LIVE: Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival @ SPAC, 6/30/12 (Day One)

Esperanza Spalding (photo by Stanley Johnson)
Esperanza Spalding (photo by Stanley Johnson)

Review and photographs by Stanley Johnson
Additional photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk

Mario Abney and his band the Abney Effect started Saturday afternoon in the amphitheater with a bright mix of progressive grooves, modern soul and traditional jazz schools. Dressed in white, the trumpeter and his band showed their influences in both Miles Davis and New Orleans’ second-line brass band sounds. “A Hundred the Hard Way” had notes flying over accompanying piano, bass and drums. The band featured some material from their 2010 debut release “Spiritual Perception,” and later, during their gazebo stage performance, got the audience up and involved in second-line march and sing-a-long. “We rolling,” they sang, which eventually morphed into “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Until the following evening’s set with Trombone Shorty, this was as enthusiastic a reception from the audience that I saw all weekend.

Which doesn’t mean that other performers didn’t excite the crowd. However, with all the partying on the lawn and beyond, sometimes it was difficult to get the audience’s attention. (We literally could not hear Diana Krall on Sunday because of the crowd until we moved up along the front border of the lawn.)

Indeed, it was saxophonist Hailey Niswanger, next on the gazebo stage, who had the strongest “You don’t want to miss this” buzz. The Portland, Oregon native, with Takeshi Ohbayashi on piano, Max Moran on bass and Mark Whitfield on drums, played a number of selections from her sophomore album, “The Keeper,” including the original compositions “Norman” and “Straight Up,” which she dedicated to “all of you that tell the truth, always.” Niswanger, slim and easy-on-the-eye in a diaphanous skirt, channeled a lot of wind through her horn, sometimes squealing in a way that reminded me of John Coltrane. “She’s doing it right,” one of my neighbors commented. “That’s my kind of jazz.”

The title track of the album, “The Keeper,” written for her mentor and former drummer who was killed in an accident, appropriately started with drums. The crowd requested and received and encore (not always the case this weekend), which wound up being an arrangement of Miles Davis’ “Milestones.”

I headed back to the amphitheater for Christian McBride and his band Inside Straight. The Grammy Award-winning bassist, composer and educator was making his fourth appearance as a bandleader in the festival series and the first with this band, which released its debut album “Kind Of Brown” in 2009.

After the original song “Brother Mister,” the band moved through the Freddie Hubbard tune “Theme For Corrine.” “I feel like a McDonald’s French fry,” McBride said. “It’s real hot up here.” I honestly didn’t know if he meant the temperature, which was in the 90s, or the band, which was definitely cooking. But following with a more laid back, breezy number – “Starfield,” I think he called it – the band wove an atmospheric sound perfect for gazing and getting lost in the sea of colorful umbrellas and tarps scattered all over the lawn.

A drum solo snapped me back to attention, followed by a bass ending which faded out McCoy Tyner’s “Celestial Chant,” a song from the band’s upcoming release “East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon,” the title track which they played as a piano, bass and drum trio.

Out back in the gazebo Jeremy Pelt was on trumpet with “The Tempest,” a song he said he wrote in the middle of Hurricane Irene. The tune was from his newest release “Soul,” and he followed it up with “Second Love,” a song he said he wrote for his second child. The mood was very cool, and despite the heat, Pelt was wearing a suitjacket and bowtie. His appearance and tone on the trumpet briefly brought to mind Louis Armstrong. Backed by piano, bass and drums, the band finished with “What’s Wrong With Right.”

Like a tennis ball, I bounced back to the amphitheater to see keyboardist Michel Camilo with bassist Charles Flores and conguero Giovanni Hidalgo play selections from their latest release “Mano a Mano.” Camilo, a two-time Latin Grammy winner and a Grammy winner for his 2003 “Live At The Blue Note” album, was back for a fifth festival appearance. He explained that the band resulted from a jam session at a Puerto Rican jazz festival, and the band launched into a Latin jazz sound, with his amazing piano work as much a rhythm instrument as the conga drums.

Camilo followed with some beautifully rolling piano lines in a song that drifted around the amphitheater and got accompaniment from the buzzing cicadas in the surrounding heat-whispered trees. I remained in my seat with the aid of a guitar-shaped frozen margarita, realizing that this is the last existing remnant of how SPAC used to be when I was young. The metal barriers were gone, the yellow-shirted security was outnumbered by pleasant, smiling ushers, people had coolers full of all kinds of food and drink, yet drunken behavior was rarely evident. Whatever happened to that SPAC? And why is it only visible at the Jazz Festival and the ballet?

I was roused from my tequila-inspired reverie with the glistening sound of piano notes and chimes that sounded like lightly cascading water in the gorge to the left. Back to the gazebo.

Although the fierce sun was still blazing, Catherine Russell managed to turn the gazebo area into a smoky, dimly lit bar with her jazz and blues stylings that reached back in the ’30s (of the last century.) “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” was followed by an Abbey Lincoln song, which she dedicated “to one of my exes,” called “No More.” She wondered if the audience remembered when Esther Phillips used to be on the radio every day and proceeded to tear it up with a bawdy blues by Phillips and Johnny Otis, singing “I like my men like I like my whiskey, aged and mellow.”

Another blues full of sexual innuendos, the Bessie Smith tune “Can’t Do Without My Kitchen Man” had the audience roaring with delight. “His jelly roll’s so nice and hot, it never fails to hit the spot,” she sang. “His baloney is worth a try, it never fails to satisfy.” Russell may well have heard a lot of this music in her youth via her father, Luis Russell, who was Louis Armstrong’s long-time musical director. Lately, her musical journey has brought her to play with artists as diverse as David Bowie, Steely Dan, Levon Helm and Rosanne Cash.

But this jazz and blues diva did not seem to be playing a part, she was one of the most authentic-sounding acts of the weekend. I was sorry to leave during her version of the Ivory Joe Hunter tune “Don’t Leave Me.” I hope to someday catch a full show by this outstanding singer.

The 14-member Mingus Big Band was on the main stage, with three trumpets, three trombones, five saxophones, plus piano, bass and drums, all dedicated to celebrating the music of composer and bassist Charles Mingus, who died in 1979. The music was very much alive and not all instrumental, as trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy occasionally came forward to sing, such as on the tune “The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers” from Mingus’ “Let My Children Hear Music.”

The turns in the music made the broiling heat bearable, inspiring kids to run after bubbles amid the colorful umbrellas. The song “Freedom” included the sad answer to the never ending persecution still evident throughout the world, “When they came for me, I could say nothing.” The huge band finished by swinging hard.

I made sure to be back in time for Esperanza Spalding’s set, having seen the marvelous show she did a few years ago at Schenectady’s Music Haven. Back then she featured a small group which highlighted her considerable bass skills and beautiful vocals.

At SPAC, she brought an 11-member band, who began with “Us,” a tune by Ben Jones. The large band sat behind a stall-front designed like an enormous boom box, which Spalding described as, “our totem,” which also referred to the band’s theme of “Radio Music Society.” “We dream of a world where soulful, intelligent music rules the radio,” she said. I thought that was exactly the reason I spend more time listening to my CDs and MP3s than to the radio. But Spalding is a beautiful dreamer and an incredible bass player, even if I’ve never heard her on any radio station around here.

She shifted from wearing a Fender to standing behind a double-bass, while singing “I’m going to keep holding on.” Spalding followed with some scat-singing which wound around the phrases, “If I just get you out of my mind” and “I can’t help it if I wanted to.” She danced behind the bass as she played and wound up the song in intensity.

“It was supposed to be just you and me, and now it’s three,” she sang. “It’s just that three is a little too much for me,” she continued, as the music built in volume and the lines of the players became further entangled, finally breaking out in the first real electric guitar solo of the day and a real peak of energy.

“So I guess he found his princess,” she explained after the song of heartbreak. “It’s alright with me. I’m looking for a king whose heart is made of gold.” I don’t think I was the only male who sighed after this. I did see some hands raised, as if she might pick them. Finally she dedicated a song “to each and all of us in the hope we stay off the endangered species list,” and began singing, “She’s in danger…”

As the sun set and the outdoor video screens became activated, Chris Botti began his deceptively smooth trumpet playing, which might have led some to think the set was going to be full of the dreaded “smooth jazz” that nearly overwhelmed the Jazz Fest during the ’90s. But no, this band move swiftly and surely into much heavier territory. The Grammy winner, who has released four number one jazz albums and played with everyone from Sinatra to Sting, could reach way down, bending down to the floor and back up towards the ceiling for high notes that were astonishing. Whether sharing the stage with a violinist on “Emmanelle” or with a pianist on a firery “Flamenco Sketches,” Botti was superb. “Do we have some Miles Davis fans tonight?” he asked before talking about the famous “Kind Of Blue” album Davis made with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly. But it was the other Davis album, “Sketches Of Spain” which the band had recorded with an orchestra, which they returned to for “Concerto 3,” adding some nice Spanish guitar and violin touches.

If there was a more electric singer at the festival than Lisa Fisher, I didn’t hear any. The Rolling Stone (after 20 years in that band, she and Chuck Leavell deserve the title) sang, “I can hardly wait to feel my arms around you.” She and Botti doubled solos together, with her voice and his trumpet. “The Very Thought Of You” was followed by a journey by the two out into the center of the shed floor.

Things got way heavier following a blazing guitar-trumpet showdown that devolved into a finger-snap-along with the audience. Suddenly the band was pumping out Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and a funky “The Bump,” which was the first time that day I saw people inside the shed get out of their seats and dance. Despite the drummer’s best efforts to complicate the beat, the band remained locked in. Remind me to dump the phrase “smooth jazz” in the trash can where it belongs. Botti has fortunately left that label far behind.

As far as dancing, though, this was merely the beginning of the evening’s funk fest. Maceo Parker, a saxophonist with roots as one of the masters of funk – a natural hybrid of church and the blues – burned through a set of melodic, riff-based, rhythmic themes while switching between singing and playing his sax. Did you understand that? Well, I like to think I did, after being infected with funk by Bootsy Collins at his recent Alive at 5 show.

While Parker also had played with George Clinton, and quoted several of his themes, including calling out, “I think I see the Mothership coming” and “George Clinton sent us a message but I have no idea what it means.” But I think he did know. Certainly his long tenure with James Brown stood him well. (Isn’t that Maceo on “Poppa’s Got A Brand New Bag”?)

The band was churning out non-stop, hard funk, with Maceo punctuating the space between the notes with “It’s too funky in here,” and “Let it roll,” using his voice much like he used his horn: a rhythm instrument as well as lead. “Sometimes I have a flashback of Mr. James Brown,” he explained, but he really didn’t need to.

The funk continued with a chanting of “We love Funkenstein,” before cooling temporarily when he brought out Miss Martha from the James Brown Revue. “You better think about it,” she sang. “Think about the good things.”

Parker also paid tribute to Ray Charles, and I thought things might end on a quiet note. Wrong: the funk never stops for very long, and Maceo rocked until I found myself dancing out to the parking lot along with a lot of smiling faces.

Andrzej Pilarczyk’s review and photographs at Nippertown
More of Andrzej Pilarczyk’s photographs at Albany Jazz
James Lamperetta’s review at The Saratogian
Michael P. Farrell’s photographs at The Times Union
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “While exceptionally talented in a slew of ways — her singing, composition and bass playing all contribute to her fame — she [Esperanza Spaulding] had trouble connecting to the audience personally and musically. Her range of vocals, including wild, emotional scat singing, were fascinating to hear. But some in the audience scratched their heads by the third tune, some yelled for more, and some simply missed the point and left. Trumpeter Chris Botti was awesome. Easy to enjoy, he played sweetly for a good portion of each song, then brought the group to a crescendo and back down again to end each tune. On the road 300 days a year for the past five years, the band is well-groomed. Calling Miles Davis his ‘favorite of all time,’ he briefly described Davis’ musical achievements, then played a slow ‘Flamenco Sketches’ from ‘Kind of Blue,’ using a mute to capture the Davis sound and feel. He brought to the stage a guest for nearly every song, such as a violinist and a mandolin player. Each was specially talented, each received a standing ovation from most of the amphitheater. But it was he and guest singer Lisa Fisher who brought down the house several times with their trumpet and vocal duets. For me, Botti and McBride delivered the best jazz of the day. Saxman Maceo Parker closed the day with a, in his words, ‘off-the-hook’ funk set. Of all the acts Saturday, Parker was the only one outside the border of jazz (sure, someone can argue everything is blues and jazz). While he got the place bouncing and put a smile on everyone’s face with his good spirits and love of funk, it didn’t fit in to what was otherwise a finely tuned mix of great — sometimes amazing — jazz.”

Hailey Niswanger (photo by Stanley Johnson) and Catherine Russell (photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk)
Hailey Niswanger (photo by Stanley Johnson) and Catherine Russell (photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk)
Mario Abney (photo by Stanley Johnson)
Mario Abney (photo by Stanley Johnson)
Jeremy Pelt (photo by Stanley Johnson)
Jeremy Pelt (photo by Stanley Johnson)
1 Comment
  1. Candy Deisley says

    Great review … but who was Botti’s AMAZING pianist????

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