LIVE: Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival @ SPAC, 6/23/18 (Day One)
Review by Steve Nover
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
One of my favorite weekends of the year has come and gone, but the 41st Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival left some amazing musical memories. Saturday my friend David drove, and we got there early to see Alfredo Rodriguez & Pedrito Martinez kick off the new Wood Stage (formerly the Gazebo) with a blazing baby grand piano and percussion mash-up that raised the bar for all the acts to come. Rodriguez is 42 and Cuban, while Martinez is a 45-year-old Cuban-born American citizen, and they continuously displayed an almost mystical bond that made this unlikely pairing a joy. Rodriguez added a bit on the the electric piano, but whatever he played showed his mastery, while Martinez’s arsenal included four congas, high hat, cymbals and snare drum (which he never used sticks for), and he also sang in Spanish.
There were a number of changes at this year’s fest. At the Wood Stage, Saratoga Performing Arts Center added an overhead cover able to cover some 200 people with chairs and benches supplied, in this case more rain on Saturday than sun, unfortunately. And it’s great that this festival lets you go back to your car often (and bring in coolers as well). Another change was the amphitheater schedule was pushed back to 3pm, but I can’t deny that many a time I’ve seen wonderful early performances inside to embarrassing empty crowds. Organizers also did away with the concept of one band performing twice (on both the main and gazebo stages), and they pushed the first Gazebo performance earlier to 11am, so that three full performances took place at the Gazebo before the main stage transitioned from a DJ (four hours worth) to a headliner.
New Orleans @ 300 was up next. Headed by clarinetist Evan Christopher, they were a tourist ad for birthplace of jazz. The band featured two singers and young stand-out Jeffery Miller, trombonist and recent Juilliard graduate. Among their bag of Crescent City hits, “Sunny Side of the Street” was a highlight, as was “Ruler of My Heart,” the Allen Toussaint nugget popularized by Irma Thomas. (Christopher will be making a return to Greater Nippertown for a show at the Cock ‘n Bull in Galway on Thursday, August 16.) They were followed by the Christian Sands Trio, a piano trio with drummer Jonathan Barber and bassist Noah Jackson that took no prisoners. They especially hit me hard since I had never heard of them, and Sands’ speed and agility were riveting from the first notes til the end, with a repertoire that included Cedar Walton and Thelonious Monk.
Though the rain never dampened my spirits, I did have a sweat shirt on most of the day, and as the rain stopped, it was time to go to the amphitheater for Anat Cohen’s Tentet. The 38-year-old Israeli clarinetist has two musical brothers (bassist Avishai and saxophonist Yuval), and though they weren’t there, she did bring a wonderful mix of instruments – a pianist/accordionist, cello, vibes/percussionist, trumpet, sax, trombone, guitar, bass and drums. Cohen was nothing short of a inspiring conductor of this small orchestra, performing most of the selections from their 2017 CD, Happy Song. (Look for Cohen to return with her quartet for a concert at A Place For Jazz in Schenectady on Friday, November 2.)
I rushed back to the Wood stage to catch the end of Jazzmeia Horn’s set and was rewarded with her charismatic singing that made me sorry I couldn’t be in two paces at once. (She will also be at A Place For Jazz on Friday, October 19.)
Playing two days before his 15th birthday, Joey Alexander was just as remarkable as he was two years ago when he made his astonishing SPAC Jazz Fest debut. The Indonesian born pianist has been featured on a “60 Minutes” segment and been taken under the wing of Wynton Marsalis. Despite his age and short stature, he is a monster on the piano, whether rearranging the song book classics or blazing through his own compositions. He has released four CDs already and earned three Grammy nominations. Watching him perform with the much older rhythm section was scary good, as if Mozart played Jazz.
I missed Keyon Harrold’s performance in order to watch Alexander’s full set, but the trumpeter released his first solo CD nine years ago and has performed with Common, Beyonce, Maxwell, Gregory Porter and Joss Stone, to name a few. I was especially sorry to have missed him after I discovered that Christian Sands was his pianist.
Dinner at the New Orleans tent left me satisfied but hungry for more music, and Jose James was appetizing indeed. His tribute to Bill Withers, Lean on Me, was sanctioned by Withers, who at 80 has stopped performing. 40-year-old singer combines a number of musical styles, including jazz, soul hip/hop and spoken word. And it works. I’d rather see Withers perform but…
I caught only the tail end of the Wood stage’s closer, Lakecia Benjamin & SoulSquad, but it was great seeing a female saxophonist, even it was just her last song.
Herbie Hancock certainly needs no introduction, the only question being what the band would be playing from his eclectic 50-year career. The answer was loud fusion, which to my non-purist ears was fine as his 7:45pm set gave many of us a second wind, or third. Performing some of the ’70s funk definitely got many in the audience on their feet and boogying to gems like “Watermelon Man” and the keytar-fueled “Chameleon.” At 78, Hancock is a veritable fountain of youth and still a major influence on the musical world, with so many styles, both electric and acoustic.
Day One of the fest ended with trumpeter Chris Botti and his band. My feelings were mixed as his trumpet has a gorgeous sound, but giving much attention to classical violinist Sandy Cameron, didn’t get the warmth that I should have felt. It was a bit like elevator music (might well have been me), just a feeling that something was missing. He did do a great show-stopper, coming out into the crowd with a vocalist on the opposite side of the amphitheater. Botti played for fans and was open about getting close to the audience. And even if it was an act, he certainly seemed genuine.
All in all, a great way to hear bands you came to see and discover a few totally off your radar.