Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival: June 25-26, 2011
Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Springs, NY
June 25-26, 2011
This year's Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival, the 34th edition of the upstate New York event, featured a great touch when famed jazz impresario George Wein was awarded a star on the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Walk of Fame. Wein created the festival, fashioning it as an outdoor event in the mold of the iconic Newport Jazz Festival, and produced it until 2007, when he thought he was pulling out of the business.
He returned to run the Newport Jazz Festival in 2009, and still has a big place in his heart for Saratoga Springs. And vice versa.
But the cool thing extended further, as Wein also performed at the festival, as a pianist fronting his Newport All Stars that were a hit on the main stage of the two-stage Saratoga Performing Arts Center venue. It featured superb players like trumpeter Randy Brecker, Anat Cohen on sax and clarinet, Lewis Nash on drums, Peter Washington on bass, Lew Tabackin on sax and flute and guitarist Howard Alden. They wailed through a set of standards, with Cohen flexing her muscular chops on both instruments. She blazed on tenor through "Manha de Carnival," which also featured the always-excellent flute of Tabakin. Brecker's trumpet soared as it always does and the rhythm section was impeccable. Wein's 85 year-old fingers are nimble enough to provide many fun moments.
The star-studded band was emblematic of the festival put together by Wein protégé Danny Melnick of Absolutely Live Entertainment. It was two solid days of outstanding jazz on two stages. It featured the likes of Eliane Elias, Jack DeJohnette, The Bad Plus, Ben Allison, Lionel Loueke, Marcus Strickland, Dee Dee Bridgewater, David Binney, Hilary Kole and more.
Elias' set was typically fine, full of energy and life. Her current band, touring in support of her new album Light My Fire (Concord, 2011) and she did an array of tunes from it, as well as gems from past albums like "So Danco Samba." The rhythm section, anchored by Marc Johnson on bass, is energized by percussionist Marlvaldo dos Santos. High-energy tunes were balanced by softer things like "Rosa Morena," allowing Elias to display her attractive voice. She's become a strong singer, but don't go to sleep on her monster piano chops that propel the music.
"It's a very special album and it has an aspect to it that is different than the others," she said after her set. "It has some very sexy moments. It has moments that are very cool, vibey. But also a lot of rhythm, groove and romance. It has different things that worked so nice together ... I always brought different elements of Brazilian music, but I've done a lot of albums that were more instrumental. This is a vocal album that still has a lot of piano. But this album, with the vocals, has more of a variety of elements of Brazilian music than just the bossa nova. There's some music from the north of Brazil, from Bahia. And some Afro-Brazilian rhythms ... This album, from the very beginning, had a force of its own."
Among the best was the music of DeJohnette. His band featured young monster musicians who have melded together and play with passion, scorching the SPAC main stage with blistering improvisation. Of course, it was all fielded by the magnificent drumming of the leader, who got sound and feeling from a drum set that was staggering. George Colligan's keyboards were crazy good, and David Fiuczynski's hot guitar work created blissful moments. And DeJohnette has found a soul mate in Rudresh Mahanthappa, who blew hot, cool and everything in between. Always pushing and exploring.
Marcus Strickland's recent albums are establishing him as a major saxophonist. With David Bryant on piano, Ben Williams on bass and twin brother E.J. Strickland on drums, the group mesmerized the gazebo stage audience. The band cooked, and then was tempered by a serene ballad that highlighted the soprano sax. Bassist Ben Allison's band had a similar effect, with sublime musicianship streaming from the bandstand, evoking a variety of moods while always maintaining intensity and interest. Guitarist Steve Cardenas had a rich sound and his melodic sense of invention was always pleasurable. Drummer Rudy Royston has really along in the last couple years as one of the very finest young drummers on the scene, and he drove the Allison unit in great fashion. Cardenas also played his own set as a trio with Allison and Royston, so he got to develop more musical ideas of his own and the interplay of that unit was what jazz is about.