Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Freihofer Jazz Fest in Saratoga Springs is HERE

The annual event -- two days of jazz bliss -- was started in 1978 by legendary impresario George Wein. The greatest names in jazz have performed at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center over the years, and many who are “stars” now appeared here as up-and-coming talent.

It's this Saturday and Sunday (June 26-27), starting at noon each day.

Miles, Sonny, Ella, Basie, Dexter, Getz, Dizzy, Sarah, Carmen, Weather Report, Herbie, Chick ... on and on and on -- have graced the stage. Stages, really, as the event has one main amphitheater stage and a small gazebo stage, both hosting superb bands.

[Photo, by me, is Terrence Blanchard's band in 2008]

It has been called Newport Jazz Festival - Saratoga, Kool Jazz Festival and JVC, but for years now, the Freihofer Baking Co. has been the main sponsor. Bless them!! And while George Wein sold the event a few years back, it went to the capable hands of Danny Melnick of Absolutely Live Entertainment, who has been a fine caretaker for the last few years.

Don't let rain disuade you. bring stuff for passing showers if they even come. Usually, they don't. And bring a cooler with all your needs (no glass containers) even beer or other adult pleasures.

This year’s event doesn’t have huge “big name” hooks, other than the stellar pianist Ahmad Jamal. But there is talent a plenty. I’m particularly looking forward to Kendrick Scott’s Oracle band, saxophonist JD Allen, Jamal, Al DiMeola, bluesman Taj Mahal and trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, as well as a first look at young trumpeter Mario Abney. There’s more .. The lineup is below, but those starting times are sometimes subject to change during the daytime hours.

Saturday – June 26th
Main Stage
* Noon – Mario Abney Quintet
* 1:20pm – Evan Christopher New Orleans Clarinet Virtuoso
* 2:40pm – Legendary blues musician Taj Mahal
* 4:10pm – Pianist Ahmad Jamal
* 5:35pm – Al DiMeola’s World Sinfonia Group
* 7:10pm – Festival favorites Al Jarreau & The George Duke Trio
* 9:00pm – Sax For Stax featuring Gerald Albright and Kirk Whalum
Gazebo Stage
* 12:15pm – JD Allen Trio
* 1:35pm – Tomasz Stanko Quartet Polish Jazz Legend
* 2:55pm – Alyssa Graham
* 4:20pm – Steve Kroon Sextet
* 5:40pm – Mario Abney Quintet

Sunday – June 27th
Main Stage
* Noon – Trio of OZ featuring pianist Rachel Z and Omar Hakim
* 1:20pm – Vibraphonist Stefon Harris with Blackout
* 2:40pm – Ann Hampton Callaway
* 4:10pm – The Ramsey Lewis Trio
* 5:50pm – Juan De Marcos & the Afro Cuban All Stars
* 7:40pm – Gladys Knight “The Empress of Soul”
Gazebo Stage
* 12:15pm – Hailey Niswanger Berklee College of Music alto sax phenom
* 1:35pm – Kendrick Scott Oracle
* 2:55pm – Linda Oh Trio
* 4:15pm – Trio of OZ featuring pianist Rachel Z and Omar Hakim
* 5:35pm – Ralph Lalama Quartet

Indoor amphitheater seats may be scare at this juncture, but single-day tickets are:
* Saturday Amphitheater: Adult $65, Child (12 & under) $55
* Sunday Amphitheater: Adult $58, Child (12 & under) $51
* Lawn: Adult $44, Child (12 & under) $5

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Jazz Journalists Association Presents Awards

The Jazz Journalists Association presented its annual awards Monday (6/14) in New York City and recognized the contributions of a number of wonderful musicians, journalists and other friends of jazz. The awards were streamed live over the Internet and there were satellite parties in cities across the country, so hopefully there was more exposure than ever before. (A video of the event is viewable at the JJA site … click the above link and scroll down a bit).

Awards are always kind of tricky. Who’s to say who is ‘the best” this and the “best that,” and yet awards for movies, TV, plays, music, etc. etc. have been around forever. Art is so subjective that it sometimes seems silly to try and sort these things out. In jazz especially, each artist is trying to bring truth and beauty to the surface in their own way. The results are broad in taste, but all valid when they are done with honesty and integrity. The tapestry of jazz around the world is so much more than any awards format could ever address.

[PHOTOS: Top: Dr. Lonnie Smith accepts award for best organist; Anat Cohen takes top clarinetist award; Bottom: Tia Fuller addresses the crowd; Kurt Elling thanks the group.]

I attended the JAA dinner on behalf of the All About Jazz website and was honored to accept the award for Website of the Year. All About Jazz is, hands down, the best site on the web. It provides so much information, so many features, so many things, for fans but also musicians and people in the industry. Special salute to publisher/found Mike Ricci. And as I mentioned on stage, I also personally salute John Kelman, a tireless editor and organizer of material for AAJ. And a damn fine writer who knows his shit inside and out. They are the nuts and bolts of AAJ, to me. And they’re both a pleasure as people.

As much as there were great musicians who won awards, there were far many more great one that got no acknowledgement. Such is the way with awards. But sticking to the results, it was a great pleasure to see Roberta Gambarini win Female Vocalist of the Year. Her reputation has been growing, but formal awards have eluded her. Her albums have been Grammy worthy -- It’s coming one day. Her range and vocal instrument, with her depth of feeling, make her a sublime listen every time. Nice to see her earn the trophy. Kurt Elling’s presence at the top of the male vocalist list should be a given. He is tops in talent and he is always seeking creative ways to utilize his superb skills.

Roberta let it be known on facebook that she wanted to attend the event, but was struggling with the effects of food poisoning. She said she would have dedicated the award to one of her great friends and mentors, the late, great Hank Jones. Ironically, another of her great friends and mentors, James Moody, won the Lifetime Achievement Award. Moody couldn't make it due to recent surgery, but people reported that he's doing well and will be back on the scene. Congrats to Moody!

Joe Lovano has become one of the finest saxophonists of his generation, always creative, always passionate. He plays with heart. All the time. So his hat trick of saxophonist, small group and record of the year was deserved. Maria Schneider, one of the nicest people in jazz, is also one of its master composer/arrangers. Nice to see her take home two awards. Anat Cohen as clarinet player of the year was another noteworthy one. She has fast established herself as a great player on the instrument with bright, fresh ideas. But don’t go to sleep on her tenor sax playing. She an bring it! A great young player. (I never did find the food either, Anat…oh well).

Great to see George Wein going strong at almost 85. I’m particularly pleased to see him get Events Producer of the Year over younger, talented, producers of important events. The reason he should still be awarded after all these years is the way he breathed life back into the Newport Jazz Festival, now sponsored by CareFusion. The citadel of jazz festivals fell after he left the guardhouse, but he brought it back to great heights last year. And he’s revived his New York City festival too, which is great. His energy is boundless… and he’s still playing piano gigs with bands he puts together!

Too many winners to comment on. But the nicest thing for me is to see all these people in the room, talking, laughing, hugging. The musicians are on tour a lot, of course, so “hang” time as a group is rare. So is rubbing elbows with so many writers. Great to see all the industry people and so many excellent writers for whom jazz music is a passion. There’s always a fine spirit in the room. One of community and passion and joy. That’s the best part.

Some exceptional music was performed too, by pianist Ayako Shirasaki, guitarist Rale Micic's Trio, pianist Marc Cary's Focus Trio, saxophonist Tia Fuller's Quartet and Bobby Sanabria's Big Band. Fuller’s alto sax was scorching. Cary’s too brief appearance was intense, the group hard-driving and the pianist nimble and hot. Micic is someone to keep an eye on and Sanabria’s Latin group moved the feet and heart. Sweet stuff. Shirasaki played while people came in and greeted one another; a tough gig, but she played with great touch and swing. Nice stuff.

One bone to pick: There’s got to be a way musicians can come up for their awards and not be dragged off stage because of time restraints. They should have a few moments to make their comments and get some of the love.

Other than that, I’ve got to find a way to get Brother Thelonious beer in upstate New York!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Bass Player to Watch

When young Ben Williams stepped on to the stage at the Kennedy Center in his native Washington, D.C., to participate in the Thelonious Monk Institute Bass Competition, he was nervous. There must be a certain amount of nerves connected with any “competition” but the jury for this particular prestigious event consisted of arguably the best bass players out there. By “out there,” I mean the planet Earth.

“I purposely made sure I didn’t look into the audience to see where they were sitting,” Williams said in a recent conversation. A man with an easy sense of humor, he chuckled at the recollection, “It was bad enough that I knew they were there. I didn’t want to look in the crowd look in the crowd and see them in the front. Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Christian McBride, John Patitucci just sitting there looking at me. I didn’t want to see that.”

Williams won the competition, its $20,000 scholarship, and a chance to record for Concord Records, which he will do on June 16-17. He expects his debut recording will be out early next year.

“They were all really cool,” Williams said of the judges that day. “Very supportive. It was nerve racking, but at the same time I feel like they were there to support me and all the contestants.”

Lots of people in the jazz world were already aware of Ben from gigs he did during his college years, which ended recently in New York City, where the 25-year-old has lived for a couple of years. He did gigs around his home town -- mostly R&B -- and then got into jazz in junior high and high school, the latter of which was Duke Ellington School of the Arts. He developed a strong jazz repertoire there. A teacher gave him a copy of Kind of Blue, the iconic Miles Davis album.

“I still remember how I felt the first time I listened to it. The first track, ‘So What.’ ‘Freddie Freeloader’ after that. I couldn’t even get past the first two songs. There was this overwhelming feeling of, like, shock and amazement. It’s like tasting chocolate cake for the first time, or something that you really love,” he said. “That first time. When you hear it, it feels like you’re going through this metamorphosis. You’re deep in this feeling that you’ve never felt before. I was very curious too. I knew at that point I wanted to do what I heard these guys doing. I want to be a part of that. I guess that’s when the jazz bug bit me.”

He played jazz gigs while at Michigan State University, under tutelage of Rodney Whitaker. From there he went to the Julliard School in New York City for his master’s degree, which he received last month. Living in the city, he getting to play with jazz notables, and went to work for the likes of Stefon Harris and Jacky Terrasson, touring and recording.

On May 22, he did his first road gig as a leader, bringing a quintet to Saratoga Springs, NY, under the auspices of Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which runs the annual Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at the end of June.

On stage, Williams had an easy presence, joking with the audience between songs. At the helm of the band, he was steady. The group was composed of some of the best young players on the Big Apple scene -- Otis Brown II on drums, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Marcus Strickland on tenor and soprano saxes, Matt Stevens on guitar. In the beginning, the group sounded like they hadn’t played together that much. Outstanding individually, the group sound needed some more cohesion. That element picked up as the night when on and if the young bassist can keep that going in spite of the vagaries of today‘s music business, the future is quite bright.

The group reworked Woody Shaw’s “Moontrane,” Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover,” Buster Williams’ “Christina,” and Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way.” He also tossed in originals like “Dawn of a New Day,” a loping, mid-tempo, melodic vehicle that features the tasty piano of Goldberg, a growing presence in jazz, and Strickland on soprano, who played with gusto throughout the evening.

Williams solos during the night, sometimes long, always seemed melodic. He didn’t bring out some of the thumping technique that bassists like to employ to get the deep resonant sound. Ben has a nice sound, and his ideas were charged with pushing the melody and were creative in doing so. Noteworthy was his arco playing. Often times I find myself cringing when a bassist reaches for the bow. Not so on this night. He has a crisp attack and gets a great sound. (He also has classical training in his background). He played it blissfully over the romantic “Christina” melody.

Williams never called breakneck bebop tunes. The arrangements fluctuated in dynamics and range, ass did Williams individual playing. Even tough he has a strong R&B background, the version of Michael Jackson’s “Little Susie” was more abstract than pop or soul, then built in intensity. His solo had him harmonizing with his own bass lines by alternating lines on the bass.

It was a good set of music, and there’s much more to come. With that in mind, it’s also interesting to hear Ben’s response to what he feels is the key to his early success. It’s not woodshedding. It’s not his education. It’s not his contacts with particular musicians.

“Being a good person, first and foremost, really goes a long way. Being nice and being able to get along with people. Being a good human being. Being the kind of person people want to be around. Before you even play a note, you get a vibe about the kind of person you are. I try to maintain a good positive energy and be the kind of person people want to work with, first of all. Be as professional as I can. Always being prepared for the gig. Do my homework. Give it 110 percent. I think I really give a good message to people that their music matters, that you really care about the music and you’re serious about it. When they call you, it’s going to be a good time.”

That seems healthy to me. Speaks to character. His mother, who was at the concert, would be proud of that one. It speaks well for longevity in an industry that can eat people up.


Things are heating up in the Capital District of New York State -- Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga and around.

On Sunday, June 6, the Caroline Street Blues and Arts Fest features Murali Coryell, who’s a hot young blues guy. He's also the son of guitar wizard Larry Coryell. Murali plays the Capital Region every so often. The Chris O’Leary band (Chris worked with Levon Helm for some time, and maybe still does on occasion) is also one to watch, as is George Fletcher’s Bourbon Renewal band. George is a fine local guitarist who runs two bands. The other, Tequila Mockingbirds, is an acoustic duo, though a scorching one. Not wimpy bullshit. Blues and jazz and rock and bluegrass and things in between.

But the electric blues band is always exciting. Kick ass tunes and solos. Give you da blues, baby. Great to check out. Food and arts and crafts will be decorating the Caroline Street area, along with other music to hear.

That night, Frank Vignola plays Caffe Lena on Phila Street in Saratoga.

Next week is SaratogaArtsFest, which will feature Warren Bernhardt playing some superb solo piano at Putnam’s Den on Putnam Street. All the arts are being represented June 10-13, but thankfully they have always had a jazz headliner group.

The Freihofer Festival, two days of great music on two stages, is June 26-27. It’s followed by a few concerts at Skidmore College in Saratoga. June 29, Stefon Harris and Blackout (featuring Williams on bass); July 1 and July 8, the Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute faculty concert, which features people like Dennis McKrell, Pat LaBarbera, Curtis Fuller, Bobby Shew, Bill Cunliffe and more. July 6 has pianists Bill Charlap and Rene Rosnes, now a married couple, performing a concert of duets.

Check for much more jazz in the region and visit All About Jazz every chance you get!!