SPAC celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival by going long on general entertainment and short on jazz. The lineup included tributes to much loved figures in other genres, played straight up by musicians long associated with jazz and there was, for the first time, a pop act. Once you got past the expectation of jazz at a jazz festival, you could get on with the day and enjoy the magic of SPAC.
There was a lot on offer musically, between the new, improved, Charles R. Wood Gazebo stage and the Main Amphitheatre and though I try, it’s not possible to catch every set. Most attendees have a strategy. Mine is to select a few artists each day that I really want to see and try to do just that. There’s so much to enjoy and discover that I leave room for the pleasure of the unexpected. Whatever catches my ear or my eye, I give it my full attention. No guilt, grace and serendipity rule the day.
Saturday June 25
Cuban born pianist Aruan Ortiz’s Trio was completely engaging
Jean-Luc Ponty, The Atlantic Years was tight, as befits a band that’s been together for decades. They were on the bill at the first festival and 40 years later, they played their fusion with fire. Ponty played with passion – the years have not diminished him.
Vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, sultry and playful, with a wink and a nod but never camp.
The Gazebo was packed and primed for guitarist Dave Stryker’s Organ Quartet. At the downbeat, the audience started to bob their head and did not stop – it was a sea of happy bobble heads, groovin’ in the sunshine.
Jazz 100 – an all-star assemblage featuring Danilo Perez and Joe Lovano, smoothly held the audience, with percussionist Roman Diaz bringing the fire.
Suffers – Vintage Soul, by way of Houston, designed to make you shake rattle and roll. Powerhouse vocalist Kam Franklin owned the stage. If you miss Sharon Jones, perhaps this will help.
Shabaka & the Ancestors – London based saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings melds with South African jazz musicians, bringing a vibrant, fresh take on the jazz. Taking the stage in bare feet, the band is rooted on the stage, in this world. Mandla Mlangeni's trumpet and vocals command attention be paid to the political and environmentally conscious thrust of the music. If you get the chance to see them, DO IT. You won’t be sorry.
London based Jacob Collier was a disappointment. This 22 year old, multi- instrumental, multi-visual artist has gotten rave reviews and I was prepared to be wowed. I wanted to be wowed. He ran around the stage, working his multiple keyboards, singing words that I couldn’t make out, at times playing guitar. The visuals, on a screen behind him, weren’t very original or engaging. I’m sure he is a great talent and maybe I’d have been more receptive to his brand of pop if I wasn’t at a jazz festival. Maybe it was an off night for him. Either way, it didn’t work for me.
Chaka Khan is ... well, Chaka Khan!
Sunday opened with Jane Bunnett & Maqueque, but I zipped over to the Gazebo to catch saxophonist Noah Preminger & trumpeter Jason Palmer’s Quartet. The audience was full and rapt, it was a pleasure to get lost in the music.
Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days packed the audience and had everyone moving.
Jane Bunnett & Maqueque did a second set at the Gazebo. Bunnett is Canadian, but the band is from Cuba. And they are all women. The music is joyous, infectious, and fun.
Back at the Amphitheatre, Hudson was just getting started. This is the jam band you want at your next backyard bbq. Which is how this got rolling. Hudson Valley neighbors Keyboardist John Medeski, guitarist John Scofield, bassist Larry Grenadier, and legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette were having a blast and they took us with them.
Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater took the stage in overalls, with a tight band paying tribute to the great soul singer, the Reverend Al Green. The audience, which tripled during her set, was up and dancing. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Blues man Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton gave us gems from the 20’s and 30’s, delivering the double entendres with sly gusto from behind his piano.
Back at the main stage, saxophonist Maceo Parker channeled Ray Charles a little too faithfully in To Ray with Love. He dressed like him, he moved like him and talked like him, too. All the musicians in this big band played with Ray Charles and it was a loving tribute.
Cory Henry is best known for his Hammond B3 work with the jazz/R&B band Snarky Puppy. Here he appeared with the Funk Apostles and they were. Funk, R&B, a sweet groove.