LIVE: Bridge Jazz Festival (Day One) @ Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 2/26/16
Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs and video by Timothy Raab
The Bridge Jazz Festival returned for its second year, building a musical bridge across the Hudson River from the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy (where the fest held its opening night) and the Massry Center for the Arts in Albany (the site of the second night).
But with Algerian guitarist Pierre Bensusan in the middle of the bill on the Friday night, the TSBMH show also helped to build a bridge across musical genres. At the conclusion of his 45-minute set, there was no doubt that he had earned his slot on a jazz festival, but as a solo acoustic guitarist, Bensusan’s usual Greater Nippertown concert venue of choice is Caffe Lena, one of the most revered folk music havens in the country.
Bensusan is a dazzling instrumentalist, as he proved most emphatically with “The Alchemist.” And while not possessing a powerhouse set of pipes, he’s also quite a passable singer. What he lacks in vocal strength and range, he more than makes up for with his bottomless imagination, and while he did sing one selection in French, he was at his best when he gave himself free rein with stunning scat singing and wordless vocalizations, as on his epic, set-closer “Bamboul’été,” earning him a well-deserved standing ovation.
The intriguing duo of pianist Tim Olsen and saxman Eric Walentowicz opened the evening’s festivities, and kudos go out to the Bridge Jazz Festival for showcasing the considerable wealth of Local 518 jazz talent (something that Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival used to do, but no longer does) – not just because they’re local, but because they’re good. Real good…
Latin jazz influences were evident throughout their 45-minute set, especially on the bouncy, wide-open closer “Park Avenue” and another semi-tango/semi-bossa nova selection based on “The Very Thought of You.” The blues was the other deep vein that ran through their five-song, 45-minute set, most evident during Walentowicz’s turn on soprano sax with his “Fish Out of Water” and the be-bop blues romp of “Harland Stomp,” inspired by both Charlie Parker and Colonel Sanders.
Veteran jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon headlined Night One, delivering a consummately professional 80-minute set. Her setlist was heavy on old warhorses, including Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather” and Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” but her inventive interpretations managed to make each of them sound surprisingly fresh.
Backed by her trio – pianist Miki Hayama, bassist Wayne Bachelor and the sublime drummer Leon Joyce – the 61-year-old singer wrapped “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” around “So Many Stars,” scatted all around the melody of Jobim’s “Dindi” and twisted the Everly Brothers’ nugget “Let It Be Me” in delightfully new ways.
Her stage presentation was too theatrical and often distracting – constantly waving her arms in overly dramatic fashion – but her singing was dead-on, and she didn’t shy away from taking risks, especially during a glorious a cappella rendition of “Never Let Me Go,” a sneak preview of her upcoming all-a cappella album.
In the end it was certainly an unusual jazz fest – three acts, but only one horn (Walentowicz) and one rhythm section (Freelon’s), which just goes to show that jazz comes in quite an array of different formats. And you never know what to expect…
NNENNA FREELON SET LIST
Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don’t Tease Me)
Never Let Me Go
Let It Be Me
So Many Stars
Albert Brooks’ photographs of the concert at Albany Jazz
Andrzej Pilarczyk’s photographs of the concert at Albany Jazz
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Opening night of the two-day Bridge Jazz Festival featured three different acts at Troy Music Hall Friday night – a solo guitarist, a sax-piano duet and a quartet led by vocals. Three very different approaches to similar goals, in the end delivering different results. Headliner Nnenna Freelon opened her set with a classic jazz trio behind her. She came out wasting no time, the band cooking instantly, Freelon dancing, waving her hands around her head, scattin’, leaping up a scale or two in a falsetto, singing ‘Drinking Water.’ She followed with the somewhat cute, swinging ‘Just Squeeze Me (Don’t Tease Me).’ Every note, every phrase was subject to expansive improvisation, vocalizing like a horn player… The Freelon band, with drums and considerable volume, created the most excitement physically and audibly. But the real treat was enjoying the full range of the three acts, which is the point of a good jazz festival, even a small one.”