What makes the lawns of Saratoga Springs so green and lush, its sturdy trees so tall? That would be rain. What has made music lovers flock to this charming upstate New York town each June for the past 41 years? The Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, of course. And what happens when these events overlap?
Well, first, jazz lovers huddle under pole tents, share some Freihofer’s cookies and enjoy two days of varied, world-class performances. Then, when the weather breaks, they can better breathe in the brisk, crisp air and savor the hospitality that reflects the event’s community orientation.
That kind of connection between the festival and the local pulse of life is a particular distinction, according to Elizabeth Sobol, president and CEO of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. “It’s part of the ecosystem here,” she said. “Our festival takes place in 2,400 acres of parkland just adjacent to a thriving downtown, where you already have live jazz 365 days a year.”
The action began the night before, as Jazz Fest Friday, co-sponsored by the City of Saratoga Springs and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, debuted as a pre-festival event in venues throughout town. Local talent provided a variety of music, from a sizzling set by the Chuck Lamb Quintet with singer Ria Curley at the newly remodeled Caffè Lena (the site of some early-’60s Bob Dylan performances) to a “Night on Bourbon Street,” courtesy of the gifted trumpeter Bria Skonberg in the Canfield Casino, a 148-year-old landmark distinguished by its soaring arched ceiling and, on this night, the funk of Cajun cuisine.
The festival itself opened the following morning, June 23, on the Charles R. Wood Stage, the smaller of the park’s two performance spaces. Attendees gathered early on seats beneath a canopy—and behind them, several rows of unprotected benches occupied by fans wrapped in ponchos. Their reward was some of the weekend’s best—and wettest—moments.
The first day’s highlight came courtesy of pianist Christian Sands, with bassist Noah Jackson and drummer Jonathan Barber. Sands greeted listeners warmly, assuring them “I don’t even see the rain, because you all brought the sunshine.” A moment later, the trio hit its first downbeat with an almost ferocious energy. As intense as every number was, their reworking of “Caravan” stood out for its fresh arrangement, fine-tuned interactivity—and for Barber’s exhilarating presence. Never has any drummer seemed to have a better time onstage.
This stage hosted another memorable set the following day, courtesy of Sammy Miller & The Congregation. Each member boasted musical monster chops, as well as a willingness to enhance their act with screwball comedy. Their set peaked with an experiment in fusing jazz and opera into a new genre, which Miller dubbed “jopera.” Titled “Man Goes To Wedding, Has Second Thoughts About Getting Married,” this epic piece featured costume changes and surprise entrances: trombonist Sam Crittenden in Rapunzel drag and blonde wig blasting from nearby a field, trumpeter Alphonso Horne in bad-guy red cape and mask popping up in the audience.
Evening shows took place in the 5,200-seat amphitheater. The artists there treated seated fans and those sprawled out on the lawn to a range of styles, from the show-band tightness of Jon Baptise with The Dap-Kings to the panoramic virtuosity of Anat Cohen’s Tentet on their odyssey through trad-jazz, klezmer, free jazz and other ports of call.
Several of the headliners sought specifically to inspire. For Esperanza Spalding, alongside Terri Lyne Carrington and Nicholas Payton, performing as TEN, the memory of Geri Allen was a thematic motif. Wearing a white sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “Life Force,” Spalding enhanced the trio’s bracing blends of written and improvised passages with exquisite wordless vocals and, at one point, led the crowd to chant her dedication: “Geri in heaven, Geri in heaven.”
Making her festival debut, Mavis Staples conveyed her invocation to hope on a more elemental current of gospel and blues. Two chords, rocking back and forth, was all she needed to bring everyone to their feet and into the force of her testimony. Whether covering David Byrne’s “Slippery People” or challenging her congregation to “Reach Out, Take A Hand, Make A Friend If You Can,” with guitarist Rick Holmstrom evoking the tremolo magic of the late Pops Staples, Mavis wrapped up the Sunday night show and took it home as a love offering.
But one performance stood above all others. With his gorgeous timbre, insight and fidelity to the lyric, accompanied empathetically by Chip Crawford on piano, Gregory Porter brought “Mona Lisa” to life and gave all in attendance a moment to savor through a lifetime of memory. This was magic. This turned even the rain into sunshine.