LIVE: Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival @ SPAC, 6/25/16 (Day One)

The Isley Brothers
The Isley Brothers

Review by Steve Nover
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk, Rudy Lu

Our planet has circled the sun once again, and one of my fave weekends has come and gone, the 39th annual Saratoga Jazz Festival (now sponsored by Freihofer’s) coinciding with the Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s 50th anniversary. Traditionally, as with European jazz fests, other genres of music were also included, and I applaud the diversity.

Shemekiah Copeland has earned her title as Queen of the Blues, and not just because of the passing of Etta James and Koko Taylor. Though only 37 years old, she was signed as a teenager, debuting on Alligator Records with Turn Up the Heat in ’98. Her stage presence was both commanding & charming, and her talent was partially inherited, as her dad was Texas bluesman/guitarist Johnny Copeland. Her between-song patter was pretty funny, too, explaining, “I just sang about Jesus, now I’m gonna sing about the devil. I’m a full service blues singer,” before singing her dad’s “Devil’s Hand.” Copeland had a talented band with both of her guitarists supplying scorching solos throughout her main stage set. Look for her return to Greater Nippertown on Friday, September 2 for a show at Albany’s The Egg opening for Robert Cray.

Joey Alexander was also a big highlight of the day celebrating his 13th birthday with many fans who had seen his “60 Minutes” profile but hadn’t yet seen him perform. I was lucky to see him last summer at the Schenectady Music Haven, and, yes, he lives up to all the hype. On stage the Indonesian-born pianist seemed totally at ease with his much older rhythm section, as you might expect from a musician Wynton Marsalis hailed as a genius at age 12. He performed Coltrane’s “Resolution” and “Giant Steps,” as well as Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.” He also served up a pair of original compositions – “Sunday Waltz” and “City of Lights,” and the arrangements on his 2015 Grammy-nominated debut album My Favorite Things were all by him. Watching a master so young is a bit scary and makes me believe even more in reincarnation. After his set, a birthday cake was rolled out onstage, while free boxes of Freihofer’s cookies were handed out to the crowd.

One of the joys of going to this fest almost every year is discovering a band or musician not on my radar; this year I was familiar with most of the Saturday performers, but Karrin Allyson, who sang and played piano at the Gazebo, was a ball to hear. Though billed as “Karrin Allyson Sings Rodgers & Hammerstein,” she strayed from that constraint with strong readings of Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” and Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Crying Mercy.” R&H songs included a pair from Oklahoma, “I’m Just A Girl Who Can’t Say No” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” Her electric keyboardist switched to acoustic piano on a few numbers when she just sang, but also supplied percussion and sang a Brazilian song in Portuguese as well. It was an interesting format with stand-up bass and no drums.

The Isley Brothers were added to the schedule when Chaka Khan (who will headline in 2017) had throat problems, and their performance was worthy of headliner status. At age 75, Ronald Isley still has stage presence and a voice that got the crowd on their feet more than once with hits spanning decades from ’59’s “Shout” to ’62’s “Twist & Shout” (that was covered by no less than the Beatles) to “This Old Heart of Mine,” revived 24 years later with Ronald & Rod Stewart duetting.

I had no memory of their cover of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” but it was a Top 20 hit in the Summer of ’71. Younger brother Ernie Isley at age 64 supplied plenty of the fire power on guitar, especially on “Who’s That Lady” and “Fight the Power,” evoking memories of Jimi Hendrix’s tenure in their band early in his career. Included in the large band were three back-up singers – all sisters – one of which was Ronald’s much younger wife. They covered Seals & Croft’s “Summer Breeze,” a song that went no higher on the Billboard charts than No. 60 for them but was also a showcase for Ernie, who sent us home with a fiery Hendrix-like version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah also delivered one of the highlights of the fest backed by a young but strong band featuring Elena Pinderhughes on flute and Braxton Cook on alto sax, who both contributed powerful solos. The 33-year-old New Orleans trumpeter Scott has already released 11 CDs as leader, and his performance in the amphitheater went well beyond jazz, making it the most adventurous set of the day, highlighted by his closing “The Last Chieftain.”

Though I love many fusion bands I found Pieces of a Dream mostly cold, though they had some good solos. New Orleans guitarist-vocalist Eric Lindell jump started the day with laid-back, lazy-day Americana, aided by Hammond B3, tenor sax and an able rhythm section performing selections mostly from his recent Matters of the Heart.

classically trained Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca – a member of the Juilliard faculty – opened the Gazebo Stage with a red-hot rhythm section, highlighted on “Nana,” a song Villafranca wrote for the recent passing in March of the great Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. I enjoyed their set very much and would have stayed longer for if Joey Alexander hadn’t been calling from the main stage.

The Steps Ahead reunion included only one original member, Mike Marinieri on vibes. He was joined by pianist Eliane Elias (who signed on for their second album in ’83), Marc Johnson on stand-up bass (Elias’ husband and Bill Evans last bassist). And though neither of their drummers Steve Gadd or Peter Erskine were behind the kit on Saturday (it was instead Billy Kilson), the vibes and grand piano were a great pairing.

Also at the Gazebo, Eric Lindell delivered a second set; Jamison Ross sang and played drums; and wrapping up the small stage was the quartet of alto saxophonist Vincent Herring with master drummer Carl Allen closing out a mostly perfect day. The heat meant that I usually enjoyed the second stage from the shade, though I did sit in the sun a few times, especially for Karrin Allyson.

Susan Brink’s review and Lawrence White’s photographs at Saratoga Living
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Jazz and non-jazz jockeyed for fans’ attention all (perfect!) day in mostly stylistically silo’ed offerings. Only trumpeter Christian Scott’s Atunde Adjuah crew risked purists’ border patrol with spirited genre-jumping ‘stretch music.’ Stretch, it did, to spectacular effect. Even ‘The Last Chief,’ a nod to his New Orleans heritage, felt fun and fresh. Otherwise things felt masterly but conventional, though Villafranca’s Cuban heritage spiced his trio set: In a percussion workout, the pianist played guataca (like a small steel dustpan) in a duet with his drummer on cowbell. Many artists reached back, even young [Joey] Alexander, who plumbed the songbooks of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter to explode stirring deconstructions of ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Footprints,’ respectively with his trio. An original waltz felt like “Still Crazy After All these Years” filtered through Bourbon Street neon. Sensational alto sax-man Vincent Herring revived half-forgotten tunes by Wes Montgomery and Billy Reed, also ‘Love Walked In’ and ‘You Leave Me Breathless,’ riffing with calm assurance as drummer Carl Allen drove the swing. Also in the Gazebo, Karrin Allyson crooned Rogers & Hammerstein classics, plus originals with the same gem-like melodies and cozy wit of vintage show tunes.”
Excerpt from Greg Haymes’ review and Michael P. Farrell’s photographs at The Times Union: “It’s gone by many names over the years, but Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s 39th annual jazz fest — now known as Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival — got off to a great start on day one, and festival-goers were in the Saturday party spirit. Indonesian jazz pianist Joey Alexander has come a long way since he made his Capital Region debut at the Music Haven last summer — and he was mighty impressive then. He earned two Grammy nominations and toured the world in support of his impressive debut album, My Favorite Things. And at SPAC on Saturday, he celebrated his 13th birthday. He led a stellar trio — also featuring bassist Dan Chmielinski and drummer Ulysses Owes Jr. — through some bona fide classics, including John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ and Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints’ before serving up a pair of stellar original tunes, ‘Sunday Waltz’ and ‘City Lights.’ Alexander is not just a master technician on the keyboard; he plays with uncanny imagination, inventiveness and passion well beyond his years.”
Erica Miller’s photographs at The Daily Gazette

More of Rudy Lu’s photographs of the fest

Christian Scott and Atunde Adjuah
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah with Elena Pinderhughes
Vincent Herring & The Kings of Swing
Vincent Herring & the Kings of Swing
Steps Ahead Reunion
Steps Ahead Reunion
Shemekia Copeland
Shemekia Copeland
Pieces of a Dream 40th Anniversary Tour
Pieces of a Dream 40th Anniversary Tour
Karrin Allyson Sings Rogers & Hammerstein
Karrin Allyson
Joey Alexander
Joey Alexander
jamison Ross
Jamison Ross
Eric Lindell
Eric Lindell and his saxman

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