Jazz at the SPAC: The Freihofer Jazz Festival June 27-28, 2009

AAJ Staff By

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Freihofer's Jazz Festival
Saratoga Springs, New York
June 27-28, 2009
You might be a jazz fan if:

  1. You fly through a lightening storm to get to the show.
  2. Your only thought sitting next to a woman who is completely freaked that you're all going down like a rock is that you hope it's a rain or shine show.
  3. You're still wearing the clothes on Sunday that you wore to work Friday because the airlines lost your luggage—and you don't care.
  4. You buy a T-shirt to support the festival—and you've got 100 at home.
  5. You can avidly discuss any setlist from 10 years ago with anyone there, because they were there, too.

The Freihofer Jazz Festival, despite the rain, set fire to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York over the weekend of June 27th and 28th, 2009. An eyeball glance estimated the crowd at perhaps 6,000 per day, but with revelers moving back and forth between the lawn and the amphitheater, that's just a rough estimate. With twenty different groups and performers spread out over two days, there wasn't a bum steer in the lot—everyone was cool, jammin,' venerable, experimental, straight-ahead, rained on, and just plain old burnin' hot.

After working through the above qualifications and a manic drive up the state, the first group heard was So What, a Miles tribute band to the album, Kind of Blue @ 50, led by a proté gé of the Prince of Darkness, drummer Jimmy Cobb. Tribute bands—they're often trying too hard to cover up deficiencies of their own, but this group had an understanding with the demon. The lone survivor of that milestone album, please forgive the heinous abuse of a pun, Cobb and his crew breathed new life into the songs—as if they needed any. The tenor saxophonist, Javon Jackson, eluted a haunting, nearly mournful sound; you could feel Miles behind the wings, listening and watching with that soul-burning stare of his.

Arriving late drops one in the middle of the conversation, so unfortunately some performers got missed, such as Gary Burton and Pat Metheny with Quartet Revisited, but another group worth mentioning is The Gino Sitson 4, a singer in the Bobby McFerrin style from Cameroon. African vocalese utilizes clicks, slaps, trills and anything else at hand that makes a sound. Reminiscent of the burning savannas and the scent of the world on the high winds, Sitson has a voice—with a four-octave range—that can tell a story. He dedicated a song, "Just a Little Prayer," to his brother who had passed some time ago; he said that this was a sign to him that everything is now OK. Indeed it is—Sitson's buoyant mood is contagious without stickiness and can be felt in his voice.

Vocalist Bettye Lavette, a little bit of a thing, 63 years old, took the place to the rafters with the chronicles she told about our lives here. When she sang, "This is as close as I'm going to get to heaven," the audience believed her. Her soul should be all of ours, either we surpass our trials or succumb to them. In her case, it's the former, in a huge way; she's a Mouse That Roared.

A bit more tentative was Julian Lage, but that's to be expected, given that he's only in his very early 20's. Championed by Gary Burton on his album, Generations, as he did with Pat Metheny, Lage has been playing since he was five years old. Somewhat reminiscent of Bill Frisell, he applied blazing technique to what was clearly an experimental set, but it wasn't entirely clear where he was going with it. Does he have the potential to tell the stories that only jazz can tell? Yes, but sets like these from high-flying fledglings point out in high relief, check back when Lage gets some highs and lows in his life to sing about—then expect to get blown away.

The surprise of the festival to those that haven't heard of them was Bonerama, three trombones with nearly an orchestra behind them, keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. A blues funk rock band from New Orleans, they tore the place up with feeling. Trombonist Mark Mullins pulled all sorts of witchery out of his hat, the machinations explained to me by an intent group of young jazzmen from the nearby Skidmore Jazz Institute attending their summer session—jazz is alive and well and flourishing in the young, where it should be. Mullins bounced the sound of his trombone off the floor of the stage while singing or humming through the mouthpiece and running the sound through a guitar wa-wa pedal an octave above or a fifth below, producing a series of ghost-like echoes in "When the Levee Breaks," performed in tribute to NOLA and the devastation of Katrina. It reinforced the still-existing pain of the city like no newspaper or film ever could. Such is the power that lives and breathes in the music, even in the face of the onslaught of the information age.


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