the In Crowd Goes
Performing Arts Center, June 27
annual Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at SPAC, now in its third
decade, has justly earned its reputation as a place to see
hot new talent sharing the bill with elder statespeople of
This year’s event lofted that contrast to new heights, with
festival producer Danny Melnick (an artistic director at Carnegie
Hall) pairing veterans alongside rising stars like 20-year-old
alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger and 25-year-old Australian
bassist Linda Oh, highlights of Sunday’s smaller gazebo stage.
Oh, in particular, and her baby-faced band of trumpeter Shane
Endsley and drummer Tommy Crane, transfixed the crowd milling
around the gazebo in the hot midafternoon sun with a challenging
set that drew from her acclaimed debut album Entry,
and closed with a restrained cover of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’
“Soul to Squeeze.”
An early afternoon set on SPAC’s main amphitheater stage was
a homecoming of sorts for vibraphonist Stefon Harris. The
Albany High School graduate is a Grammy-nominated frontman
with seven albums under his belt. But his current band Blackout,
featuring several very recent music-school grads, brought
a youthful and unconventional vibe to songs from Harris’ latest,
Urbanus. Alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin sexed up the ballad
“For You” with futuristic vocoder-affected falsetto, and Harris’
graceful physical movements on the vibes turned songs like
“Gone” and “Christina” into a double-handed ballet.
Later on the main stage, the Ramsey Lewis Trio exemplified
both “legendary” and “old school.” With a classic piano-bass-drums
lineup, the three dapper gents showed the young cats how it’s
done, from gospel-tinged opener “Wade in the Water” to beatnik-beat
closer “The ‘In’ Crowd.” The 75-year-old Lewis displayed an
amazing dexterity to his fingers. Drummer Leon Joyce, with
perfect ramrod posture, laid low for Ramsey’s quieter, evocative
pieces, but when the moment arose he could let loose and go
on a fearsome tear.
Havana’s multigenerational Afro-Cuban All Stars, who preceded
headliner Gladys Knight, may have piled the most members onstage
for the day, with a horn section, multiple percussionists
and three men up front, including bandleader Juan de Marcos
González. “This is to the old guys in Buena Vista Social Club,”
González said, dedicating a rollicking “Adivinador” to his
previous assemblage of Cuban musicians, whose story contributed
greatly to the recent popularity of Afro-Cuban music.
It’s hard to top last year’s closing set from George “Breezin’”
Benson, who had the entire amphitheater dancing in the aisles.
Gladys Knight has as many hit singles to her name (and then
some), but her closing set was less a party and more of a
sentimental retrospective. Knight offered a “musical journey”
through her career, including her Motown breakthrough, “I
Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and several of her standout
tunes from the ’70s.
In between, Knight offered lots of Hallmark-esque life lessons
about friendship and love, expressions of gratitude for her
audience, and a story about how the Pips first came together
at a backyard party. Unfortunately, there were no Pips to
be found onstage (although Knight had four backup singers),
until her older brother Merald made a comedic guest appearance
to perform Al Green’s “Love and Happiness.”
An earlier close to the evening, and less parking congestion,
were two benefits of attending the festival’s slightly sparser
Sunday (and this year both the weather and possibly the lineup
were better on the second day). Overall, the jazz festival
just may be SPAC at its most enjoyable: relaxed rules for
entry and drinking, a diverse and extremely music-knowledgeable
crowd, delicious food, and interesting offerings in the craft
tent. The bottlenecked beer tent at rock shows just doesn’t
James Cotton, Johnny Winter
Egg, June 25
When James Cotton was 9, he duped blues harp legend Sonny
Boy Williamson II into teaching him harmonica by claiming
he was an orphan. Ten years later he had left his native Mississippi
for Chicago and was playing with Muddy Waters in the world’s
greatest blues band.
Johnny Winter also learned when he was young, and as a kid
in Texas saw Waters and other great bluesmen as they passed
through. Discovered in 1968 by Mike Bloomfield, the incandescent
albino guitarist was invited to play a song at a Bloomfield
jam session that December and was signed to Columbia Records
a few days later.
Despite their successful careers, time has been tough on both
of them: Cotton is a cancer survivor, and Winter, cross-eyed
to begin with, a recovering heroin addict. Both appeared worn
last Friday at a full Egg, but their infirmities didn’t stop
them and their crack bands from thrilling the crowd with the
gritty, soul-soaked sounds that only masters of American roots
music can create.
Cotton, 75, went on first with an armload of 1950s blues classics
drawn largely from his former boss’s playlist. Unable to sing
since a 1994 surgery for throat cancer, he brought along Dallas-born
crooner Darrell Nulisch to handle the vocals.
After the de rigueur warm-up instrumental from the band, Cotton
opened with Muddy Waters’ “Blow, Wind Blow.” His phrasing
was precise and economical, and he had the gorgeous, deep
tone so hard to get from a harmonica.
Winter, 66, followed with fabulous, furious playing. Using
a thumbpick and his right hand fingers instead of the usual
flatpick, the guitar hero’s high-voltage style was anchored
in the country blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightnin’
Hopkins. His singing, though, was an alloyed pleasure—often
hoarse and off-key, but nevertheless so sweet-timbred and
full of verve you had to like it anyway.
Winter’s set was more eclectic than Cotton’s. He delivered
slow blues with blistering intensity on Jimi Hendrix’s “Red
House,” never overplaying nor oversimplifying the music. On
John Lee Williamson’s “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl,” he
revved up the old chestnut with bodacious, shrieking up-the-neck
lead work. He encored with his similarly over-the top-version
of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61.”
The night’s only real disappointment was that Cotton didn’t
stick around to sit in with Winter at the end of the show.
Winter called early on for the harpmeister to join him onstage,
but Cotton had already left the building. Too bad.