SARATOGA SPRINGS – “Why do I sing songs from the 70s?” teased Chaka Khan Saturday at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. “Because I can!” crowed the rejuvenated R&B diva.
Others playing the first day of Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival also reached back.
Most effective: Violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, who performed during SPAC’s first-ever jazz festival in 1978, played suites of intricate rocking fusion tunes he’d recorded in the 70’s and 80s, with the same band; Cecile McLorin Salvant updated torch tunes with modern angst, and young unknown Houston band the Suffers detonated vintage-style soul with reggae accents. Less satisfying: “Jazz 100” never quite jelled. Under-rehearsed, their classic tunes of Dizzy Gillespie, Mongo Santamaria, Ella Fitzgerald and Thelonious Monk felt shapeless, spirited at times but unfocused.
Forceful Cuban pianist Aruan Ortiz and gadget-assisted popster Jacob Collier sketched the future.
Ponty’s crew was the sharpest band on a day dominated by women singers: Khan closed the show, Salvant charmed with beautifully sung/acted antiques, Barbara Fasano strode with style up a nostalgic Broadway of show tunes, and Kam Franklin of the Suffers matched Khan swoop for soulful swoop, flourish for fiery flourish.
Early on was one of those magical moments when music on two stages melds. As opener (guitarist) Dave Stryker’s organ quartet dropped their previous politeness for an energized blitz of John Coltrane’s “Impressions” on the main stage, I walked, curious, into the maelstrom of centrifugal riffs Ortiz’s trio spun in the brand-new, much larger and improved in all ways, Charles R. Wood Gazebo stage, a fitting baptism of the place by joyful fire. With McCoy Tyner-ish left-hand rhythmic propulsion and questing Cecil Taylor-like right-hand melodic drive, Ortiz spun restless riff circles that widened until the beat eclipsed the melody as bassist Brad Jones and drummer Gerald Cleaver fed and followed his flow. They were just as unified in the spooky ballad that followed.
Ponty proved the virtuoso music of his vintage “Enigmatic Oceans” and “Imaginary Voyage” albums hasn’t dated: His bracing, bold band hasn’t lost a step. He often locked riffs with guitarist Jamie Glaser like one musical mind with four fast hands, flashy and fleet.
Next on the main stage Salvant brought world-weary depth to tunes of betrayal and forgiveness; her best fireworks in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” her most poignant croon in a four-song suite when her elegant voice cracked ever so slightly in the devastating punch line of “I saw you” in “Guess Who I Saw Today?”
Then after the all-star Jazz 100 disappointment, the soulful, big-beat funk of the Suffers hit like a revelation, a full-blast romp behind human trumpet Kam Franklin, a big-voiced dervish of uplifting power. So good and so fun, they could replace (late, great) Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings on the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Wheels of Soul tour, due to hit here next week.
Next, Jacob Collier, a slight, hyperactive young Londoner alone onstage and electric as the machines surrounding him, sprang from synthesizer to drums to bass to piano to guitar. He frantically showed the power of ADHD coupled with whiplash conceptual boldness, dashing mechanical skills and friendly fearlessness. Loops multiplied his impressively wide-ranging voice like a few too many Justin Biebers while instruments he’d riffed then abandoned clattered or boomed merrily along.
Headliner Chaka Khan did the diva thing to big effect, her sky-etching voice in full force before a booming band. She tossed off a bit of early raggedness with the surprisingly early “Tell Me Something Good;” later peaks soared – “Love Me Still,” “Sweet Thing” and “My Funny Valentine” quietly; “I’m Every Woman” proudly.
Of Saturday’s women singers, Salvant acted her songs’ meaning; Fasano danced their melodies, stagey but lacking Salvant’s naturalness; Franklin pumped up the funky fun; and Khan strode the stage like soul royalty.