâ‚¬) among others.
The festival leans some years into pop, like the drone of Groovin' for Grover, and the over-hyped and over-produced Smokey Robinson. But other years not so much. Regardless, good music comes around every year, and 2006 was no exception.