FREIHOFER’S JAZZ FESTIVAL (Day 2)
Saratoga Springs, NY
June 26, 2011
by J Hunter
Notes from my last Freihofer’s Jazz Festival (I’ll addressthe “last” part in a bit):
NO GUTS, NO GLORY: The headline act was called “Sing theTruth”, but New Paltz trumpeter Rebecca Coupe Franks did some truth-telling ofher own at the Gazebo. Not content to keep it instrumental on her set of consistently strong originals (backed by pianist Luis Perdomo, who just keeps getting better), she also favored us with lyrics that came from the heart, even thoughthose vocals were delivered by a singing voice that was far less than perfect. My initial two-word argument to her detractors (“Doc Cheatham”) was knocked down by the fact that Cheatham has phrasing, but Cheatham had 90 years to develop his style; Franks is just starting out, and I, for one, want to see where she goes with this direction.
WE’RE DOIN’ IT LIVE – I have a problem with CDs where the leader is outplayed by his backup band, and Tia Fuller got pretty muchsteam rolled by an all-star cast on her Mack Avenue debut Decisive Steps. The only steamrolling that happened during herFreihofer’s set was done by the former Beyoncé backup musician and her razor-sharp quartet. Balanced on pink stiletto heels that would have snapped a lesser woman’sankles, Fuller blew us all away with a searing alto sax and a big-as-all-outdoors personality that made you like her instantly. Drummer/brother-in-law RudyRoyston came super-strong during his third show of the weekend, and pianist/sister Shamie Royston proved that Fuller isn’t the only kickass musician in her family.
THE THRILL IS GONE – The Bad Plus has caused more arguments than anything in jazz since Miles went electric, but anyone who’s seen their previous Capital Region shows has to agree that they’re a major force inconcert. Apparently, though, their road manager left that force at the hotel on this day, because the Minnesota natives came out desperately flat and never recovered.The cavernous Main Stage gets part of the blame, because piano trios simply don’t do well there. The main thing, though, is that TBP is at its best when it’s outto outrage, and there was just nothing outrageous about anything they played here. I’m hoping this was just a hiccup, because this genre still needs agentprovocateurs, and The Bad Plus has set the standard.
SOME VILLAGE IS MISSING AN IDIOT – Freihofer’s motto is “It’sall about ‘the hang.’” Unfortunately, that can lead to people forgetting that this is a concert, not a picnic ground. So it shouldn’t have been shocking that bassist Thomas Morgan’s hushed, in-the-clear opening of David Binney’s Gazebo set was interrupted by someone in the tents playing “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”on a CD boombox. Not missing a beat, Morgan played one short, LOUD note that made us all jump and silenced the Temptations immediately. The offending noise purged, Binney went on to do one of the most forceful Gazebo sets I’ve ever seen. The downtown altoist plays the kind of deep, intellectual jazz that usually suffersat outdoor shows, but not a word was spoken as he and his partners found newways to surprise, stun, and (ultimately) please the crowd.
BRINGING A KNIFE TO A GUN FIGHT – Donald Harrison Jr. did his best. Wearing an all-white suit that harkened back to Louis Armstrong’s earlydays, Harrison put the pedal to the metal on the James Brown-influenced “FreedomBe” and never backed off once. Neither did young pianist Zaccai Curtis, whose power and invention made me want to hear what he could cook up as a leader. The trouble was that this wasn’t just Harrison’s set; this was billed as “A Nightin Treme”, a real taste of HBO’s amazing new series, and Harrison simply didn’t have the horses onstage: His was the only horn in the bunch, leaving the NOLA-flavored pieces seriously wanting. And while Cyril Neville and two MardiGras Indians were part of the band, that’s not even a taste of Mardi Gras, let alone New Orleans. Stamp this set “Not-So-Epic Fail.”
GET ON YOUR FEET – Apparently I caused a bit of a stir at the Pedrito Martinez Group’s Gazebo-closing set because I was dancing. Well,for crying out loud, who couldn’t dance to that amazing music? With four people and no horns, the celebrated conguero whipped up an Afro-Cuban danceparty that epitomized what the word “festival” really means. This group plays three nights a week at the New York restaurant Guantanamera, and that steady work showed in their unwavering chemistry and lightning-fast changes. This was real, this was visceral, this was so completely joyful, and I could have gone home happy right then and there. And, as it turned out, maybe I should have.
TOO MUCH, AND NOT ENOUGH – I honestly didn’t have a problemwith the latest edition of “Sing the Truth” going beyond its billing. This wassupposed to be a musical tribute to three female icons – Odetta, Abbey Lincoln,and Miriam Makeba – but I guess someone decided that more women needed to be represented. As such, we also got versions of Gladys Knight’s “(I’ve Got to)Use My Imagination”, Aretha’s “Baby I Love You” and Tracy Chapman’s “All That You Have Is Your Soul.” And I didn’t have a problem with any of it, because they were well-done and well-backed by a hotshot group featuring Geri Allen andTeri Lynne Carrington. No, my problem was that Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright are three of the best vocalists this genre has on offer right now… and the only way I got to see them was in a “tribute” situation that was far from their own individual material. To my mind, that’s just more of the genre doing more looking back then looking forward, or celebrating what we havenow.
AND THAT’S IT – My history with jazz at SPAC goes back to1988, when it was still Newport Jazz Festival/Saratoga. Aside from loving the seemingly endless buffet of my favorite music in the world, I also loved that the audience was treated like adults instead of wanton teenagers that can’t take anything inside the facility except money to buy food and merch. But there’s abig, wide wonderful world out there, and I need to see a lot more of it. I wish the festival well as I walk away, and hope it perseveres through this economic downturn, because I truly believe that jazz is an integral part of thiscountry, and experiencing it live needs to be part of the ongoing cultural conversation…preferably without CD boom boxes
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.