Jazz Returns to SPAC Stage: International Stars and Area Favorites to Main Stage June 26 and 27
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Both headliners face this weekend’s jazz festival at Saratoga Performing Arts Center with mixed excitement and apprehension after a dark year, and recall better times. Both lost colleagues and friends. Both recall their last shows before the pandemic slammed the door on live music, but both stayed busy creatively.
“I did like most of my fellow jazz friends did,” said bassist Christian McBride, Saturday’s headliner. “I improvised, and got online,” he added in a voice deep as his bass. McBride was in Brussels on tour with Chick Corea when the pandemic cancelled everything but the urge to create.
“I’ve been working on making ‘Ogresse’ into a full-length animated movie,” said singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, who closes Sunday’s show and spoke by email. Her last show: “At Angela Davis’s house in Oakland,” she wrote, performing her musical fable-orchestrated oratorio “Ogress.”
While Salvant also worked on a new album “Ghost Song,” her sixth, McBride and his singer-teacher wife Melissa Walker moved their non-profit Jazz House Kids online; he also played three live concerts online with New Jawn, one of his five working groups. He practiced and he wrote.
He launched New Jawn after five years with his trio: Christian Sands, piano; Jerome Jennings, drums. “The personality of that trio was so strong I wanted to do something much different,” he said. “I wanted to make a 180-degree turn musically.” New Jawn – McBride, bass; Nasheet Watts, drums; Josh Evans, trumpet; and Marcus Strickland, tenor sax and bass clarinet – played a week at New York’s cozy Village Vanguard. “But even that felt dangerous,” he said, mindful of tradition and comparisons, “with references to Ornette Coleman (a pioneer of piano-less bands) before we even played a note.”
It worked, though. “We had a great week,” said McBride of their public debut. “And here we are six years later still playing together.” They’ll record a new album later this year, the group’s second.
For Salvant, however, playing Sunday at SPAC means turning an even newer page. “This is a band that’s never played together,” she wrote. Sunday she’ll sing with Sullivan Fortner, piano; Rogerio Bocato, percussion; Marvin Sewell, guitar; and Dayna Stephens, flute and EWI (electronic wind instrument). “We are going to rehearse in two days,” she wrote Tuesday. “I’m looking forward to discovering the music with them!”
Of past SPAC shows, she remembers, “What stands out the most is that we were supposed to perform there with my friend Lawrence Leathers, but he couldn’t make it,” she lamented. “I miss him dearly.”
Leathers was murdered in the Bronx at 37, a few weeks before he was to play with Salvant at SPAC; a tragedy of the sort that the COVID pandemic seems sadly to eclipse.
For McBride, the cancer death of pianist Chick Corea, leader of the last ensemble he played with before the pandemic, came as a surprise. “None of us were prepared for that,” said McBride. Corea passed this February at 79. McBride had played with Corea in many projects for nearly 30 years, including “Trilogy 2.” McBride said, “He was more than a mentor and a hero; he became a friend to me and my family.” McBride added, “Anybody who plays with Chick says the same thing: He embraced everyone and was one of the nicest people in the whole world.”
SPAC also embraced Corea, awarding him a star on its Walk of Fame during the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival in 2016 when the pianist-composer led a trio of McBride and drummer Brian Blade, the band on “Trilogy 2.” Corea is only the third giant enshrined there, after founder George Wein and pianist Dave Brubeck. (McBride succeeded Wein as Artistic Director of the Newport Jazz Festival, presented July 30 and August 1 this year.)
“Some of my greatest memories are playing the Saratoga Jazz Festival,” said McBride. “My all time favorite memory was of my first date with the woman (Melissa Walker) who is now my wife,” he said of the 2003 festival. “We drove up together…like our coming out party.”
That year, he and his band played right before Joe Zawinul. “We had one of his songs in our repertoire, ‘Boogie Woogie Waltz,’” said McBride. “And we were all shaking in our shoes, wondering if he was backstage, listening to us playing his song!” It got worse. “Then I got doubly nervous: What if he still has that song in HIS repertoire,” McBride worried. “What if we ruined his set?”
McBride also recalled, “That was also the last time I saw (singer) Shirley Horn,” who died in 2005 at 71. “She was in very poor health but she had enough left to give a powerful performance.”
For an “In Memoriam” tribute on his NPR program “Jazz Night in America,” McBride tallied too many deaths among jazz colleagues. He said, “This was in December 2020 and there were over 50 we counted.” McBride said, “In the week between when we recorded that show and it aired, three more died.”
The passing of trumpeter Wallace Roney, with whom he recorded “Obsession” in 1990 and “Munchin’” in 1993, and who played Caffe Lena in May 2019, hit especially hard.
McBride said, “I feel bad saying this, but so many died in the past 15 months that it’s hard to keep track; so many back to back to back. I almost couldn’t be sad.” He said, “Somebody would die and I would feel, ‘I have to reserve this cry because in the next 72 hours, somebody else is going to go.’ I had to hold it in because somebody else was going to go. It’s so overwhelming I can’t describe what this feels like.”
Both McBride and Salvant turned to work, to making music, to keep going. McBride just returned from premiering “Familiar Steps,” a big-band project he led with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra.
“My first performance (after the pandemic shut-down) was at Brooklyn Bridge Park at the end of May,” wrote Salvant. At SPAC Sunday, she plans to sing “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue!” She added, “I feel awkward and way over my head! But also very excited.”
In measured, cautious words, McBride said, “Frankly, I’m not sure how good we’re going to sound since we haven’t played a gig in months.” He said, “We’ll listen to the recording (“Christian McBride’s New Jawn” album , 15th of his 17 albums) and do the best we can.”
Brightening, McBride said, “I can’t wait to get back onstage with those guys.”
“It’s gonna be fresh,” he said. “It will have that new-car smell!”
SATURDAY, JUNE 26
- 12:00 – 12:45pm – Hot Club of Saratoga, presented by Caffè Lena. An area fave gypsy jazz crew playing zippy antique acoustic swing-jazz
- 1:15-2:15pm – Pianist Joey Alexander. An awesome prodigy, with depth beyond his years, he’s celebrating his 18th birthday in this, his third festival show after his stunning area debut at Music Haven
- 2:45-3:45pm – Singer Dianne Reeves. A five-time Grammy winner and a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master, she’s the onscreen and soundtrack star of “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Her “Beautiful Life” album (of 20-plus) features a who’s-who of modern jazz masters including Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper with production by drummer Terri Lynn Carrington
- 4:15-5:30pm – Bassist Christian McBride’s New Jawn. A piano-less quartet with drummer Nasheet Watts, trumpeter Josh Evans and reeds-master Marcus Strickland playing tenor sax and bass clarinet. Six years on, it’s a world-class improvising ensemble, shaped and led by the most honored bassist in jazz, a seven-time Grammy winner.
SUNDAY, JUNE 27
- 12:00 – 12:45pm – Garland Nelson’s Joyful Noise, presented by Caffè Lena. A compact gospel choir with jazz rhythm section, longtime area Sunday morning favorites
- 1:15-2:15pm – Guitarist Al di Meola. First heard with Return to Forever, he’s co-starred in all-star bands including guitar trios and led his own bands in driving, impressionistic music on both electric and acoustic guitars, some with world-music echoes. His “Across the Universe” album (latest of nearly 40 releases) features more than a dozen Beatles songs, his second such tribute after 2013’s “All Your Life”
- 2:45-3:45pm – Artemis, presented by Skidmore Jazz Institute. All women, all stars in their own right(s): Pianist/leader Rene Rosnes, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover, bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Allison Miller
- 4:15-5:30pm – Singer (also visual artist and film-maker) Cécile McLorin Salvant. Recently named Jazz Journalists Association Female Vocalist of the Year, the ambitious MacArthur “genius” Fellow, Doris Duke Artist Award Winner and three-time Grammy winner masterfully interprets both the Great American Songbook and more modernist fare.
HOW TO GET IN
Tickets to the (COVID-cancelled) 2020 fest still work, for a similar location.
New ticket buyers: Visit https://tickets.spac.org/TheatreManager/1/login?event=0&search=P_SEQ%20IN(638,639)Or phone 518-584-9330
Tickets for two-person pods inside are $130 per day; on the lawn, two-person pods are $150, four-person pods are $300. Very limited numbers of single tickets are $65 inside, $75 on the lawn.
HOW TO STAY SAFE
Unvaccinated fans must wear masks.
You can bring in up to a gallon of factory-sealed water and food in a clear plastic bag; but no coolers, beach-size umbrellas, tents, tarps or tables. Blankets, chairs and small umbrellas are OK. Restrooms will feature social distancing and extra cleanings.
Sunscreen and rain-gear are always wise carries.
Unlike past SPAC jazz festivals, this weekend’s edition will all take place on the main stage only. Past festivals presented performers in alternating sets on the main stage and Charles R. Wood Gazebo stage, expanded and improved before the 2017 season.