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Review: Tony Bennett woos large audience at SPAC Jazz Fest

Sunday, June 30, 2013
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Tony Bennett performs during Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival at SPAC on Sunday. (Patrick Dodson/Gazette Photographer
Tony Bennett performs during Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival at SPAC on Sunday. (Patrick Dodson/Gazette Photographer

— Tony Bennett was the story for the final day of the Freihofer's Jazz Festival at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Sunday, filling the pavilion and receiving numerous standing ovations as he ran through standards. The 87-year-old has not been at the festival since 1993.

Sporting a yellow jacket and dark slacks, he belted away tunes like “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “For Once in My Life,” That Old Black Magic,” “Everybody Loves a Winner,” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Three-minute ballad after three-minute ballad he kept them coming, and applause followed pretty much every verse.

He dropped a few big names and stories with the likes of Bob Hope, Pearl Bailey and Dave Brubeck — with whom he currently has a hit from a recently discovered recording.

Bennett can still, as they say, “carry a tune,” as he showed us with “Smile,” his last song of the set.

Bluesman Buddy Guy followed to close the festival. Quite a leap from Bennett to Guy, but easier than one would think (probably harder to go from Guy to Bennett). A mere 76, Guy came out roaring on the guitar for a few rounds, then shouting, “I got the blues,” then whispering the line a few times.

“I’m going to play something so funky you can smell it,” he told us starting a slow blues tune. The crowd thinned from Bennett’s show, but the remainder kept the energy high and Guy stayed on fire through the show.

Before the Preservation Hall Jazz Band played its show prior to Bennett’s set, SPAC unveiled a Walk of Fame star for Dave Brubeck, who died last year. His daughter Catherine Brubeck Yaghsizian and her son Daniel participated in the ceremony. Brubeck had performed at the festival 13 times. His star joins six others, including Marylou Whitney, George Wein and Lewis Swyer.

PHJB walked the aisles playing their New Orleans sounds, a blaring tuba in the rear of the line, to begin the ceremony. The seven-man band followed with a 75-minute set (a typical length for Sunday’s main stage) of Dixie music. Rain threatened through some of the set, but never dropped as the group played some originals and injected fresh energy into traditional swing songs.

Early in the day, the Donny McCaslin group played a song called “Stadium Jazz.” This phrase captured a good portion of the music Sunday, where several bands played straight rock fast, loud and aggressively, taking their jams to loud crescendos led by electric guitars, electric pianos, sax, and drums. These are perfect sounds for an outdoor jazz festival, and in the deft hands of jazz musicians, they were great jams.

McCaslin’s group, which played on the main stage and the Gazebo — traditionally the opening band for the main stage also plays the Gazebo later in the day — also veered into techno on their more fun jams.

Kevin Eubanks, who led television’s the Tonight Show band for 15 years, played more “stadium jazz,” highlighted by his screaming sax player and Eubank’s own ruckus guitar solos. Again, these guys can play, so anything they did worked for most of the fans. A few left during the show, probably to check out the other stage in search of more conservative “jazz” that was available most of the day.

Lady Smith Mambazo sang on the main stage, a group founded more than 50 years ago, and which gained fame in the United States from singing on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” record. “Our mission has been to spread the message of South Africa: love, peace and harmony,” said Joseph Shabalala. “We are all brothers and sisters. ... We are family.” They sang beautiful, impeccable harmonies in a cappella, with some lightly synchronized dancing, including the great tune “Homeless” from “Graceland.” While it’s hard to call them jazz, the crowd was pleased with the performance and, as an audience in general, seemed more flexible than past years.

Fabian Almazon Trio, featuring Lisa Oh on bass, opened the Gazebo on Sunday, playing some spacious, avant garde instrumental improv, all original tunes, some with a Cuban rhythm (Almazon’s native land). Again, the musicians were outstanding and gelled very nicely, particularly for three players who had not rehearsed before Sunday’s performance.

Perhaps the hippest jazz of the festival — the closest to bebop — was Ingrid Jensen’s Quartet. Jensen is a female trumpeter who got her band cooking Sunday. She paid a tribute to Miles Davis, “My hero of all heroes,” she said before blowing muted blue notes softly cushioned against her group’s subtle rhythms.

While women performers are typically sparse at rock or jazz fests, there was only one woman vocalist Sunday, Brianna Thomas, a first-timer for the festival who sang beautifully in front of a very nice trio at the Gazebo. She sang a wonderful “Smile” (same Charlie Chaplin tune that Bennett sang), handling the song like a ballad before pushing the group with her scat singing to cut the time in half and create an exciting ending.

Chris Bergson closed the Gazebo stage with his folk-blues, singing covers — Dylan’s “Masterpiece” — and originals. He was a good singer, a good guitarist, and a crowd pleaser. But for Sunday, he wins the jazz festival misfit award.

Another year and another amazing festival. The Capital Region is fortunate to have such a world-class annual event in their backyard.

 
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