Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Additional photographs by Richard Brody and J Hunter
You had to feel for Lew Tabackin. Second on the bill at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival’s Gazebo stage, the veteran multi-instrumentalist arrived just in time to watch the Marc Cary Focus Trio laying waste to the place with “Taiwa,” drummer Sameer Gupta’s extraordinary East/West mash-up that recalls fusion giants Return To Forever – only with a wicked groove RTF never, ever achieved. Tabackin was expressionless as he watched, but his thoughts had to run along the lines of “I’ve gotta follow this? Really?” (Tabackin later met the fate of artists who substitute effort for ideas.)
“The music is radiating us,” Cary enthused after the piece. “It’s inspired us!” And it had to: Cary and his partners got to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center via an overnight train ride from Washington DC, only arriving in Greater Nippertown that morning. But Cary was celebrating 20 years as a leader, and his band was down with the program and each other. The first 10 minutes of the Focus Trio’s mind-blowing set was completely off the cuff, as Cary built beautifully byzantine structures with Gupta and bassist Rashaan Carter. They switched from bottomless rubato to the Jackie McLean’s hard-bopping “Appointment in Ghana” without taking a breath, and “CD Changer” tossed pieces from 10 of Cary’s early compositions and sent them right at our heads. Cary had the crowd so riveted, they applauded him whenever he switched from acoustic piano to Fender Rhodes – kind of like if the gallery at a golf tournament applauded Tiger Woods whenever he switched from a 5-iron to a sand wedge.
With this kind of power, you’d think Cary would have opened the Main Stage, but that honor went to up-and-coming R&B act Robin McKelle & the Flytones. That actually made sense: Cary’s music was way too esoteric for the amp at that hour of the day, while McKelle’s massive Stax/Volt sound was the perfect attention-getter. McKelle got to work the Gazebo later in the day, which she preferred “because I can see you, and you can see me!” A native of Rochester, McKelle may not have the miles of Sharon Jones, but she damn sure has the sound, as well as her own sense of style and charisma. Like Jones, McKelle’s own music is straight outta Memphis (Heart of Memphis is the title of her new Sony release), and her bouncing take on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” has the muscle to break the pint-sized singer nationwide.
McKelle’s Main Stage set established a juicy Americana vibe that swirled around the amphitheater for most of the afternoon. Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters’ snarling Texas blues had the burgeoning amphitheater crowd whooping and hollering as Earl lashed us with tight, bright guitar that woke up the ghost of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Jon Batiste & Stay Human followed Earl, and the Skidmore Jazz Institute alum’s outstanding quintet mixed old school NOLA with a 21st-century vibe that made you want to shake it up a little bit more. Mind you, Batiste’s own piano excursions may have flummoxed a few people, but in their defense, it is rare when someone references Frederic Chopin and Jerry Lee Lewis in the same solo. Mike Stern sure liked it: Miles Davis’ second-best guitarist sat on the Stage Right amps and watched Batiste’s last couple of numbers, giving the group a thumbs-up before he went off to get ready for the blinding performance he’d deliver later with old friends Bill Evans, Steve Smith and Tom Kennedy.
Meanwhile, back at the Gazebo, festival organizers kept mixing the traditional and the experimental, with phenomenal results. Guitarist Mary Halvorson cleaned up where Tabackin left off, making the crowd’s eyes cross with next-level, semi-atonal free jazz that would fit perfectly into the raucous end of ECM’s catalog. But for music that was completely off the dimensional plane, you had to love Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendance, which served up jaw-dropping space jams inspired by the haunting Gee’s Bend spirituals of Alabama. One of these things is definitely not like the other, but the percussionist and his partners – world-class sax wizard J.D. Allen and guitarist/producer Chris Sholar – knitted them into a musical out-of-body experience that left the sun and the heat completely behind.
Terence Blanchard only played five tunes, but it definitely wasn’t a case of “Get in, get out.” From the classic opener “Four” to his loping closing take on Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” Skidmore’s all-time favorite adjunct professor was throwing hard and deep, aiming his trumpet right at the roof as he blew chorus after chorus of other-worldly music up into the night. Backed by the same stellar quintet he brought to Zankel Center a couple of years ago, Blanchard did give a couple of nods toward last year’s Blue Note release Magnetic (the biggest, and best, being keyboardist Fabian Alamazan’s intriguing “Pet Step Sitter’s Theme Song”), but Blanchard is the 800-pound gorilla that does whatever he wants to and then walks off, looking cooler than you’ll ever be. And he did.
Maybe it was Tabackin/Cary Syndrome that hamstrung the Dr. Lonnie Smith Octet (who followed Blanchard), because although there were points that thrilled the very-supportive crowd, Smith never seemed to get off the ground. The septuagenarian B3 bomber certainly whipped out some solos that had us smiling as wide as he was, and Smith shocked & awed us all by walking the front of the stage as he happily played a wireless instrument (linked to his synthesizer) that looked like a cross between a fretless bass and a harpoon. But at the end of the day, Smith must have been more disappointed than we were: He cut off his set 10 minutes early, leaving both fans and organizers mildly nonplussed.
The set change for Earth, Wind & Fire took 45 minutes, an age by jazz festival standards, but in the end, it was “worth it.” We’re talking huge video boards (in addition to SPAC’s own screens), complicated light programs, three percussion stations, and at least ten performers led by original vocalist Philip Bailey. The sound was incredible, the band was tight, and the music… sounded exactly like it does when you hear it on your iPod. The crowd didn’t care, though: They ran down the paths to the amp like water from a burst dam, dancing and laughing until it was all over. Not a great ending for jazz fans, but for everyone else, it was a win-win.
Alexander M. Stern’s review at Metroland
R.J. DeLuke’s review at The Times Union
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “As with every year, people come for far more than the music. Countless tents were pitched and many rarely stray far from their tent. For some, their day is spent mixing drinks, reading, playing cards, cooking, sewing, sleeping and chatting while the jazz wailed in the distance. Some have been coming for decades, and know their tent neighbors equally long, seeing them once a year at the festival. The day of music — in sunlight — and the final act of Earth Wind and Fire — in the dark — felt like two separate events. The closing band played its monster hits from the 1970s, people packed the amphitheater and treated it like a rock concert, dancing and shouting in the seats and lawn. None of that happened during the day. While EWF has horns and strong percussion, it is not jazz. But it was great fun to close the day, hearing hits like ‘Shining Star,’ ‘Devotion,’ ‘After the Love Has Gone’ and ‘Serpentine Fire.'”