The opening act of the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival is the same every year: The Mad Dash. As 11 a.m. approaches and the gates open, the pace-setting sprinters push toward the head of the line while the strollers lag behind. The goal is to score prime lawn real estate for the coolest show at SPAC every summer. For over three decades now the mad dash has been a ritual for upstate jazz fans and it’s always worth the effort.
Singer Rachel Price opened the festivities this year. Though young, Price has a good deal of confidence and chops. She gave props out to Nancy Wilson and Judy Garland, which gives a good indication of where she’s coming from. She’s firmly a jazz singer but has shades of cabaret. Her deep tenor makes her easy on the ear, and her interpretation is solid. Choice standards sung with joy and energy and a band with solid swing and bebop chops to back her up. This set was all about the song.
Terence Blanchard was next, playing from a more modern place: namely New Orleans. Blanchard himself has family ties to the city. His latest CD is a requiem for Katrina. The first 30 minutes of his set was a continuous deluge of shifting landscapes: waves of collective volume over rumbling bass tones, crying trumpet solos against shifting meters, music in and out of time, blues-touched melodies rising out of the chaos. All the members of the group are great players but, in the end, Blanchard is so strong it’s his playing that stays with you.
The blues, bebop, luminous tone, modern angular phrasings — it all comes out of Blanchard’s horn. And while some of his music of late is somber in tone, the man definitely has a sense of humor. While introducing the band, there was a big cheer for a member from Philly. Introducing the drummer as being from Texas — no cheering. Blanchard’s reply: “Yeah, I don’t cheer for Texas anymore either.”
Charles Lloyd brought his New Quartet members: Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers, and Eric Harland. These are three of the busiest young players today. It’s a testament to Lloyd’s iconic stature in the field that he can retain all these guys.
That being said, this set was a bit of a letdown. The group’s energy seemed ailing. The music was good but for this group good isn’t quite up to par. The brightest spot in their set came with the tune “Prometheus.” Fragments of melody and brief rhythmic exclamations marked the territory before blowing. Lloyd’s tone and style are original yet occasionally echo Getz, Coltrane, and Lovano.
Dianne Reeves was next and she brought with her genuine diva status. And she wears it well. Like Price, she is a very strong tenor and straddles the lines between the jazz and pop worlds. Singing Thad Jones’s classic “A Child Is Born” uptempo, her scat duet with her drummer soared as she was filled with the spirit. This burst of joy prompted a rare mid-set ovation. Her strong connection to the lyrics came through in her a cappella lines “my living will not be in vain,” and from her latest CD, “When you know that you know, you can’t deny it.” However, her biggest reaction from the crowd came when speaking in between tunes about her mother’s good deeds: “And in this election year, I am so grateful that she gets to see the fruit of her labor.” The crowd agreed.
As there are every year, there were surprise treats for people who ventured to the smaller gazebo stage for lesser know acts. Aaron Goldberg’s trio was the prize this year at the gazebo. Goldberg’s harmonic and rhythmic conception encompasses both the simple and the complex. He and his trio-mates know that beauty is where you find it. Goldberg’s style has some similarities to Brad Mehldau’s, rhythmically in particular, but it’s far from derivative. He has the similar ability to unfurl long, intricate lines that make sense through long sections of music.
Goldberg regularly, and wisely, features his drummer Eric Harland and his bassist Reuben Rogers (in his third appearance of the day). He gives Rogers the opportunity to shine by giving him melodies to play. Harland goes through many different polyrhythms and feels even within one solo yet he gets them all to groove.
Unsung local hero
The other prize at the gazebo was Hayes Greenfield. A relatively local player, he is, maybe unfortunately, one of those master musicians who flies under the radar relatively unnoticed. This altoist can play circles around most well known players in nearly every style: Bebop, free, ballads, blues. He’s got Charlie Parker down and he could also hang in a quartet with Cecil Taylor and not get bent. Plus, he’s a poet. He recently released a jazz CD for kids emphasizing living ‘green.’ Some lyrics: “Renewable is do-able, It’s up to me and you-able.” The music on the CD is great for all ages.
The main stage ended with a flurry of pop. Saxophonist Boney James was the second-to-last act. Clad in all black and wearing a skullcap with his frizzy curls coming out the back, he resembled a Kenny G. from the other side of the tracks, or maybe the lone Beastie Boy of the smooth jazz world. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. His special guest was guitarist/singer Jonathan Butler and their set was all about the backbeat and getting the crowd to move. Mission accomplished.
Ending the festival this year was the classic ’70s soul group the O’Jays. Playing through their many hits like “Love Train, “Backstabbers,” and “For the Love of Money,” they kept the crowd dancing through the night. Time to rest up for next year’s mad dash.