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George Benson

Roy Haynes

Jaleel Shaw

Jean Luc Ponty

Josh Raymer

Anat Cohen

Esperanza Spaulding


Omer Avital

photos by Albert Brooks
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Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, NY
June 23, 2006

by J Hunter

Notes from the first day of the 30th Annual Freihofer's Jazz Festival:

TIME IT WAS, AND WHAT A TIME IT WAS: Since it is one of those milepost anniversaries, you do have to look back a little bit, and that's what Freihofer's did, booking players who were on the bill of the first weekend, when the show was called “Newport Jazz Festival/Saratoga.” George Benson, Jean-Luc Ponty and Roy Haynes were part of that weekend, as was Dizzy Gillespie and Tony Williams. The latter two will be remembered on Day 2 with performances by Trio Beyond and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. (Tune in for more on their shows in our next episode - same Bat Time, same Bat Channel!)

OLD FRIENDS (Day 1): You know what to expect from Benson: He opens with a couple of guitar instrumentals, just to remind us how he used to make a living. Then he kicks into one of his mid-level hits - “Love Times Love”, in this case - and it's an Oldies show from then on. Benson did return to the instrumental side towards the end of the set - most notably for “Breezin'”, which he didn't play at Bethel Woods last year. But while Benson lost me when he went into Luther Vandross Mode, he really lost me when he introduced a song by “one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century” and went into a lounge-singer-quality cover of Bobby Darrin's “Beyond the Sea.” I think Benson followed up with “Masquerade” in self-defense.

Roy Haynes is light years removed from the force I heard recently on We Three, a 2007 RVG re-release of a Prestige date with Paul Chambers and Phineas Newborn. But he can still lead a tight quartet through a creditable set of standards. He commands respect, both from his players and the audience. At the end of the day, you have to (in Haynes' own words) “Give the drummer some!” Ponty did what he does best, and has been doing since Imaginary Voyage (Atlantic, 1976). There's still people who'll stand up and cheer for Old School fusion, because they were down at the front of the Main Stage giving Ponty all the love they could. But while his quintet was more than capable, I didn't see anyone challenging Ponty the way Bela Fleck and Stanley Clarke did when TRIO! played Freihofer's in 2005. Too much to ask? Maybe. I'm still asking, though…

KABOOM: “I didn't mean to break the piano,” Brian Haas told us plaintively. Still, we might have been seeing a pattern; according to Haas, a string on the piano snapped on the first note at Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's Regattabar gig in Boston. Here, Haas was under the piano like an auto mechanic, going “under the hood” when the piano's pedals wouldn't respond. After the set, the tech crew had to take the piano apart to repair it for the Anat Cohen Quartet. Personally, I think it just imploded from the strain. Simply put, Jacob Fred is the most intense, explosive band I've seen in a long time. The Tulsa, OK trio is part of a logical progression that starts with Medeski, Martin and Wood and moves through The Bad Plus. It may not be Old School fans' cup of tea, but there were a lot of young people in front of the Gazebo stage, and young people are the ones who'll keep this genre progressing.

SPEAKING OF YOUNG PEOPLE: Jacob Fred opened Day 1, but I missed that set. That was an easy decision: Freihofer's continues to give the Main Stage opening act a set at the Gazebo later in the day, and Jacob Fred up close is a wonder to behold. In any case, I was busy being blown away by the Esperanza Spaulding Trio. At 23, Spaulding is the youngest faculty member in the history of Berklee. The Portland, OR native plays a lot older, though; you have to love someone who sings like Tania Maria and plays bass (and acoustic bass guitar) like Christian McBride. Sarah Pedinotti - a friend of Spaulding's from her days at Berklee - watched Spaulding's set from the side of the stage, a big grin on her face.

Spaulding kicked off another ground-breaking day at the Gazebo, which has turned into the place for up-and-coming talent. The Rwandese/Ugandan vocalist Somi could be heard on the other side of the lawn, hyping up her crowd with “Holistic New African Soul Jazz.” (Turn that into an acronym, radio programmers!) Anat Cohen's phenomenal reedwork dovetailed perfectly with pianist Jason Lindner, making blowing off most of India.Arie's set a no-brainer. Cohen's originals are simply electric, and she gave Fats Waller's “Jitterbug Waltz” a tornado-like spin. Like I said, it's the young people who keep this genre going, in the crowd and on the stage. If this is the future, bring it on!

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.