LIVE: Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival @ SPAC, 6/24/18 (Day Two)
Review by Steve Nover
Photographs by Rudy Lu, Stanley A. Johnson
Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival’s second day started off sunny unlike Saturday, and even when some rain appeared later that day, I never had to wear an extra layer to keep warm, basking in the hot music and the warmth of the world class musicians at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Friend Stan met me at the press gate and I asked him to get there for the second performance, rightly thinking the day before might be exhausting, so we missed Sammy Miller & The Congregation at the new Wood Stage. Not one minute was missed of guitarist Mark Whitfield, stand-up bassist Ben Allison and drummer Billy Drummond, and we grabbed front row seats in the sun, as most people were nestled in the supplied seats that were underneath a new large overhang protecting against rain or sun (or both) for some 200 people. The trio was masterful, whether each was taking the spotlight or when their harmonious interplay was putting smiles throughout the crowd with a few jaw-dropping moments among fellow musicians. As great as the rhythm section was, Whitfield and his bright red guitar had the lion’s share of wonderful solos from the opening “Without a Song” through the fake book classic “Willow Weep for Me.”
The Jazz Passengers were next outdoors, and when violin, vibes, sax, trombone, bass and drums team up, you can hear the 31 years of togetherness. Founded by saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Roy Fowlkes (both formerly with John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards), part of the band’s claim to fame comes from their collaborations with vocalists – Deborah Harry, Elvis Costello, Jeff Buckley, Jimmy Scott, Mavis Staples. More than any of the 20 bands I heard this weekend, JP were closer to free jazz/atonal music, but I’ve never heard it so tonal. Although it’s not really my thing, I really “got” what they were doing like never before. I should add that much of the time it was straight-ahead jazz, but whether it was tonal or atonal, it was beautiful music to me. Playing mostly from 2017’s Still Life With Trouble on the Thirsty Ear label (love it), and 2010’s Reunited (on Justin Time), they also connected big-time with the crowd. “We’re All Jews” from the former had a stand-out violin solo, but throughout their one-hour set the two founding horn players especially excelled.
The three opening sets at the Wood Stage were up against a DJ in the amphitheater, but at 3pm the big stage kicked off with live music from TEN – drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, stand-up bassist Esperanza Spalding and pianist-trumpeter Nicholas Payton. The trio has only been together a short time and have not released music yet, but Geri Allen’s “Unconditional Love” was a standout of their 70 minute set that flew by and ended too soon. At 33, Spalding continues to amaze and live up to her Best New Artist Grammy from five years ago, the first ever for jazz. At 52, Carrington has played with a veritable who’s who in jazz, and for some 20 years has worked with Herbie Hancock. She was nothing less than a powerhouse. Payton, stage left but in the middle at 44, was soulful whether on piano or trumpet and was a perfect fit. Just two months ago, Oregonian Spalding got an honorary Doctor of music from Berklee College of Music in Boston and late in the set sang (without words) the song title of the day, “Without Art, Why?”
When I returned to the Wood late in Deva Mahal’s set, I found the dance party of the weekend in progress, and the charismatic daughter of blues legend Taj Mahal singing with positivity and plain ole good vibes for all. Her debut CD, Run Deep, was just released four months ago, though she dropped an EP a year earlier, so keep an eye and ear out to see if the genes of her dad’s greatness were passed on for yourself.
The big stage welcomed another blues/R&B legend with Mavis Staples keeping the memory of the great Staple Singers alive on her own terms. Turning 79 on July 10, Staples is still an activist, and she had a few choice words about that guy in the White House. Backed by a guitar trio and a male vocalist that was enough to let the music shine but not get in the way of her sweet voice, Staples may have lost some of the range but not a bit of the passion. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” was a nice surprise, and though it wasn’t surprising, she also did a great cover of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” which the Staple Singers had released as a single. The Staples’ two biggest hits, “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” helped to make Staples one of the day’s highlights.
Jane Bunnett & Maqueque (an all-female Cuban band) were on hold when I arrived as the rain was coming down hard, but I’ll have another chance to catch them at Kingston’s Senate Garage on Friday, July 27, so I had dinner & finished in time for Gregory Porter back on the big stage, where he belonged. His powerful voice and serious demeanor lived up to the word of mouth from friend Bert, who caught him in concert at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall five months earlier. Porter was accompanied by B3 organist/pianist Chip Crawford, a rhythm section featuring bassist Jamal Nichols on stand-up as well as electric and the fine tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott. Most of his set was focused on his 2017 CD, Nat King Cole & Me, with “Mona Lisa” a highlight, as well as “Nature Boy” with only piano backing. He also performed a number of non-Cole selections, including The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
Scott Sharrad, best known for being Gregg Allman’s lead guitarist and musical director, is a semi-regular around Greater Nippertown. Closing out the Wood Stage, I managed to only hear one song from him as he closed out the Wood Stage because I stayed for all main stage acts from start to finish. But he’s already booked for a pair of upcoming performances at the Cock ‘n Bull in Galway this fall, so I’ll get another couple of chances to catch him.
As expected, the piece de resistance turned out to be New Orleans’ own Jon Batiste. Coming from a famous Big East musical family, he’s now best known as the bandleader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” but this prodigy, now 31, released his first CD as a bandleader at age 17. Batiste’s not-so-secret weapon was bringing along The Dap-Kings, part of the reason Sharon Jones was one of the best performers I’ve been lucky enough to see. The 90-minute set was nothing less than magical on the Allen Toussaint medley featuring “Java” (Al Hirt) and “Yes We Can Can” (the Pointer Sisters), as well as such Crescent City standouts as “Saint James Infirmary,” Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and, of course, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Playing mostly piano, he brought out the melodica more than once and though Batiste’s smile was a mile wide, I do believe many in the audience matched his as the music was so infectious, and the great Dap-Kings were so on.
What a way to close a weekend. Til next year, Saratoga Springs, and thanks.