Review and photographs by J Hunter
Additional photographs by Kirsten Ferguson
I looked once, and then twice and three times, just to make sure I didn’t hallucinate it the first time. There was Fabian Almazan, Terence Blanchard’s keyboard player and the opening act on the Gazebo stage, conferring with his rhythm section… and that rhythm section was Linda Oh (bass player for trumpet monster Dave Douglas, and a leader/composer in her own right) and Rudy Royston (arguably the most interesting drummer to come along since Eric Harland). I was about to see three of the best jazzers the current generation has to offer, and I hadn’t even had lunch yet. I had to say it out loud, so I did: “Hot DAMN, this is going to be a good day!”
Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival had quietly declared Sunday to be Opposite Day, kicking off the festivities at the Gazebo instead of the amphitheater. This made sense from a textural standpoint, because main stage opener Donny McCaslin is in a pronounced electric period at the moment; having the altoist fire the opening salvo would have made it harder for Almazan to establish his nuanced acoustic beauty over the racket from the other side of the hill. With the starting point flipped, Almazan and his partners had plenty of time to bewitch us with “The Vicarious Life” and the yet-to-be-released “Rise-Oh” before McCaslin played his first note. And even when McCaslin was in full cry, this killer trio’s version of “Pet Step Sitter’s Theme Song” (which Blanchard takes to the max on his new disc Magnetic) was so powerful and so hypnotic, whatever happened on the main stage made absolutely no difference.
McCaslin’s main stage set wasn’t as hot as his Gazebo appearance later in the day, which featured off-the-hook keyboard magic from Jason Lindner. However, it did blend perfectly with the music of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, who followed Almazan onto the Gazebo. Jensen’s music is electric and exploratory, too, and (like McCaslin) Jensen emphasizes substance over style. Barefoot and dressed for Newport, she was leading the charge on “Six-Six Mike” when I made it back to the Gazebo and found another embarrassment of unexpected riches. Not only was Danish guitarist Torben Waldorff wielding his glistening foil, Jensen was also being backed by the same group that helped Waldorff capture lightning in a bottle on his bodacious 2012 ArtistShare release Wah-Wah. The crowd packing the benches weren’t the only ones enjoying themselves – Jensen broke off one of her solos to let out a howl of joy. “That is so fun,” Jensen enthused when the piece was done. That was an understatement. Gary Versace’s brilliant keyboards gave Jensen’s set both shading and oomph, while bassist Matt Clohesy formed a solid backbone with Jensen’s drummer/husband John Wikan.
Not all the surprises happened at the Gazebo, either. Kevin Eubanks proved his flame-throwing 2011 appearance at Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival was no fluke, torching Freihofer’s main stage with tracks from his latest Mack Avenue release The Messenger. The disc’s no-brakes title track earned Eubanks a well-deserved standing ovation, and “Ghost Dog Blues” hits even harder in concert than it does on disc.
What hit hardest for me was the massive performance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The last time they played Freihofer’s, it was about as exciting as watching an oil painting dry; the band sat on high-backed chairs spread out over the stage, not interacting at all, and sounded old and tired from start to finish. There was no resemblance between that museum piece and the party machine that had us rolling to “Down on Bourbon Street” and “Tootie Ma was a Big Fine Thang.” 81-year old clarinetist Charlie Gabriel blew just as hard and sang just as well as “new kids” trumpeter Mark Braud and slick-haired tenorman Clint Maedgen, and the original material from their upcoming release That’s It – co-produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James – is a warning to Rebirth and Dirty Dozen that Preservation Hall is not going quietly into that long good night. On top of their on-stage performance, Hall members did an impromptu number at the edge of the amphitheater to preface the late Dave Brubeck’s induction into the SPAC Walk of Fame.
There’s only one word I can think of that completely describes Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Sublime. They’ve come a long way from when Paul Simon used the South African a capella group to kick up his 1985 album Graceland, and their stage act has more goofing around then a Senior class play. That said, the harmonies Ladysmith weaves are so gorgeous and the chants they sing are so hypnotizing, the only thing to do is lean back in your chair, close your eyes, and let the beauty wash over you.
On the other side of the emotional scale, Freihofer’s closed the Gazebo with some hot & nasty blues from the Chris Bergson Band. A guitarist who’s worked with the late Levon Helm and Helm’s primary keyboardist Brian Mitchell, Bergson got big-time support from guest-bassist Clohesy as he followed proudly in the footsteps of other blues-soaked Gazebo acts like Jerry Portnoy and Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters.
There shouldn’t have been any surprises from Tony Bennett, who’s known more for his paintings and his duet partners these days. Bennett’s literally the last of the “old saloon singers”, but he’s tended towards keeping his interpretations short and clipped. Not this time, he didn’t: When he pulled out Kander & Ebb’s “Maybe This Time,” he did it in full voice, and hit the high sustained finale of the piece right over the fence. It was weird hearing him working that particular piece, even though it’s classic Great American Songbook, which is Bennett’s bread & butter. Unlike the song’s protagonist, the 86-year old crooner has won & won, and won again – not just by outlasting contemporaries like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, but also by maintaining a steady output of well-crafted music. Maybe he was inspired by Preservation Hall’s performance, and wanted us all to know that he’s not going away any time soon, either.
J Hunter’s Day One review at Nippertown
T-Shirt Slogans at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Fest at Nippertown
Jeff Nania’s two-day review at Metroland
Greg Haymes’ Day One review at The Times Union
Greg Haymes’ Day Two review at The Times Union