LIVE: Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival @ SPAC, 6/26/16 (Day Two)
Review by Steve Nover
Photographs by Rudy Lu, Andrzej Pilarczyk
The second day of Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center began in a way I had never witnessed; the first performance was at the Gazebo stage 20 minutes prior to the main stage at 12:30pm. Backed by an able rhythm section, 30-year-old Aaron Diehl was a gifted pianist and a 2007 graduate of the Juilliard School. I enjoyed a few of his songs before I made my way to the amphitheater.
Bria Skonberg commanded the main stage despite the lack of a large audience. A native of British Columbia now based in NYC, she delivered perhaps the most diverse set of the two-day fest, showcasing many of the sides of jazz. Opening with Dixieland numbers by Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet (“Egyptian Fantasy”), she and her clarinetist Evan Amtzen had the New Orleans fever, and it was contagious.
And in a business where looks can be advantageous, it didn’t hurt that she’s gorgeous. Beauty also doesn’t mean much if you don’t have the chops, but she certainly did – as well as good voice that can put across a song like Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” But it was her trumpet that talked the loudest, whether doing a rhumba, or a mash-up of ’30s Duke Ellington with ’70s Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.”
On paper Day Two of the 39th annual jazz fest looked to be stronger than Day One, and it was, with every performer on the main stage a highlight of the day. Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen were crossing genres, but mostly churning out roots Americana bordering on R&B. You’d probably never guess that the pianist was British, having relocated to New Orleans two decades ago. He performed “What Do You Want the Girl to Do” as a tribute to the passing of Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina,” as well as other soulful gems from his 2015 CD GoGo Juice, which won the Grammy a few months back for best Regional Roots Album. And as their set progressed, the funk grew to irresistible levels, and the interplay with his guitar trio was subtle and psychic.
Lizz Wright also brought home the goods, connecting strongly with the audience that was steadily growing in the amphitheater. The daughter of a minister who was the musical director of his Church in Georgia, Wright was 23 years old when her debut CD Salt was released on Verve Records. At SPAC, we were treated to Neil Young’s “Old Man” from her sophomore recording two years later, which she transformed with her tasty arrangement. Wearing a bright orange dress, she has a commanding stage presence and occasionally added tambourine to the gutar trio with piano/Hammond B3 organ backing her. Lizz’s high point came with a killer cover of Ewan MacColl’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” from her 2015 album, Freedom & Surrender.
Guitarist Pat Martino’s Organ Trio Plus Horns (tenor sax and trumpet) followed Wright, and at age 72 he’s still in top form. He’s certainly comfortable playing organists, having collaborated with the likes of Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith and Richard “Groove: Holmes and many others during his 50-year career. “Black Glass” from 1994’s Interchange was a highlight of the band’s set and the prettiest instrumental of the long day, with all taking smoking solos except the drummer.
Within a minute of Martino’s last notes, a crowd gathered at the back of the amphitheater to watch the unveiling of a star for Chick Corea on SPAC’s Walk of Fame, compete with red carpet and champagne (for the VIPs). After an introduction, he said a few words, and then just 30 minutes later, he was on stage doing what he does best. Drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christian McBride were backing him, if you would call two of the most gifted musicians alive “back-up.”
Corea was one of the many Miles Davis alumni on Bitches Brew who formed the fusion band Return to Forever, but he has made a career of constant change and released so many types of music, mostly jazz, that it’s quite inspiring. McBride started early with the best bass solo of the day on the opening number. The set was all over the map from Miles’ “So What” to Bud Powell, from RTF’s “500 Miles High” to “Alice in Wonderland,” recorded by this trio on 2014’s Trilogy. The last song of the set was “Spain” with Corea and the audience engaged in a spirited call-and-response, a wonderful ending to a great set.
Smokey Robinson was the deserving headliner of the day, and the 76-year-old sounded great with an ageless voice. The hits he’s recorded or written for others are timeless, and we got to hear a healthy sampling. “I Second That Emotion,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Ooh Baby Baby,” “Get Ready,” “My Girl,” Tears of a Clown,” “Tracks of My Tears and “The Way You Do the Things You Do” were heavenly trips back in time that more than hold up all these years later. He told mostly interesting stories of those days but perhaps 20 minutes of talk throughout his set was a bit much.
My main problem with Robinson’s set was its ending – taking his 1979 hit “Cruisin'” (25 weeks on the chart) and stretching it out for almost 15 minutes complete with two women brought on stage to help with the competitive singing by the two sides of the audience. Closing the night this way was anti-climactic and a far cry from the peaks he hit earlier.
The quality of the main stage – I saw complete sets of all six performers/bands – meant I spent little time at the Gazebo stage. I enjoyed Alicia Olatuja, who performed an interesting cover of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” Lafayette Suite featuring Walter Smith III on sax and Frenchman Laurent Coq on piano followed, and then Skonberg returned for a performance on the small intimate stage where people can sit just yards away. The final performance was Jarrod Lawson, a singer songwriter whose set I missed while watching the unveiling of Corea’s star.
More of Rudy Lu’s photographs of the fest