I think this every year but never write it: I can’t think of a better way to spend a summer day than attending the Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
You don’t even have to like jazz. In fact, at any one time on Saturday, I’ll bet more people were hanging around their tents with friends oblivious to the playing than they were listening to jazz.
These are people eating, reading, relaxing, napping and drinking. There’s others tossing Frisbees, chasing toddlers, shopping the crafts fair, or snuggled up to the bar.
Then there was the jazz. Saturday there was a little something for every one — band leaders themselves ranged from a vocalist, a trumpeter, a bassist, a drummer, a pianist, a vibraphonist, and a sax player. Latin beats were most prominent, swing a close second.
The weather also played a prominent role, the rain coming and going intermittently all day, never not threatening. Saturday’s first note, played by the Kendra Shank Quartet, started in the rain. The set ended an hour later with full sunshine, which returned to rain shortly.
Two acts stood out, forming the day’s power center: Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band, which celebrated the 50th birthday of “Kind of Blue,” the original in which Cobb drums; and the Gary Burton Quartet, with long-ago partner Pat Metheny.
For the less jazzy, Patti LaBelle served as the closer, rocking the house to end the day 10-plus hours after the first downbeat.
Cobb, 80 years old, opened with an up-paced “So What,” delivering the excitement promised by such a tune, but not the cool patience Miles Davis intended. The drive of Cobb’s shimmering cymbals on the original record were replaced Saturday with his aggressive snare work and heavy coloring with bass drum, fills and crashes. Soloists hit it hard for this opener, notably Wallace Roney on trumpet, whose quintet played later at the gazebo.
They followed with the next tune on the album, “Freddie Freeloader,” which sounded on the money, capturing the magic of this classic. Both sax men, Vincent Herring and Javon Jackson, knew they were on the spot, and skipped laying groundwork to hit the solos at mid-point, if not further in.
“All Blues,” their hottest number, earned the first standing ovation. They drew on a few nuggets in “Flamenco Sketches” that presented a more consumable version for the casual jazz fan. They proved themselves the heavyweights of the day.
There was an exchange of audiences as the traditionalists left the pavilion, making way for Metheny and Burton fans (surely there’s overlap), a quartet aligned closer to fusion than old-school bop.
The quartet played beautifully, Metheny less about speed, more about framing concepts. His solos were linear, while Burton circled with his mallets before closing in. In Burton’s climactic moment during a Keith Jarrett tune, bassist Steve Swallow held onto a series of bent notes, like he was pulling the reins of a wild horse, to no avail.
By time the unheard of triple-bass threat — Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten — finished, the sun had set and the place was a full-blown rock concert, complete with, “Saratoga how you all doing!” Probably too heavy for some, but just right for most.
Wooten mesmerized first, then Miller razzle-dazzled alone, then the two together traded bars, then notes, then half notes, quarters, eighths, until they split the atom together. I’ve never seen such a cool duel. The place exploded.
All eyes were then on Clarke, father of the thumb thumping, who dazzled with a classic solo on an acoustic bass that silenced the place about a dozen times.
A great set — no soul, barely jazz, just chops and tricks, but these are the guys who can get away with it.
LaBelle stepped into a pretty excitable crowd. Her Vegas act stood in stark contrast to the cool jazz we heard all day. But she’s a master entertainer, and the crowd gobbled her up. She serenaded, talked about her long marriage and need for divorce, and then gave them songs like “You Don’t Know Me by Now,” “If You Love Me,” and the “Right Kinds Lover.”
The night was hers to finish off, and she did it with ease.
The only big band horns we got all day was the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. They walloped a punch with their belting salsa and cha cha, exciting a few to dance.
Kendra Shanks, who opened in the pavilion and closed the gazebo, sang a beautiful set early in the day, with songs like “For Duke,” and “Bird Alone.” But she also got zany, singing scat using far-out sounds, cackling like panicked birds. Her band jammed impressively between her verses, falling out of time signatures often, and then falling out of the tune completely before Shanks brought them back.
The gazebo is an odd mix of audience — jaw-dropped jazz buffs sitting on benches up close to the stage, behind them a small city of tents populated by people feasting on full-course meals, reading a newspaper and generally ignoring the music.
The Berklee Latin All-Stars opened the gazebo with a ferocious set propelled by their youthful chops and impeccable technique. Individually, they have the skills to develop into stars. The second day of the festival is today, with an equally promising array of performers, George Benson and Dave Brubeck the more familiar names.