rain. And more rain. Then it stopped halfway, about four hours into the first day of the Freihofer Saratoga Jazz Festival.
There was no doubt that the music prevailed despite the storm, and the turnout was record high and full of energy. But you have to choose when to move on to the next stage—whether to watch the next scene, or stay where you are. To act means to get wet.
Perhaps the turning point of the day — musically and rainy — came from Cory Wong’s band, a choreographed nine-piece band whose five-piece horn section wailed in sync at dizzying speed.
Huang’s performance is very funny, incredible, modern and pure jazz. That’s exactly what a jazz festival needs to gather a big enough audience and still claim it’s jazz. It wobbles, honks its horn at poignant moments to emphasize the point, and Wong struts with intensity, leadership and contentment on his face. Call it entertainment, but it also makes jazz popular and accessible.
Wang followed the “Tower of Power” performance, which kicked the day’s mood up a notch or two — people filled the pavilion, dancing, shouting — but aside from a well-orchestrated in-person performance, almost Nothing else.
Jazz festivals need to offer a wide range of music, including music outside the jazz genre. SPAC did just that with a straight blues singer, a New Orleans rocker and others. But they also offer an impressive roster of trios and quartets steeped in the jazz (swing) tradition. Nor is it limited to small stages.
Drummer Cindy Blackman Santana kicked off the big stage with a fusion-driven sound, her music full of signature gorgeous fills and accents. Her mighty power rarely rests – it’s her show, so she has to stay alive and she doesn’t disappoint. Her style—like the great Tony Williams—seems to disrupt a band’s rhythm, but inevitably pushes them up a notch. Her star image, massive toolbox, and athleticism combine multiple times to create some jaw-dropping moments.
Emmet Cohen stunned the audience on the Discovery Stage (the smaller of the two stages) by winning the day’s traditional jazz trio award (not really an award). The breadth of his ideas on the piano is amazing no matter the tempo. On the first piece alone, he straddles ragtime, blues, swing and classical. He’s the pianist of pianists, perhaps out of his mind, but he draws the entire audience into his solos. He smiles, pays attention to his bandmates — giving them plenty of room to do their own thing — and stays focused during their solos. However, when he gets up, he burns. He starts off with just a few stabs, but soon his fingers and arms are flailing, ideas pouring out of his limbs, creating and solving storyline after storyline.
The name of the smaller stage “Discovery Stage” is well-intentioned. But maybe it’s time for a new name. All acts are experienced and well known. Take Cohen, for example. The 22-year-old next to me was visiting a friend from Miami, Florida, and wanted to meet Cohen and the others. He knew the trio well through “Live From Emmett’s House,” a show that airs to thousands of viewers every Monday night from his apartment in New York City.
Texas singer-guitarist Carolyn Wonderland and her quartet succumbed to pure blues, opening with Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Failure But Mine.” jazz? While unlikely, one could argue that it belongs somewhere on the American musical spectrum.
The first performer on the small stage of the day was South African Nduduzo Makhathini. His unruly piano playing with an equally uninhibited trio feels dangerous—a political statement. Between songs he speaks of the spiritual connection his music has to his people, his land, and the spirit that his music carries.
“Where does it go when we’re done with the song?” he asks, suggesting it’s still in play. He tells us that this idea—that music creates its own career and impact—inspires his discipline and the spiritual quality of his product.
Intrepid singer and activist Angelique Kidjo capped off the day with a terrific performance singing in more than five of her languages, while sassy hippie Snarky Puppy capped off the day with a suitably loud and funny performance.
Multi-stage festivals provide a rich experience, but also leave you feeling like you’re always missing something, always missing something better on another stage. That fear was real on Saturday, with a lineup of 12 solid shows, a wide variety of acts, no household names, but plenty of world-renowned players for jazz fans and music fans in general. The Saratoga Music Festival continues to provide the right balance—an entertaining experience for the general audience and a constant lifeline to one of America’s greatest gifts to the world—jazz.
Sunday saw another day of world class performances including Pat Metheny, Bonnie Raitt and the excellent Samara Joy.