LIVE: Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival @ SPAC, 6/24/17 (Day One)
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk, J Hunter
Well, it turns out you CAN teach an old dog new tricks – at least, you can if the Charles R. Wood Foundation ponies up some grant money. As a result, Saratoga Performing Arts Center presented the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival with a brand new Gazebo Stage: Instead of the band-concert-in-the-park platform we’d all come to know and love, there was now an ACTUAL STAGE, with lights and wings and enough room so that a big unit like Shabaka & the Ancestors wouldn’t feel like they were playing in an abandoned phone booth.
There’s always a downside, though, and in this case, Gazebo 2.0 offers the audience exactly zero cover from the elements – which, on a sunny day like Saturday, made you feel like an ant under a 10-year old’s magnifying glass.
Despite this, I started out the afternoon at the Gazebo for three reasons: I was packing a full can of SPF 50 sunblock; I knew I’d be able to see the amphitheater opener Dave Stryker at the Gazebo later in the day; and the Aruan Ortiz Trio had been chosen to christen SPAC’s new performance space.
If you’ve never heard Ortiz play, imagine if Thelonious Monk had been born in Cuba, and you have a pretty good approximation. The wunderkind pianist breaks more boundaries before 10am than you and I do in most years; combine that with the rhythmic sensibility you get from “standard” Afro-Cuban pianists like Michel Camilo, and you had audience members bobbing and grooving to music that would leave most listeners cross-eyed.
With righteous support from drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Brad Jones, Ortiz showed how the trio had spectacularly morphed the already-brain-bending sounds on his 2016 Intakt release Hidden Voices. “The music has been growing as we have been playing,” Ortiz told us, which is an understatement on the same level as “Donald Trump is not your standard politician.” If Ortiz was the only act I’d seen all day, I would have gone home satisfied.
I’ve come to expect disaster – or, at least, disappointment – when someone purposely decides to throw back to the fusion of the 1970s: More often than not, you realize the sounds being showcased were of a specific moment, and re-living that moment only confirms that some fashions do not wear well. Happily, “Jean-Luc Ponty: The Atlantic Years” not only gave the music its due, but far-flung tracks like “Once Upon a Dream” and “The Struggle of the Turtle to the Sea” were alive and fresh, not faded memories from another century.
You could hear how Ponty albums like Interstellar Voyage and Enigmatic Ocean were gateways that prog-rock fans used to find their jazz, with drama-drenched sounds and complex approaches you could easily hear from Yes, ELP, Genesis and King Crimson. Ponty’s old Atlantic bandmates – keyboardist Wally Minko, guitarist Jamie Glaser, bassist Baron Browne and drummer Rayford Griffin – drove Ponty to a dizzying new level, and the harmonies he created with Minko and Glaser were appropriately otherworldly.
Not even the presence of Cecile McLorin Salvant on the Main Stage was going to make me miss Stryker’s Gazebo set, even if I was going to fry like an egg. Along with his regular “rhythm section” of keyboardist Jared Gold and drummer McLenty Hunter, the guitarist brought along sax monster Eric Alexander, who made the opening “Can’t Buy Me Love” just that much nastier.
Although Stryker names Pat Martino as one of his biggest influences (as he did while introducing Alexander’s “chop buster” Martino tribute “Stand Pat”), Martino never had the boatload of attitude Stryker brings to the table, as we saw on the jammed-out medley “Pusherman/Superfly” and the closer “Fever.” Give me Jared Gold on a Hammond B3, and I’m a happy guy, and I sure was happy during the sweet, slow groover “Don’t Mess With Mister T.” Hunter was every bit as bodacious live as he is on Stryker’s discs, particularly on his solo during “Pusherman/Superfly.” The seats and benches were filled with people who’d seen Stryker’s amphitheater set and wanted another taste, and the standing ovation they gave him and his mates was loud and long.
You’d think putting hardened killers like Danilo Perez, Joe Lovano, Jason Palmer, Josh Roseman, Roman Diaz, Adam Cruz and Ben Street together on the same stage would be a no-brainer. It’s bound to be good, right? Unfortunately, the one-off jazz-festival group is one of those “cherished traditions” that falls flat on its face more often than not, and “Jazz 100” was no exception to the rule.
It wasn’t that there weren’t great performances within the show: Lovano blew up like a gale on tune after tune, and his mid-set duet with Perez was a great adventure in action and reaction. At the end of the day, though, it was like watching the NBA All-Star Game: Lots of offense, precious little defense and no cohesion whatsoever.
The most disconnected player was Diaz, who did the same call-and-response thing he does at Zinc Bar, and I prefer an East Village club to a vast amphitheater any day. And while Perez did his darnedest to get the audience and the band psyched about the proceedings, you do not celebrate 100 years of jazz by putting the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Mongo Santamaria and Thelonious Monk through the same Afro-Cuban filter. It doesn’t work, and it sure didn’t here.
The Suffers were scheduled to follow “Jazz 100”, and festival producer/emcee Danny Melnick advised us that if we didn’t know the Gulf Coast outfit, “You don’t know nuthin’!” What I knew was I was in no mood to spend my time at a jazz festival listening to an R&B/funk band – but we’ll talk about Chaka Khan in a couple of paragraphs.
Let’s talk about Shabaka & the Ancestors, who hit the Gazebo just as the sun finally went over the treeline. Their 2016 Brownswood Recordings disc Wisdom of the Elders came together when London-based tenorman Shabaka Hutchings brought a group of South African musicians into the studio for only one day. The result is a jaw-dropping mix of Capetown rhythms, Caribbean calypso, and a spiritual and political vibe that makes Gil-Scott Heron seem like a moderate.
It was jazz as resistance, as it was in South Africa during the days of apartheid, and the raps of vocalist Siyabanga Mthembu spoke on everything from #BlackLivesMatter to world hunger and the need “to feminize our politics.” As dark as some of the subject matter was, all the music was a celebration of life and creativity, with a ragged edge that cut through the bullshit with a palpable joy that had the whole audience not just applauding, but ready to march!
A friend who’d seen Jacob Collier the previous night at the Rochester International Jazz Festival told me, “Prepare to be hit by a truck!” And I was – but not in a good way.
Collier was singing what sounded like Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” as done by Manhattan Transfer when I came down to the amphitheater. Instead of a full-blown vocal group, I found one 23-year old bloke from North London with a headphone mic and a pile of instruments – drums, piano, acoustic guitar, two basses (one Fender, one stick), and multiple keyboards… and when he wasn’t running round the stage like Justin Bieber on meth, Collier was running between all the instruments, bound and determined to knit them altogether with however many effects boxes he had at his disposal, all while computer-morphed images of him bleeped and blobbed on the Main Stage’s video screen. It brought me back to my first SPAC concert in 1984, when Howard Jones opened for Eurythmics with nothing but two banks of keyboards and a mime!
Maybe someone decided Collier plays jazz because he closes his show with George Gershwin’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” I’ve grown used to blues, soul and even rock acts being added to jazz festival bills to pump up the attendance, but Jacob Collier was much more than that: He was an insult to my intelligence, and that’s flat-out unforgivable.
I was actually kind of glad to see Chaka Khan hit the stage to close the night. Aside from the fact that she seems to have overcome her recent health problems, the only thing computer-generated about her set would be the pre-recorded horns on the keyboardist’s laptop. To put it mildly, there was nothing even remotely slick about Khan’s back-up band – a snarling rock-funk outfit led by guitarist Ricky Ross, who had every hard lick and every tortured “guitarist playing a killer solo” move down pat.
And when Khan counted in Rufus’ mega-hit “Tell Me Somethin’ Good” for her second song, you knew she was going to take no prisoners. “Why do I want to sing songs from the ‘70s?” she asked the audience. Then she smiled and said, “Because I can!” While it was great to hear “I’m A Woman” and “What You Need,” it became tiresome to hear Khan herself as the night went on. Her voice has very little low end now, so she got lost in the mix when she tried to get subtle; and when she went for the top part of her range, she went pedal-to-the-metal in both volume and shrillness. What was worse, when she sang with her three towering female back-up singers, it wasn’t harmony – it was a physical assault.
Again, I’m glad to see she’s in good health, and her set did have a few good moments, but this was a box-check show: “I’ve seen Chaka Khan, and now I don’t have to do it again.” Cold blooded, but there it is.