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Terrell Stafford

McCoy Tyner

Charlie Hunter

Lizz Wright

Saratoga Performing Arts Center

Saturday, June 25th

by J Hunter

“Straight-ahead jazz today,” venerable saxophonist Lou Donaldson informed the crowd. “No fusion, no con-fusion!”

If that had been the case, the first day of the Freihofer's Jazz Festival wouldn't have been nearly as interesting. Here are a few notes:

“IF YOU BLINK, YOU MISS IT.”: The Amphitheatre was literally the coolest place on Earth Saturday. But the first rule of multi-stage jazz festivals is: Don't stay in one place, because you're probably missing something better! Hey, if I'd wanted to stay cool, I wouldn't have marinated in SPF30 sunblock!

After watching The Motet feverishly work the Afro-Cuban vein already strip-mined by Spyro Gyra and the Rippingtons, I found a breath of fresh air called El Eco. Argentine drummer Guillermo Nojechowicz' stellar unit (featuring New York Voices co-founder Kim Nazarian and renowned jazz harmonicat Hendrik Meurkens) beguiled Gazebo stage onlookers with music that was sultry, sexy, and - above all - real.

The Gazebo kept providing reasons to commute from stage to stage, most of them international. Madagascan guitarist D'Gary hypnotized the crowd with his solo electric set, and vocalist Gretchen Parlato gave an intimate, textured performance laced with the spirit of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Then there was trumpeter Terrell Stafford, who has grown from a Wynton wannabe into his own artist. His quartet (featuring uber-pianist Mulgrew Miller) served up laser-guided bop that was almost as hot as the weather.

(A nasty side effect of the heat was it drove the usual tent city into the trees, and this cut off pedestrian access to the Gazebo. SPAC needs to address this next year.)

GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT: Whatever your position on Smooth Jazz, there's no denying the Amphitheatre filled up like a rain barrel in a monsoon when Jazz Attack literally hit the stage running. Featuring four of Smooth's biggest artists (Rick Braun, Peter White, Richard Elliott and Jonathan Butler), Jazz Attack is as close to a supergroup as the genre's going to get, and they had the crowd howling from the jump as they covered hit after hit.

My problem wasn't with Jazz Attack's music, or the talent of the performers. My problem was with their over-the-top stage antics, which were akin to four 8-year olds on a diving board yelling, “HEY, EVERYBODY! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!” If groups like Jazz Attack draw people to festivals where they can experience Donaldson, McCoy Tyner, or the indescribable Charlie Hunter, then I guess the end justifies the means. Still, Tyner's trio linked up with Stafford and Ravi Coltrane to follow Jazz Attack. They flat-out dismantled the joint. And they didn't stoop to histrionics once.

TAKING CHANCES… OR NOT: Lizz Wright doesn't want to do the same thing - that is, she doesn't want to be “just” a jazz singer, as her latest disc, Dreaming Wide Awake (Verve), clearly demonstrates. Dreaming mixes songs she co-wrote with compositions by everyone from Neil Young to Chocolate Genius. Bringing this music to a major jazz festival was seriously brave. But it's her music. You can hear it in her soulful alto, and see it in her eyes and her smile. No producer or A&R drone sold her on it. She took the chance, stood by her guns, and got two standing ovations.

Compare Wright to Steps Ahead 2005. These are great musicians who put forth some terrific stuff to close the first day. Whatever rust there was could be explained away by the fact that this was their second gig, and they were still incorporating ex-Miles Davis saxman Bill Evans into the mix. (Evans was pinch-hitting for Michael Brecker, who is suffering from a blood disease.) I cheered this same music, on the same stage 15 years ago. After watching so many people take so many chances, seeing a new kind of nostalgia just didn't sit well. Others didn't have my experience, though, and I'm glad they go the chance to get a taste of one of jazz' best fusion acts.

(That's all for now! Sunday's show will be dissected in Part Two!)

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), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.