Cuban conga player Pedrito Martinez told the audience from the main stage at the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival Saturday that it was “the best jazz festival on the whole entire planet.” Quite a compliment. Many, particularly those who continuously come every year for decades, would probably agree.
Saturday’s festival, the first of two days, delivered like it always does. The rain threatened all day. Then it finally came, wetting the ground, the tents, the tarps, and all the chairs, coolers and food people brought with them for the 10-plus hours of jazz. The rain was unfortunate, but it failed to stall or darken the spirits of the day. Kids played, families and friends cooked, ate, drank, read, and dug the jazz.
The crowd, always one of the most ethnically diverse for any music audience in the Capital Region, were treated to equally diverse music, ranging from Cuban beats, bebop, big band, blues, a ‘50s-like vocal trio, reggae, and electric rock. There are always more genres to cover, but this was pretty solid for one day.
Christian McBride, while fourth from last on the big stage, played the most exciting set with his 19-piece big band, the kind no one can afford to take on the road anymore. They opened with the horn section blasting, McBride’s fingers blazing over the strings of his stand-up bass to an original “Shake and Blake,” written for his band member Ron Blake. For some, there is nothing more exciting than a hot big band in full swing. They hit the high mark a few times through the set. And when the group wasn’t pushing the big moments, it was grooving with several layers of horns over rhythm, McBride at the very bottom of it all pumping away.
The show was interrupted to present the Bassist of the Year Award to McBride from the National Jazz Journalists Association. The momentum broke here a bit, but they recovered with “Brother Mister,” a hip tune from their 2012 Grammy winning record “The Good Feeling.” He played “The Shade of the Cedar Tree,” a song he wrote for Cedar Walton, followed by a sassy version of “Solitude,” and then the swinging “Come Rain or Shine.”
Sharp, crisp and strong, McBride’s big band was a highlight of Saturday’s festival.
Cassandra Wilson delivered the deepest, perhaps the most thrilling show of the day in her tribute to Billie Holiday, celebrating Lady Day’s 100th birthday. In classic Wilson fashion, she took Holliday’s simple blues tunes and twisted them down dark, haunting paths. She teased out eerie nuggets from tunes like “All of Me,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” and “Good Morning Heartache,” the six guys in the band going off in weird directions that in the end made sense. This was a great, classy and thoughtful set.
Guitar hero Al DiMeola, with his electric band — no jazz here — should have been one of the most exciting events of the day. While DiMeola played speedy and energetically, and broke out all his tricks — the kind you see today in arena rock — it didn’t amount to much more than a collection of tricks. He’s a great player, the arrangements were meticulously detailed, the band was on point for him, but for all the electric energy, it fell short.
Conga player and singer Pedrito Martinez put on his usual fun, entertaining crowd-pleasing show, singing, shouting, dancing — including a few hip thrusts — for the audience in the Amphitheater. With piano, bass, congas and cowbell, the four players gave us a full Latin sound, sometimes jazzy, sometimes straight pop. Martinez is an entertainer as much as a musician, making the audience stand, sing and dance. “Get up Saratoga,” he yelled, not something you often hear at a jazz show, but often at a jazz festival. He’s great to watch on percussion, and he offered us a few snazzy moves before heading off the stage.
He credited SPAC’s “beautiful audience” with giving him his first boost in mass exposure a few years back.
During all this, Steve Wilson’s quartet, Wilsonian’s Grain, with the much in-demand Bill Stewart on drums, were flailing away to good-old fashioned bop, jamming to Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” — crazy fast, of course — and a few originals. Wilson’s trio were all great players, and he let them free. Talk about a good work environment, a tone set by the leader, they seemed comfortable to do whatever seemed right for the moment, even if it called for turning down the energy in the middle of a solo.
The Mike LeDonne Groover Quartet did exactly that — grooved. After a day of widespread, challenging music, LeDonne closed the Gazebo for the day with the perfect statement — the blues. He played soulful melodies followed by an organ solo, a sax solo, a cool round or two with the band together, and then the song ended, the audience clapping and smiling.
The vocal trio Duchess mixed up the day a bit with their ‘50s style performance in the smaller theater. The simple, somewhat corny American-style Andrew Sisters jazz, the kind played in the ‘40s and ‘50s to entertain the troops overseas, was familiar and easy on the ears. They sang “Que Sera Sera” and “The World on a String,” even blowing kazoos in harmony at one point.
Early in the day Monty Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express played a most interesting set to a mostly empty Pavilion. The group consisted of two bass players and two drummers. There was a set of reggae players and a set of jazz players, and they took turns playing within the song. I have never seen that before. They all came together for a final crescendo to end each number. Good, original stuff.
A great day of jazz that will linger in the bones of anyone who took in all it offered.
Today is another day filled with nearly two dozen rich acts that will further explore the jazz genres.