“We’re sorry we made you wait 25 years,” said bassist Stanley Clarke as the reunited Return to Forever took the stage at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Saturday night.
The famous fusion group of Clarke, keyboardist Chick Corea, guitarist Al DiMeola and drummer Lennie White was the last group to appear in what turned out to be a soggy day, with intermittent rain for most of the afternooon and evening. Judging from the ovation the group received, the audience was ready despite the rain. (Unlike the earlier groups, who received laudatory introductions from the master of ceremonies, Return to Forever just ambled onto the stage once their instruments were set.)
The first few pieces were ferociously loud and featured lightning unison playing, by Corea and Di Meola especially, accompanied by a flashing light show from above.
Each solo was apparently interrupted by the crowd roaring, although you couldn’t hear a thing over the electronic din.
After three or four numbers, drummer White came down front to announce that the group would play an acoustic set. Di Meola picked up his acoustic guitar and Clarke his upright bass and Corea went to his Yamaha piano for two pieces: “No Mystery” and “The Romantic Warrior.”
The first featured Di Meola, who played a kind of flamenco solo. The second showed off Corea’s sparkling piano style and featured some bowed bass over fast brushwork by White.
Deadline precluded listening to more of this set, which for many was the major reason to attend this year.
The afternoon opened under bright sunshine with New Orleans pianist Jonathan Batiste and his quintet. He began by playing the melodica, a keyboard instrument that is blown into, while his two saxophonists played a counter-melody. Batiste switched to piano for his solo, which revealed some impressive technqiue.
As usual for opening acts, there were just a handful of people rattling around inside the amphitheater, which prompted Batiste to suggest that everyone move closer to the stage. This produced a flow of people down front and consternation among the ushers. Some of them shooed the interlopers back where they belonged, but most took the wiser course of letting them sit in front until Batiste’s set ended.
He closed with what began as a classical piece, moved into Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” with a vigorous beat behind it, then hinted at “The Nearness of You” before moving into a fast section with saxophone solos.
Batiste was scheduled to appear a second time, out in the gazebo, and when I walked by, he seemed to be playing most of the same tunes he had played earlier.
Trombonist Conrad Herwig and his sextet played a hard-hitting set of music by Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane, all done over various Latin beats. It was an all-star group, with Craig Handy on tenor and soprano sax, Ronnie Cuber on baritone sax, Bill O’Connell on piano, Ruben Rodriguez on bass, Pedro Martinez on congas and Robby Ameen on drums. They played an infectious version of Miles Davis’ “Flamenco Sketches,” which we also heard later in a totally different context.
Herwig is an exceptional trombonist who works himself into a frenzy of smears, furious slide work and triple-tonguing. He also likes to quote other tunes in his solos, but most of them flew by too fast to identify.
I got over to the gazebo just in time to hear the last tune by Colombian singer Andrea Tierra, which was a lively and engaging Latin piece that made me wish I had gotten there earlier.
The rain poured heavily then, and those who were outdoors but had tickets for the amphitheater scurried in there to hear soul singer Ryan Shaw. He was an obvious crowd-pleaser and sang an extra few songs to keep the crowd entertained and out of the rain.
Shaw was followed by the Saxophone Summit, which included Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman and Ravi Coltrane. They were backed by Phil Markowitz on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums.
Liebman tended to play long, convoluted lines in his solos, while Lovano veered between abrupt, jagged figures and swooping lines. Ravi Coltrane seemed to be the most cohesiove soloist of the three. His composition “The Thirteenth Floor” had a mysterious-sounding theme and featured Lovano on bass clarinet and Liebman on flute.
All three finally played their tenor saxes together on “Seraphic Light” and produced a powerful, humming sound, backed by Hart’s mallets on tom-toms.
Trumpeter Chris Botti was obviously one of the players the crowd had been waiting for because the amphitheater finally filled up when he appeared at about 6 p.m. He had an excellent band, with Billy Childs on piano, Mark Whitfield on guitar, Robert Hurst on bass and Billy Kilson on drums.
The group played the second version of “Flamenco Sketches,” with Botti on muted trumpet and Whitfield tearing into a furious guitar solo. It was totally different from Herwig’s earlier interpretation.
Botti is sometimes tagged as a “smooth jazz” player, but he showed off some impresssive chops. He also was the first performer of the day to have his image shown on one of two big screens that hang down on either side of the amphitheater. Things did get a bit saccharine with a song titled “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” which sent me wandering out to the gazebo to hear violinist Jennie Scheinman.
Her set had been delayed by the rain and she and her sidemen sat around glumly for a while, but the skies finally cleared and she offered a set that included a Brazilian piece titled “Souza” and a Jelly Roll Morton tune, “Winin’ Boy,” which she sang. Her violin sounded good, and she was sympathetically backed by Steve Cardenas, guitar, and Ben Allison, bass.
Vocalist Dee Cee Bridgewater performed excerpts from her album “Red Earth: A Malian Journey” to get the evening started in the amphitheater. She is a stunning performer who not only sings but shapes the music with her hands, feet and whole body as she moves about the stage. She was backed by several African musicians, incliding one who played an ancient instrument that was the precursor of the banjo.
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