Jazz fest a talent frenzy

Including Eliane Elias among the five singers who dominated Saturday’s Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Fes

Including Eliane Elias among the five singers who dominated Saturday’s Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center seemed somehow unfair. The bold Brazilian super-talent also played overwhelming, pulsating piano.

When Jack DeJohnette took over the amphitheater (main) stage after Elias, the show may have peaked with those two sets hours before sunset, though strong performances preceded and followed them. Dee Dee Bridgewater tore off the roof, and Michael McDonald put it back together.

Ping-pong pacing — overlapping sets on stages far apart — forced hard choices: How to choose between DeJohnette’s exciting fusion explosion in the amphitheater and the glove-tight Afro-jazz Lionel Loueke Trio in the gazebo at the same time?

Sometimes, juxtapositions felt like segues: Dashing from the amphitheater, where Ben Allison’s two-guitar quintet was seducing with “The Language of Love,” we found Hilary Kole doing the same in the gazebo, gender-shifting the Beatles’ “And I Love Her.” Fleeing a brief rain squall at the end of Kole’s set, we saw Eliane Elias being just as charming in the amphitheater — and more.

At noon, guitarist/singer Lionel Loueke (who played on both stages Saturday) started the main-stage action, transforming “Skylark” into a West African export, which he is, from Benin. He played standard finger-style to start but soon was simulating organ or steel drums and going far outside while working his flexible voice. Saxophonist Marcus Strickland led off in the gazebo with his young quartet (with Skidmore grad bassist Ben Williams) playing straight ahead, launching from the witty bop “Mudbone” tribute to Richard Pryor, reaching back via a groove song then a ballad, to Sonny Rollins’ classic “Oleo.”

Bassist Ben Allison doubled: with his own two-guitar quintet on the main stage, then a trio version of the same band in the gazebo (drummer Rudy Royston and guitarist Steve Cardenas in both). His quintet’s “Tricky Dick” (Cheney) felt furtive and feisty by turns, and the trio’s version of “West and Middle” was cozier in the gazebo than the quintet’s playing on the same song earlier on the main stage.

Elias took the crowd to Brazil with songs by homeland composers. Jobim’s “So Danco Samba” was the peak of a thrilling set that was all highlights, heat and charisma. When everybody in the band soloed at the end, you suddenly realized how good they all were: She had eclipsed everyone before, even bassist/husband Marc Johnson.

DeJohnette’s band was more like Miles’ Bitches Brew band than the Charles Lloyd Quartet (he played in both), starring alto sax firebrand Rudresh Mahanthappa and guitarist George Fiuczynsky — but he drove the bus, straight back to a Miles classic.

George Wein’s Newport Allstars were a fans’ namedropping dream, truly all stars. Clarinetist Anat Cohen and guitarist Howard Alden’s duet on “Shreveport Stomp” was a festival highlight, with trumpeter Michael Brecker’s “Body and Soul” not far behind.

Sassy, fearless, fierce and bawdy, Bridgewater only briefly echoed Billy Holiday’s pinched, treble quaver in what was nominally a tribute. Swaggering from sexed-up torchy ballads to huge brassy outbursts, she had more fun than anybody. For all her hijinks, and they were pretty high, Bridgewater closed with “God Bless the Child,” sung fairly straight, but she turned SPAC inside out first with force and fire.

In the closing, pop-star slot, soul singer Michael McDonald wound up, of course, with “Takin’ It to the Streets,” but he also medleyed some Motown — wrapping his “Minute By Minute” and “What a Fool Believes” around “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing” — and uncorked such surprises as the Womack & Womack non-hit-but-great “Love T.K.O.” His drummer/singer Yvette “Baby Girl” Preyer may have been the single most impressive musician all day.

As usual, the festival was a big victory of music, fellowship and fun over weather and bad behavior relating to real estate: Folks spread tarps big as post-Katrina roof covers to claim spots and set up tents that could shelter a Kardashian wedding. Allowing tents at the gazebo for the first time was as bad an idea as cowboy boots with shorts, or certain guys going shirtless.

There were new things: a star in SPAC’s walk of fame for George Wein, who invented jazz festivals as we know them and who led a big band from the piano in the amphitheater, and a blindfold test by Dan Oullette of bassist Ben Allison. But the familiar elements worked just fine.

The music continues today starting at noon.

Categories: Entertainment

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