The 36th annual Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at Saratoga Performing Arts Center kicked off with a bang Saturday, with seven top acts on the main stage entertaining a typically full crowd from early afternoon into the late evening.
Even before the official noon start time, the lawn was packed with people sitting in lawn chairs, under tents or just wandering the grounds, waiting for the music to start. According to a SPAC spokesperson who did not wish to be named, attendance was on par with last year’s festival, which was up 45 percent from 2011. About 12,000 people were expected to flow through the amphitheater over the course of the weekend.
Crowds came from near and far. Alan and Gail Jordan, of River Vale, N.J., have been attending the festival as often as possible since the late ’90s. The couple was most looking forward to the set by saxophonist David Sanborn and pianist Bob James.
“We try to make it every year,” Alan Jordan said. “We miss a few years every now and then.”
Others came for the overall festive atmosphere, rather than a particular group. Becky Austin and Bryan Kinkade, of New York City, returned to the festival with their children after having first attended in the mid-2000s.
“This is the first time we’ve been here with kids, so it’s a different kind of day,” Austin said. “We’re here just to spend the whole day and see everything in general.”
Attendees came in and out of the amphitheater, hopping between the main stage and the gazebo stage set up at the edge of the lawn. A few downpours in the early afternoon cut through otherwise sunny weather, but by the time Jazz Fest veteran McCoy Tyner took the stage at 4:20 p.m., the weather had mostly evened out, with temperatures cooling considerably.
Fun on stage
Saturday’s headliner, Arturo Sandoval, making his fifth appearance at this festival, appeared to be having the most fun of anyone who played. Hitting the stage shortly after 9 p.m., his six-piece Latin jazz band uncorked an instrumental that showcased a duel between Sandoval on trumpet and Ed Calle on saxophone that ended with a lightning-fast run on the horn by Sandoval that left Calle laughing, unable to respond.
“Birks Works” continued the musical playfulness, with Sandoval accompanying his trumpet with a synthesizer, eventually tearing into a distorted keyboard solo that sounded like nothing else that came before it on stage.
Throughout, Sandoval kept switching instruments, playing piano on “Sorina” and singing lead on “Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You),” a tribute to his mentor, Dizzy Gillespie, and the title track of his 2012 album. His raucous version of Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” was an appropriate closer, ending with all six musicians firing on all cylinders.
Second-billed Sanborn and James, backed by drummer Steve Gadd and upright bassist Scott Colley, dug in with a set that balanced material from their first collaboration, 1986’s “Double Vision,” with songs from their latest, this year’s Dave Brubeck-inspired “Quartette Humaine.” New songs like the playful “You’d Better Not Go To College” and “Follow Me,” featuring some mind-bending playing from James, were satisfying, but it was the “Double Vision” material that really got the crowd going.
Sanborn’s searing solo on “More Than Friends” brought the audience to its feet, while the winding “Maputo” gave everyone in the band a chance to show off.
Vocalist Gregory Porter and his drums-bass-piano-saxophone quartet gave the evening its sensitive jazz ballad quotient. Porter first launched his group into the inspirational “Painted on Canvas” before upping the ante with the jazz history namedropping of “On My Way to Harlem.” While Porter has an amazing voice, as witnessed on the incredible “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and Wayne Shorter cover “Black Nile,” it was saxophonist Yosuke Sato who stole the show, with especially incredible soloing on the mid-set standout ballad “No Love Dying.”
An old hand
The aforementioned Tyner may have looked a bit frail, needing someone to guide him to his piano bench, but as soon as his hands touched the keys, he transformed with the music. His set with his quartet and special guest John Scofield on guitar was a highlight of the entire festival, with tunes such as “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” and a phenomenal run on “Ballad For Aisha” striking the right mix of improvisation and harmony. Besides “Aisha,” he was at his best on “African Village,” which closed the set on a high note with some wonderful interplay between his piano and Scofield’s smooth guitar.
Things began promptly at noon on the main stage with Indian-influenced saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and his quartet performing music from their latest album, “Gamak.”
The group mixed progressive rock overtones with straight-ahead jazz and Indian music, with the prog elements coming courtesy of guitarist David “Fuze” Fiuczynski, who switched between fretless and fretted sounds on his double-necked instrument.
Up next, septet The Cookers, led by trumpeter David Weiss, provided a more classic jazz sound on tunes such as “Peacemaker” and “Croquet Ballet.”
The quintet Big Sam’s Funky Nation was a sharp change of pace, hitting the stage with a ferocious guitar-bass-drums attack that rocked harder than anything anyone would expect at a jazz festival. With songs encouraging audience members to shake their “Funky Donkey,” this band was also perhaps the most fun, getting the then-sparse amphitheater crowd up on its feet numerous times.
Trombonist Big Sam, formerly of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, commanded the stage with his upfront (and very loud) vocal presence, while the rest of the band cranked out snarling grooves that reached metallic levels of intensity.
The Freihofer’s Jazz Festival continues today beginning at noon, with guitarist Buddy Guy headlining.