The two-day 37th Annual Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival opened Saturday at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, casting its usual wide net of categories like most jazz festivals, featuring blues guitar, soul singing, and straight-up pop with its headline Earth Wind & Fire. SPAC has a knack for balancing the talent carefully — a little for everyone. But what attracts many of the 6,500-plus who attended Saturday is the relaxed and disarming quality of the festival grounds.
As with every year, people come for far more than the music. Countless tents were pitched and many rarely stray far from their tent. For some, their day is spent mixing drinks, reading, playing cards, cooking, sewing, sleeping and chatting while the jazz wailed in the distance. Some have been coming for decades, and know their tent neighbors equally long, seeing them once a year at the festival.
The day of music — in sunlight — and the final act of Earth Wind and Fire — in the dark — felt like two separate events. The closing band played its monster hits from the 1970s, people packed the amphitheater and treated it like a rcok concert, dancing and shouting in the seats and lawn. None of that happened during the day.
While EWF has horns and strong percussion, it is not jazz. But it was great fun to close the day, hearing hits like “Shining Star,” “Devotion,” “After the Love Has Gone,” and “Serpentine Fire.”
The next most theatrical and accessible act of the day was Jon Batiste and his group Stay Human, in the amphitheater. The five young guys came out into the audience of the barely filled amphitheater to lead a lengthy sing-along. Standing in an aisle, they played New Orleans take on “My Favorite Things” with a tuba, sax, banjo, tambourine and a melodica — Batiste blew into this small organ. The sound was old, traditional and progressive.
Wearing overalls, Batiste took several minutes to make it back to his piano, using up his set time by shaking hands with audience members and chatting a bit with some. Back at the piano he played a dramatic classical solo, then moved into a heavy version of the tune “St. James Infirmary,” steeped in traditional blues tone but with a surprise and dramatic ending.
They sang together a great version of “Sunny Side of the Street.” Batiste is a good piano player, but he also has star presence.
The second to last act of the day, Dr. Lonnie Smith, came to the amphitheater with his Hammond B3 organ and a full octet, delivering a somewhat spiritual, sometimes playful, and relentlessly hip sound. The Buffalo native’s set was compelling, melodic and provoking, but it was too soft-spoken to capture an audience restless from a full day of challenging music. Centered on his organ sound, five horns, a guitar and drums followed choreographed compositions that bounced forward like good Charlie Mingus numbers. It ended with a long knock-out ultra-cool swing jam.
Four of the five bands at the Gazebo were trios and two of the groups were led by women. Many patrons spend their entire day at the Gazebo, pitching their tents and lawn chairs and not budging. That can be rewarding, but it’s not for everyone.
The most accomplished player on the stage for Saturday was Lew Tabackin, who has a rich history of playing with many great names, as well performing on the larger stage over the past several years. Musicians can’t hide when there are only three on stage. Tabackin’s group had no reason to, swinging heavy with a range of tempos, taking long and deep solos. Tabackin’s ideas came at you fast and clear. He dedicated a slow, bluesy ballad to Coleman Hawkins, who he called “the father of jazz sax, the father of bebop.”
The Mary Halverson Trio was the most spacey, avant-garde group of the day. Using sheet music, she plucked sporadically from her acoustic guitar, keeping the music off kilter and taking abrupt turns just as she found a groove.
Robin McKelle, with the Flytones (the group also played first at the amphitheater) was a cross between James Brown and a toned down Janis Joplin. She worked it hard, singing from her knees, shouting, pleading, begging. While no one would call this jazz, she packed the gazebo area layers deep, blocking the walkway and bringing all the sitters to their feet; clearly a good portion of the crowd preferred this over instrumental improvisation. Note: She was the only female vocalist of the day.
Among the amphitheater highlights, the Mike Stern/Bill Evans Band featured monster players who fit well in a large arena, though their technical prowess can get lost in that large a size, but for those afraid to miss a note, they heard serious, hi-octane jazz playing with thick, dense fusion-heavy arrangements and reach-for-the-sky solos. While the pavilion didn’t fill for them — it didn’t fill for anyone before the final act — there were plenty of devoted fans there to study every note. And there were a lot of notes.
Terence Blanchard delivered a traditional set with his jazz quintet, playing originals — speedy melodies, ballads and mid-tempo swing tunes. He alternated solos with his pianist and sax man, but stole the show with his range and power. Blanchard is a rhythmic player and likes to face his drummer when things get cooking, which was often. He also likes to make mayhem with his solo, practically abandoning the song with his horn and counting on the rhythm section to bookmark certain spots in the chorus. Boy he can blow.
Ronnie Earle played early in the day at the pavilion, a 20-record veteran blues guitarist with the touch and listening sensibility of a jazz player. His set was predominantly slow blues, featuring numerous rounds of solo, always with plenty to say, one time getting on his knees for effect, and it worked.
Perfect weather added to the day, and once again the festival stayed on schedule, both elements that contribute to a returning crowd. The festival is a highlight of summer and a reunion for many coming up from metro-New York and elsewhere, and this year, again, it did not disappoint.
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