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Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Springs, NY
June 27, 2010

by J Hunter

Notes from a rain-free Sunday at the 2010 Freihofer’s Jazz Festival:

(NOT) SHOWING HER AGE – It wasn’t Hailey Niswanger’s playing that had me stunned, though she is pretty darn stunning on both alto and soprano sax; I was dumbstruck because the Portland, OR native is only 20 years old, is still attending Berklee, and has chops a lot of veteran players would maim to have. Niswanger wailed on Coltrane’s “Like Sonny”, milked every shade of blues out of Monk’s “Reflections”, and had the crowd begging for more after her titanic closing take on Ornette Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave.” She also played two originals that showed a solid compositional sense, and she got the most out of a crackerjack band of peers that featured Mark Whitfield Jr. on drums. Hailey Niswanger: Remember that name, and keep your fingers crossed that she comes this way again.

AN UNCOMMON SIGHTING – Kendrick Scott’s got so many projects going on that he rarely gets to appear as a leader. He must have found a gap in his DayPlanner, though, because he brought a killer quintet to the Gazebo, and thanks to Stefon Harris’ uncharacteristically Diva-ish behavior at the Main Stage, I got to see almost the entire set. Scott tried to do too much on Oracle’s first disc The Source, but here Scott did what he does best: Play monster drums while heavies like reedman John Ellis, guitarist Mike Moreno and pianist Taylor Eigsti made Scott’s compositions bloom full flower. Scott also celebrated “70 years of life” by covering ex-employer Herbie Hancock’s “I Have a Dream”, and he acknowledged the Skidmore Jazz Institute students in the crowd, noting that he was in their place only 10 years ago.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS – Ann Hampton Calloway was belting out standards on the Main Stage with help from the fraternal rhythm section of Peter & Kenny Washington; however, right about then the Linda Oh Trio was about to start their Gazebo set. Oh – a Malaysian-born, Australian-bred bass player – had done good work on Dandelion Clock, a promising debut by altoist Sarah Manning. Since the Gazebo was closer (and I was sooooooooooo relaxed from the exquisite chair massage I’d just received), I chose the Oh show, and didn’t regret it. The trio was bass, drums, and trumpet – unorthodox, to be sure – and featured Shane Endlsey, the horn player on Ben Allison’s last release Think Free. But here’s the headline: Linda Oh is a revelation! She may be half the size of her double bass, but she owned both the instrument and the crowd with Ron Carter power and a rocking sense of commitment. Oh’s originals have real spark, and her bare-bones closing take on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Soul to Squeeze” was an outstanding coda to a very hot show.

STRONGER THAN AMP – As you’d expect, the Main Stage at SPAC tends to swallow small units whole. That wasn’t going to happen with the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Like Dave Brubeck, Lewis has a sound that is instantly recognizable and completely invulnerable to massive spaces that use acoustic trios for palate-cleansers. Just one chord from Lewis’ opener – the gospel classic “Wade in the Water” – and the amphitheatre gave up as it filled up. Starting without an introduction (primarily because he doesn’t need one), Lewis and his rhythm section took the Soul Jazz arrangement further and further afield, almost breaking completely free… and then brought “Wade” unerringly back to the beginning. “I’ve been playing that kind of music since I was 9 years old,” Lewis chuckled over big applause. There was plenty more expansion to be found in a 90-minute set that included “The ‘In’ Crowd” (Of course!), “To Know Her is To Love Her”, “Sun Goddess” and “Conversations” (“Which we don’t need much of right now, okay?” Lewis informed us before the latter tune, tongue only partly in cheek.).

LONG TIME COMING – Trio of Oz’ American debut was split between the Main Stage and the Gazebo, and they took full advantage of both opportunities to show how they “de-range” non-jazz standards like Alice in Chains’ “Angry Chair” and Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sour Girl.” The concept is guaranteed to tick off anyone who believes the word “standards” is code for show tunes written before 1960. That being said, this group can cook with gas when they turn the flame up. It’s a given Z and ex-Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim know how to bring the noise, but TOZ’ wild card is bassist Maeve Royce, who hung with the veterans while laying down some seriously monstrous tone. Z called Royce and Oh “two super, ultra, mega, killin’ female bass players!” Trust me – that wasn’t hyperbole. Trio of Oz has big potential, provided they resist the urge to soften their rocking catalog in order to be more “radio-friendly.”

TIME TO GO – Two kinds of Latin spice were being served as I walked out the press gate: Juan de Marcos’ Afro-Cuban All-Stars (aka the Three Cuban Tenors) were inundating the amphitheatre with big-band salsa, while the Ralph Lalama Quartet played low-key bossa on the Gazebo. The lawn people that hadn’t folded their tents were having dinner, waiting for headliner Gladys Knight. It had been a great day, and leaving on this dual note while the sky was still blue seemed like the best way to end it. Besides, one Diva a day is enough for me.

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.