Three acts deliver a pleasing Bridge Jazz Festival

The real treat of Friday's Bridge Jazz Festival at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall was enjoying the ful

Opening night of the two-day Bridge Jazz Festival featured three different acts at Troy Music Hall Friday night – a solo guitarist, a sax-piano duet and a quartet led by vocals. Three very different approaches to similar goals, in the end delivering different results.

Headliner Nnenna Freelon opened her set with a classic jazz trio behind her. She came out wasting no time, the band cooking instantly, Freelon dancing, waving her hands around her head, scattin’, leaping up a scale or two in a falsetto, singing “Drinking Water.”

She followed with the somewhat cute, swinging “Just Squeeze Me (Don’t Tease Me).” Every note, every phrase was subject to expansive improvisation, vocalizing like a horn player.

She stopped to sit and talk after the third tune. Her presence on the stage is large, classy, and commanding, and she seems completely at ease.

“We’re friends right,” she said for starters. “That means I can take off these shoes,” calling the high heels “five minute shoes.” She spoke like friends do about her upcoming release, which will be a record of only vocals. She then sang a Mark Murphy song, “Never Let Me Go,” without the band and without shoes.

She let the trio stretch a lot, giving ample room for them to play as a group with and without her. She introduced them twice, talked about them, and pointed at them after each solo to encourage audience applause.

She jumped out of jazz to sing the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me.” It was a classy, jazzy treatment, but not as good as their real jazz numbers. It was a good, enjoyable, classic jazz set and worth a night out.

Preceding Freelon was Pierre Bensusan, a French solo acoustic guitarist who seemed determined to create beautiful guitar music first, and then a few showy moves for extra value. He plays smooth, continuous soft string sounds that do not rise or fall much but fill the air like a harp player.

He played and sang in French a song he and his wife wrote called “The Night of the Shooting Stars” that covered the Hall like a mist.

He sang a few songs without words since he said he couldn’t remember them. He’d start off with folky gibberish that eventually turned into excellent scat singing. Lyrics can distract from the song itself, and these were beautiful tunes that came across even purer without the overlay of language.

He spoke with his French accent as gently and smoothly as his playing, though he had a sarcastic touch with his comments. Bensusan was a nice, brief act to have in the middle of Friday night.

The show opened with the duo Tim Olsen on piano and Eric Walentowicz on saxophone. They played mostly Olsen’s tunes, all surprisingly obtainable and melodic for a duet, Walentowicz presenting the melody with ease for a few rounds before soloing. The songs did not seem terribly challenging for the musicians, nor did they push their own limits, except on the last tune with “Park Avenue,” named after a Schenectady street Olsen lived on.

The interplay was stronger, offering the same dynamics a larger group offers. These were well choreographed arrangements for two, and they complemented each other’s lines nicely, responding subtly to one another’s ideas and energy.

In a Charlie Parker-like bebop tune called “Harlem Stomp,” they bounced together nicely at a quick tempo, Olsen taking on a boogie-woogie feel at one point while Walentowicz blew his notes slightly above him.

Walentowicz’s one original, “Fish Out of Water,” was a little more difficult to decipher, and Olsen joked, “Like every tune written by a sax player, it involves ‘Giant Steps,’ ” a reference to John Coltrane’s new, modern sound at the time and/or innovative chord structures.

The Freelon band, with drums and considerable volume, created the most excitement physically and audibly. But the real treat was enjoying the full range of the three acts, which is the point of a good jazz festival, even a small one.

The two-night festival was to wrap up tonight at the Massry Center in Albany.

Categories: Entertainment

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