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.