LIVE: Friehofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival Day 1 – 6/29/2019

Friehofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival is a wonderful place to spend your weekend whether or not you are familiar with music prior to the concerts. The festival is a wonderful way to explore music that was previously unfamiliar and to celebrate music that was previously loved.  From quietly unknown artists who have years of experience to headliners, this year’s Jazz Fest did not disappoint.

Photo by Albert Brooks

Joe Locke’s Subtle Disguise kicked off the festival at the gazebo stage. A vibraphonist raised in Rochester where he also studied at Eastman School of Music, Locke was a gas to watch. His effortless movements combined with his cool vibe was intriguing. Backed by Jim Ridl on electric piano, baby grand, and bass, as well as Lorin Cohen on drums, he mostly played selections from his recent Subtle Disguise cd 2018 on Origen, including “Red Cloud” (a tribute to the Ogala Lakota leader), and “Make Me Feel Like it’s Raining,” which came from a quote by Bobby Hutcherson, whom Locke singled out as a strong influence. With over 30 cd’s as a bandleader and 65 as a producer/sideman, it is shocking he isn’t a household name. During the third song, guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg came on to add to the mix and remained through the close of the set. On “Safe & Sound,” Locke related the title came from a quote from the film Orphans by Albert Finney. The audience was grooving with him, and it was no surprise when Susan Brink came out to speak after his performance to award Locke a Jazz Journalistic Association Award for Mallet Player of the year, his sixth win. The amphitheater first hosted the Saratoga High School Jazz Band, a wonderful way to introduce young musicians to feeling part of the festival. The band didn’t disappoint when they opened with Chick Corea’s “Spain.”  The 27 piece band created a surprisingly mature and full sound for high school students. Another group worth a listen was the Black Arts Jazz Collective, which hearkened back to the Jazz of the 50’s and 60’s yet sounded contemporary as well.  Trumpeter and lead of the band, Jeremy described “Awuraa Amma,” from the 2018 cd Armour of Pride, as the 2 names for the same child, with Amma in Ghana referring to born on Saturday, and  Awurra referring to origin as called by her grandmother. Drummer Rudy Royston was performing with the band as well, and the dynamic musician was a joy to watch. “Miller Time,” also from the cd, and “Salvador de Bahia” were strong instrumentals that held me there until the end of their set captivated the crowd and left a desire for more.

Donna Grantis, a disciple of Prince on guitar, also dazzled with her unusual funk band percussionist, a woman tabla player, which played a central role in her sound. For 3 years a member of Prince’s New Power Generation until his death, Canadian Grantis learned her lessons well. On 2019’s Diamonds & Dynamite she has her own voice. The tabla was a welcome addition, and it was unfortunate she was on so early with the main stage so empty; people missed out on her dazzling atmospherics. “Master Manifester” was a song from the new cd where Grantis allowed her tabla player Suphala and keyboardist steal some of the spotlight with a great duet, before closing with “The Future Is.”  

Photo by Albert Brooks

Veronica Swift with the Emmet Cohen Trio found Swift singing Jazz & Broadway standards in a clear beautiful voice with pianist Emmet & band able to support. Showing strong stage presence and movement, the 24-year-old comes from a jazz family. Her father is the late pianist Hod O’Brien, and her mother is jazz singing Stephanie Nakasian. Swift’s repertoire included Lionel Bart’s “As Long As He Needs Me,” “Forget About The Boy” and James P. Johnson’s “Guess Who’s In Town,” showing off Emmet’s stride piano expertise as well as stand up bassist Philip Norris. 

Mercy Project next appeared on the big stage, featuring grand pianist Jon Cowhered, drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci and Steve Cardenas on guitar. Cowhered and Blade share a twenty-year history of collaboration, and their work history together really showed.  The set included 4 tracks from their Mercy cd and a new piece “Glories.”  Lionel Loueke was playing solo guitar at the gazebo. From the West African Country Benin, he moved to Ivory Coast to study, and continued his studies at Berklee College of Music. With over 10 albums as a leader, 4 of them on Blue Note, Loueke is worth a listen. He was playing the electric guitar and bass ala Stanley Jordan, and was sensational using the effects for a full wild sound. He then brought out Raul Midon, who was helped on stage due to sight impairment, but once put before the mike needed no help whatsoever. From Argentine & African American descent, Midon had a strong voice and is a fluid guitarist with 2 Grammy nominations who arrived late and therefore wasn’t able to join Joe Locke earlier. After the duet, in which he also played bongos, they sang and scat together, he played solo and won the crow over with “Pedal To The Metal.”

 James Carter Organ Trio was up on the big stage, their first appearance in the capital region since appearing the Egg in April. Carter radiates cool, and whether playing alto, tenor or soprano sax, he’s tremendous. The 50-year-old Detroit native had Gerrard Gibbs on the Hammond B 3, and drummer Alex White on stage with him. They truly swung; Gibbs had an amazing solo where he was playing with his teeth. 

Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk

The gazebo’s final act of the day was drummer Antonio Sanchez & Migration. Sanchez immigrated to the US in 1993 from Mexico to play w/ some of the best musicians on the planet. He became a US citizen 3 years ago and talked passionately between songs focusing on immigration. “This album is not about me or immigrants like myself.  This project is about immigrants who been forced to flee out of fear, persecution and famine… the kind of immigrant who is being demonized ostracized and politicized in the name of misguided nationalism that is quickly eroding a fundamental quality in human beings; a capacity of feeling love for people that look different than we do and empathy for people who are less fortunate than we are,” he waxed political. On vocals was Sanchez’s wife with him.  The band’s 2017 cd had guest spots from Chick Corea and Pat Metheny. His wife’s vocals were wild, even without out effects, as she often sang sounds, not words. He released “Bad Hombre” in 2017 and has used some atypical sounds and effects, such as a bass track to rework songs with the new band. In the past this had sometimes caused problems with his wife, who thought some of the vocals he wanted were impossible. Like most marriages, though, there clearly was a compromise; she even got him to change the title of the album to Bad Hombres & Mujares– reflecting her gender addition to the group.

Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk

With so much going on between stages, it was important to next place focus on Kandace Springs singing and playing grand piano on the main stage. The 30 year old from Nashville is the daughter of a session singer Scat Springs. Joined on stage by a stand-up bassist and drummer,  she did a wonderful cover of “War’s The World Is A Ghetto.” Bassist Larry Klein produced her 2016 cd Soul Eyes and also played in it. Last year she released Indigo that featured Roy Hargrove on 1 track. She also covered the classic “I Put A Spell On You,” and certainly cast a spell over the audience.

Los Van Van, celebrating their 50th Anniversary, didn’t appear to have any original members were touring with them. The band has 4 lead vocalists, and they all know how to work a stage, including a petite woman among them who was dynamic enough to shine above all the others.  The Cuban band had 2 electric violins, 3 trombones, a flutist who was a real stand out for unique sound, 2 keyboardists, drum bass & a percussionist. Though there was no competition on the other stage, the hall was still 2/3 empty with the beautiful Summer night enabling lawn seating throughout the day, on both stages.

 George Benson completely filled the hall, except for the balcony. Sporting a pencil mustache and looking quite fit at age 76, Benson is still delivering the goods. George’s second guitarist was really good, which is a good thing considering the many times he sang without the guitar in tow, but he soloed most of the time on classics like “Breezin” and “On Broadway,” which was also had a strong vocal. He greeted the crowd telling them it was hot up here but he would “make it hotter……if we can.” Benson’s newest release is a tribute to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, but we were only treated to 1 song: “Fat’s Walking To New Orleans.” This was his 12th visit to the fest, but first in 10 years. One cute moment occurred early when George did a short dance soft shoe to his pianists solo. The crowd was totally loving it, and when he was a bit sentimental in his song choice, the crowd was sentimental right back in showing great love for him.

Friehoffer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival Saturday was an outstanding start to the festival, bringing in some veterans to the jazz scene and really warming things up for the Sunday shows.

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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