Eric Lindell cooked crawfish-boil blues plus Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” on the main stage early Saturday at the 39th Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, as Joey Alexander studied fellow pianist Elio Villafranca in the Gazebo.
Later, Alexander celebrated his 13th birthday after a stellar main stage set, with cake. His skill, speed and smarts wowed everyone, taste and technique melding perfectly.
Jazz and non-jazz jockeyed for fans’ attention all (perfect!) day in mostly stylistically silo’ed offerings. Only trumpeter Christian Scott’s Atunde Adjuah crew risked purists’ border patrol with spirited genre-jumping “stretch music.” Stretch, it did, to spectacular effect. Even “The Last Chief,” a nod to his New Orleans heritage, felt fun and fresh. Otherwise things felt masterly but conventional, though Villafranca’s Cuban heritage spiced his trio set: In a percussion workout, the pianist played guataca (like a small steel dustpan) in a duet with his drummer on cowbell.
Many artists reached back, even young Alexander, who plumbed the songbooks of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter to explode stirring deconstructions of “Giant Steps” and “Footprints,” respectively with his trio. An original waltz felt like “Still Crazy After All these Years” filtered through Bourbon Street neon. Sensational alto sax-man Vincent Herring revived half-forgotten tunes by Wes Montgomery and Billy Reed, also “Love Walked In” and “You Leave Me Breathless,” riffing with calm assurance as drummer Carl Allen drove the swing. Also in the Gazebo, Karrin Allyson crooned Rogers & Hammerstein classics, plus originals with the same gem-like melodies and cozy wit of vintage show tunes.
The Gazebo sets peaked with drummer-singer Jamison Ross whose opening “Epiphany” evoked his thrilling discovery he could do both at once. His preach-singing in “Dream for the World” idealistically sketched a better one, and his cover of Etta Jones’ “Don’t Go to Strangers” seethed with sweet love drama. All casual ease, Ross grooved from spoken to sung sections and back.
Two reunions bookended main stage action — in between, torch-voiced Shemekia Copeland sang she was “Married to the Blues” but didn’t want a divorce and slammed the publicly religious who worship “Somebody Else’s Jesus” in a smoking soul-blues set. The smooth-jazz/quiet-storm crew Pieces of a Dream made phat funk fashioned for jazzers, while Steps Ahead played, well, straight ahead. Both relied heavily on their keyboardists: Pieces’ James Lloyd roamed the room with wireless keytar in a romp that wrapped around “Come Together” while Steps Ahead stepped along smoothly on Eliane Elias’s grand piano surges. Pieces was theatrical, flamboyant and funky; Steps steady, strong and workmanlike, though drummer Billy Kilson kicked hard at times.
Closing on the main stage as last-minute replacements for ailing Chaka Khan, the Isley Brothers tried to stay timely making music rooted in ’50s doowop and R&B and 60s soul by framing surviving Isleys singer Ronald (75) and guitarist Ernest (64) in a big production: six white-clad players, three singers (one was Ronald’s decades-younger wife) and three dancers; all six women often changing costumes. Some hits sounded rushed; “Who’s that Lady” fell short of its recorded grandeur, for example, and they didn’t improve “Love the One You’re With” or “Summer Breeze.” But “Shout” pumped all the dance-y adrenaline fans needed to jump up and shake it.
Sax: Vincent Herring
Trumpet: Christian Scott
Bass: Marc Johnson (Steps Ahead), David Dyson (Pieces of a Dream)
Drums, Jazz: Carl Allen (Vincent Herring & the Kings of Swing), Billy Kilson (Steps Ahead), Jamison Ross, Corey Fonville (Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah)
Drums, non-jazz: Robin Gould (Shemekia Copeland)
Keyboards: EVERYBODY — Joey Alexander, Eliane Elias (Steps Ahead), Elio Villafranca, Chris Pattis (Jamison Ross), Lawrence Fields (Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah), the guy in Eric Lindell’s band whose name I didn’t catch
Shoes: Christian Scott
Hair: Elio Villafranca, Corey Fonville (Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah)