LIVE: Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival (Day 1) @ SPAC, 06/25/2022

The mercifully cool breeze didn’t last. It welcomed early-bird fans into the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Saturday for its first full jazz festival since “the before times” – the 45th overall, 25th under Freihofer’s name sponsorship, and the first at “full festival strength” since 2019, as impresario Danny Melnick announced. Then warm reunion feelings took over as old friends/fans found and greeted each other and the music helped heat the rapidly warming air.

A sweaty version of the usual marathon, it was a day for sunblock, bug spray, and happy hydrating – cocktail hour hits well before five o’clock – with 13 acts on two stages from 11 a.m. to well past 10 – 7,000-plus steps if you ping-pong between the two stages to taste everything.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Guitarist Dan Wilson’s trio charmed and charged everybody up at 11 sharp on the Charles R. Wood “Jazz Discovery” Stage (hereafter the Wood, previously the Gazebo.) A clean-tone/round-note flat-picker (i.e., Metheny or Martino versus Scofield, say), Wilson riffed and swung, ably abetted by organist Pat Bianchi and drummer Donald Edwards. In ‘Trane’s “Pursuance,” Herbie’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story,” Wayne’s “Children of the Night,” Joe Henderson’s “A Shade of Jade” and his own “Who Shot John?” the trio took us through small-band conventions. They helped out in each other’s solos: Bianchi would solo over the moon – further over there sometimes than Wilson – then hit a muscular organ-key/and-pedals bass vamp under Wilson’s explorations. Songs started as fanfares or salutes, then resolved into waltzes, grooves or detours – a cool set-up for all that followed.

At noon on the main stage – let’s call that the Main – the Hot Club of Saratoga went skillfully antique (1920s-30s, in Paris) Django-Stephane-style, zipping into “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” (imagine an umlaut) at a hurt-you tempo, dancing through a languid “Exactly Like You” and going sweetly elegant in “Snowfall.”

The quintet – violin, clarinet, two guitars, vocals and percussion and bass – swung easy, authentic but never stiff.

Photo by Rudy Lu

I’d seen and loved them last year, so I soon bounced to the Wood for pianist Connie Han

She attacked the piano as I arrived in “Mr. Dominator” – all pounding chords and jittery runs, but denied “I’m as perverted as you might think” despite her leather S&M garb. Her second tune paid tribute to her idol, McCoy Tyner, and she wielded an impressive speed, density, and drive, ala his 1960s and 70s music. Switching from Steinway to Rhodes and over-explaining a song cycle on proto-goddess Inara slowed things; she was simply more forceful and more melodic at the piano. The graceful waltz-swing of drummer Bill Wysocki’s “Wind Rose Goddess” – Han back at the Steinway – hit a high peak of melodic power; then “Igalu Pursuit” (both from the song cycle) started frantic/thrilling then settled into a Tyner-like flow.

Back on Main, pianist Amina Figarova augmented her conventional sextet with strings to create a complex sound both exotic and orchestral – at least when the strings could be clearly heard. Like Han’s set, Figarova’s peaked with a waltz, the serene, sweet “Old Vienna.”

Photo by Rudy Lu

New Orleans was in the house as Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith marched us back to Mardi Gras parades, blues and funk. Sweat-walking in from the Main, their explosive “Organ Grinder Swing” hit me just right. Organist Jimmy Smith’s tune took Handy’s organist Kyle Koehler into the spotlight and he shone. Alongside, Handy’s tenor sax fought back riff for riff, but the real winner was Sousaphone blaster Clark Gayton, an outstanding virtuoso and brilliant accompanist and soloist. In “You’re Gonna Miss My Lovin’,” Handy roamed the crowd, giving sax and crowd a workout. He ended the song standing on a bench, saying afterward he’d shed a week’s worth of sweat. “Got My Mojo Working,” Handy at the mic, bristled with another Gayton Sousaphone solo, going savage and silly at once with a quote of Dizzy’s “Salt Peanuts.”

The Ozmosyz Band of drummer Omar Hakim and keyboardist Rachel Z beefed up, like Amina Figarova’s Sextet, by adding guitar, bass and vocals – but with similarly mixed results. Both bands are smoothly skilled, sunny in fluent melodicism, driving on busy beats. Their music had chops and charm, and peaked nicely in “Bodhisatva” – no, not the Steely Dan song. 

Photo by Rudy Lu

But I felt time-warped into the 80s ‘Quiet Storm” radio both by Ozmosys and by Emmaline on the Wood where I soon landed. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with smooth R&B, and both emerged above that glossy surface at times.

Emmaline in fact showed off an imaginative, at times amusing, take on antique tunes, singing in a somewhat brassy voice and bowing agile violin in “I’m in the Mood for Love” and proclaiming in M.C. Hammer’s (!) “You Can’t Touch This” that “Hammer time” in fact meant time for a violin solo. In more serious moods, her originals “All My Sweetest Dreams” and “Get Lost” etched heartache while the chestnut “You Don’t Know What Love Is” had sad gravity.

Galactic funked up the Main New Orleans style, maybe the best sounding set all day, setting grooves with an irresistible, authoritative punch. In other words, Stanton Moore’s drums rattled your ribs while singer Angelika Jelly Joseph made your socks roll up and down with mighty Mahalia-isms and big Aretha power.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Early on, riding the groove, she asked “how you feeling?” then observed, “That was cute!” at the weak response. Demanding and building a better audience vibe, she made it her business to keep the roll rolling And she got fantastic, fierce, funky help from her band, playing like the Meters, the Nevilles. It was all grooves, and all great, sounding thunderous and fine. Moore and Robert Mercurio’s bass dropped monster beats, Rich Vogel’s organ helping cement the groove. The front line – guitarist Jeff Raines, saxophonist and harmonica player Ben Ellman and trumpeter Shamarr Allen – framed Joseph’s big voice in big riffs. Some grooves hit so hard the words almost disappeared – what is a “Hey Na Na,” anyway? But they clearly meant it by proclaiming (Allen Toussaint’) “Yes We Can Can” and rueing ‘Should Have Known Better.”

Meanwhile, strange things were happening in the Wood.

A voice chanted “The fog comes in on little cat feet” over and over, atop a spooky-sparse tom-tom roll. Ah, Carl Sandburg! I’d forgotten Matt Wilson’s Honey & Salt set Sandburg’s verses to oblique jazz – like Frank Zappa and Kurt Weill busking on Broadway with a Salvation Army band generously dosed with acid.

More Sandburg/strange mash-ups followed. “Choose” prompted erupting trumpet, fife and guitars. “Paper One and Paper Two” divided humankind into writers and wrappers (or, rappers). “Love Is a Fool Star” fell into a country waltz. “Happiness” set up a wild soprano sax scream-fest which calmed into a fairly conventional round of solos. The most high-concept set of the day, it was also one of the most skillful, a tangled tour de force by all concerned: guitarist/reader Dawn Thompson and another guitarist whose name I didn’t catch, trumpeter Nadje Noorhuis, saxophonist/fife player Jeff Lederer and bassist Martin Wind. Wilson himself laughed often and loud at what weirdness he’d wrought, but played brilliant drums anyway and ran the band like its ringmaster.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Things were more ragged on Main as Robert Glasper burst expectations, rules and stylistic boundaries while also fighting technical difficulties. First DJ Johnny Sundance spun some soul tracks, then Glasper introduced bassist Bryce Travis and drummer Marcus Gilmore and noted, pointing to the Wood, “It took me 18 years to get from that stage to this stage.” Tinkering with his keyboards cooled the crowd, but everybody was ready to roll with it when he announced a Radiohead song. He and Sundance sang “Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box.” This soon settled into conventional jazz trio thing, but with DJ spice in beats and colors, and with mutations to come. “Packt” morphed into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which walked across the street from the video arcade to the church with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Who else would do THAT? He and the guys led us on this oddball journey with such fiery flair, such unquestionable confidence, they completely steam-rolled the question “Why?”

Seeking something more nuts and noisy, I headed for the Wood. Any stage that hosts two Sousaphones on the same day (Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith early afternoon, and Red Baraat at dinner time) is the right place to be.

A groove in search of dancers and certain to find some, a party with no zip code, Red Baraat is as New York as Honey & Salt; no, more so. They’re international, and therefore, Brooklyn; from how they rev up North Indian bhangra beats to a muscular, mighty funk, to how they play like a condensed series of United Nations mixers. Founder-leader Sunny Jain plays the dhal drum strapped to his belly alongside a turbaned trumpeter, a saxophonist, a drummer and a guitarist. And, did I mention: a Sousaphone?

Photo by Rudy Lu

The crowd under the tent before the Wood was about levitating when I got there; in fact, Red Baraat made everybody jump up and down. Soon they invited three fans onstage in a dance contest. Spotting a contestant handing off his drink, Jain yelled, “No, bring the beer! And bring me one!” They got everybody swinging arms overhead, dervish-spinning, doing The Writhe. It was three chords and joy-sweat – and a lot to do with the Sousaphone, huffed big by John Altieri.

Con Tumbao was to play the 2020 festival, which didn’t fest, but Melnick brought them back as soon as he could: an all-star Latin jazz crew of three horns, two percussionists, drums, keyboard and singer Isaac Delgado. Pedrito Martinez co-starred, playing congas up front and singing. Everything was tight, but not everything relied on stereotypical Latin jazz beats and chords. They played familiar-sounding styles, but made with fresh ingredients, and they wowed, start to finish.

Organist-bandleader-hitmaker Booker T. Jones finished on Saturday, dusting off 1960s radio classics with calm, precise assurance. Like Con Tumbao, Jones’s “Stax Revue” featured three horns, but often relied on the MGs format with Jones playing organ with guitarist-son Ted Jones, drummer Guy Dennis and bassist Melvin Brannon. They eased into their 90-plus-minute closing set with the spaghetti-western theme “Hang ‘Em High,” then turned the calendar back even further to Jones’s friend Carla Thomas’s “Gee Whiz” which inspired him to make music, too. Then it was a live highlight film of Memphis soul and blues, with a strong “Born Under a Bad Sign,” written the night before Albert King recorded it. Instrumentals – “Hip Hung Her,” “Green Onions” of course, a fervent “Summertime,” “Time Is Tight” – rode alongside big vocals on “Knock on Wood,” “Respect,” “In the Midnight Hour,” Mr. Big Stuff,: “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Soul Man,” “The Thrill is Gone” – in an expert human jukebox throw-down.

Photo by Rudy Lu

The thing with “can’t-miss” songs that everybody knows/loves is that you better not miss with them since everybody knows/loves them. Not a problem for Jones. He and his state-of-the-soul band brought more rocking glee than reverence to these tunes; so he stretched a few, from their 2:30 max at Stax Records to seven minutes for “Green Onions” and starting “Time is Tight” in a slow, sweet simmer before turning up the heat.

The crowd was happy, friendly, having fun, erecting a tent village on the flat lawn above the sloping bowl just outside the amphitheater – you know: the Main. Tenting the audience area at the Wood seemed to hold the crowd in place there, more than when it was sun-splashed. Big throngs stayed there all day, with the audience fluctuating before the Main. 

We all know Yogi Berra famously said “When you come to a fork in the road, take it;” but who knows what fork he – or we – would take in choosing between Amina Figarova’s Sextet and Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith?

No wrong choice, there.

Photo Gallery of Main Stage by Rudy Lu

Photo Gallery of Wood Stage by Rudy Lu

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