By Michael Hochanadel
For The Daily Gazette
SARATOGA SPRINGS – The woman dancing down the aisle Saturday at Saratoga Performing Arts Center danced what everybody felt as the Hot Club of Saratoga, first act playing Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, lit up “Swing 42.”
Musically, the festival looked back. The Hot Club celebrated 1930s fleet “gypsy jazz” of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Joey Alexander explored the piano’s every dialect, eloquent ala McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson and Teddy Wilson. Dianne Reeves sang and skated Brazilian-style: Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto. And Christian McBride’s New Jawn hard-bopped like the Jazz Messengers, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis.
Music brought the fans to SPAC, deserted for a year until Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio’s solo three-night stand; and they brought their joy.
“It’s every emotional to be here,” festival producer and co-owner Danny Melnick said before the show. “Driving in here yesterday was so exciting, emotional and life-affirming.” After last summer’s online-only festival, Melnick’s team and SPAC management got firm “No’s” last winter on telling the state Health Department their plans for a tented show with just one act each day and multiple audiences passing through. He credited SPAC President and CEO Elizabeth Sobol, Freihofers and other sponsors for staying the course as the Health Department changed regulations, granting a green light just weeks ago for a two-day festival with fans distanced in groups inside the amphitheater and on the lawn. “It’s all been an evolution,” said Melnick, “changing as society changed.”
“This is not the Jazz Festival you’re used to,” Sobol announced in the break between Alexander and Reeves. Well, yes it was. Reduced to four acts on one stage versus the typical 10 or 11 on two, it still brought fans together in warm relief and happy reunions, all set to a stirring soundtrack of musicians playing as if their lives depended on it.
Very few fans I met Saturday also attend other festivals; some do Jazz Fest in New Orleans, but for for most, this is the whole ball game.
Masks were few, but fans kept to their own paint-circled pods on the lawn and assigned seats inside. As Daryl from Newburgh set up a lawn chair, he recalled past shows here, singling out Smokey Robinson as a favorite. Disappointed at the 2020 festival’s cancellation, he said Saturday’s renewal is the first live music he’s seen in more than a year. “It’s great, it’s fresh air, it’s exciting and relaxing.” He said, somewhat grudgingly, that the reduced format is “better than nothing,” but seemed set to return next year. “That’ll be a blast.”
Brian and Wade from Queens and Brooklyn, respectively, shared a mood I could feel like sunshine. Wade was returning to his first fest in 30 years, recalling past stellar shows here by Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson. Brian said, “I make the trek every year, and I was all set to go last year and had all new stuff” – chairs, tent, cooler. “But by April, I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” he said, adding that he’d watched the online festival last summer. Both said the abrupt shut-down of New York City was “surreal,” interrupting a basketball tournament they’d been attending. In his first return in 30 years, Wade found the lawn and amphitheater familiar, but the expanded hospitality features – new vending, VIP and restroom facilities and roofed dining area – surprised him. “I love it out here,” Brian said; “It’s awesome.” However, he was less impressed with the one-stage format. “No, I want two stages,” he grumbled, before brightening as he recalled past shows by favorite artists including B.B. King and Branford Marsalis. “It’s amazing, the artists we get here.”
Fans checked the (much-reduced) food, fashions and crafts vendors, read books or newspapers, napped or worked crossword puzzles as showtime approached. The amphitheater seemed to have more people waiting inside for music than in past years. All day long, hot solos got warm applause and every act got a standing ovation. They all earned it.
Fans’ music hunger felt poignant in the happy expectant hum as the Hot Club of Saratoga started swinging antique acoustic jazz at noon. With two guitars, violin, bass and clarinet, they trod lightly through the tradition, charming everybody. The graceful “Snowfall” and zippy “Sweet Georgia Brown” set the table for singer Julia Pozen, a small woman with big voice, first in Russian, in “Oche Chernye.” She returned after some spicy instrumentals to help close with a jaunty “Dinah.”
Like the similarly precocious pianist Hiromi, Joey Alexander has grown into his full talent by collaborating with top players and composing tunes. Saturday, Kendrick Scott swung sticks thick as tree-trunks, mostly with a light touch, while bassist Larry Grenadier perfectly bridged Scott’s beat with Alexander’s melodic ingenuity. He formed songs gradually, taking us along as we heard him thinking. This telepathic trio, though, shared his thought, riff by riff, from first notes. You could watch the kick-drum head bulge in perfect, nanosecond time with Grenadier’s bass. “Tis Our Prayer” in particular felt like the work of one mind with six hands.
Unassuming but warm, Alexander had the crowd with him right away; they sang “Happy Birthday” – he turned 18 on Friday – even before a cake was wheeled out on the break, then sang it again.
No wonder Christian McBride, who played last, noted, “I was not too happy, going on after her!” “Her” was Dianne Reeves, in her first-ever performance with a new all-Brazilian trio singing Brazilian music. She said she came out of the pandemic as somebody else, “for the good,” jokingly confided that she’s been practicing walking again in high heels to perform, then sang the roof off.
She started most songs big, then built them bigger, singing with the clean clarity of Ella Fitzgerald, bouncy mastery of bossa’s sunny rhythms and major mountains of that indefinable thing called class. Her band was aces, sensitive strength at every position: guitarist Romero Lumbambo, bassist Itaiguara Brandao and percussionist Negah Santos. But Reeves almost made them disappear when she skat-sang or personalized a lyric with a bared heart full of hope. The crowd stood as she wished everyone peace, life, love and joy and the band played her off.
McBride had promised to “do the best we can” after Reeves, and succeeded in a muscular set of modernist bluesy and always spirited, super-expert playing. The band played like two trios at times: McBride’s bass with Nasheet Waits’ drums behind solos from either Josh Evans, trumpet; or Marcus Strickland, tenor sax and bass clarinet. Each horn player left as the other explored. As with Reeves’ band – smooth in their first-ever show – McBride’s New Jawn ripped easily through the tricky ensemble passages that drew the whole quartet together, despite not playing together in months.
Uptempo tunes took off fast and got right to cruising altitude, especially Evans’ “Pier One Import” with a crisp solo from its composer, while Strickland laced Larry Young’s “Obsequious” with high screams and low whomps. When he switched to bass clarinet in “John Day” (McBride wrote it for a childhood friend), Strickland played so slow and sweet, I wanted to know what sad thing had happened to poor John Day. A veteran leader who knows how to get the best from his players, McBride was still the most impressive and expressive soloist in his virtuoso band.
Before the show, producer Danny Melnick promised a “great blow-out” next year for the festival’s 45th anniversary. When I met Daryl from Newburgh again, he said, “It was great, the whole day, and I’m glad I was here, taking it all in.” Everybody I met promised to return next year, even Brian from Queens, who’d grumbled earlier about the reduced format. He said, “It was different, but it was as good as it was billed.” He laughed and said, “I’m not going to leave. I’m going to stay right here, all winter, to be ready for next year.”
Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival continues today at noon with Garland Nelson’s Joyful Noise, then Al di Meola, Artemis, and Cecile McLorin Salvant, in that order.
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