We NEEDED that! Music and mirth matched marvelously on Sunday, (marginally less rainy) second day of Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, a jaunty journey from the ridiculous to the sublime. High principles powered message music – ALL were saved in Mavis Staples’ most high church of mighty soul (main stage) – and hijinks had fans falling off their seats at the Charles R. Wood “Jazz Discovery” stage (the Wood).
Start with the laughs.
To make music funny, twist the lyrics or chords; making funny music is cooler, harder: Sammy Miller & the Congregation and the Jazz Passengers managed both. Up first in the Wood, the Congregation are Juilliard goofballs with chops out to there, over-active funnybones, and New Orleans in their hearts. Turning jazz and pop inside out, they worked up to a costumed “jopera,” a Monty Pythonesque riot after merry melodies like a second line parade through the Borscht Belt. (Hats off to our Erica Miller whose photos Monday showed this.)
Next, Mark Whitfield, guitar; Ben Allison, bass; and Billy Drummond danced light on their feet through standards, exploring “Without A Song” and “Willow Weep for Me” to wind up with Miles’ “In a Silent Way,” classy and beautiful, every fleet riff.
The Jazz Passengers followed, delighting Skidmore Jazz Institute kids (hereafter “Skids”) with asymmetrical beats, bold solos and a “do-they-really-mean-this?” vocal on “Reunited.” When they turned serious in “Tikkun” about saving the world, and needing to, they were devastating, forecasting the message music to come.
First act on the main stage, the free jazz of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding and trumpeter-keyboardist Nicholas Payton (together called TEN) took us on a fluent flow through meaning and melody, seemingly improvised but seamless in its authority and grace. The late Geri Allen’s “Unconditional Love” took us to a deep, sweet, high place. The crowd crazed, they called an audible and improvised an encore. Stunning.
Mavis Staples, in great mood and strong voice, sang-preached to compelling effect, reaching back to tunes her Pop Stapes wrote for the March on Washington – “Freedom High” – and ahead through Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” and “Who Told You That” and “Build a Bridge” from her Jeff Tweedy-produced “If All I Was Was Black” album. She was all about justice and peace, punched home with veteran power and insight. She took us there in “I’ll Take You There” (after urging “Reach Out, Touch a Hand, Make a Friend”), everybody up and singing.
Gregory Porter sang in a more contained fashion, quietly in “Mona Lisa,” but with growing musical and moral force in “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” a singalong in “Keep Your Head to the Sky,” a majestic “Nature Boy” into a freestyle reverie and then urged brotherhood in “When Love Was King.”
The late Sharon Jones isn’t replaceable, but the Dap Kings reached for longevity by bringing in New Orleans pianist, singer and ace entertainer Jon Batiste to close the festival Sunday, a superb choice. Batiste tugged the crowd to its feet at the start with “Corn Bread,” followed with an upbeat, uplifting Allen Toussaint medley and generally stirred Crescent City spirit into the Dap Kings’ soul stew. He also made a big message move, encouraging “The Light Shines Brightest in the Dark” and commenting we need that sentiment “in the times we’re living in, and in all times.”
Amen, and amen!
OVERALL AWARDS, SNAPSHOTS
Drums: Terri Lyne Carrington (TEN), Jonathan Barber (Christian Sands Trio; best new-to-me drummer I’ve seen since Mark Collenberg)
Percussion: Pedrito Martinez – nobody else came close!
Bass: Esperanza Spalding (TEN, seeing a pattern here?), Jamal Nichols (Gregory Porter)
Trumpet: Nicholas Payton (TEN), Alphonso Horne (Sammy Miller & the Congregation, where he plays Louis Armstrong-style next to the twice-as-tall trombonist Sam Crittenden), Keyon Harrold
Guitar: Mark Whitfield, Rick Holstrom (Mavis Staples)
Sax: OK, so I didn’t see Anat Cohen… (but we can at A Place for Jazz this Fall) Roy Nathanson (baritone, alto, tenor and C-melody in Jazz Passengers), Tivon Pennicott (tenor, Gregory Porter)
Piano: Christian Sands, Jon Batiste, Chip Crawford (Gregory Porter), Alfredo Rodriguez
Trombone: Curtis Fowlkes (Jazz Passengers), Jeffery Miller (New Orleans @ 300)
Clarinet: OK, so I didn’t see Anat Cohen… Evan Christopher (New Orleans @ 300)
Soul: Mavis Staples
Speed: Mark Whitfield, Christian Sands
Fashion: Jazzmeia Horn (GO see her at A Place for Jazz, I mean it!) in bright layers donned and shed as rain came and went. Special fasionista/sports trivia nod to the cat who identified my Albuquerque Isotopes cap
Shoes: Nicholas Payton’s gold hi-tops
Hair: Esperanza Spalding, Jose James
Smiles: Jonathan Barber (Christian Sands), Esperanza Spalding (TEN), Jon Batiste
Grimaces: Jazzmeia Horn, Mark Whitfield
Who Needs Words: Jazzmeia Horn and Esperanza Spalding sang without lyrics
Great Words: Mavis Staples sanctified the place with passionate principle
Tributes: Jose James’ Bill Withers show felt fine but one-dimensional (his Billie Holiday tribute is better) compared to the subtle way Gregory Porter shuffled Nat King Cole songs from his new album into a wider repertoire
Favorite Moment (apart from meeting folks – see A Long Look, below): One of the “Skids” got a standing O for telling a fan up front the rain was over so he could take down his damn umbrella
Stuff I Omitted from Monday’s Review:
Keyon Harrold deepened the moral authority of his passionate message-driven set by proclaiming “We Shall Overcome” a stirring and beautiful moment of unity and hope.
A tent sheltered the crowd at the Wood, for shade, impresario Danny Melnick joked; but it shed the rain nicely except when the wind blew hard. In the Jazz Passengers’ set Sunday, hard rain fell on its back end while none fell up front; fans were amazed, until the wild wet took over completely.
A Last Long Look: Happy fans whom our Kassie Parisi met on Sunday spoke of the fest’s friendliness and diversity. They’re right; it’s the most “rainbow” crowd this side of Music Haven. I love it for the chance to meet folks from far away in location and life experience, this time including a former NYS Senator who represented the Brooklyn district where my daughter now lives, a music-writer nephew of drummer Roy Haynes who survived a face-to-face with Miles, a sheet-rocker from Pennsylvania, a pen-and-ink sketcher there on a photo pass, a mechanic from Bayonne and, maybe the best-looking humans there, an elegantly-garbed couple from Harlem. I compared (New Orleans) Jazz Fest notes with fellow pilgrims, clicked drinks and shook hands with strangers and generally felt better about us all.
Al DiMeola plays electric guitar Friday at The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany). 8 p.m. British fusion veterans Brand X (recently at Cohoes Music Hall) opens. $79.50 (includes soundcheck and meet & greet), $59.50, 39.50. 518-473-1845 www.theegg.org
Also Friday, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones play Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall (indoors – 297 West Ave., Lenox, Mass.) 8 p.m. $20 lawn only. 413-637-5180 www.bso.org
Tuck & Patti play Saturday at the Van Dyck (237 Union St., Schenectady). Guitarist Tuck Andress and singer/wife Patti Cathcart earned a five star review of their recent San Francisco Jazz Festival show, their cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand” got special praise. 6:30 & 8:30 p.m. $22 advance, $26 door. 518-348-7999 www.vandycklounge.com
Also Saturday, Kenny Barron plays solo piano at Maverick Hall (120 Maverick Rd., Woodstock). 8 p.m. $30, students $5. 845-679-8217 www.maverickconcerts.org