Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Freihofer Jazz Fest Continues Fine Tradition

This year’s Freihofer’s Jazz Festival, held at the end of June, was again one of the highlights of summer, musically and otherwise, in upstate New York. Held in the sweet town of Saratoga Springs in upstate NY and at the scenic and special Saratoga Performing Arts Center venue, it’s always a gas. Always there’s music from some of the master’s, as well as surprises from the aspiring masters, and always surprises from up-and-coming artists.

It’s also a fabulous picnic and place where old and new friends meet with a backdrop of a variety of jazz, soul, blues and sometimes pop music. Being a jazz festival, of course that genre prevails. Some years -- blissfully -- it has supremely dominated. Others, sadly, not.

The 2010 version could have stood a couple of big-name starts -- Chick, Herbie, Dave Holland, Lovano … someone. Attendance seemed down, unfortunately. But the “feature acts” were Gladys Knight -- I could scarcely find a single soul who was interested -- and a “smooth jazz” act that could make me sleep just reading the name. I won’t write it for fear of the same. More jazz fans would have come in for more jazz. Granted, there are financial considerations in these times, and Chick or Sonny etc. do not come at a discount price. And yes, producer Danny Melnick did bring in some very fine music that resulted in another good 2-day festival. I’ll gripe no further. Melnick has carried the torch well since it was handed to him by George Wein and he's to be lauded for that.

[My photos, top to bottom:
Kendrick Scott; Omar Hakim; Rachel Z (piano) & Maeve Royce; Ahmad Jamal; dapper Mr. Mario Abney; Ralph Lalama (sax) quartet; Hailey Niswanger; Mario Abney playing; Kendrick Scott (center) with Mike Moreno, guitar, and John Ellis, bass clarinet; Revelers - you know who you are!]

Special to me was Kendrick Scott’s Oracle band, a group of outstanding individuals who carry out Scott’s vision and broad musical perspective. The quality of music was very high, the vibe blissful. There’s enough there for the head and the heart. And sitting under sunny skies sipping a beer and going with the music was a sheer delight. Scott’s drums have been featured in the bands of Terrence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock. This was his first gig outside NYC and he was excited about it.

“I’ve been using John Ellis (sax) for years now,” he said a few days before the gig. “We have a good linkup because we all played together in (guitarist) Mike Moreno’s band. Mike is always one of the center pieces of the band (Oracle). Now so is John. The three of use have played together in each other’s bands for a long time. Taylor Eigsti (piano) just started playing last year. Taylor’s excellent. So I’ve been having a great time playing with him. He’s been using me on some of his gigs. It’s funny being a drummer/bandleader, because I’ve called all the people I love (for his group), then I play in their band. It’s a blessing for me to be able to have bandleaders play with me. Taylor has a beautiful sensibility and touch on the piano. Harish (Ragavan, bass) I met through Taylor or through the whole influx of the west coast coming into the city. Like Ambrose Akinmusire, Justin Brown and Taylor, Joe Sanders. All of them were out in LA on the west coast, and they all came (to NYC) at the same time. They kind of blew up the scene at the same time. I met Harish then. That’s the whole band.”

he said he hopes his band is something that is long-lasting, like Art Blakey's. Time will tell. The quality of his music and his ability to run a band is unquestioned. But there are always other factors in oplay, and some degree of good fortune is always helpful. I hope things go well for Kendrick in this regard because he's a true artist. And a good guy. High quality music, indeed.

They were excellent.

As was Ralph Lalama’s quartet, bluesman Taj Mahal, saxophonist J.D. Allen, Trio of Oz with Rachel Z on piano and drum wizard Omar Hakim;, and veteran Ahmad Jamal. The Young Talent Raising Eyebrows awards went to 19-year-old saxophonist Hailey Niswanger, still a student at Berklee College in Boston, and young trumpeter Mario Abney who brought a high-energy sextet that brought a strong vibe of fun while not playing down to the audience. Kaliq Woods on clarinet was a highlight within that group. Great chops and feeling.

J.D. Allen‘s trio was a great listen, especially the Trane-like “The Cross and the Crescent Sickle” with the saxman playing long, serpentine ideas over a steady rhythmic pulse.

An official review is found here, at the great All About Jazz website.

But Trio of Oz is worth mentioning as a group that brought as much intensity and electricity as any, propelled by the whirlwind drumming of Hakim. His arms and hands seemed to be everywhere, but as frantic as the pace was, everything he did was musical with his bandmates Rachel Z and bassist Maeve Royce. They turned rock songs into jazz heaven. Powerful stuff.

Most of the fans at this event seem to mark their calendars every year in anticipation. Many, I’m sure, already have plans and weekend accommodations for 2011. Get yourself in that mode. It’s a high-quality hang and enough music to float your boat for a long time.

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