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Where the In Crowd Goes

By Kirsten Ferguson

Freihofer’s Jazz Festival

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, June 27


The 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 jazz.

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 compare.


The Long Road

James Cotton, Johnny Winter

The 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.

—Glenn Weiser

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