photos by Albert Brooks
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FREIHOFER'S JAZZ FESTIVAL (Day 1)
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, NY
June 28, 2008
by J Hunter
Slightly soggy notes from the first day of the 31st annual Freihofer's Jazz Festival:
THE WEATHER IS HERE, I WISH IT WERE BEAUTIFUL: "This weather and this violin hate each other," Jenny Scheinmann informed us partway through her Gazebo set. It had to happen, given how lucky Freihofer's had been with weather the last few years; we were due for rain, but we also got thunder, lightning, and humidity you could cut with a chainsaw.
BATHE IN THE LIGHT: Saxophone Summit was another casualty of the loss of Michael Brecker; the late tenor legend was part of the group's first recording. But life and jazz goes on, and the band (with Ravi Coltrane joining original members Joe Lovano and Miles alum Dave Liebman) came out like a juiced-up MMA fighter, two tenor saxes and a soprano sax talking and calling and trilling like a multi-voiced call to prayer. Their new disc Seraphic Light (TelArc, 2008) has music composed and inspired by John Coltrane's late-career recordings, and by the end of an hour, we were all in another, better place. Seeing the son of John & Alice Coltrane jamming out with two of the best sax players on the planet and making his father's greatest works live and breathe was worth risking tornadoes and locusts, let alone a little rain.
SKETCHES OF WELL, SOMEWHERE SOUTH: The bill said "Conrad Herwig's Latin Side of Wayne Shorter", but the trombonist has now recorded three "Latin Side" discs the others covering material of Miles and of Trane. Despite the short set length and the fact that all the pieces were done at length Herwig played selections from all three discs. Just as Saxophone Summit deserved Chris ("I PLAYED WITH STING!") Botti's set space, Herwig should have been given Ryan Shaw's time. (Shaw's voice is everything it's cracked up to be, but the next Otis Redding? Not so much.) But life isn't fair, so we had to suck up the salsa-spiced tastiness as fast as Herwig (and expert bandmates Craig Handy, Ronnie Cuber and Bill O'Connell) could dish it out. From Shorter's Blakey-era composition "Ping Pong", through Miles' "Flamenco Sketches" and Trane's "Lonnie's Lament", you could see Herwig wasn't blowing smoke when he called these artists "Our heroes."
WHAT A LONG RICH TRIP IT'S BEEN: You didn't need the completely shaved head or the wondrous silk garments to know Dee Dee Bridgewater's come a long way since she closed the 2005 Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival all the way to Mali in West Africa, the literal birthplace of her ancestors. Embracing the music and customs of the region, she melded it with jazz to create the Grammy-nominated Red Earth: A Malian Journey (Decca, 2007). With longtime musical director Ira Coleman leading an international band of musicians, Bridgewater gave a riveting performance that was part concert, part education. Her opening take on Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" filled the amp with energy; she radiated joy as she dueted and danced with Malian vocalist Mamani Kèita on "Children Go Round", and displayed unending respect for Malian musical griot Kabiné Kouyaté as they performed "The Griots." The highlight happened when Bridgewater wound us through Nina Simone's "Four Women", starting from a low place and finishing in unbridled triumph.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE GAZEBO: Not only was this the best day of the weekend from a "more jazz, less pop" standpoint, but it was also the first time in some time that the main stage bill's content was equal to that of the Gazebo stage. That didn't mean the Gazebo was slacking off. Far from it:
Andrea Tierra surprised us all not only with her alluring contralto and sultry song selection, but with a hypnotic backup band that featured Shlomi Cohen (younger brother of Anat and trumpet player Avishai) on reeds and husband Edmar Castaneda on harp; next-generation NOLA pianist Jon Baptiste played the Gazebo after opening the main stage, showing touches of Horace Silver and Professor Longhair when he wasn't having fun singing Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews' "Ooh Pooh Pah Doo"; and the aforementioned Jenny Scheinmann mixed blues, Swing, Celtic, and Appalachian influences to create (with ample help from partners-in-thoughtcrime Ben Allison and Steve Cardenas) a wonderfully intimate set that plowed on in the face of the possibility that the humidity might make Scheinmann's violin or Allison's bass implode at any moment.
THE LAST SHALL BE BEST: To paraphrase Lenny White, "In an age of boy bands, Return to Forever is a man's band!" Of course, there was always the danger that this much-ballyhooed appearance could have been like the Steps Ahead reunion that closed the show two years ago: Lots of flash we'd all heard before, and were tired of. That theory went into the dumper about eight seconds after White, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Al Di Meola came onstage and reminded us why RTF was the band that took Miles' vision of electric jazz to the next level. The power and the glory was all there, sharpened by twenty-five years of musical (and personal) growth. As with Rite of Strings' show last year, the solo sections were almost too long, but the acoustic versions of "No Mystery" and "Romantic Warrior" more than made up for it.
If I can only do one day at Freihofer's, that's the kind of day it should be though it'd be nice if it was cooler the next time.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.