“As Stevie Wonder once said, ‘Love’s in need of love today,’ ” announced Saratoga Springs singer Garland Nelson from the main amphitheater stage at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Sunday, when he and his Joyful Noise gospel group kicked off Day 2 of the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the festival was cancelled in 2020 and presented last summer in a much sparser version. This was the first jazz festival with two full days of programming since 2019, including the return of a large craft tent — always one of the highlights of the fest.
But attendance appeared to be down, with plenty of open seats in the amphitheater and empty spaces on the lawn. Perhaps it was the sweltering heat, conflicting graduation ceremonies, lingering COVID-19 concerns or just a “new normal” as one SPAC worker speculated.
Regardless, for those who attended, the festival provided constant reminders of how uplifting music can be, and how healing it is for people to gather and celebrate live music together.
The feel-good vibes started with Nelson and Joyful Noise — a “spirit choir” filled with gospel fervor that features members from around the Capital Region, including Schenectady teenager Jayda Chance. They kicked the festival off with a jubilant set that included James Taylor’s “Shower the People” and Luther Vandross’ “Power of Love.” The effervescent Nelson whipped a towel in the air, urged the crowd to sing along, and encouraged the audience to love one another and help each other through hard times.
Meanwhile, over on the Charles R. Wood Gazebo Stage, Grammy-nominated Cuban music group Tiempo Libre defined exuberance with their infectious, high-energy Afro-Caribbean music. Mercifully, the smaller “discovery” stage now has a tent providing shade for audience members — gone are the days of baking in the sun on exposed benches.
Another virtue of the smaller stage is that it provides more room for audience members to dance along. Dance they did, whether for Dara Starr Tucker’s gospel, soul and pizzazz or for Cha Wa, a Mardi Gras Indian funk band out of New Orleans, who returned to SPAC with their colorful intricate feather headdresses and infectious tunes like “Firewater” and “Second Line Girl.”
On the main stage, 21-year-old blind pianist Matthew Whitaker injected some funk and soul into his jazz on interpretations of Chick Corea’s “Spain,” Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a La Turk,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘September.”
Brazilian jazz pianist Eliane Elias, another headliner, also paid tribute to Corea, the celebrated pianist who died of cancer in 2021, not long after she recorded her Grammy-winning “Mirror, Mirror” album with him. Corea was honored with a SPAC “walk of fame” plaque in 2016.
This year an award went to Kurt Elling, whose main stage performance was a highlight of the festival. Performing with Super Blue — which features one-of-a-kind guitarist Charlie Hunter — Elling spoke about the difficulties of the pandemic but also about the importance of having a “strategy for staying buoyant in the world,” as he led the band through a remarkable set that veered from scat vocals to slightly twisted show tunes.
Then Susan Brink, a Schenectady resident and member of the Jazz Journalists Association, came onstage looking glamorous to present Elling with the group’s male vocalist of the year award.
By the time the festival ended on Sunday evening, after a barn-burning performance by soul-gospel-pop singer Ledisi, and a traditional jazz clinic of sheer mastery by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the life-affirming nature of the day’s performances had come full circle.
Where would we be without music?