FREIHOFER'S JAZZ FESTIVAL (Day 1)
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga, NY
June 24, 2006
by Randy Treece
Conceptually, jazz blazes a broad swath through the musical landscape and has more than meandered through multiple artistic and cultural influences. Concededly then, we can see a jazz festival undertaking the task of presenting the multitudinous phases and faces of this revered musical form and invite a cross section to the affair. However, one has to wonder how elastic is the jazz tent and how many divergent influences can it cover. Saturday's concert was no exception to Saratoga's perennial formulaic approach that everything goes. Whether the promoters succeeded on this day truly lies in the ear of the listener.
Jump starting the festival was Jeremy Lyons and the Deltability Boys, certainly a group most jazz fans would not know nor expect at a jazz festival. Giving Lyons and his pals as much allowances as possible, they certainly were misplaced at this fete. There was not one jazz element proffered during their presentation. There was little, if any, improvisation, no chordal changes, and nominal swing sensibility, but lots of blue grass. This was not an auspicious start.
Local vocal phenom, Sarah Pedinotti, who cut her "jazz eye teeth" at One Caroline, was first at bat at the Gazebo. Pedinotti's set was interesting and yet not easy to categorize. Much like the current hosts of young female singers who are determined to carve some independence from stereotypical notions, her style leans more toward folk and story telling with some blues and rock jagged edges than, lets say, a typical jazz vocalist like Tierney Sutton who also performed on Saturday. A composer as well, Perdinotti's lyrics are a little idiosyncratic, embracing rarely contemplated topics - something about purchasing bras. Pedinotti's musical aptitude tends toward Madeline Peyroux and Cassandra Wilson, sans their professional maturity. Only time will tell if she garners greater attention.
"Groovin for Grover", featuring Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum and Jeff Lorber, was the appropriate tribute to the godfather of smooth jazz, who paved the way for so many, and Whalum admitted as much. Without question, this segment had that extra entertainment factor and was the overwhelming crowd favorite. They ignited the audience like no other band on this given day, raising the temperature in the auditorium to near combustion, and started the party off right. Gauging the audience's enthusiasm, this band should have closed the evening. Supported by an outstanding rhythm section that delivered sensational and steady grooves, Albright, Whalum, and Lorber enthralled the audience with several of Grover's timeless musical gems, "Winelight", "Soulful Strut", "Let It Flow", "The Best is Yet to Come", "Just The Two of Us", and the classic "Mister Magic." With the emphasis on entertainment, the leaders employed numerous audience participation and musical gimmicks - a heavy reliance on circular breathing - that worked reasonably well. Both Albright and Whalum acquitted themselves well as entertainers personified and this show ended on a high note.
Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda and his unique, nearly inconceivable ensemble comprising of a trombonist who also doubled on cello and a percussionist delivered the "wow" factor at the festival and captivated the large gathering around the gazebo. Obviously, the harp and the cello have not been associated with jazz, however, in the hands of classically trained virtuosos who are also imbued with enormous creativity and passion, the instruments and their inimitable sound were seamlessly transmuted into the jazz idiom with incandescent flair. Among many resplendent musical propositions cultivated by this ensemble, Castaneda stretched the harp into a fascinating percussive instrument and the band created cascades of intoxicating South American rhythms. Most of the melodies were derived from South American folk songs and the various textures of the instrumentalities spawned musical hues and effects rarely realized. Assuredly, Castaneda and crew are deserving of wider appeal.
The British invasion landed in Saratoga once again, but this time with greater success. Musical wunderkind, Jamie Cullen, defined himself as another crowd pleaser with his mercurial, manic and asymmetrical kinetic style. It is difficult to juxtapose the timbre of his voice and musical repertoire with his high energy, part rocker, part punker, with incongruent physical antics. When you hear the undeniable voice and the delivery, images of Harry Connick Jr., in a tuxedo or sequined jacket are invoked, and not a ball of fire in jeans and tee shirt who leaps from the piano with reckless abandon, banged out dissonant chords with his elbow and derriere, and peculiarly abounds around the stage like a pogo stick. Cullen is neither a Connick clone or wannabe. It was refreshing to witness confidently sung jazz standards against the backdrop of odd, eccentric maneuvers; but this too is jazz and it works. Some of the highlights of his set were two original compositions, a semi, hip-hop tribute to Ray Charles, interesting phrasing on "What a Difference A Day Makes", the integration of a hip-hop scratch prelude to a jazz classic, and a tale of unrequited love of an older woman in Paris, as the introduction to "Blame It On My Youth". A polycentric artist supported by a sturdy, all-European Band rendered a worthy show.
The greatest disappointment of the festival was conjured by the legendary Herbie Hancock, which brings up the question, how far can you stretch the boundaries of jazz. How amorphous can this musical form become? Initially, it appeared that we would be treated to World Beat music, considering the presence of an African guitarist and a violinist, both serving as vocalists as well. Actually, the show evolved into a pitiful rendition of New Age musing. Granted that Hancock has the musical Midas touch exploring every nuance of this musical idiom and incorporating many influences along the way, deserving of our perpetual adulation; but this current musical statement will gain neither fame nor critical acclaim. It was indescribably banal. Candidly, the crowd's applause was not for the music but for Hancock's artistic stature.
Bending the jazz moniker just a tad, Motown star Smokey Robinson lent his considerable, albeit waning, talents to the evening. Robinson's set was divided into two segments. For those who came to reminisce, Smokey toured his considerable musical legacy with 60 to 90 second sound bites of his incredible songbook. Surprisingly, thereafter, we were subjected to a film interlude wherein Robinson pontificated upon his wonderful musical experience. The film documentary segued into the second half of the show where Robinson returned to the stage dressed in a tux, àla Rod Stewart, and sang several jazz standards with some promise and flair. Actually, he is much better than the other aging rockers who are trying to keep their audience by transiting into to the all American songbook. Maybe this show is the harbinger of things to come for Robinson.
Reflecting upon this musical eclecticism, I am reminded of Duke Ellington's prophetic statement: "Jazz cannot be limited by definitions or by rules. Jazz is, above all, a total freedom to express oneself." Freedom of expression indeed.
Randy Treece is an avid and ubiquitous fan of jazz music, especially on the local scene. For many years he has contributed jazz artist reviews for "A Place For Jazz "and has written album reviews on request by jazz artists. Randy resides in Albany and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.