SARATOGA SPRINGS — Tough choices started as the rain (mostly) stopped Saturday at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at SPAC. New scheduling brought fewer show-versus-show dilemmas, until Jazzmeia Horn started singing after three in the third slot on the Charles R. Wood “Jazz Discovery” Stage (hereafter, the Wood) as clarinetist Anat Cohen led her polished ten-piece crew in the opening set on the main stage. (Both play A Place for Jazz this fall.) I’d seen Cohen in bands big and small so I opted for Horn who earned her name as a human instrument ranging from rich alto to nails-on-the-blackboard hyper-soprano.
Maybe the rain was essential: Earlier acts all but incinerated the Wood with ferocious, resourceful, ear-opening, spirit-elevating music about America now, while main stage felt meta, about jazz itself. Duets about the Hispanic diaspora by pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez dazzled first, after impresario Danny Melnick introduced them as Cuban immigrants, subtly slamming DC’s xenophobic horror. Imagine Chopin or Debussy and Tito Puente jamming in Havana with rum drinks. They drew the rain-soaked crowd into singing with them, made Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” thrilling and generally charmed and amazed.
Clarinetist Evan Christopher brought an all-star crew to honor New Orleans tradition on the Wood, boxing 300 years of culture into 65 minutes. The band of secret weapons (they rarely leave home) brought home with them. Christopher led with great, fluent playing while Robyn Barnes sang us “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans;” they Jelly-Roll’ed us, walked us to the “Sunny Side of the Street” and percolated “Congo in the Square” like a second line to heaven.
Pianist Christian Sands, bassist Noah Jackson and always-smiling drummer Jonathan Barber, who seemed to know what the others would play before they did, also went traditional, rummaging in songbooks of Mulgrew Miller, Juan Tizol and Thelonious Monk for music and message: a virtuoso trio in full flight.
I missed Joey Alexander (main) for trumpeter Keyon Harrold’s meaningful set (Wood), so top pianist to my ears Saturday was Christian Sands; Herbie Hancock, and Eldar in Botti’s band notwithstanding.
Jackson stayed as Jazzmeia Horn’s band formed around him (Sands later played in Harrold’s band), framing her siren voice and skat explorations in agile post-bop. Charismatic, fearless, she sang straight some, but was more fun when she’d wing it, skatting “Honeysuckle Rose” into “Salt Peanuts,” deconstructing “A Night in Tunisia” and framing “People Make the World Go ‘Round” in anguished screams after sermonizing sadly why its underdog message rings true today.
Saturday’s two trumpeters exemplified the Wood-versus-main stage split; affect (attitude) versus effect (flash). Chris Botti closed the main stage with a slick band and formidable technique, impressive but flat after Keyon Harrold’s deeper if less virtuosic music earlier on the Wood.
Harrold’s opener felt like the overture to an opera that didn’t show up, until he explained this suite grew from (and included) a voicemail from his mother (he’s one of 14) and that she nearly died before hearing it. His other music had life-and-death intent and intensity, shape-shifting from Weather Report/Bitches Brew fusion through reggae and uptown funk. His climactic “When Will It Stop?” decried racist violence. He’s from Ferguson. He pled for peace and love.
Later, closing the show, Botti brought a polished band, brilliant technique, heads-up arrangements and atmosphere over emotion; an explosive “You Don’t Know that Love Is” was full of sound and fury, signifying not much. Botti then steered his boatload of talent into more challenging waters with Miles Davis’s “Blue in Green” and Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia,” meaning finally catching up with muscle.
Earlier, I hit the main stage first for singer Jose James’s Bill Withers’ tribute, a happy set since everybody knows Withers’ tunes, and sang them. James’s Sly-at-Woodstock garb — “big Afro and your old vest,” as he described himself — clashed some with his hip-hop body language, but the songs worked. “Hello Like Before” showed off compelling ballad chops while “Who Is He?” packed betrayal anger.
Hancock’s booming quartet next took us to his 1970s synthesized funk, retro-blasts of “Actual Proof” and the encore of “Chameleon” hitting hardest, a cheerfully mutated “Watermelon Man” reaching furthest in his deep songbook. At 78, Hancock hasn’t lost speed or his sense of fun in making a big noise. He and tremendous guitarist Lionel Louecke often swapped tones and riffs, amped and agile.
The “running of the tents,” as gates opened and fans rushed in to set up camp, was a happy land-rush, but the usual smell of sunscreen was replaced Saturday by wet scents of under-used tents and winter coats dragged back down from the attic.
See Sunday jazz festival highlights in my Jukebox column in Thursday’s Ticket.