Chris Brubeck summed it up early in this year’s Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival on Saturday: “Maybe I’m glad it’s raining.” The Palace Theater served as the rain site for the annual day-long festival. Nobody seemed to mind being indoors. On the contrary: The Palace was a welcome change, capping off this year’s riverfront free concert series.
Is David Sanborn the most copied and universally recognizable living saxophonist? Maybe. What’s more important is that he sounds great and plays with heart. After some stage issues (the band arrived a half hour late), headliner Sanborn got right to work with a minor blues rumba reminiscent of Kenny Burrell’s classic “Chitlins Con Carne.” With his integrated mix of Bop, Soul, and R&B, he was deep into it from the start. His tone is often very bright without being harsh and when he holds out long tones in a ballad with his personal vibrato it’s a beautiful thing.
Three highlights of Sanborn’s set came in songs from his classic 1992 album “Upfront,” “Full House,” “Benny” and the classic King Curtis cover “Soul Serenade.” This last tune is covered by many artists but Sanborn’s is surely one of the best. Longtime Sanborn collaborator Ricky Peterson was Sanborn’s equal in the spotlight. He used many sounds from his multiple keyboards but his B-3 organ was the star. On the ultimate blues rhythm instrument Peterson is a master. He’s also a stellar soloist sneaking in R&B quotes like Ray Charles’s “Hit The Road Jack” into his jazz solos.
Known as house band director for celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s long-running Food Network show, percussionist Doc Gibbs’s set was mainly from his new CD “Serve It Up Hot.” He and his band are fine musicians. However, their music was generally 1-2 chord vamps with the type of vague, bland, cliché licks for melodies that are the mainstay of smooth jazz. Harmonically static funk grooves with soloists blowing outside (or inside) changes over them can become tiresome quickly. However, when the focus was on Gibbs’s own playing (not enough), as in the drum duet “Percussion Discussion,” the music and focus always “kicked it up a notch.”
The most traditional set of the day was singer Ernestine Anderson’s. Her trio opened alone with Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time” in the bluesy style of Gene Harris. Despite being just shy of 80 years old and being aided to her chair center stage, Anderson allayed any fears of her fine band upstaging her performance. From the moment she opened up to sing her energy was high and her swing was deep. She ran through the standards “This Can’t Be Love,” “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” and the theme song of the day, “Here’s That Rainy Day.” But when she sang a blues about “Going To Chicago,” she was more like a late period Big Joe Turner shouting out her life experience.
The Brubeck Brothers and Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble kicked off the day. Pray’s band in particular was deserving of more time. Playing mostly original material by band members, Pray’s group is made up a ‘Who’s who’ of local jazz players. Watch for their regular gig at The Lark Tavern.