Nippertown’s Guide to Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival @ SPAC

A JAZZ2K report by J Hunter

Well, it’s that time again: Two days of coolers, sunblock and (if you’re lucky) massages… and that’s before you’ve seen a single note! Yes, I said “seen”; that wasn’t a mistake. More than a few people will go to Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at SPAC this weekend (beginning at 12noon on Saturday & Sunday, June 28 & 29) just to sit in their tent, eat some of whatever amazing delicacies they’ve hauled in, and listen to the music from afar – or wait until some of the “big stars” like Earth, Wind & Fire or Patti Austin come onto the Main Stage in the amphitheater. In the latter scenario, it’s on like Major Kong, so be careful not to get trampled in the stage rush.

Now, I kid (well, I snark, anyway…), but in all seriousness, there are some major jazz acts on the bill this weekend: Terence Blanchard remains one of the most forward-thinking players and composers on the menu; the Steve Smith/Bill Evans/Mike Stern get-together looks to be seriously explosive; and the lineup of the Newport at 60 group actually has the potential to go far beyond just your basic all-star pick-up band. My knock on “crossover acts” aside, this could be yet another unbelievably sublime Freihofer’s weekend… but how are you gonna know if you don’t leave your tent?

In that light, here are seven reasons to stir yourself from the feast over the course of the weekend – and don’t worry, there’ll be plenty left when you get back:

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SATURDAY (JUNE 28)

DR. LONNIE SMITH OCTET (7:15pm, Main Stage)
That’s a 72-year old man kicking ass on a Hammond B3, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Smith’s two-disc set In the Beginning, Vol. 1 & 2 (released on his own label Pilgrimage) is one of the most electrifying releases so far this year. It not only puts some of the good Doctor’s most famous recordings in the best light possible, but also gives new meaning to the phrase “Go big, or go home!” This is gonna be a party, and you’d best not be late!

JON BATISTE & STAY HUMAN (2:45pm, Main Stage)
I kind of wish this Skidmore Jazz Institute alum was playing the Gazebo Stage, because the amphitheater has a tendency to eat small bands alive. Even so, any chance to see this phenomenal player/singer from The City That Care Forgot is one you need to take. Backed by drummer/fellow SJI alum Joe Saylor, saxman Eddie Barash and tuba player Ibanda Ruhumbika, this could follow in Bela Fleck & the Flecktones’ footsteps as the Main Stage act that sneaks up on everyone!

MARC CARY FOCUS TRIO (12:15pm, Gazebo Stage)
This former Abbey Lincoln sideman released two killer discs on Motema last year: For the Love of Abbey, a beautiful solo-piano tribute to her former leader; and Four Directions, which showcased the tremendous connection he shares with bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer/percussionist Sameer Gupta. (The latter disc was one of my favorites of 2013.) Piano trios usually bore me to death, but Cary and his partners take the concept to the next level, and then three more after that.

JAIMEO BROWN w/ J.D. ALLEN & CHRIS SHOLAR (6:05pm, Gazebo Stage)
It takes a lot to weird me out, but this NYC-based percussionist’s 2013 release Transcendence definitely did the trick. Inspired by the Gee’s Band’s haunting treatments of African-American spirituals, Brown paired up with off-the-chain sax wizard J.D. Allen to create head-spinning free jazz in the Art Ensemble of Chicago mode. Mainstream? Not a chance! Breathtaking? Oh, HELL yeah! If the Gazebo still has a roof after this set, I’ll be stunned… though I’ll probably be stunned, anyway!

SUNDAY (JUNE 29)

DAVE HOLLAND & PRISM w/ KEVIN EUBANKS, CRAIG TABORN and ERIC HARLAND (3:20pm, Main Stage)
I’m always wary of all-star releases, if only because they invariably become a never-ending game of “Can You Top This?” In this case, though, Holland’s 2013 Dare2 release Prism not only brings fusion completely into the 21st century, but it does it with an undeniable group sensibility and a purposefulness that cannot be argued with. These are four of this genre’s most exciting talents, coming together to form monster machine. Cool!

WARREN WOLF & WOLFPACK (1:30pm, Gazebo Stage)
If you were at Jazz at the Lake 2012, you saw this Baltimore-born, Berklee-educated malleteer bust up the Saturday afternoon bill with a great mix of originals and covers. Wolf’s got four releases to his name, including two on the Japanese M&I label. But it was on last year’s disc Wolfgang that he really made his mark. This young man has only started to touch his potential, and we get to see him up close and personal for the second time in a three-year span.

SEAN JONES QUARTET w/ ORRIN EVANS, LUQUES CURTIS & OBED CAVALIERE (4:10pm, Gazebo Stage)
This former lead trumpet for Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra deserves a LOT more love! He’s released a series of consistently excellent discs on Mack Avenue, including the upcoming release im.pro.vise. Jones’ back-up group (who appear on the new disc) are another reason to see this set: Evans is a phenomenal player and composer in his own right, Curtis is one half of the NOLA powerhouse Curtis Brothers, and Cavaliere is the new drummer for SFJAZZ Collective. A Main Stage act at Gazebo Stage “prices!”

But that’s just my itinerary. Feel free to make up your own. Enjoy, remember to stay hydrated, and (above all) don’t eat too much!

GO HERE for more info and the complete line-up of performers…

Tune in for “JAZZ2K” on WSPN-FM from 6-8pm tonight (June 24) to hear J Hunter play music from artists on this year’s bill, as well as music from past performers at Freihofers Jazz Festival.

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