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Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival

by Kirsten Ferguson on June 29, 2011

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, June 25-26
West African singer Angelique Kidjo took matters into her own hands on Sunday night at the close of the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival. The second night of the weekend-long jazz festival, now in its 34th year, is typically viewed as the mellower of the two, with many fans exiting early to make a long drive home. But that didn’t prevent the closing acts of the two previous years—soul diva Gladys Knight in 2010 and jazz/R&B star George Benson in 2009—from compelling people out of their seats for a dance party in the aisles.

The crowd last Sunday at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, however, was sitting tight through the evening’s finale of “Sing the Truth!” featuring Kidjo along with vocalists Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright in a potent tribute to women vocalists and composers in jazz, soul, gospel and African music, from Odetta to Tracy Chapman. Much of the trio’s performance demanded a quiet reverence from the crowd, such as Wright’s powerfully rendered version of the gospel song “How I Got Over.” But when more upbeat songs with African rhythms failed to lift people from their seats, the Beninese singer left the stage and swarmed into the crowd, electrifying the audience by dancing in the aisles and leading a sing-along. “It’s not a funeral. It’s a celebration,” Kidjo announced just before her foray into the crowd, in the quip of the night.

Soul singer Sharon Jones didn’t let a half-filled amphitheater get her down during her exhilarating afternoon performance with backing band the Dap-Kings on Sunday. (An unofficial survey of attendees attributed the smaller-than-usual crowds at the festival this year to both the spotty weather forecast and a lineup crowded with less-familiar names.) Following jazz trio the Bad Plus, who eschewed their well-known covers of rock hits like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for a still-impressive but less-accessible incursion through originals from their latest album Never Stop, the eight-member funk-soul revivalists the Dap-Kings gave Jones a two-song introduction, featuring the vocals of two backup singers, the Dapettes. Jones then pranced across the stage howling, “How you all doing, Saratoga Springs?” From there it was on: a too-short hour of lovelorn laments and kiss-off tunes livened by James Brown-worthy dance moves from a master performer.

In a weekend engineered in part to highlight significant women of jazz, many (but by no means all) of the weekend’s most notable performances came from women. On Saturday, Brazilian jazz pianist and singer Eliane Elias impressed with her seductive style and breezy bossa nova, while jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater blew the audience away with her stunning Billie Holiday tribute. On Sunday, saxophonist Tia Fuller, who toured as a member of R&B star Beyoncé’s 10-piece all-female band, led her own quartet (featuring her sister on piano and brother-in-law on drums) through one of the day’s best performances. A Colorado native, Fuller had extended family from the Capital Region in the amphitheater to witness her charismatic set.