The Fantastic Freihofer Jazz Fest

R.J. DeLuke By

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Tucked away in one of New York state's classiest tourist towns is a two-day jazz festival held around the end of June each year since 1978. It's one of George Wein's festivals and he's called it one of the great undiscovered festivals in the world. It's a pity, in some way, that "undiscovered" has to be attached to the proceedings at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs. But for those from all over the Northeast who attend each year, it's a gold mine.

This year – the 23rd edition – was no exception. From big-name acts like Herbie Hancock, Diana Krall and Ray Charles, to the less famous -Brian Blades, Sara Jane Cion, and, yes, a man named Pucho -the two-day outdoor festival had something for everyone. The music was nearly always good, often outstanding. And the lawn party – and make no mistake, the festival at SPAC is just that – roared on.

In recent years it bears the name Freihofer Jazz Festival, because the baking company has put up a considerable corporate sponsorship. The festival is set up like Wein's original events in Newport, RI. It's outdoors, except for a section of seats nearest the amphitheater stage covered by a roof. A sloping lawn allows people to sit out and enjoy a picnic as they enjoy the music. At the rear of the spacious grounds is a gazebo stage, smaller, with no real seating, but a favorite of jazz fans as a haven where "real" jazz is presented. Many times the band or performer names aren't well-known there, but the music is grand. And it's not always unknown. The likes of Nat Adderly, Roy Haynes, James Moody, Wallace Roney, James Carter, James Williams, Oliver Lake, Bobby Watson, Joanne Brackeen and many more have played on that stage. And if you didn't recognize many names before, you come away remembering them. This year again, the gazebo music stood out, though it had plenty of competition from the main stage.

It was at the gazebo where drummer Matt Wilson brought his wonderful pianoless quartet. The group was experimental, yet cooking, irreverent, and fun. Yes, it's safe to play jazz and still have fun. Honest. Audience members were chuckling at Wilson and his band of merry men -Andrew D'Angelo on alto sax, Jeff Lederer on tenor and Yosuke Inoue on bass -but they were also caught up in the music.

"If you came here looking for 'smooth' jazz, we ain't it," Wilson said as a preface. No shit.

He had songs dedicated to Lester Bowie and Don Cherry and the sax players soloed in that Ornette Coleman-related style. They played in bursts: shrieking, honking, wild blowing, with be-bop phrases thrown in as well as long tones. At times, they played in unison, and while both Lederer and D'Angelo seemed to be off in opposite directions, their paths would alternately run parallel as well as cross and out of it grew a different type of harmony.

(Warning: Wyntonites may have to be sitting to read on) Each member played with humor and joked around, as did their leader, who constantly, and often comically, chided his cohorts as they soloed, a smile never far from his face. But not to the detriment of his superb, flowing drum work that kept the whole thing together. No matter how far out the saxophones went, the path was always clear to the listener because of the work of the drums and bass, not an easy thing with no piano chords as a guide.

“Lester” was an offbeat blues; Tadd Dameron’s “Our Delight,” was the closest thing to bebop, but never exactly that. And “Nibble,” (“with a B,” he quipped) was a tongue-in-cheek “tribute” to big bands that swung, but also went way outside swing time. Wilson came up up front playing just snare drum with brushes. At one point, D’Angelo jumped back to the trap set, playing both his horn and the rest of the drum kit. “Schoolboy Thug” was a spoof of heavy metal bands in which D’Angelo played behind his back, between his legs, and even rolled round on his back. Wilson donned a long-haired wig and spoofed the typical mundane rock drummer solo. The band was wild, different and adventuresome. Wilson is a helluva drummer.

Saturday’s gazebo lineup included some a nice piano trio led by Sarah Jane Cion, a youngster who played largely original works. She’s competent, but not yet compelling. She’ll get better. Ruben Wilson fronted a group with his Hammond B-3 that was hot, with sax and guitar giving it that funky Blue Note feel from the 50's. Pucho and his Latin Soul Brothers proved to be a nice find, providing more than just Latin-based jazz. The leader, comical in his own right, took time out to sing a down home blues about a “whiskey drinkin’ woman,” mugging like Muddy Waters. The band also pounded out a sweet version of “Milestones” that jumped from Latin to bebop and was engaging.

On the main stage, the sultry Cassandra Wilson began her set with “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” from her Miles tribute CD and did other songs from that, like “Time After Time.” She’s always sharp, and her experimental style leaves listeners waiting to see where she will turn next. She also gave nice twists to “Green Dolphin Street,” and “Love For Sale.”

Cesaria Evora, a singer of Morna music from the Cape Verde islands, was interesting, but the music not arresting, venturing too often into bland. Another Latin band, featuring famous conga players like Candido and Patato Valdes, was tiresome after two songs. The background music was cloying (more brass needed, fewer whiny guitars) and the two men, 80 and 74, respectively, ... well ... let’s just say they could have used a shorter set.

A “super band” with Randy Becker, Bob Berg and Joey DeFrancesco played pretty well, considering the concept doesn’t always work. DeFrancesco kept things moving with hot organ grooves and Berg’s sax was in fine form, as was Becker’s trumpet.

During the rest of the evening, Maceo Parker was the musical cure for insomnia, though his over-hyped pop style excites some people. Bruce Hornsby was far better. A pianist with considerable chops (he knows his Bill Evans, Monk, Jarrett, et al.) was fairly experimental with his rock fusion and the band had a nice groove. David Sanborn was his usual soulful R&B self, always a player that gives it everything and establishes a nice feeling.

On day 2, the main stage began with the venerable Lew Tabakin, thrilling with a tribute to Coleman Hawkins. Tabakin can really get that sound that Bean was famous for and the music was alive, not dated. Tabakin is one of the world’s treasures on sax, though for some reason his name doesn’t pop into print when people discuss such things. And when he plays flute? Jump back! No prisoners taken here.

Kenny Garret was awesome, playing mostly from his latest CD, “Simply Said.” The disc has been called his attempt at playing more “accessible” music, after some more adventurous projects, including an all-Coltrane album. But the music is good and songs like “Charlie Brown Goes to South Africa,” “Can I Just Hold Your Hand,” and “Back to Where You Started,” were great in their live versions. That said, there are two cookers at the end of that CD, “Organized Colors,” and “3rd Quadrant,” and they blazed across the SPAC grounds, Garret putting on his Bird and Coltrane shoes. Those who dislike latter day Miles, and therefore, by association, Garret, are sadly mistaken. The last of Miles’ long line of great sidemen plays the alto sax as well as anyone on the scene. A monster!

At the gazebo, Brian Blade’s band was a highlight. The superb drummer flowed across his set, pushing a very hot band through thoughtful, intricate and hot tunes. Each band member was solid, notably Ken Rosenwinkel on guitar. D.D. Jackson did nothing to silence the talk of him as an up-and-coming star at the piano. His music was absorbing, hard charging, and he mixed electric keyboard with acoustic, sometimes playing both at once. Blues singer Tony Lynn Washington performed as billed: smooth, yet soulful; a fitting end to the backstage festivities for 2000.

The main stage on the final day was loaded. John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, Dianna Krall, Diane Reeves and Ray Charles. The less said about Spyro Gyra, the better.

Scofield is a great player, yet his foray into “jam band” grooves didn’t always maintain interest. Reeves put in a solid set, but she doesn’t shine like Cassandra Wilson or Diana Krall.

Krall was excellent was always, playing most of the tunes from her latest CD “When I Look in Your Eyes.” Each song is stamped with her swinging, sensual style. She’s consistently amazing and continues to do a knockout, emotion-packed, dramatic version of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” She should record that tune in a hurry. And it’s about time for a live Diana CD; her music is so much more striking when sipped and savored in concert. Superlatives are feeble when describing her work.

Hancock proves each time he goes out on tour that he’s almost in a league of his own as a pianist. From his days with Miles on forward, he’s shown his aggressive, thoughtful, swinging and tasteful style each time out. A legend. He played this time from his popular “Gershwin’s World” CD and the set was exceptional.

Ray Charles closed the great event. He’s been at the fest maybe a half-dozen times, always with a big band that is tight and swinging. This evening, Charles was having some trouble with the on-stage monitors and let his dissatisfaction be known, expletives included (perhaps he didn’t know we could hear him because he couldn’t hear himself). Grumpy throughout, when he got to the songs, they were great and no one cared. His comments made people chuckle, if anything. There are always obligatory hits like “Busted,” and “Hit the Road Jack,” but he throws in jazz gems and his heartfelt rendering of the Beatles’ “Till There Was You” was a delight. Can we stand to hear “Georgia on My Mind” on more time? From Mr. Charles, you bet we can. It was pleasing and packed with emotion.

The event, in total, drew high musical marks. The SPAC festival is a can’t-miss good time and for people wanting to see a festival done in the good old-fashioned style, in a gorgeous setting, at a facility that is first-rate, they should really do themselves a favor and plan a trip to this classy event in the future.

An do yourself another favor: Go see Matt Wilson.

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