As usual, the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival offered a smorgasbord of sounds. Some were old reliable sounds. Some were fresh and surprising. Some were – well, let’s just say, ummm – best passed over.
Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and the woefully under-rated pianist Ahmad Jamal were the two musicians that I was most looking forward to hearing, having never seen either of them in concert previously. And they didn’t disappoint. The 67-year-old Stanko’s early afternoon gazebo set on Saturday was delicious, veering from dreamy soundscapes to angular bop, as he led his young band – featuring Danish electric guitarist Jakob Bro – down the path less traveled.
Just a week shy of his 80th birthday, Jamal was a sheer delight later on Saturday afternoon on the main stage. He romped playfully and settled into an introspective mood at the keyboard, ably abetted by a backing trio featuring the percussive coloration of Manolo Badrena. Despite some sound difficulties, the veteran Jamal delivered the goods, bringing inventiveness even to his old signature song, “Poinicana.”
Like Jamal, 75-year-old pianist Ramsey Lewis has spent his life sitting in front of the keyboard, and yet he continues to discover and reveal something new. On Sunday afternoon on the main stage, he opened his set with the traditional spiritual “Wade in the Water,” which he had turned into a Top 20 pop hit back in 1966. It sounded nearly identical on Sunday, instantly recalling the era with its hand-clapping, soul-jazz party vibe. Then he and the band – bassist Larry Gray and drummer Leon Joyce – stepped outside the pop box and went looking adventure.
Gladys Knight was the festival-closer on Sunday, and she slipped the standard “Someone to Watch Over Me” into her set, as if to prove that she belonged at a jazz fest. Of course, she’s not a jazz singer, but at 66, she’s still one hellluva R&B singer, and she brought down the house, earning a mid-set standing ovation with an absolutely torrential rendition of “Neither One of Us.”
The fest didn’t belong exclusively to the veterans, however. The two brightest discoveries of the fest were trumpeter Mario Abney and saxophonist Hailey Niswanger.
“Come on,” shouted 32-year-old Abney, “put your hands together if you’re happy to be alive.” Just five-foot-two with dreadlocks spilling out from under his white fedora, the New Orleans trumpeter led a crackerjack horn-trio front line – with clarinetist Kaliq Woods and tenor saxman Josh Atkin – in two performances on Saturday – opening the main stage and closing the gazebo stage. Inventive, passionate straight-ahead jazz (“The Cross” and “Ora, Sweet Ora” were especially burning) give way to some serious Crescent City second line strutting on “Rollin’,” and soon Abney was leading the band on a parade through the crowd. Simply the best band – musician for musician – of the fest.
Meanwhile, Niswanger opened the gazebo stage on Sunday, and she took no prisoners. Just 20 years old, she wailed like a veteran, investing her opener, Ellis Marsalis’ “Swinging at the Haven,” with an unerring sense of swing. Switching between alto and soprano saxes, the charming Niswanger fearlessly mixed her own originals (“Balance” and “The Keeper”) with gems from the giants (Coltrane’s “Like Sonny,” Monk’s “Reflections”), and they held their own. By the time she wrapped things up with a go-for-the-throat scream through Ornette Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave,” the crowd leapt to their feet in an enthusiastic standing ovation.
There was more, lots more. The Linda Oh Trio – with bassist Oh, trumpeter Shane Endsley and drummer Tommy Crane – made some truly stunning, compact music. The Al Di Meola World Sinfonia was a thrilling, evocative trip into tango land. Juan De Marcos & the Afro Cuban All Stars turned the fest into an abandon-all-your-cares dance party. Drummer Kendrick Scott led his all-star band Oracle – featuring such luminaries as saxman John Ellis and pianist Taylor Eigsti – in their first gig outside of NYC and simply dazzled.
James Lamperetta’s review in The Saratogian
Ben Johnson has posted a big batch of photographs at SmugMug.com
An excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review of Day One in The Daily Gazette: “New Orleans was in the house early: the star-making and show-opening set of trumpeter Mario Abney’s sextet on the Main Stage climaxed – and that’s too mild a word – with the Second Line groove of ‘Rollin’ ‘ as Abney led Kaliq Woods (riffing raw on a yellow plastic clarinet) and saxophonist Josh Atkin into the crowd, igniting it. This followed ‘Spiritual Perception,’ a bustling A-B romp whose straight-ahead flavor dominated Abney’s set.”
TOMASZ STANKO SET LIST
The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch
MARIO ABNEY SET LIST
(same at both stages except where noted)
Ora Sweet Ora
When the Saints Come Marchin’ In (only at gazebo)
HAILEY NISWANGER QUARTET SET LIST
Swinging at the Haven
When Will the Blues Leave
Photos by Andrzej Pilarczyk. See more of Andrzej’s Jazz Fest photos here.