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George Wein's Festival in Saratoga Turns 25 in Good Form

R.J. DeLuke By

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The weather for this year's two-day outdoor jazz festival in Saratoga Springs, NY, matched a lot of the music that was played. Hot and inviting. The Freihofer Jazz Festival celebrated its 25th edition is pretty good fashion at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) June 29 and 30. It was 1978 when George Wein first brought the event upstate and it has been a fabulous affair that has stood the test of time.
As always, the styles of music on the two stages each day ranged away from jazz at times. World music, "smooth jazz," and pop are always incorporated. Wein feels draw a bigger audience he has to appeal to those with tastes. It's what brought down his New Port Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I., when rowdy rock fans created a disturbance and caused the event to move from the New England resort town in the 1970s. But he has long since brought that under control, and now presents a varied program that irritates some jazz purists, but it does help boost the numbers.
One can either get rankled that six or eight of the 27 bands presented over 22 and ½ hours aren't "jazz," or else one can use those as breaks from the focus it takes to listen seriously to great art by going off to soak up the sun and dip into the cooler for libation, visit friends, wander the arts and crafts tent, or belly up to the indoor bar.
There was plenty to listen to: the superb Dave Holland quintet, the fun and furious Steve Turre quartet, the fabulous Kurt Elling, the ageless and driving Roy Haynes, the delectable Cassandra Wilson, the burning of Herbie Hancock and company in a Miles-Coltrane tribute, and more.

As always, there were lesser known "names" that provided fine sets of music. For jazz-lite fans, there was Dave Koz, FourPlay and Gerald Veasley, while Natalie Cole provided the pop and Angelique Kidjo brought the sounds of West Africa in the World Music category.

Holland and Elling took top honors musically, if one must address a festival in that fashion. The Holland group is remarkable, both for its fire and how tight the group is, having played together for a few years now. Chris Potter on sax, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Steve Nelson on vibes, Billy Kilson on drums and bassist Holland are firing on all cylinders. The writing and arrangements are exciting and the solos adventurous.

There are a lot of things that make the Holland band special, including the leader's approach to giving his men a controlled freedom (a lesson he learned from Miles). But the more the band played, the more it became apparent that one of the keys is Kilson. He smokes. He glides over the drum set, churning out varied rhythms that can be delicately subtle. When the music is at its hottest, Kilson is awhirl, cooking, but making is seem effortless. He has dancer-like moves behind the set as he grooves along. Kilson is a great player.

Elling's band is just that. A band. It's not a singer with backup musicians. The interplay among the group is a reason why Elling is drawing such acclaim. Yes, he has unbelievable pipes and a rich sound. His phrasing is inventive, wild at times, but restrained and understated at others. He will be a singer for the ages. But the interplay of the band — Rob Amster on bass, Frank Parker on drums and the inimitable Laurence Hobgood on piano — pushes the group into a special place. They performed songs from his previous CD, like the wonderful "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "Easy Living," but also their highly-charged versions of Coltrane's "Resolution," from A Love Supreme and a new ballad gem, "All the Way." The latter two will be on the group's next Blue Note CD next year, Elling said. Hobgood is a virtuoso with all the right moves; not only behind the glorious voice of Elling, but in between as a soloist. Long live this band.

Speaking of drumming, Roy Haynes has been one of the great influential drummers for years and he still blazes along, the highlight of his quartet's set. Watching him is fun —the crashing of various cymbals mixed with sweet drum rhythms — he's still, and ever, among the elite.

The hottest trumpet playing came from Roy Hargrove on the Directions in Music set led by Hancock. Michael Brecker joined Hargrove on the front line, but the saxophonist was often too busy flexing his chops. Hargrove blazed at times, over the churning drumming of Willie Jones III (the drummer in Hargrove's own band for years now) and the rock-solid bass of George Mraz, but he used space and phrasing and dynamics on his improvisational flights. Herbie is Herbie: creative, fast and with a beautiful sound. The band reworked tunes like "Sorcerer" and most did not resemble their original forms. Nonetheless, this aggregation is hot. A pure imitation of old songs would have been folly, and not something either Miles or Trane would like to see.


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