LIVE: Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival @ SPAC, 6/28/15 (Day Two)
Review by Steve Nover
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Sunday’s edition of Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center had a tough task to pull off – a.) to not be anti-climactic after a fantastic first day of music and b.) to not let the weather interfere with the enjoyment. Well, the music more than held its own, but the weather did have an effect – keeping away a few thousand, but rewarding those who didn’t let the rain affect them with a double-dose of sublime music.
The festivities began on the main stage as Etienne Charles shared his New Orleans gumbo with a small but growing crowd. A recent Guggenheim fellowship winner, the Trinidad-born trumpeter often put down his horn to play congas as well, abetted by saxophone, piano and a guitar trio. The mellow set openers built up steam as he covered Bo Diddley’s “You Don’t Love Me” and his original “Creole Soul,” while his “Autumn Leaves” vied for the prettiest song of the day.
By the time I made my way to the gazebo, I had already covered my Hawaiian shirt with two more layers, but despite the rain I enjoyed the Yosvany Terry Quartet that actually was a quintet with the addition of percussionist Pedrito Martinez for their entire set, following his own main stage set on Saturday… and he wasn’t finished yet. Cuban-born alto saxophonist Terry warmed things up, even if all my extra layers stayed on.
The Django Festival All-Stars kept me glued to my seat for their entire set. Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) teamed with violinist Stephane Grappelli (1908-1997) back in 1934, and their influence is still readily apparent. The All-Stars added a second guitar to that mix, as well as a stand-up bass and a fantastic accordionist to recreate that classic sound – hauntingly beautiful melodies, as well as expert musicianship with the tempos often reaching breakneck speed, as on “Sheik of Araby.”
I only got to see the end of Kellylee Evans performance on the gazebo, but she roused the crowd to their feet (or maybe it was the wet benches) as she left the stage to dance and also cut loose with a jazzy rap of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” – and it worked.
Heads of State took over in the ampitheater, and if that name doesn’t mean much, the names of the musicians certainly should – saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist Larry Willis, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster. All aged 72-75, there was plenty of history behind them, but jazz is a living thing, and solo after solo their ages meant nothing, as they played with joy and abandon, highlighted by Bartz’s Thelonious Monk-inspired “Uncler Bubba” and McCoy Tyner’s “Search for Peace,” the title track of their CD slated for release on Friday. Kudos to all, but Williams was really killing it on the upright.
Unwilling to walk away before the finish of Heads of State, I only got to see a bit of the Benny Green Trio set on the intimate small stage, which was a shame as the pianist was on fire, and the crowd reciprocated.
Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters put some serious blues on the main stage as Earl was invited back to the fest for the second consecutive year after a sterling instrumental performance in 2014. And he didn’t disappoint, leading his organ trio bolstered by a female vocalist on a couple of numbers, including a strong take on “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Earl is a master on the guitar, and I came close to crying… but with a smile.
Snarky Puppy, an eight-piece jazz fusion ensemble, took over at the big stage with a lively, dynamic set that earned them quite many new fans, myself included. Midway in their set, the Brooklyn-based band was joined by Pedrito Martinez for his third appearance at the fest, earning him this year’s Iron Man Award.
Switching stages, I found Sonny Knight & the Lakers pulling out all the stops in their soul revue of old. Keep that name in mind. At age 65, he’s a human dynamo, and the band wrapped up the music at the gazebo for another season drenched in well-earned sweat.
Erykah Badu took over the main stage with plenty of cool, but as the set progressed she revealed a warmer side, as well as a sense of humor. The 44-year-old Afro-cenric singer released her first album back in 1997, and her rediscovery of her African roots is so much more than a mere fashion statement. “On & On” from her debut Baduizm was a highlight of her too-short set.
Sheila E. closed out the festival, delivering a well-balanced set that kept most in attendance from leaving early. The daughter of former Santana percussionist Pete Escovedo (and the niece of Alejandro Escovedo, who plays Club Helsinki in Hudson on Friday night), she talked a bit about her early dreams of becoming a musician, promoted her recent autobiography (“The Beat of My Own Drum”) and touched on her association with Prince, performing “Erotic City” (one of my faves and the b-side to “Let’s Go Crazy”). Primarily playing timbales, she also played bass, as well as strapping on the guitar for a walk through the crowd, making good use of the overhead screens on either side of the stage, as well as those in the back for the lawn crowd. The set was similar to her Alive at Five appearance in Albany last summer (although she didn’t get behind the drum kit this time around), but it was an energetic finish to a memorable day of music.
Jeff Nania’s review at Metroland