Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
Additional photograph by Richard Brody
It had been raining on and off for most of Saturday, but right after Ben Williams & Sound Effect finished tearing up the Gazebo stage with 21st-century soul jazz, a decent-sized thunderstorm hove into view from the west, sending most concertgoers scurrying back to either the amphitheater or to their tents. Now, the critical word in that last sentence is not “thunderstorm” – it’s “most.” Because not only did the people under the trees around the Gazebo stay firmly where they were, but a cluster of progressively-soaked kamikazes had planted themselves firmly on the row of benches in front of the Gazebo, with no cover over their heads whatsoever. If they were going to leave this life, they were going to be listening to Rudresh Mahanthappa when it happened.
Maybe they caught the altoist’s stem-winding opening Mainstage set, and wanted a second helping; maybe they were stuck in the parking lot when that set happened (which is why it’s so cool Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival gives Mainstage openers another chance to blow); maybe they’d heard Mahanthappa’s towering new release Gamak, and wanted to see if it translated to live performance. Or maybe the most hardcore jazz fans are not the ones with the most CDs or original 78rpm pressings, or the ones who can tell you which drummer played on what recording in which month of 1953 that had an “R” in it. No, the most hardcore jazz fans are the ones who will risk possible death to see an artist or group get their thing on. Mahanthappa made the gamble pay off, and how, and I wasn’t surprised in the least.
Although Mahanthappa’s quartet had more than enough power to defeat the Mainstage’s claustrophobic vibe, the explosions during the Gazebo set were up close and personal as he burned through most of Gamak to a crowd that grew throughout the hour-long set. Rudresh’s music is a true fusion of styles and cultures, mixing East and West into a kaleidoscopic tapestry that’s as beautiful as it’s hypnotic. And while Mahanthappa has worked with some tremendous guitarists in the past, Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski may make all others superfluous. Fuze’s ongoing campaign to be the Thelonious Monk of guitarists – perpetually searching for notes within the notes – can make nails on a blackboard sound melodic. However, when you pair that with Mahanthappa’s searing hybrid attack (and spice things up with Fiuczynski’s unerring sense of funk), the result makes you want to scream your head off with the joy of it all. And we did.
Normally, I’d pity anyone that has to follow a powerhouse like Mahanthappa, but I needn’t have worried about the Cookers, who were the second act on the Mainstage. (I can’t speak for vocalist Carmen Souza, who drew the short straw on the Gazebo; I was too busy watching an ailing-but-dapper McCoy Tyner pull out one more breakneck performance with exemplary assistance from Miles Davis alums John Scofield and Gary Bartz.) The Cookers are the total package: An all-star septet with decades of experience, weapons-grade power and arrangements that make their compositions live and breathe and jump again. Producer/arranger David Weiss combined with fellow trumpeter Eddie Henderson, tenorman Billy Harper, and multi-instrumentalist Craig Handy to fill the amphitheater with light and heat, while pianist George Cables kept the undercurrent bubbling nicely. Cecil McBee and Billy Hart are everything you’d ever want in a rhythm section, and Hart’s set-closing solo showed that the 73-year old drum monster hasn’t lost a step – in fact, he may have picked up a few. Put simply, the Cookers killed it dead, and will keep on killing it for the foreseeable future. Why? Because retirement is for slackers!
As usual, the Gazebo was the place to be to see the really next-level music. For example, choosing between Mahanthappa on the Gazebo and Big Sam’s Funky Nation on the Mainstage was no choice at all: Been there, done that, got the hearing loss. On the other hand, Rudresh playing two sets made it possible for me to see and appreciate guitarist Gilad Hekselman, who opened the Gazebo bill. Another Israeli import that makes jazz brighter, don’t confuse Hekselman with Roni Ben-Hur, who cleaves to the classic side of Pat Martino; Hekselman’s more on the John Abercrombie side of the equation, and his trio (which featured Brad Mehldau Trio drummer Jeff Ballard) cranked out the kind of thought-provoking, spare-but-sparkling music that made ECM famous. And for the right-brained people in the house, world-class baritone-saxman Gary Smulyan closed the outdoor festivities with his brilliant fun-soaked tribute to the late Hammond B3 icon Don Patterson. Mike LeDonne filled the B3 chair with relish, while guitarist Paul Bollenbeck and drummer Joe Farnsworth kept the engine revving for Smulyan, who is still The Man. Don’t argue, because you will lose.
Finally, when is a “crossover act” NOT a “crossover act”? Apparently, when it plays acoustic. Quartette Humaine is Bob James & David Sanborn’s first collaboration since they put out the smooth-jazz touchstone Double Vision in 1986, and they never toured on that recording. (“We’re trying to make up for lost time,” Sanborn informed us.) But as James told us, it would have been foolish to try and re-create that old sound, so they went the other way, taking their inspiration from Dave Brubeck’s Take Five band. That’s all well and good, and Quartette is actually quite good… but I know Paul Desmond, I’ve seen Paul Desmond (in 1973, when the “classic” Brubeck Quartet reunited for one last tour), and I can categorically say that David Sanborn is NOT Paul Desmond. Where Desmond would have used the musical equivalent of a scalpel, Sanborn always chose the sledgehammer, waving the flag again and again and again! This brought my palm to my face, but it also brought the crowd to their feet. They were the reason the billing on Quartette was reversed for this festival. Then again, they were probably frustrated with the acoustic versions of tracks from Double Vision, all of which sounded like they needed electricity to really come alive. When the band pulled out Sanborn’s solo hit “Comin’ Home, Baby” for an encore, I headed for the parking lot. Enough was enough, and tomorrow was another day.
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
James Lamparetta’s review at The Saratogian
Jeff Nania’s review at Metroland
Excerpt from Brian McElhiney’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Saturday’s headliner, Arturo Sandoval, making his fifth appearance at this festival, appeared to be having the most fun of anyone who played. Hitting the stage shortly after 9 p.m., his six-piece Latin jazz band uncorked an instrumental that showcased a duel between Sandoval on trumpet and Ed Calle on saxophone that ended with a lightning-fast run on the horn by Sandoval that left Calle laughing, unable to respond. ‘Birks Works’ continued the musical playfulness, with Sandoval accompanying his trumpet with a synthesizer, eventually tearing into a distorted keyboard solo that sounded like nothing else that came before it on stage. Throughout, Sandoval kept switching instruments, playing piano on ‘Sorina’ and singing lead on ‘Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You),’ a tribute to his mentor, Dizzy Gillespie, and the title track of his 2012 album. His raucous version of Gillespie’s ‘A Night in Tunisia’ was an appropriate closer, ending with all six musicians firing on all cylinders.”