Jukebox: Genre police can stand down for this Jazz Fest

42nd Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival set this weekend
Ruthie Foster
Ruthie Foster

Saratoga’s biggest jazz weekend balances quantity and quality. Downtown shows tonight and Friday precede the 42nd Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival Saturday and Sunday at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC, routes 9 and 50, Saratoga Springs). That’s the big noise. Let’s start there.

“We’re not a jazz band,” guitarist-singer Ruthie Foster (Charles R. Wood Gazebo Stage on Sunday) said last week from home near Austin. “But all the players are jazz players,” Foster added, hitting two nails on the head.

Like all jazz festivals, SPAC adds pop, blues and soul to the mix, bumping attendance but bumming the genre police. This year’s won’t. It’s the strongest pure jazz lineup in years. Crossover stars George Benson, Norah Jones, Trombone Shorty and Foster play at jazz-skill levels; cool cross-fertilization happens all weekend.

Eminently musical drummer Brian Blade, who once toured with folk-jazz genius Joni Mitchell as sole accompanist, this year plays with Jon Cowherd’s Mercy Project on Saturday; then both Blade and Cowherd play with Joel Harrison’s Angel Band on Sunday. Lionel Loueke and Raul Midon, both guitarists of orchestral ambition and towering skill, team up in a duo, then Midon plays in vibraphonist Joe Locke’s Subtle Disguise, both on Saturday.

Saxophonist Joshua Redman, the James Carter Organ Trio and New Orleans Mardi Gras “Indians”-style funksters Cha Wa played here recently; Redman and Carter at The Egg, Cha Wa at Skyloft. Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue all but split The Egg some years back. They close this year’s festival, just as they’ve inherited from the Neville Brothers the prestigious closing slot on the big stage at Jazz Fest in his native New Orleans. There I once saw Foster sing so strongly with Warren Haynes’ side project that she basically took over his band.

Foster brings her own band to the Charles R. Wood Gazebo Stage on Sunday: Brannen Temple, drums; Larry Fulcher, bass; maybe Scotty Miller, keys. She also brings a richly empowering mix of church- and soul-trained instinct, academic training and the discipline of a U.S. Navy band. Foster and many cousins sang in the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church Choir in Gause, Texas, before she became a soloist in east Texas churches. She started piano lessons in sixth grade, then studied music in Waco’s McLennan Community College. “In church, it was about feel and using your ears and intuition … so I had that advantage when I went to college,” she said.

Foster joined the Navy as “a break from music,” or so she thought. “All through my young life … my language was just that.” A helicopter technician at first, she later joined Navy Band Pride, a seven-piece Top 40 and funk band performing in high schools.

Musical recruiters based in Charleston, South Carolina, they toured the southeast. “We’d do dance steps, we’d blow their minds,” said Foster, main vocalist and second keyboardist.

After the Navy she found her own path, back to Texas via New York studio work as a background singer. “I mostly looked back at all the old records my mother and my dad passed on to me when I left home,” Foster said of her quest to make her own music.

“Nobody was doing that in the folk clubs I started out in.” She said, “Everybody was doing Bob Dylan songs … but I wanted to do old soul songs, stuff that’s tried and true, stuff I grew up with — like Lightnin’ Hopkins, who was playing around Houston then.”

Foster said, “I had a basic understanding of songwriting, from Sam Cooke and soul music; that got me going, learning how to write about things I know.” She also refined her guitar style. “My influences were homed in on singers, gospel singers and gospel guitar players,” she explained. “They have a different way to play, that’s more rhythmic, more than lead.”

In Austin, Foster started recording her music, her way, and built a band. “The guys in my band, and the ladies I’ve had, I started off as a fan of those guys,” said Foster. Teaching them her tunes, “I would switch back and forth between reading and my ear, going back and forth with musicians.”

She also guests with others, including a guitar tour with Robben Ford and Jorma Kaukonen. She said, “I had to get up on my guitar chops on that one!” She felt flattered that Kaukonen stood in the wings watching her play every night, and praised Warren Haynes for letting her (hired as a backup singer) also play some guitar. “He’s a true sweetheart and teacher,” she said. “A good thing about playing music is the good people I meet.”

Foster’s 10 albums since 1997 have earned more than a dozen Grammy nominations and Blues Music Awards.

A Texan to her soul, Foster says so is the Dodge pickup she keeps at her brother’s place in the country. “I call him Bucky,” she said, “and he only runs really well when we play the Texas Tornadoes” — an all-star Norteno band starring Flaco Jimenez, Augie Meyers and Doug Sahm.

She has described her live shows as “hallelujah time,” and said of playing SPAC’s jazz festival Saturday, “I think a jazz audience is a universal audience. I just try to be true to what I have to say.”

In addition to Foster and the other cross-fertilizing artists noted above, I recommend these artists, either because I know about them or because I want to; so this includes almost everybody:

  • Los Van Van — Cuban funk-pop, in a comeback after 20 years.
  • Donna Grantis — A new-to-me Canadian guitarist; her credits include Prince’s band.
  • Antonio Sanchez & Migration — Pat Metheny told me when he first heard Sanchez he played “ … so soft and so burning,” calling the young Mexican drummer “the first guy since Billy Higgins who played that soft and with that much fire.” Sanchez’s “Birdman” score marked a milestone in film music.
  • Veronica Swift (no relation to Taylor) — A dynamic singer.
  • Norah Jones — You know.
  • Django Festival All Stars — Some all-star groups don’t work. This one should, with flexible, inventive Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda and upbeat saxophonist Grace Kelly.
  • Joey DeFrancesco Trio — Today’s top organist, co-starring Billy Hart, drums.
  • Allison Miller Boom Tic Boom — A little big-band featuring the wonderful violinist Jenny Scheinman.
  • Youn Sun Nah — A new-to-me Korean singer of shy demeanor and fearless musicality.
  • Kansas Smitty’s House Band — Eight young, mostly British, traditionalists.

A last recommendation: take sunscreen and water.

Well, next to last: My last word is to go see artists you’ve never heard of.

A pre-festival hot one.

Jazz at the Spring (Spring Street Gallery, 110 Spring St., Saratoga Springs) wraps its season tonight with innovative flute and electronic wind instrument (EWI) virtuoso Hiroaki “Hiro” Honshuku in a trio with Brian Melick, percussion; and Mark Kleinhaut, guitar. A student of modal-jazz leader George Russell, Hiro uses groundbreaking technology to hypnotic effect. 7:30 p.m. $15. www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4078394

Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs) was scheduled to present pianist Fred Hersch on Friday in two shows, in cooperation with Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Fest and in tribute to the Stonewall Riots in NYC that proclaimed LGBTQ activism. However, in a last-minute change, Hersch had to cancel for medical reasons. The show has been rescheduled for Dec. 22. 

Tickets to the June 28 Hersch performance will automatically be transferred to the Dec. 22 performance. For existing ticketholders who prefer a full refund, contact Carolyn Shapiro at [email protected] or call 518-583-0022. 

An elegant, articulate player, Hersch may be the first openly gay, HIV-positive jazz giant. He recovered from a 2007 coma to resume a distinguished career as soloist and bandleader.  

Veteran folk-pop troubadour John Sebastian plays Caffe Lena Saturday in a sold-out show, singing songs ranging from old-timey jug-band folk to sunny Lovin’ Spoonful pop to TV themes and other later solo efforts.

Tonight the calendar spins backward.

Quiet Riot headlines at Alive at Five (Jennings Landing at Corning Preserve, Albany).

With intra-band death threats, drunken gunfire, personnel raids by bigger bands, an overdose death, bitter firings and a current lineup without founding members, Quiet Riot is Spinal Tap on wheels. Nonetheless, QR made VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock. Hard-hitting local rockers Bad Mothers open. 5 p.m. Free. Rain site: Corning Preserve Boat Launch under I-787. www.albanyevents.org

Blue Oyster Cult plays the Skyloft (1 Crossgates Mall Road #200, Albany) later. Yeah, you can hit both. BOC starts at 8 p.m. Drive carefully between these retro-metal blasts, and “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Formed as Soft White Underbelly, then Oaxaca, then the Stalk-Forest Group and other names, these Long Island hard-rockers nowadays feature founders Buck Dharma, guitar (he riffed up Blotto’s “Metal Head”) and singer/guitarist Eric Bloom, plus Danny Miranda, bass; Jules Radino, drums; and Richie Castellano, keyboards and guitar. $45 advance, $50 door. 518-869-5638 www.skyloftny.com

Maybe the best band, and definitely the funkiest rocking here this weekend other than at SPAC, is Dumpstaphunk on Friday at Skyloft. It’s sons and former band members of the Neville Brothers: Ivan Neville, keyboards; Ian Neville, guitar; Tony Hall and Nick Daniels III switching off on guitar and bass; and new drummer Alvin Ford Jr. Zach Deputy opens. 8 p.m. $20 advance, $25 door

The jam-band swarm that is Phish swims into SPAC Tuesday and Wednesday (see story on page 9). Know ’em and love ’em? — You have tickets already. If not, only lawn seats are available as I write this. 7:30 p.m. $50, $45. 800-745-3000 www.livenation.com

Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]

Categories: Entertainment

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