Forget the fact that I will finally see the legendary French fusion violinist Jean Luc-Ponty for the first time since I’ve seen him in the bands of Frank Zappa and Chick Corea. Forget the fact that everybody will see the new jazz supergroup with legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette, keyboardist John Medeski, guitarist John Scofield and bassist Larry Grenadier whose debut together, Hudson, is like nothing anybody’s ever heard before. The fact remains that this particular festival, now in its 40th year, always kicks off the Saratoga summer concert season under those towering pine trees. And it all takes place this weekend June 24 and 25 on two stages. The sets are staggered so one can traverse the perimeter in a mellow mood and not miss a beat.
We’re talkin’ Chaka Khan headlining Saturday while Gipsy Kings romp and stomp to end it all the following night. In-between comes “Jazz 100” Saturday featuring the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Mongo Santamaria and Thelonious Monk as played by such master musicians as Danilo Perez, Joe Lovano, Avishai Cohen, Josh Roseman, Roman Diaz, Ben Street and Adam Cruz. The various-artists highlight on Sunday is “To Ray With Love” with James Brown's longtime saxophone player Maceo Parker plus the Ray Charles Orchestra complete with the Raelettes. Ooh, baby, I’m gonna be dancing under the stars!
We spoke to Jean-Luc Ponty just prior to his leaving for New York state and when asked what to expect from this most esoteric, swinging, bopping, rocking string man, he just said, “you can expect me to play my fiddle like crazy.
“But, seriously, this is emotional for me. It’s a reunion with the guys I had in my ‘80s band, with whom I recorded some albums. It’s great to be back together to focus in on this era and do the music of that decade as well as the previous one.”
That was music to my ears as those aforementioned albums set the bar high for jazz-rock fusion. As a bandleader, he took his cue from Zappa, who was thought of as one tough-as-nails taskmaster. “I had no problem with him,” argues Ponty. “I had heard the stories about how extremely strict he was. He was imposing a very strong discipline of constant rehearsing. We practiced every day for a solid month prior to our first tour. He was such a perfectionist. This was not something that bothered me but it bothered the other musicians. Although I was surprised coming from a classical background that jazz-rock could be so serious, I adapted to its rhythms and opened my mind to learn how to be a good bandleader. If you have a strong concept musically, it’s like being a movie director. You have a vision but you need the guys in the band to help you realize that vision. If they don’t, you have to be strong. It happened to me plenty when I started really composing and I remembered how strong Zappa was in his vision. It helped me.”
The Dave Stryker Organ Quartet is an act with the potential of stealing the show. Guitarist Stryker is one of the new ax heroes of his generation. Recording since the early ‘90s, he’s delved into fusion a bit but keeps his sound more traditional than Ponty. So where does he see himself in the tower of song? The answer comes quick.
“Right at the top,” he says and I can see the smile right through the phone. “I picture George Benson and Al Martino looking up at me trying to claw their way up to where I’m at.” After a good laugh, he continues. “Hey, we’re all a product of what we grew up with. I grew up listening to Wes Montgomery and Grant Green. I’ve been humbled enough in getting to actually know some of the greats. So much so that I’m thrilled to have developed my own voice in an effort to continually put out creative music. So where do I stand? I have no idea. I’m just glad to be in the game. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to play beside giants like Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody and Freddie Hubbard. I feel it’s kinda up to me to help pass along that experience I’ve been given to younger cats.”
Another stand-out attraction in this gorgeous pastoral setting includes Jacob Collier, the two-time Grammy Award winning 22-year old Londoner who sings, plays multiple instruments and, in concert, is a one-man band in presenting his mix’n’match paste-ups of hip-hop, soul, bossa-nova, acapella pop, electronica, worldbeat and jazz. His take on Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” has garnered over two million youtube views.
The bigger Amphitheater stage will also host Dee Dee Bridgewater, Quinn Sullivan, Jane Bunnett & Maqueque, The Suffers and Cecile McLorin Salvant. The smaller Gazebo Stage has a whole host of brilliant sound including Blind Boy Paxton, the much anticipated Noah Preminger/Jason Palmer Quartet, Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days, Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles, Barbara Fasano, Jack Broadbent, Shabaka & The Ancestors and the Aruan Ortiz Trio. I’ve already mapped out my route between the two stages with music starting around noon and continuing all day into the night. For more information, go to spac.org.