Weather and music beat the forecasts Sunday, the second day of Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at SPAC. The nine-hour 12-act showcase peaked with Mardi Gras parades-in-place by Cha Wa and Trombone Shorty, Ruthie Foster sang us to blues church, Youn Sun Nah’s voice explored outer and inner space, Norah Jones rose from her trademark easy-chair soft-jazz piano for rock-guitar romps, and straight-ahead stars Joey DeFrancesco and Joshua Redman gave state-of-the-jazz updates. Two re-imaginings of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” stood among this sunny, surprising fest’s finest peaks.
OK, weather. Rain fell in Kansas Smitty’s House Band’s opener on the Charles R. Wood Jazz Discovery Stage (hereafter, the Wood). Horn-powered hipsters (five beards, four shades), they playfully rummaged in antiques. Alto player/local hero Giacomo Smith (parents brought him to the fest before he was born) rued the early sad songs he claimed brought the wet, but “Take Me Home” poignantly celebrated Saratoga and other happy, peppy tunes dried the place before Jellyroll Morton’s “The Pearls” peaked and closed. Kansas Smitty’s House Band plays Skidmore’s Zankel Hall this Thursday.
Next at the Wood, Joel Harrison guitar-jazzed country classics (Cash, Willie, Wills), back-roads rides with detours. “Ring of Fire” and Wills’ “Osage Stomp” explored from the familiar to way outside. The former a quiet, mutated reverie; the latter, a hoedown, Harrison and sax-man Kahlil Shaw took the tunes way over there, turning the chords inside out.
Joey DeFrancesco “kicked the B” in the amphitheater (hereafter, the Main) but good, kicking bass pedals under his Hammond B3 organ where fingers flew ideas at warp speed. Drummer Billy Hart and sax-man (bassist, when DeFrancesco played sax) Troy Roberts matched Joey D, playful in the rambunctious “In the Key of the Universe,” simmering sweet in “Skylark.”
After compressing all the soprano arias of an opera from space into a sky-scratching rhapsody, Youn Sun Nah sang us back to sea level with “Sweet William,” singing seagull noises for chantey atmosphere in the most thrilling/odd set all day. She mashed up Marvin Gaye, George Harrison and Meredith Monk, injected “Caravan” into a yearning original. Fans filtering into her Wood set from the Main after DeFrancesco’s fireworks fell instantly under the serene spell of her meditation on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Next, on the Main, Joshua Redman’s quartet played a seamless surge of skill matching imagination, brilliant/caffeinated as Joey D’s before them. A player of singular wit and wisdom, Redman went modernist, modal and mischievous in originals of complex time, gentle romance or cheerful funk; swaggering through Bird’s bop-blast “Libido” and a delicious “Stardust” late.
Then I found the Wood levitating on funk-joy as Cha Wa laid it down and lifted us up. It wasn’t all “Hey Pocky Way” wild street chants that made everybody who loves New Orleans lose our minds, either. They mourned how inequality worsened the Katrina disaster and protested “Masters of War” militarism for profit; principle and power welded into irresistible uplift with a hot sauce of anger.
Precise, polished, polite, the Django Festival All-Stars sounded sedate-strong on the Main, a catch-your-breath oasis of acoustic-swing Euro elegance after Cha Wa’s loud smile of arm-waving ecstasy. Next on the Wood, drummer Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom balanced earthy and cerebral, a programming stroke of genius perfectly suited to hot-and-cool violinist Jenny Scheinman and two inspired horn players.
Way more restlessly creative than her invitingly cool pop-jazz hits, Norah Jones first soothed and swung quietly on the Main, mixing in new songs “Just a Little Big” and “It Was You” early. These and her hits “Don’t Know Why I Didn’t Come” and “Come Away With Me” hit the crowd’s comfort level. But she jazzed country or vice versa as organist Pete Reem or Jones strapped on a guitar, rocking “Don’t Know What It Means” and “Sunrise.” Racing to Ruthie Foster on the Wood, I left Gazette colleague Kirsten Ferguson to keep up with Jones. “She did ‘My Heart is Full’ and ‘Carry On,’ then she left. The crowd clamored for more. Many were in the aisles leaving, when she came back on. She said, “We weren’t going to do an encore, but our set was shorter than we meant it to be, so we’ll just do it. We’ll do this country song while you go pee.” They did: (Norah on guitar with a solo that got cheers) — “Lonestar.”
Foster kept up the blaze Cha Wa lit; slow-burning “Phenomenal Woman” as I ran up and making very good on her claim before she transformed “Ring of Fire” boldly as Harrison had hours before, mutating the chords but deepening the feeling. Her own “Love in the Middle” cherished and challenged the crowd.
As at his hometown Jazz Fest, Trombone Shorty (born Troy Andrews) closed Sunday in an exuberant virtuoso funk frenzy with a beefed up Orleans Avenue; plus two singers and a guitar. Howling trombone or trumpet blasts or elbowing the relentless Robert Peebles off the drums to take his turn, singing soulful and strong, he was a brilliant blur, controlling the overflow crowd with the same confident precision as he ran the band. Peebles’ kick-drum and Mike Bailey’s bass boomed, loudest rocks in a mountain of sound; guitars, saxes and vocals meshed up top. Their best songs – “Ain’t No Use,” “On Your Way Down” – hit with meaning; but even their most party-hearty numbers – “Here Come the Girls,” “Get Up Offa That Thing” injected inside “Long Weekend” – energized like crazy. As at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, Trombone Shorty should always close SPAC’s jazz festival.