A phenomenal set by Hiromi thrilled the sun-drenched crowd on Sunday at the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The most impressive of the three women pianists who dominated the Main Stage, she played from her toes up and with fiery soul, as did Rachel Z who started the show with her Trio of Oz; while singer-pianist Diana Krall played from the brain down later in the day, before Trombone Shorty brought the funk and wrapped up the festival with a joyous explosion of New Orleans spirit.
Wonderful weather ensured a large crowd, ready to listen and get happy. The music did the rest. Rachel Z drove her Trio of Oz forcefully through jazz originals and pop songs by Stone Temple Pilots (“Sour World” as a second line strut) and Sting (they’re entitled: Oz drummer Omar Hakim played with Sting’s Blue Turtles band). Hakim and bassist Solomon Dorsey, reaping extra applause for his bowtie, gave her all the groove any soloist could want and she took full advantage with cascading arpeggios.
Meanwhile, Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda was destroying any preconceptions about the capabilities of the harp, jazz and folk music in the Gazebo, praising “Jesus de Nazareth” in hymn-like gratitude alone and fronting a small band featuring dramatic vocalist wife Andrea Tierra in anthemic celebrations.
Next at the Gazebo singer Sachal Vasandani didn’t hold the crowd Castaneda had excited, but he did erase the memory of an underwhelming Spa Little Theater show years ago with a crisp band featuring keyboardist Gerald Clayton and charming songs sung in an agile Michael Franks-like delivery, but better than Franks.
Always sharper and smarter than the “smooth jazz” label often applied to them, the Yellowjackets impressed with young bassist Felix Pastorius ably subbing for Jimmy Haslip. Transitioning from the ‘Jackets on the Main Stage to Vasandani in the Gazebo made sense, but the Steve Kroon Sextet could have cured cancer and split the atom in the Gazebo and I’d have still missed them to see Hiromi.
A prodigious talent when she first played here, Hiromi was volcanic Sunday, supported by bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips. She eclipsed them easily, each song doing what her career has: impressed mightily, then ascended to another plane. The piano needed a fire extinguisher for Arturo O’Farrill then Diana Krall to use it thereafter.
O’Farrill brought the biggest band, 20 pieces counting guest Castanada, and made the most of it in Latin excursions through not just music but current events. “Caravan,” “A Wise Latina” (for Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor) and the prismatic “40 Acres and a Burro” sizzled.
Krall simmered, cool and cozy, often singing in a breathy whisper. Noting it’s Canada Day, she celebrated with a (fellow Canadian) Joni Mitchell song, and Tom Waits’ wry “Jockey Full of Bourbon” was equally effective alongside swingtime chestnuts “How Deep is the Ocean” (that was a segue from “Jockey”!) and “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”
Then Trombone Shorty burst onstage with a trombone and a trumpet overhead and tore off the roof. Playing both astoundingly well, he and his five cohorts in Orleans Avenue made a gigantic sound, grooves so deep you could hide the whole state in them. “St. James Infirmary” erupted from a Latin vamp into a loud crowd chant-along, he held a trumpet note for five minutes in “On the Sunny Side of the Street” then fell back onto the stage.
And when he drove the place wild with “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Everybody Needs Somebody,” a snake-dance parade broke out as everybody onstage swapped instruments — Trombone Shorty wound up behind the drums, playing as well as Omar Hakim or Simon Phillips — and the groove never faltered. What a stupendous, totally joyous climax!