Review and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
In the morning the traditional stampede through SPAC’s gates took place without a hitch. Fans vied with each other to set up their territorial camps on the lawn as tents and umbrellas popped up like wildflowers and old friends and acquaintances exchanged hellos.
Several hours later at 12noon, the festivities began as New Orleans native and monster trumpeter Mario Abney and his group, the Abney Effect, threw out the first notes of the 35th Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival from the amphitheater. Just 15 minutes later, saxophone prodigy Hailey Niswanger and her band christened the festival from across the way on the gazebo stage.
The festival was now officially open and ready for business: a solid day of jazz business, that is.
For the veteran jazz festival-goers, these first two performers and a few others in the two-day line-up were familiar because both were there just two years ago, impressing the audiences with their energy and musicianship. The powers that be at SPAC had decided to bring them back – a very good call, no doubt, because of their stellar performances and the audience’s enthusiastic reaction.
As the afternoon sailed on with music and fun, the great bassist Christian McBride and one of his working outfits, Inside Straight, occupied the main stage for a crowd that didn’t want to let them get off the stage. Unfortunately, due to the volume of artists on the roster – and the set up times needed for the acts appearing on the stages – encores were precious few.
Jeremy Pelt – with his quintet that including the outstanding saxophonist J.D. Allen – presented a blistering hard-bop set burning up the gazebo while wearing summer suits and ties – out of respect for the music – and sweating up a storm. But the burning sun shining down on them, coupled to the 90-plus degree weather didn’t affect their performance in any way, shape or form. It was rousing and intellectually riveting.
The crowed showed their appreciation for Pelt and company with a standing ovation, signalling that they wanted more music, way more in fact. But the time constraints again prevented an encore or two. Another example of an artist that the public wanted to hear and see more of, but couldn’t.
In the amphitheater, Michel Camilo brought in his Latin-tinged “Mano a Mano” trio, complete with the Jimi Hendrix of percussion, Giovanni Hidalgo, striking the congas and everything else.
Catherine Russell – the sublime songstress of jazz, blues and everything else music, including several years as the go-to backing vocalist for Steely Dan – took control of the gazebo and held the audience spellbound while presenting a mix of deep jazz standards and an assortment of new songs from her latest album, “Strictly Romancin’.” Talk about a gorgeous woman with a fabulous voice, Russell is both… with tons of love for the craft to spare.
The Mingus Big Band started out with a yawn, but before long they were roaring away in the amphitheater with horns blazing and the spirit of the late, great jazz bassist-composer Charles Mingus right there among them.
Jumping onto the gazebo stage, trumpeter Mario Abney made his second appearance of the day. And this time out Abney and his young group had the spectators dancing in the aisles way before he initiated a New Orleans-styled second-line parade through the audience, causing many there to text their parents, children and relatives about the sheer excitement of Abney’s set.
The former child acoustic and electric bass-playing prodigy, Esperanza Spalding brought her “Radio Music Society” to the amphitheater to entertain the audience, but it was a mixed blessing for her long-time fans. It was easy to see how her “artist management” handlers have turned her now into a musical product. It’s a shame, because many in the audience remember her youthful exuberance and free-form energy performing, just a few short years ago, at the Music Haven in Schenectady’s Central Park. Back then, she played with the raw, wild abandon of youth, but at SPAC on Saturday, she was self-composed and trying to convince everyone that she without-a-doubt deserved her Best New Artist Grammy Award. She cancelled her scheduled autograph session with the public because – as the official announcement said – she had to “fly to Europe very early the next morning for a tour.”
Back at the gazebo, conguero Pedrito Martinez and his group were creating quite the percussive typhoon for a standing audience that ate up every beat up and wanted more. The audience’s energy brought Martinez and his quartet out for an encore under a setting sun.
With the gazebo silent, all the attention was now focused on the amphitheater, where a sharp dressed Chris Botti delivered a stunning performance complete with a cadre of special guests.
The late trumpet king Miles Davis was honored by a selection each from his influential albums, “Kind Of Blue” and “Sketches Of Spain.” Talk about professionalism and a killer trumpet sound – Botti fabulously performed both selections, even imitating Davis’ downward-firing trumpet stances.
Closing the first day of the 35th Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival was former Parlament/Funkalelic, Bootsy’s Rubber Band and James Brown saxophonist, Maceo Parker. The monster horn player and his crew exploded on stage with their signature funk-meets-jazz groove like there was no tomorrow. Maceo not only talked the talk, but also walked the walk, having earned his diploma and indisputable credentials in many a famous band to graduate into the hallowed ranks of living greats.
What a show!
More of Andrzej Pilarczyk’s photographs at Albany Jazz
Stanley Johnson’s review and photographs at Nippertown
James Lamperetta’s review at The Saratogian
Michael P. Farrell’s photographs at The Times Union
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “While exceptionally talented in a slew of ways — her singing, composition and bass playing all contribute to her fame — she [Esperanza Spaulding] had trouble connecting to the audience personally and musically. Her range of vocals, including wild, emotional scat singing, were fascinating to hear. But some in the audience scratched their heads by the third tune, some yelled for more, and some simply missed the point and left. Trumpeter Chris Botti was awesome. Easy to enjoy, he played sweetly for a good portion of each song, then brought the group to a crescendo and back down again to end each tune. On the road 300 days a year for the past five years, the band is well-groomed. Calling Miles Davis his ‘favorite of all time,’ he briefly described Davis’ musical achievements, then played a slow ‘Flamenco Sketches’ from ‘Kind of Blue,’ using a mute to capture the Davis sound and feel. He brought to the stage a guest for nearly every song, such as a violinist and a mandolin player. Each was specially talented, each received a standing ovation from most of the amphitheater. But it was he and guest singer Lisa Fisher who brought down the house several times with their trumpet and vocal duets. For me, Botti and McBride delivered the best jazz of the day. Saxman Maceo Parker closed the day with a, in his words, ‘off-the-hook’ funk set. Of all the acts Saturday, Parker was the only one outside the border of jazz (sure, someone can argue everything is blues and jazz). While he got the place bouncing and put a smile on everyone’s face with his good spirits and love of funk, it didn’t fit in to what was otherwise a finely tuned mix of great — sometimes amazing — jazz.”