LIVE: Saratoga Jazz Fest (Day 2) @ SPAC, 06/26/2021


Fewer jazz heads pilgrimaged Sunday to the renewed (but reduced) Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival than Saturday. And there was a bit less sense of occasion, of joyful renewal and reunions among fans who may see each other only, but always, at this annual event.

Nonetheless, Sunday’s one-stage, four act concert completed an experience, like coloring in what had been a sketch the day before.

It fittingly started in church.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

At noon, the holy/hyper wound up ringmaster/preacher/crooner/shouter Garland Nelson led his three men players and three women singers onstage and sanctified the place with sound and sentiment. Everybody wore black or white or both for a visual unity that their hymns, chants, grooves and moves immediately reflected. They packed a lot of uplift into their 45-minute opener, making medleys, jumping from song to song as Nelson urged clap- and sing-alongs and had fans waving arms in the over-heated, humid air.

Pay that man by the sheer volume of his sweat and the festival would go bankrupt.

“I Just Want to Praise You” was a big hello, setting off from expectant silence to enthusiastic harmony; then “Going Up Yonder (To Be With My Lord)” announced the destination. Showcasing harmonies early on, Nelson soon took over, leading a triumphant “A Change is Gonna Come” – spicing Sam Cooke’s smoothness with Otis Redding-style stutter repeats.

Pianist Azzaam Hameed, bassist Al Brisbane and drummer George Spencer (three fourths of the quartet Hameed led at Jazz on Jay two weeks ago) grooved easy.

The hymns/hits kept coming; sanctified or secular, they all got revved enthusiasm and honed skill. Musically and in emotional intensity, there wasn’t a Bible page’s thickness of difference between “Keep Your Head to the Sky” or “Take Me to the King;” between “What’s What Friends are For” and “Rise Up.” And the crowd did, Rise Up, that is.

Photo by Rudy Lu

The mood and energy changed mightily for Al di Meola’s acoustic guitar solo set. He sat tuning and tinkering behind music stands as festival producer Danny Melnick introduced him. He joked about playing country-and-western because it’s easy, then navigated a knuckle-busting episodic ramble full of abrupt detours in tempo, time signatures, chords and phrasing. He then announced, “Now a difficult one,” after his opener set speed records and threatened whiplash.

This all felt at times like some inner-directed practice session or tuxedoed recital; perfect but abstract, focused on technique rather than expressing a feeling, a story. It was dazzling, it was beautiful in tone and graceful articulation of cascading ideas; but it also felt aloof and abstract, especially when the guitarist throbbed a single note while turning chart pages.

He knew what he was doing though. The music grew more cohesive and coherent, and it warmed and wove nicely. An Astor Piazzola tango had a sinuous grace, a tune from his guitar-star trio with John McLaughlin and the late Paco de Lucia swung and rocked. And, best of all – and not just because it was the most familiar – the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” showed both reverence for the familiar source and wild imagination in turning it inside out.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

In a better world, nobody would notice or remark on an all-woman anything, from Apollo moonshot computer engineers to jazz players. Close your eyes listening to Artemis Sunday at SPAC and you would’t think of gender at all; you’d just say “Wow.”

Maybe, “holy shit!”

Rene Rosnes led the quintet from the piano, but if there was a first among equals – and they played like equals – trumpeter Ingrid Jensen got the gold star, the champagne toast, the black belt. And just as di Meola hit his warmest riffs in the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields,” Artemis were stellar in “Fool on the Hill,” two songs in. Jensen arranged and played it just wonderfully. But so did everybody else.

They hadn’t played together in months, but were instantly a band again when they stepped onstage together. Not that it was perfect: Jensen had to cue saxophonist Nicole Glover back into “Goddess” when the newcomer started to lay out. Drummer Allison Miller, whose crackerjack band Boom Tic Boom starred on the Discovery stage in 2019) knocked every groove on its ass and made it do her bidding. She contributed Artemis’s penultimate number, the surging, complex-time, glistening-horns-and-everybody-in-the-pocket “Goddess of the Hunt.” Miller filled lots of air with notes, but bassist Noriko Ueda held her own, and not just in her own “Step Forward.”

Like I said, “Wow” and “holy shit!”

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Then, surprise, wonderful surprise, singer Cecile McLorin Salvant joined Artemis. She hugged everybody then stood modestly by the piano as they introduced a familiar melody that only revealed itself completely as Salvant sang, in Stevie Wonder’s words, “If It’s Magic.”

You remember: “Wow” and “holy shit!” – a sweet sisterhood moment for the ages.

Salvant played the last set of the festival, with a band that rehearsed for the first time on Wednesday and had never played in public before Sunday.

This would be an impressive achievement for any band with any singer, but Salvant’s fearless song choices offered challenge after challenge to her four guys who knocked everything WAY out of the park.

Salvant started “Obsession” singing alone before Dayna Stephens’s flute, Sullivan Fortner’s piano, Marvin Sewell’s guitar and Rogerio Bocato’s drums built a frame around her voice. She burst it, though, with a dizzying leap from airy soprano to earthy alto, from restrained musings to explosive emotion. What a set up for her next number, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as stunning as “If It’s Magic” earlier.

What can any singer do after that? But Salvant had momentum and growing confidence in her new band Sunday. She eased through another short “Wizard of Oz” reverie into Gregory Porter’s “No Love Dying.” Gretchen Parlato’s “Circling” showcased Bocato’s percussion ingenuity, Sting’s “Until” cued a sweet flute solo, Kate Bush’s “Breathe” featured Stephens rhapsodizing through his electronic wind instrument (EWI). A secret weapon of singers (he’s played here with Cassandra Wilson and Lizz Wright), guitarist Marvin Sewell offered easy-chair support in every tune, but co-starred in Salvant’s kinda eerie “Ghost Song” with its off-mic start; Sewell’s slide guitar break lit up this deep-woods waltz. Stephens’s breakneck piccolo solo in “The World Is Mean” from “Three-Penny Opera” was fast as a di Meola racetrack strum.

Salvant’s dramatic phrasing equips her to tackle everything from show tunes to brassy emotive interpretations of unlikely jazz and pop songs. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

OK, comparisons are tempting but bogus. However, recalled in toto the revived jazz festival at SPAC echoed and commented on itself, as these multi-act fests tend to do.

Both the festivals singers Dianne Reeves and Cecile McLorin Salvant – arguably the top vocalists in jazz these days (unless you count Cassandra Wilson or Jane Monheit…) – reached into Sarah Vaughan’s “Brazilian Melodies” album for tunes this weekend. Both honored this venerable source.

Both Christian McBride’s New Jawn and Salvant’s band were unconventional quartets: New Jawn has no piano or other chordal instrument, Salvant’s crew has no bass.

Many of the artists remarked on changes to their lives and music-making in the pandemic, citing TV bingeing, the challenges of staying creative and of life itself. However, none dwelled on the jazz lives lost in the pandemic. On Saturday when I bumped into festival producer Danny Melnick, he said the Tampa writer Ken Franckling counted 90 jazz musicians lost to COVID. In a phone interview last week, bassist Christian McBride (who closed Saturday’s festival) said he’d mourned 50 COVID deaths among jazz people on his NPR “Jazz Night in America” program in December, then three more in the week between taping and airing the show.

Instead of mourning, the mood in this festival was of joy and relief. The musicians exulted in being back onstage, of playing for people again. Beyond their happy words, we could hear it in their music.

In Sunday’s opening set, Gospel singer and bandleader Garland Nelson put it this way. “I can see your teeth! And that’s amazing!”

Just as the festival overall was reduced, naturally so was its range, with no big band, no gray eminence and no rock or pop mass-market headliners. In (fairly) recent years, all-star crews or Latin jazz giants represented section-playing large ensembles. Roy Haynes (still living, still playing at 96) and the dearly departed Chick Corea, gone (not of COVID) in January at 79, are among the veterans who’ve filled the exalted-elder role. And purists likely rejoice in the absence of such non-jazz ticket-sellers as the Isley Brothers, Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles and Little Richard.

Not that there’s anything wrong with THEM…

For next year, the festival’s 45, producer Danny Melnick has promised “a great blow-out.”

Not that there was anything wrong with this year…

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

Photo Gallery by Jim Gilbert

1 Comment
  1. WIlliam says

    Thanks for the review. The Kate Bush song is “Breathing”

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