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Freihofer’s Jazz Festival

by Alexander M. Stern on July 3, 2014


Toward the end of his set in the amphitheater of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Terence Blanchard introduced the members of his quintet by saying that they have been “blurring the lines of jazz since we started [playing together].” As it happens, “blurred lines” is an apt term for not just the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival, but for jazz festivals as a whole.

There is no such thing as “pure” jazz and there never has been. It is an economic reality, however, that jazz’s days as a top-selling genre are long since passed. When promoters assemble the lineup of any given jazz festival, therefore, it is necessary to cast a wide net in order to draw an audience. In this, the Freihofer’s Festival did an excellent job of providing a wide range of music to appeal to many different tastes.

At the gazebo stage, Marc Cary’s Focus Trio played an uninterrupted set of adventurous music that one patron was heard comparing to Herbie Hancock’s late-’60s/early-’70s work. Cary switched off between acoustic and electric pianos and produced spacy effects on a synthesizer. Meanwhile, on the main stage, singer Robin McKelle and her crack band, the Flytones, bashed out an electrifying set of Memphis-style soul, culminating in an incredible version of “Take Me to the River” that had the audience on its feet.

Lew Tabackin’s set was top-drawer straight-ahead jazz in a Sonny Rollins-esque bag. Tabackin soared on both tenor saxophone and flute. On tenor, he played in the style of the “tough tenors.” On the flute he was more lyrical, but played passionately, occasionally vocalizing as he played, which called to mind Rashaan Roland Kirk and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson.

Mary Halvorson’s Trio, by contrast, played an amazingly adventurous set of avant-garde jazz that seemed to please the younger crowd that gathered at the gazebo stage to hear her, but sent several older listeners running after only a few numbers. Halvorson is an incredibly gifted young guitarist who plays in the style of Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot (with whom she often associates). Her extensive use of effects pedals creates dissonances (similar to the effect of a turntable being suddenly slowed down and then sped up again) that can be off-putting at first, but are artfully woven into her bold solos. Her band, consisting of John Hebert (bass) and Ches Smith (drums), played disjointed rhythms that acted as a counterpoint to her playing rather than providing the more traditional support. Not for nothing is Halvorson considered one of the leading lights of contemporary jazz guitar.

Back on the main stage, another guitarist was playing a very different form of modern jazz. Mike Stern has been one of the great exponents of his instrument since his association with Miles Davis in the early-’80s—a sadly underrated period in Davis’ storied career, incidentally. His set featured a few surprises, such as an incendiary version of the Jimi Hendrix deep cut “Red House.”

The Turbinator himself, Dr. Lonnie Smith, presented a retrospective of compositions from throughout his career. In addition to his usual trio, Smith was accompanied by a horn section consisting of trumpet and trombone, as well as alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones. The large ensemble cooked along with Smith’s legendary organ. For one number, Smith played the slapstick, which has been custom fitted to resemble a walking stick. This is a one-string instrument that can be fretted and played like an electric bass, which is exactly what it sounds like. Smith wandered the stage as he performed, occasionally returning to the organ to play a few notes. It was an unexpected treat.

After a 45 minute interval that saw audience members depart, dragging their coolers behind them, the day’s headliners, Earth, Wind and Fire, hit the stage. By this point, the amphitheater, which had been sparsely to moderately populated throughout the day, was now crowded to the rafters. Clearly, a good number of people came exclusively to hear EW&F. While it is curious to think that someone would pay for a festival ticket only to skip all but the last act, those who did certainly got their money’s worth. Simply put, EW&F put on one hell of a show, replete with the entire spectacle for which they are justly legendary. While only four of the original band’s lineup remain, they sounded amazing. It was all there: the dynamic horns, Verdine White’s energetic bass playing, and—especially—those gorgeous harmonies.

The Freihofer’s Jazz Festival provided a near-perfect balance of the “serious” (including fusion, straight-ahead, avant-guard, and modern jazz) and the crowd-pleasing (largely blues, soul, and funk). It’s difficult to be all things to all people, but the first day of the festival came pretty damn close.