Jukebox: Sweet, smooth, spicy Jazz Festival satisfies again

Music this year felt conservative, more solid and well-crafted than ear-opening
Norah Jones performs on Sunday at the 42nd Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival.
Norah Jones performs on Sunday at the 42nd Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival.

Categories: Entertainment

Our biggest jazz club opened last weekend: the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, a giant two-day pop-up and a membership organization that meets regularly.

Fans/friends gathered again, folks who meet up only that weekend. New friends bonded by loving the same music. Go once, you’re in.

Music this year felt conservative, more solid and well-crafted than ear-opening. However, Joe Locke’s Subtle Disguise made inventive cool music with hot-blooded glee to open the festival Saturday at noon. They lit up the place, and vibraphone fire-breather Locke set up songs with breezy chat at the same high scholar/wit level as Joshua Redman and Jeremy Pelt.

Most surprising — a big reason I love this jazz-club meetup — were singer/sound-effects wizard Youn Sun Nah; James Carter’s fiery Organ Trio (one of two, along with Joey DeFrancesco’s equally exciting crew); Donna Grantis’s Prince-ly guitar funk; the super-brilliant two-guitar fireworks of Lionel Loueke and Raul Midon; Joel Harrison’s clever, low-key jazzing up of country songs and hymns; the street-parade punch of Cha Wa (missed them at the Skyloft recently); the clever way both Kandace Springs and Veronica Swift (at A Place for Jazz Oct. 18!) remade vintage tunes with contemporary ’tude; Norah Jones going all cowboy guitar; Trombone Shorty punching our New Orleans ticket; and the righteous feeling-force of Ruthie Foster, singing to our best selves.

Veteran bands flexed smooth assurance from shared muscle memory: Joshua Redman’s 20-year-old quartet, for example; and drummer Allison Miller’s bracing, decade-deep little big-band Boom Tic Boom. Inevitable in itinerant jazz life, some bands felt more fluid: the virtuoso repertory company Black Art Jazz Collective, maybe Harrison’s Angel Band. Even bands that may have assembled just for this festival never sounded tentative.

Unsurprising, we knew they’d be great: Redman and Carter, the former exploring the emotional range of his sax, the latter pushing his saxes’ sonic barriers way, way out. DeFrancesco, all suave speed, detonated riffs fast as he imagined them, while the Mercy Project co-starring drummer Brian Blade and keyboardist John Cowherd (who also played in the Black Art Jazz Collective) charmed in the mellowest way.

No piano trios this time, except Springs. She played well and sang better. She sang Sade and Roberta Flack songs beautifully, caressed “In My Solitude,” pumped up “The World is a Ghetto,” conjured sweet menace in “I Put a Spell on You.” We saw more organists than usual, including Carter and DeFrancesco trios and Norah Jones’s quartet.

No big bands, either, except high school crews from Saratoga and Shaker, unafraid of the big stage.

Lots of cigars and fedoras. Best duds: Saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, who never loosened his tie or unbuttoned his jacket in a smooth Black Art Collective set of deep song exploration and consummate skill. Its trumpeter Jeremy Pelt competed strongly for best host and played volcanic-sweet trumpet. Best hair: Springs.

Messages raised and charged the music. Mexican-born (American citizen) drummer Antonio Sanchez’s Migration evoked Return to Forever with wordless vocals in a Latin riff-swirl, music made to sympathize with immigrants in a moral challenge of engaging sound. Cha Wa (who checked every box for me) also waved the equality flag, and the funky Cuban dance-pop veterans (50 years!) Los Van Van delivered a subtle message of tolerance.

Best discoveries: Loueke and Midon for astonishing facility and feel; Swift for brassy show-biz pizzazz and pipes; Harrison’s jazz-in-a-pickup romps; Springs and Youn Sun Nah for imagining new ways through familiar songs — oh, yeah: and Cha Wa’s force and fire.

Less great: George Benson’s Hollywood Mercedes pop sounded dated, though well-made and played with breezy skill. Wish he’d play jazz again.

Tape these on the fridge for next June 27-28.

Forget the forecast: Always bring rain-gear and sunblock.

Especially in the main stage, remember you’re not onstage so nobody outside your friends and family wants to hear you talk. Happy shout-outs, awed exclamations, sheer joy, that’s all OK. New mower or stock portfolio brags: very not OK.

Talk to strangers — we’re all in the same club — recycle, and tip your servers.

Start one act on the main stage right after another ends on the Charles R. Wood (former gazebo) stage and vice versa so nobody misses anything due to overlaps.

Don’t overlap. Most of us don’t mind bouncing from stage to stage, since walking two and a half miles (I clocked it, and saw at least some of every set) through a beautiful space full of interesting-looking people and toy-food smells is fun in itself. But fine-tuning the schedule would let us see all of every set.

Post acts and set times in a chart, like the “cubes” at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, rather than a list many of us find confusing.

Otherwise, keep on keeping on.

Correction: Sorry, I got Joshua Redman’s pianist’s name wrong in my review of Sunday’s show in Tuesday’s Gazette. He’s Aaron Goldberg, and he’s pretty great.

Jim Kweskin and super singer Geoff Muldaur, 1960s bandmates in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and an on-and-off duo for a decade, reunite Sunday at Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs). 7 p.m. $40 advance, $45 door, $22.50 children and students. 518-583-0022 www.caffelena.org

Kansas Smitty’s House Band plays Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center (615 Broadway, Saratoga Springs) Saturday after a hot fun show at SPAC last Sunday. 8 p.m. $8 adults, $5 seniors and Skidmore community. 518-580-5321www.skidmore.edu/zankel

Skidmore keeps the jazz going Tuesday with the Sylvia Cuenca Organ Quintet. A versatile, in-demand drummer with such greats as Billy Taylor, Houston Person and uncounted others, Cuenca has led her own bands of various sizes and configurations for a decade. 8 p.m. $8, $5

The 107.7 WGNA Countryfest brings Nashville veterans Big & Rich and younger country acts Old Dominion, the Eli Young Band, Brandon Lay, Caylee Hammack and the Vinny Michaels Band to SPAC on Saturday. Like Brooks & Dunne, Big & Rich are making a comeback of sorts after a hiatus. Injecting hip-hop and humor into mainstream country, they’re entertaining in an influential and engaging way. Bonus factoid: John Rich’s modernist Nashville house on a hill overlooking Hillsboro Village resembles a Mr. Coffee. 4 p.m. $65, $55, $35 inside — closer, pricier seats available from resellers — $28 lawn

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