LIVE: Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival @ SPAC, 6/27/15 (Day One)
Review by Steve Nover
Trumpeter Theo Croker kicked things off on the main stage with a laid-back groove that was perfect for me, not awake two hours when the first notes were played. Not yet 30 years old, the grandson of Doc Cheatham surrounded himself with strong players – especially saxophonist Anthony Ware and his keyboardist Michael King, who often played organ and electric piano at the same time – where most of his sweet solos came from.
The gazebo stage started with the Omer Avital Quintet, led by the Israeli acoustic bassist whose secret weapons were his two sax players, Greg Tardy and Joel Frahm, who were a joy whether soloing or in dialogue.
The main stage was next graced by Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander, who I’ve long been a fan of but had never seen perform. The 70 year old had movements and energy that belied his age, and his band, the Harlem Kingston Express (two drum kits, two bassists [acoustic and electric] and guitar), was able to bridge jazz and reggae. Alexander once left the grand piano to play a dub solo on melodica, bringing to mind the late master Augusto Pablo. The bass players often took turns, and when it was more “reggae jazz,” as on Bob Marley’s “Heathen,” the electric bass was prominent. A highlight of the day for sure.
Steve Wilson & Wilsonian’s Grain had the saxophonist paired with a guitar trio, and though the music was upbeat and cerebral, I only caught the end of the set, not wanting to miss a second of Alexander’s.
Pedrito Martinez and his three conga drums were front and center on the main stage, surrounded by electric piano, bass and a second percussionist, mainly playing cowbell and bongos. The Latin jazz was mostly instrumental, but we did get to hear him sing in Spanish on one number. The four musicians had a full sound. Look for Martinez to be even a bigger star very soon.
Duchess were on the small stage – three women with a piano trio backing them. Playing vintage Andrew Sisters-like jazz, they called their music “girl-on-girl harmony” and cited the Boswell Sisters as a huge influence. One highlight from the recently formed combo was Gershwin’s “Blah Blah Blah.”
The Christian McBride Big Band was next with 13 horn players, a pianist, drummer and vocalist Antoinette Henry, who sang well on “In Solitude” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” I’ve often found it harder to hear an acoustic bass than an electric, but his bass was booming, powerful and full of emotion, showing why many consider him one of top bassists of his or any generation. Tenor saxophonist Ron Blake was featured, as was Steve Wilson (doing double duty) on the alto. And his emcee was none other than Danny Ray, James Brown’s long-time announcer.
Theo Croker reprised next at the intimate gazebo.
Al Di Meola took over the main stage with a pianist who doubled on vibes and a percussionist who added to the rhythm section for performances of much of his ’77 album Elegant Gypsy. Di Meola was just 20 years old when Chick Corea discovered him at Berklee College of Music and added him to Return to Forever. Now just shy of 60, his speed on the guitar hasn’t slowed down much, and his set whizzed by and was over too soon.
The Mike LeDonne Groover Quartet closed the gazebo stage with his tasty Hammond B3 organ and added fire from Eric Alexander on tenor.
The incomparable Cassandra Wilson filled the main stage with the grace and solemnity of her stage presence. Wilson’s wonderful arrangements and unique phrasing make her my favorite living jazz vocalist. (I still consider Joni Mitchell a pop vocalist…not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Her new CD Coming Forth By Day features the songs of Billie Holiday, and Wilson opened with “The Way You Look Tonight.” Other highlights included “Crazy He Calls Me,” “You Go to My Head,” “All of Me” and “Good Morning Heartache.” Like Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Wilson is someone hard to take your eyes off even when she’s not singing, and she delivered the goods and more during her time on stage.
Maze featuring Frankie Beverly closed the first day of the fest with a crowd-pleasing set of R&B/funk highlighted by “Running Away” from ’81. The 69-year-old Beverly is still in fine form all these years later, and his keyboard-heavy band got the crowd on their feet more than once, adding to the joyous memories for the car ride home.
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Christian McBride, while fourth from last on the big stage, played the most exciting set with his 19-piece big band, the kind no one can afford to take on the road anymore. They opened with the horn section blasting, McBride’s fingers blazing over the strings of his stand-up bass to an original ‘Shake and Blake,’ written for his band member Ron Blake. For some, there is nothing more exciting than a hot big band in full swing. They hit the high mark a few times through the set. And when the group wasn’t pushing the big moments, it was grooving with several layers of horns over rhythm, McBride at the very bottom of it all pumping away. The show was interrupted to present the Bassist of the Year Award to McBride from the National Jazz Journalists Association. The momentum broke here a bit, but they recovered with ‘Brother Mister,’ a hip tune from their 2012 Grammy winning record ‘The Good Feeling.’ He played ‘The Shade of the Cedar Tree,’ a song he wrote for Cedar Walton, followed by a sassy version of ‘Solitude,’ and then the swinging ‘Come Rain or Shine.’ Sharp, crisp and strong, McBride’s big band was a highlight of Saturday’s festival.”