Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Cool Jazz on a hot summer afternoon

Tony Bennett surrounded by a majestic aura

Chris Bergson wrung blues licks from the rosewood neck of his cherry-red guitar.  Layers of gospel chords seeped out the organ from atop the gazebo. Several hundred yards away, across the great lawn and down inside the pavilion of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band rocked a New Orleans-infused version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Midway between the two stages - where their sonic polyrhythms merged and co-mingled in the air - you could find everything you ever needed to know about America. 

Sunday’s finale of the two-day Saratoga Jazz Festival featured a varied collection of artists whose respective tones spanned several continents.  Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who hail from South Africa, provided eight sweet, synchronized voices that slid down easy across the Avenue of the Pines in a set which included selections from their ‘Graceland” collaboration with Paul Simon in the 1980s. 

Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy opened his songbook to the page of tunes that have influenced everyone from The Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton, wrenching low, mournful tones from his Fender Stratocaster in a set list of songs that included “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and "I Just Want to Make Love to You." He also provided some moments of levity. “Hello Saratoga,” said Guy, who last appeared at the Saratoga Jazz Festival in the summer of 1993. “It’s been so long since I’ve been here I’m going to play something so funky, it smells.”
An afternoon ceremony featured the dedication of a star in SPAC’s Walk of Fame in honor of the late jazz legend Dave Brubeck, whose 13 appearances at SPAC through four decades place him at the top of the list of most frequent performers at the venue.
“His white hair would fly, his feet would tap, and his whole body would rock,” recalled SPAC President Marcia White of Brubeck’s most recent appearances at the venue, in 2006 and 2009.  

Marcia White, Brubeck Family
“His light will continue to shine and he will be represented here in Saratoga,” said Brubeck’s daughter, Catherine Brubeck Yaghsizian, who attended the ceremony Sunday with her son and nephew. “It’s sad he’s not here to see this, but my father said all along that there is a fifth member of the quartet -  the audience  – and that audience is still here today.”
She also shared a quote her father had made about one of the reasons he believed in jazz: “The oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear.”
McCoy Tyner

Saturday’s set featured Legendary pianist McCoy Tyner, best known for his work with John Coltrane in the 1960s, who performed with his quartet and was joined by guest guitarist John Scofield.
Big Sam’s Funky Nation warded off a brief afternoon shower with with a combo of hot beats, wild horns, and a shaking-the-amphitheater version of the Funky Donkey 

Sunday evening, Tony Bennett also invoked Brubeck, with a performance of “That Old Black Magic,” which was based on collaboration between the crooner and Brubeck a half-century earlier. Bennett performed a 60-minute set in strong voice and style that transcended his 86 years, finger-snapping to the upbeats, gesturing to the soloing wizardry of his four-piece band, and blowing kisses to an audience delighted to hear both, his songs of love long gone and of love everlasting.
n the neighborhood where I grew up, Tony Bennett was a hero. It is a place where brick-faced apartment buildings still bear black and yellow signs that point to a fallout shelter; where the marker that told you that you had made it in this world was measured by the ownership of a two-story home, with a patch of flowers and a few feet of lawn that was all your own.

There have been others who have made their mark in Astoria, which sits at the west end of Queens, geographically located in New York City, but in reality, not. Pitcher Whitey Ford, and singer-songwriter Melanie Safka grew up here, as did actor Christopher Walken, and writer-musician Dito Montiel. Here, at one end of Steinway Street, they have been hand-crafting the world's great pianos for nearly the past 150 years. At the other end of the avenue named for the family of German immigrants, they have been making movies since the 1920s, sometimes re-arranging the architecture in the neighborhood for fictional adventures upon the silver screen.

Tony Bennett was born in a different era, but, like most of these things, he has survived the change of generations. He was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto, the son of an Italian-born grocer on Aug. 3, 1926. Surviving residents in the neighborhood where he grew up still talk about seeing him starting out as a singing waiter at Riccardo's restaurant, or watching him perform at The Red Door club, which stood beneath the El - where the McDonald's is now, they tell you.

Bennett dedicated “The Good Life,” to Lady Gaga - with whom he is collaborating on a new album, recalled that his first big singing break was granted him by Pearl Bailey, and how Bob Hope recommended he “economize” his birth name - Anthony Dominick Benedetto – in to the stage-friendlier Tony Bennett.  Bennett’s promenade of hits included Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,”  a swing-time rendition of “For Once In My Life,” Irving Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,”  “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and “Smile (though your heart is breaking”), in a graceful nod to Charlie Chaplin.

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