Saturday, March 16, 2013

Freiofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival Holds Big Promise

36th Annual Even at Saratoga Performing Arts Center Will Be Sweeeeeeeeeeet.

The jazz festival in Saratoga Springs, NY, every summer is one that fans and musicians have long appreciated. Created by George Wein and more recently under the excellent stewardship of Danny Melnick, it continues to be a gem. The festival grounds, in Spa State Park, are beautiful—pine trees, woods, serenity—are one thing that attracts folks. Fine music is another and this coming edition – June 29 and 30 is already positioned to be sweet as hell.

Among the big names that non-jazzers would know—and like it or not, it's those kinds of borderline acts that bring in the extra bodies to festivals everywhere-- are Buddy Guy and Tony Bennett. Sometimes festivals reach waaaay off the jazz path, to the point of exasperation, to get an act that will appeal to those outside the jazz pocket. Not the case in 2013. Buddy Guy has long been an artist at the pinnacle of the blues idiom. He'll be 77 in July but has lost very little of his fastball. There are few greater blues artists ever. (Some might say none better). Jazz and blues are first cousins, so bring on Buddy!

[Tony Bennett at the Newport Jazz Festival, 2010. © R.J. DeLuke]

Bennett does the jazz festival circuit every couple years. Debate if you will if he is a jazz singer or not (the same as people did with Sinatra). At the very least, this American icon has strong jazz feel and sensibilities and has always toured and recorded with jazz musicians: Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Count Basie and many more. At the Newport Jazz Festival in 2010, Dave Brubeck joined him on stage for a few numbers. A decade older than Mr. Guy, Bennett too sounds strong and vibrant. There is already buzz in the Saratoga Springs area that this music great is coming to town.

But as always is the case, the real guts of the festival lies in the overall quality of the lineup. In many cases, it's even names that jazz fans in attendance aren't very familiar with. SPAC is know for bringing in young talent that has gone on to prominence. But it's more than that. Sometimes a band under one person's name will have amazing sidemen who are superior musicians.

The Cookers, scheduled for Saturday, may not ring a bell for people. It's an outstanding group of veterans, some a little longer in the tooth than others. But superb players. Trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss are excellent. It's always a pleasure to hear Billy Harper wail on tenor sax. George Cables for way too long has been an under-appreciated master. And what jazz musicians doesn't enjoy playing over the rhythms laid down by the great Billy Hart? Craig Handy is a fiendish sax man as well, and bassist Dwayne Burno holds the bottom for some of the top groups around. This group will cook you into bad health.

McCoy Tyner, of course, is a legend and will be playing blissful music with the assistance of guitar hero John Scofield. A mighty paring. Fans of singers will not want to miss Gregory Porter, maybe the most dynamic jazz singer on the scene today. Powerful. Soulful. Swinging. He always has musicians around him that sizzle. This will be one people will talk about when they leave.

[Ingrid Jensen warms up just before hitting with the Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival, 2010. © R.J. DeLuke]

Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen lights up every and she plays in, the large ensembles like Maria Schneider Orchestra or Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, or her own projects. She leads a group at the intimate gazebo stage that is sure to make a big impression. As should Ben Williams, a young in—demand bass player whose own group sparkles when he gets a chance to bring them out.

[Rudresh Mahanthappa at the North Sea Jazz Festival, Holland, 2012. © R.J. DeLuke]

Rudresh Mahanthappa has been gathering critical praise like a snowball rolling down a hill, and with good reason. He's a fiery player with creativity to match and his cohorts are always in step with his vision. SPAC is fortunate that he'll be playing two sets. Flammable. And then there's steady veteran baritone saxman Gary Smulyan, with rock solid sidemen like guitarist Peter Bernstein, drummer Kenny Washington and Mike LeDonne on keyboards. Pure joy.

No need to run down the full batting order, but it's full of talent, diversity of styles and great potential. Nice to see jazz festivals stick to the spirit of the art form. Anticipation is already growing in the community. That is a damn fine thing.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lovano at 60

Heralded as one of the greats of his generation (my generation), Lovano keeps moving forward. But knows where he came from.

Joe Lovano plays the shit out of the saxophone, that much is clear. He's paid all his dues, come up though the ranks, including stints with big bands like Woody Herman. But he doesn't just play. He's an artist. The sound comes from inside a big heart, informed, of course, by his study and hard work on the instrument.

[Photo: Joe Lovano at the Newport Jazz Festival, August, 2012. © R.J. DeLuke]

He seems to be everywhere. Leading his fine Us Five group, playing with John Scofield and others, sitting in with all kinds of heavy hitters. Keeping his nonet alive. His sweeping, probing,muscular sound, particularly on tenor sax, is all over. Thankfully.

A conversation with Joe is always intriguing. Affable,insightful,intelligent and at the same time down to earth. Lovano is free with his thoughts; humble; engaging. As his Us Five tour swung through the Albany, NY, area earlier this year, we spoke again and, on this day at least, the saxophonist was pensive about his life, which had reached the age of 60 years. Like the sounds that cascade from the bell of his horn, his words are hearfelt.

Sixty is in the mind, people will say. It's he new 40. The new 30. Whatever. It can be the new fucking 15, who cares? Depends on the person. State of mind, for sure. For this major artist, it's prime years and there is surely much more on his plate and on his path.

"For me, it’s about reflections and projections. Definitely, 60 is kind of a milestone you look to as you’re approaching it. Like 50 is. Like 40 is ... The thing is, you realize more and more how you got to this place. Your travels and your experiences all build on each other to create tomorrow. I feel thankful and blessed to live in the world of music, as I do, and have such a beautiful family experience. In my personal roots. My mom’s family and in my dad’s family.

His mother died in 2012 but Lovano still draws inspiration from her.

"I feel I’m just scratching the surface in a lot of ways," he said. "Everything you do fuels your ideas. I’ve been real fortunate to have played with some of the masters of the music, from the earliest times, for me. Before I even joined the Woody Herman band, the great players that I developed under in Cleveland, with my dad (Tony “Big T” Lovano) and his whole crowd. Then playing with Lonnie Smith and Jack McDuff. Moving to New York. Joining Woody’s band at 23. Standing next to Stan Getz at Carnegie Hall playing “Early Autumn,” with him playing lead.

"That time was a heavy springboard into the future for me. Looking back on it, and the way I was embraced by Woody and his incredible legacy. To know Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Jimmy Guiffre. Flip Phillips. I played on Flip’s last recording when he was 85, called 'Swing is the Thing.' It came out on Verve. James Carter and I were guests with Flip on that date. That was incredible ... Recently, Dave Brubeck passed. He did a record--he had just turned 75--called 'Old Lions and Young Tigers.' It turned out to be Gerry Mulligan’s last session. Mulligan was on that with George Shearing, Jon Hendricks. Other folks in Dave’s generation. Then myself, Mike Brecker, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride. We were the tigers. (Brubeck) wrote a tune for everybody. He wrote a tune for me called 'The Joe Lovano Tango.'

"Then to play with Hank (Jones). He played on three sessions with me. I toured Europe four times in a quartet, which I led. Hank was around 82 or 83 when we started playing together. I played on his 90th birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl. Also in New York, at Birdland. To experience playing with some of the true masters of the music. Paul Motian, who passed last year. Bill Frisell and I joined him in 1981. We were playing with him until the end. He turned to when I started playing with him. He passed at 80."

Lovano isn't blowing smoke. He admires those who made and strengthened the art form, and suffered for it in many cases. Each different artistic step he takes, there are pieces of those people that inspire and inform that stroll.

"Reflecting on those things not only strengthens you for today, but you realize where you’ve been and how that’s influenced you in your music and as a man. I’m feeling all the blessings, that’s for sure."

The Us Five band has been playing for a while now,and like any good group of improvising musicians, they get a better feel for one another. They develop their own language. But they also bring their own influences that can change the direction of the music -- on a given night, at a given moment, or less conspicuous, over the course of time. He's happy with the way the band has developed and enthused that it contains so many musical possibilities.

"It’s like the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band. When Thad would conduct, night to night he would direct and change the way the rhythm section would play. He’d cut off the drums or bass. Things just happened from knowing each other and people paying attention. It could happen in any ensemble, like the way Miles’ bands always were. There’s certain things that take shape from night to night that are really beautiful and creative. That’s been happening in this group from the beginning. The idea of having double drummers, all of a sudden everyone’s not just playing a role. Everyone has to participate in a more personal way."

[Photo: Joe Lovano and Us Five, Esperanza Spalding on bass, at the Newport Jazz Festival, August, 2009. © R.J. DeLuke]

"Each of us are doing other things," he said. "Esperanza (Spealding, bassist) is emerging as a leader. She’s writing and touring as a leader with different size groups. Mela (drummer Francisco Mela) has different bands he’s putting together and playing with other folks. Otis (drummer Otis Brown III) also. James (Weiderman, pianist) and myself. During this whole time we’ve been together as a band, we’ve all been playing and doing things outside of that situation. When you come back together, you bring your experiences--where you’ve traveled, where you’ve been--into the mix. That’s been happening too. That’s, in a way, why the music keeps growing and developing. People that only play in one situation, the music can get routine. That’s not happening with us because everyone’s into some things."

A life experience builds upon another. For artists, it's essential to growth. It should be that wayy for everyone. (those results are still not in).

"When this band first started, I was doing stuff with Hank (Jones) that was influencing how I was going to have this band. That was a rich period, 2003, 2004. When I first met Esperanza, she was in some of my ensembles. My recording “Viva Caruso” came out. The recordings with Hank were starting to come out and I was playing a lot with him. Esperanza and all those folks, Mela and everybody I was playing with at that time, which is now about eight years ago already, those things were fueling their direction and approach at that young age."

He pauses, like he does at time before the next explosive statement of a sax solo.

"Everything you do fuels your ideas for stuff that’s gonna happen. That feels really good."

Hell, yeah. Sixty more, Joe.