Monday, February 14, 2011

Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival Should Be Stellar

Fest Creator George Wein returns to perform and be honored on Walk of Fame

Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival has announced its lineup for 2011, a marked improvement over last year’s edition, though there was plenty of good music last year. At the two-day, two-stage event, there is always good music, even if there are acts scattered in at times that are questionable. With all due respect to the big city festivals, a music festival held outdoors is the best, and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in Saratoga Springs, NY, is ideal. It’s the way the Newport Jazz Festival was done from its inception.

No wonder, since George Wein, the icon who invented such outings and made the Newport event the flagship American festival, also started the Saratoga event in 1978.

[Photos © R.J. DeLuke, top: Ralph Lalama leads his band at SPAC's gazebo stage, 2010; bottom: Terence Blanchard's band plays the main stage in 2008]

When he thought he was retiring in 2007, Wein sold the Saratoga festival and his company. Regrettably, the company, which still had the Newport event, went to people who didn’t know what they were doing. They folded after financial troubles and it looked like there would be no Newport fest in 2009. George came back and brought it back to life. Both the 2009 and 2010 Newport festivals were tremendous.

As for good fortune, the Saratoga festival went to Danny Melnick, a former Wein employee, who, through his company Absolutely Live, produces the Freihofer in conjunction with SPAC. Melnick didn’t drop the ball. He’s done a damn good job, even in the face of a trouble U.S. economy.

One of the cool things about this year’s lineup is the return of Wein to Saratoga for the first time since he got out of the producing end of it. He’ll play with his Newport All-Stars, a group he does small tours with every year. He plays piano for the group that includes Howard Alden on guitar, Lew Tabackin on sax, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Randy Brecker on trumpet, Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. All are fine players. Wein played piano at the very first festival, sitting in with the New York Jazz Repertory company, a big band comprised of NYC veteran jazz cats. (A set by the group at last year’s Newport jazz fest was really nice).

He’s proud of the SPAC event. We spoke in 2009 about he revival of Newport, but discussion turned to Saratoga.

“That’s one we lost because I sold the company. They (SPAC) didn’t want to deal with the new company (Festival Productions). You lose things. The only thing that counts in business is to own things. Sometimes you can’t own things. You have to make deals.” he added with a chuckle, “I started a lot of things in my life. Some of them I have. Some of them I don’t.” He also spoke highly of Melnick

“That’s a beautiful sight up there. They have a constituency that focuses on what’s happening at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center … there’s a constituency that looks forward every year to the weekend before the Fourth of July. It’s like the beginning of summer up there when they do that event.” With parking, food and the spacious grounds it’s a perfect setting.

He thought back to the days in the late 1970s. “I was doing a festival in New York. My mind was restless. It’s a big job doing that. I wanted to get back to an outdoor feeling like Newport. I went up there and they said, ‘That’s great. Let’s do it.’” His wife, Joyce, said he should continue doing New York and Saratoga, “So I did both for years, with great success. It’s the best thing that ever happened, to do both of them … I wish those people good luck up there. They’re nice people. Sorry we don’t work with them any more, but that’s my fault, not theirs.”

He’ll be working there soon. At the piano bench. It’s billed as an 85th birthday celebration, and Wein will get a star on SPAC’s Walk of Fame.

The even is Saturday and Sunday, June 25 and 26, at SPAC. It runs from noon well into the evening. Two stages. Picnics. Arts and crafts tents. Smiling, happy people.

Other music that weekend will be from the terrific jack DeJohnette, whose band includes the fine young saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa; Eliane Elias; recent Grammy winner Dee Dee Bridgewater; The Bad Plus and a set called Sing the Truth! with Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright, celebrating the legacies of Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln and Odetta. For pop fans, Michael McDonald will likely be a crowd pleaser.

There are lesser known groups at this year’s event. But the music will be superb. Groups led by Ben Allison and David Binney turned in great sets at Newport last summer. They’ll no doubt do the same up here in Saratoga. Steve Cardenas, who plays guitar with Allison, will also do trio music. He’s a splendid player. Expect good things. The guitar trio of Lionel Loueke should also be remarkable.

Hilary Kole is a singer who is getting more comfortable in the jazz idiom, handling standards with style and flair. Marcus Strickland is a fine young saxophonist who’ll no doubt be playing with some of his outstanding peers from New York City, maybe his twin brother E.J. who plays drums with Ravi Coltrane, among others. He performed at Saratoga’s gazebo stage a few years back with Lonnie Plaxico’s band.

That’s not all. The full lineup, as well as all kinds of stuff about SPAC and TICKETS is available at the FESTIVAL WEBSITE.

Get your tickets…bring your blanket, lawn chairs, picnic baskets and coolers. Ohhhhhhhhhhh yeah.

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