LIVE: Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival @ SPAC, 6/29/14 (Day Two)
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
Additional photographs by Richard Brody, Cheri Bordelon, Andrzej Pilarczyk, J Hunter
“We’d like to close our set…” altoist/alt-jazz music mogul Tim Berne began his intro to “Static,” earning a hearty laugh from the Gazebo Stage crowd. True, Berne and his whip-smart quartet Snakeoil – Dave Douglas Quintet pianist Matt Mitchell, reedman Oscar Noriega and (making his second appearance at the Gazebo that weekend) percussionist Ches Smith – had just turned our heads around several times with 15 minutes of free-form madness to kick off Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival’s Sunday bill at SPAC, but there was no way these guys were going to play one tune for 45 minutes… right?
Well… sort-of right: “Static” turned out to be a careening multi-chapter suite that had the ensemble alternating off-its-head rubato with wildly complex melodies and figures – some pounding, some silky soft – that only seemed to lift the soloists to dizzier and dizzier heights. Noriega’s bass clarinet repeatedly traveled the distance between sub-sonic and shrieking, sometimes taking over the foundation so Mitchell could have room to express himself. If Smith played a straight beat, then I missed it, because when the deranged-looking stick figure wasn’t soloing, he was on the fill whether he was on drums or vibes. (Surprisingly, Smith’s vibes work was extremely tender in places.) Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence may have spun the Gazebo like a roulette wheel to close the Saturday bill, but Berne’s off-world excursions made Brown’s explorations seem simple in comparison.
This was the second year where the Gazebo Stage got off the ground first, giving a listening-intensive experience the opening salvo before a louder, wilder act – in this case, 14-year old blues prodigy Quinn Sullivan – launched the Main Stage. And once again, the strategy worked like a charm: By the time Sullivan’s howling guitar came over the hill, Berne had his audience locked in and jaw-struck. The down side may have been Sullivan’s effect on the “Newport Now 60” all-star group, who made great sounds individually but never jelled as a group, despite having toured together for the last couple of months. Their busting version of Wayne Shorter’s “Free For All” was suitably satisfying, as was a bopping trio take on bassist Larry Grenadier’s “Pettiford”, but in the end, the promise of this muscular septet never showed up.
Who did show up, however, was mallet master Warren Wolf, who hit the Gazebo like a Lionel Messi strike and never looked back. Between his major-label debut Wolfgang and being named to the SFJAZZ Collective’s vibes chair, it’s been a busy year for Wolf, but the Baltimore native didn’t seem bothered or tired in the least as he pulled “September in the Rain” out of the Great American Songbook and turned it into a mid-tempo swinger. Although Wolf was billed to appear with his band Wolfpack, he actually brought a semi-all-star band of his own, including Robert Glasper Trio bassist Vicente Archer, drummer/fellow SFJAZZer Obed Calvaire and Sean Jones’ pianist Sullivan Fortner. Despite the pick-up nature of the outfit, the quartet wowed us with blistering musicianship and bubbling chemistry.
Mind you, if chemistry was what you were looking for, all you had to do was check out Dave Holland & Prism. If anything, the group dynamic that ran through their eponymous 2013 recording was even more adamantine as the band went from Holland’s explosive “The Winding Away” into drummer Eric Harland’s rolling “Evolution.” Holland was playing a cut-down bass for the first time in my memory; while his tone wasn’t as fat as in previous years, Holland’s lines were no less probing. Contrarywise, Kevin Eubanks’ guitar was bigger and wilder then it was last year at Freihofer’s, when he shocked another Sunday Main Stage with his own killer outfit; and keyboardist Craig Taborn mixed electric and acoustic sounds to give each piece the proper shine and vitality. The super-blues of “The Empty Chair” brought the amp to its feet, and then the crowd got up and howled again after Eubanks’ corkscrewing closer “The Watcher.”
You can’t really call Sean Jones a “journeyman,” because journeymen don’t become Lead Trumpet in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. But Jones has sure worked like a journeyman, putting out progressively excellent discs under his own name over the last few years. By rights, the artistry and energy he brought to the Gazebo should have been shown on the Main Stage, but Jones wasn’t about to play diva games. Between busting out some of the toughest, coolest trumpet of the weekend, Jones was the portrait of humility and amiability: Genuinely touched by the onslaught of Skidmore Jazz Institute students singing his praises after the set, Jones organized them all into a group portrait with him in front of the Gazebo Stage. He seemed truly surprised when someone requested “The Search Within” (“Man! That’s goin’ back a few years…” He laughed. “But damn it, I got CDs to sell!”), and Jones prefaced his composition “Dark Days” by saying, “I wrote that because I thought I was going through some deep stuff back then, but now that I’m my age, I know it wasn’t nuthin’!”
Which brings me back to Quinn Sullivan, who closed the Gazebo in tumultuous style. There’s no question Sullivan’s got the chops; you don’t have Buddy Guy as a mentor and not learn a few licks, and he evoked multiple howls from the crowd that literally surrounded the Gazebo as he played Derek & the Dominos’ arrangement of “Little Wing” note for note. So yeah, this kid can throw heat… but can he throw the curveball? Not that I could see. Also, a 14-year old kid singing the ballad “She Gets Me” and Eric Clapton’s burning “Got To Get Better in a Little While” seems a little satirical, if you ask me. Send Sullivan out on the road until he’s 21, and maybe then he’ll understand that the blues is a little more than playing the right notes.
Salsa legend Eddie Palmieri is on the other end of the chronological scale from Sullivan. He’s seen it all and done it all, and when things don’t go right, the San Francisco-based keyboardist stops the music until they do – which is what he did when Luques Curtis’ bass wasn’t coming through on the mix. Occasional sound problems aside, Palmieri’s big band was an absolute revelation. Salsa orchestras usually tend toward the cheesy, with uniforms and dance routines taking precedence over the music. Not this time: Each piece was absolutely glorious, full of life and heat, and Palmieri taking time to show he could get asymmetrical when the mood struck him. Guitarist Nelson Gonzalez had all the authenticity Sullivan lacked, and every member of Palmieri’s five-man horn section blew up a gale when they took their turns at the Stage Left solo mic. If SPAC security and the ushers would have let us, we could have cleared the seats and made the amp into a dance hall.
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews is no hype, and no overnight sensation. Shorty’s been busting his ass for almost two decades as a leader (when he wasn’t making money in Lenny Kravitz’ horn section), and he took the Main Stage like it was always his while his band played the opening riff to “Say That to Say This.” Andrews mash-up of jazz, rock and hip-hop may put off those who see New Orleans music as Louis Armstrong and Preservation Hall, but NOLA also gave us the Neville Brothers and the Funky Meters, and Shorty’s powerhouse attack is right in step with other descendants of that line like Galactic, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk and Big Sam’s Funky Nation. When Andrews did pay respect to his hometown’s past, it was to its hefty R&B history with Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down” and Jesse Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” I only wish his 2013 disc Say That to Say This had let Shorty spread his wings like he brilliantly did to close the festival. That would have been sweet.