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Filled With Jazz: A major experience at Saratoga Springs

Forty years on, the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival in Saratoga Springs, New York has been one of the most delightful and relaxing fests in the country.
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By Mike Greenblatt/Photos by Terri-Lynn Pellegri

Forty years on, the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival in Saratoga Springs, New York has been one of the most delightful and relaxing fests in the country. Maybe it’s because it’s under tall pines that provide great shade. I found it totally chill, refreshing, friendly, clean, cost-effective and geographically friendly (I drove there from Northeast Pennsylvania and the four-hour ride was delightful.) With two stages situated apart from each other by a short walk which, on the way, boasts food, drink and — most important — real bathrooms, I caught eight acts Saturday and nine acts Sunday in two marathon days of 10 hours each and I wanted even more.

Talk about hassle-free! I survived the scary human gridlock of the 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival and although I loved the 2015 Montreal International Jazz Festival, it was, truth be told, a little intimidating (what with the funny money and language difficulties). Saratoga, on the other hand, was pure perfection.

 Just one of the many Saratoga Highlights: Wildman Saxophonist Eric Alexander.

Just one of the many Saratoga Highlights: Wildman Saxophonist Eric Alexander.

The Dave Stryker Organ Quartet started it off with a big bang June 24 with guitarist Stryker leading his crew through some difficult changes under a hot sun at the smaller Gazebo Stage. Wildman (both on-stage and off-) saxophonist Eric Alexander blew his brains out so dramatically that he stole the show. They were so intense, I just couldn’t leave so, in walking to the larger Amphitheatre stage, a cool ceilinged venue with great sound, I only caught the last few tunes of the Aruan Ortiz Trio, where the Cuban pianist amazed the assembly with syncopated surprise. His new “Cubanism” on Intakt Records is a solo spot well worth checking out.

I was told that Amphitheatre artists knew they were not only playing for the few hundred in the venue but for the hundreds more outside the venue on a hill under tents and over tarps.

Fusion pioneer Jean-Luc Ponty then provided the first of many thrilling high spots over the next 48 hours. His brand of ‘70s/’80s jazz-rock leaned towards prog and — admittedly — blew my mind to the point of not even leaving at the ensuing silence after the set. I just had to sit there in awe at what I just digested. Ponty, 74, is better than ever. This caused me to miss slide guitarist Jack Broadbent. Hey, you can’t see everybody! (Admission: after so many hours, I just couldn’t do Chaka Khan.)

I got right up front, though, for what was billed as “Jazz 100: The Music of Dizzy, Mongo and Monk.” To my delight, it was a quintet put together by the becoming-legendary pianist Danilo Perez who recruited already-legendary saxman Joe Lovano. Their set was Jazz History 101 and, thus, another highlight.

Sunday started with the Noah Preminger/Jason Palmer Quartet at the Gazebo and even the sweltering hot sun couldn’t keep me from sitting first row center. Saratoga has folks with their beach chairs festooned along the perimeter but also, unlike most fests, actually provides chairs and benches up close. Saxophonist Preminger took the music of some of the early delta blues practitioners and updated it with post-bop finesse and incredible chops. I was drawn into it mysteriously but magnetically.

Jane Bunnett & Maqueque is an international fest favorite and it’s obvious why. Her all-female band from South Africa will make you get up and dance yourself silly. By the end of their set, I was drenched in sweat, happy and delirious.

Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days was dark, foreboding, complex and totally intriguing. This third-generation trumpeter is the son of Grammy Award-winning pianist Arturo O’Farrill and the grandson of the legendary Afro-Cuban composer Chico O’Farrill. Suffice it to say, Adam’s rebel stance has provided his music an independence all its own. It was, in a word, thrilling. It started to rain lightly during the set and it actually felt good.

Blind Boy Paxton, a 20-something musicologist who plays banjo, guitar and piano in a pre-WWII rural mode with emphasis on Fats Waller was totally entertaining. He sings like he means it, and was both funny and endearing. I love this guy! 

 Quinn Sullivan

Quinn Sullivan

A little white kid, Quinn Sullivan, 18, discovered and nurtured by Buddy Guy, set the Amphitheatre on fire with some Hendrixian tricks far beyond his years.

Then came the heavyweights. Hudson is the name of the band and the name of the debut CD of four legendary neighbor jazzers from New York’s Hudson River Valley. Guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Larry Grenadier have played with everybody to now jazz up material by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix and The Band. Their set was so amazing with chops and drama, it might’ve been the high point of the whole fest.

When Dee Dee Bridgewater started wailing out on the 1973 Ann Peebles Memphis classic “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” people sat up a little straighter in their seats. Her set reminded one of folks like Tina Turner, Bettye Lavette and Esther Phillips. Bridgewater now rocks the soul with professional aplomb, eschewing her jazz roots in favor of a more organic and visceral form of show biz. And, yeah, she brought the house down. 

When Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles started wailing out on the 1981 Prince Minnesota classic “Controversy,” all bets were off and the sky was the limit. This reporter lost his editorial cool completely and started a mad dash towards the stage and near some fellow dancing revelers to the point where the music itself became the soundtrack for our funk-laden trip into the cosmos. I haven’t danced so hard and so long since Woodstock in 1969. I even went into my heart attack dance, feigning a cardio explosion. When it was all over, I had made some new friends.

My fest ended with Ray Charles. No, he’s not dead. The Ray Charles Orchestra was in full swing, as were the Raelettes. When Ray himself walked to the center of the stage, a hush fell over the crowd. He started singing and the crowd actually started oohing and ahhing. It was Maceo Parker, the longtime James Brown sax man. The man looked, sounded, walked, talked and nailed the singular essence of Brother Ray to the point where, yes, Virginia, Ray Charles lives. It was the perfect way to end the fest. (My apologies to actual fest-ender Gypsy Kings. After Ray, I could do no more than to dreamily drive back to my room and cogitate on just what I witnessed.)

Thanks must go out to my most gracious hosts Lisa Hill and Liza Prijatel of SPAC.

And I cannot express how much I fell in love with this town.