When Giovanni Hidalgo took a timbale solo in the sweltering afternoon heat Saturday, the stage lights flashing like an arena rock guitar solo and the crowd standing and yelling for him, it was yet another reason to call this year’s Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival a notch or two above the more recent years, which has always featured world-class players since its inception 35 years ago.
And when the opening act at the smaller Gazebo stage already had a packed-in audience, every piece of real estate claimed and settled by noon, you felt a higher sense of excitement than usual.
“Tell you what, Jack, it’s hot up here,” bassist Christian McBride told the crowd early in the day, referring to both the heat and the music.
Call it the weather, call it the lineup: every performance captured every crowd, making it hard to leave any act to visit the other stage. You felt like you were experiencing full-sized concerts, and not limited to snippets of bands shrunk down to fit into the context of a festival.
The Saratoga Jazz Festival has got to be the most musically — and racially — diverse event for the region. While it’s all called jazz, Catherine Russell singing an American-grounded 1920s swing version of “Everybody Loves My Baby” is a universe apart from Michel Camilo’s Caribbean rhythms and tempos, and Esperanza Spalding singing her progressive pop-jazz seemed even further from the other two worlds. White, black and Hispanic performers played to an equally integrated crowd.
The headline acts featured Maceo Parker, Chris Botti and Spalding. But one did not need to wait for evening to get big moments. Bassist Christian McBride, with his Inside Straight band, played a contemporary set of songs that had some gigantic solos, his group members astoundingly talented.
McBride plays his acoustic bass with the clarity and speed of an electric bassist: you don’t only feel his bottom-end, you pay attention to him. His young drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. stayed literally on the front edge of his drum seat to pounce whenever McBride lifted the sound from below. The duo was fantastic to watch, their physical abilities alone reminding one of athletes who continue to surpass previous sports milestones.
During their set you had the feeling that you might not see that kind of excitement again on Saturday. But it came again rather quickly with the Mingus Big Band. There are certain staples at jazz festivals around the country, and honoring Charles Mingus has become one at Saratoga’s renowned festival. Saturday, the largely youthful Mingus Big Band brought Mingus music to a new level.
Though it’s often bass and sax centered, layered with cerebral complexities, this was a young, vigorous group who gave all the modern punch and verve Mingus intended, though he couldn’t have known the muscular chops young musicians would one day use to attack his music. He’d have to be proud listening to what we heard Saturday. Take his classic “Good-bye Pork Pie Hat,” a tune that moved from ballad to signature Mingus ruckus, with vocals against trombones blaring.
Meanwhile, on the smaller stage, vocalist Russell, in the spirit of Ella Fitzgerald, sang straight up swing and blues, tunes like “I’m Sticking to You Baby” and the satirically righteous “We the People.” Her simple foot-tapping swing was refreshing given its user-friendly accessibility.
Spalding was the exact opposite. While exceptionally talented in a slew of ways — her singing, composition and bass playing all contribute to her fame — she had trouble connecting to the audience personally and musically. Her range of vocals, including wild, emotional scat singing, were fascinating to hear. But some in the audience scratched their heads by the third tune, some yelled for more, and some simply missed the point and left.
Trumpeter Chris Botti was awesome. Easy to enjoy, he played sweetly for a good portion of each song, then brought the group to a crescendo and back down again to end each tune. On the road 300 days a year for the past five years, the band is well-groomed. Calling Miles Davis his “favorite of all time,” he briefly described Davis’ musical achievements, then played a slow “Flamenco Sketches” from “Kind of Blue,” using a mute to capture the Davis sound and feel.
He brought to the stage a guest for nearly every song, such as a violinist and a mandolin player. Each was specially talented, each received a standing ovation from most of the amphitheater. But it was he and guest singer Lisa Fisher who brought down the house several times with their trumpet and vocal duets.
For me, Botti and McBride delivered the best jazz of the day.
Saxman Maceo Parker closed the day with a, in his words, “off-the-hook” funk set.
Of all the acts Saturday, Parker was the only one outside the border of jazz (sure, someone can argue everything is blues and jazz). While he got the place bouncing and put a smile on everyone’s face with his good spirits and love of funk, it didn’t fit in to what was otherwise a finely tuned mix of great — sometimes amazing — jazz.
Not a far cry from the Art Blakey and Buddy Rich days, when the Jazz Festival succeeds like it did on Saturday, it goes a long way toward keeping alive the American-born art of jazz in all of its forms.
The festival continues today with vocalist Diana Krall, New Orlean’s Trombone Shorty, and more.