11/08/05

Earshot Jazz Festival 2005

In Seattle, late October arrives like an act of hostility. The low sky turns black. The seagulls circling overhead begin to look like vultures. The rain spits at you as the wind blows it sideways. And then, as if flipping you the bird, Daylight Saving Time stops. But for Seattle’s jazz community, late October contains a major consolation: the Earshot Jazz Festival.

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Jeff Dunas

Ravi Coltrane

What distinguishes the Earshot event, now in its 17th year, is the programming. Reflecting the reliable instincts of Executive Director John Gilbreath, the offerings are typically tilted left-of-center, yet ecumenically diverse. In 2005, as always, Pacific Northwest artists (Jay Clayton, Cuong Vu, Wayne Horvitz, Marc Seales) and international players (Bobo Stenson, Virginia Rodrigues, Luciana Souza, Dafnis Prieto) were well represented. As for left/right spectrum, the festival spread itself from Roscoe Mitchell to Bill Charlap. In between were players who embody some of the strongest current energy in the art form (Jason Moran, Dave Douglas, Robert Glasper, “Tain” Watts, Vijay Iyer, Ravi Coltrane).

With 60 events over 20 days at 11 sites, anyone’s experience of the Earshot Festival is necessarily episodic and incomplete. Here is one personal selection of impressions and reflections:

The festival’s two primary venues could not have been more dissimilar. The Triple Door, one of the most elegant new jazz supper clubs on the West Coast, is right downtown. Consolidated Works, located on a dark nondescript street of commercial buildings, is officially nowhere, and entering this “multi-disciplinary contemporary arts center” through its unmarked door feels like entering a factory or a warehouse. But jazz goes where it can find a home, and Jason Moran, by himself, not only warmed up Consolidated Works one night, he set it on fire.

“Solo” is not a precisely accurate description for Moran’s performance, because he occasionally employed recorded “found sounds” and voices. These additive stimuli were not gimmicky; they brought external characters and perspectives into the normally lonely drama of solo piano.

No one in jazz approaches the keyboard with more openness to possibility, including accident, than Jason Moran. He uses it all, and his dynamic swings are as huge as an acoustic piano can accommodate, from just audible whispers to violent smashes (sometimes augmented by foot stomps). His tribute to conceptual artist Adrian Piper (which included Piper’s looped voice theorizing about the role of the artist) began slowly and fervently. But in the creative process of a Moran improvisation, intensity naturally accumulates until his extraordinary left hand thunders and individual notes are obliterated in a wall of sound. “Body and Soul,” on the other hand, almost stayed a ballad. It opened as a duet with taped drums, then became a wayward scattering with fragmentary references to its source.

The elements of Moran’s art are familiar, including but not limited to blues, the church, stride and free-bop. But he flings them around so freely that chance juxtapositions become revelatory. As in a Jackson Pollock painting, the surrender to extreme momentary impulse is made meaningful when the wholeness of form emerges.

Moran’s use of recorded spoken words prefigured a multimedia element that reappeared in various forms throughout the festival. There was jazz with film, as Dave Douglas’ band, at the Triple Door, played alongside silent comedies of Fatty Arbuckle. (One of the most quixotic of Douglas’ many projects, it was a specialized taste, impossible to acquire in one evening.) There were several events synergistically blending jazz with poetry, most notably Ravi Coltrane playing for poets A.B. Spellman and Paul Harding at the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center. And there were films about jazz at the Northwest Film Forum, including one truly stunning work, #My Name Is Albert Ayler#.

Ravi Coltrane was a major presence at the festival. He gave workshops, and appeared six times in four venues -- with his own quartet, as a guest soloist with the Roosevelt and Garfield High School Jazz Bands and as a sideman with Ralph Alessi’s Quintet. Coltrane is now 40, and it is no longer disconcerting that he looks so much like his father, and plays the same instruments so differently. He has developed into an intelligent improviser with an alluring light sound on both tenor and soprano saxophones, and his flickering, circling solos find their own latter day lyricism. Coltrane’s most memorable moments came with Ralph Alessi at Tula’s, Seattle’s funkiest, friendliest full-time jazz café, in the Belltown neighborhood. Alessi’s band, with Andy Milne, Drew Gress and Mark Ferber, was as clean and airy and sophisticated and disciplined as post-modern progressive jazz gets. If Alessi were a baseball pitcher, he would be described as “sneaky fast,” because he has the kind of drop-dead trumpet chops that make impossibly intricate lines sound relaxed. He also writes meticulous, aslant, clever tunes.

Way up north (where only dedicated jazz journalists venture in the rain), at Edmonds-Woodway High School, came a night that proved one of the high water marks of the festival. It was opened by a shouting and cocky big band, Edmonds-Woodway Jazz Ensemble I, under the direction of Jake Bergevin. The headliner was trumpeter Cuong Vu, whose trio with Stomu Takeishi on five-string electric bass and Ted Poor on drums took no prisoners and showed no mercy to an audience mostly comprised of high school musicians, their parents, faculty and, not to forget, the aforementioned dedicated journalist.

It was a homecoming for Vu. He is now based in New York and tours and records with Pat Metheny, but he grew up in Seattle after arriving from Saigon in 1975 at age six. He possesses speed and articulation, a luminous, molten tone and intriguing ideas. But he takes those attributes and multiplies or explodes them through a Lexicon MPX100, DigiTech Echo Plus and other digital devices. Background washes deepened and expanded the sonic envelope, and digital loops created rippling decays of vast trumpet choirs. Shrieking electronic meltdowns subsided to allow for the most graceful wisps of trumpet melody.

Takeishi spun counterlines in bell tones and painted colors and sometimes played duets with himself through a foot-operated Boomerang digital phrase sampler. Poor’s drums kept all this complexity flowing. The night ended with “Expressions of a Neurotic Impulse,” shattering staccatos from Vu alternating with those same notes streaked and swept and smeared in electronic brush strokes. Very few players in current jazz use technology for more musical ends than Cuong Vu.

One of the best examples of Earshot’s on-target programming was the inclusion of the Bobo Stenson Trio, on a United States tour in November to support its superb new ECM album, Goodbye. Stenson is a free verse lyric poet of the piano, and his hook-up with bassist Anders Jormin is so interdependently creative that, to find comparisons, one must go to the highest levels of piano/bass relationships, such as Bill Evans/Scott LaFaro and Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock.

At the Triple Door, this trio drew upon sources not often heard in jazz. “Polska of Despair,” from 19th-century Swedish folk troubadour Lorens Brolin, was a hovering drama, poignant and austere. “Music For A While,” from 17th-century composer Henry Purcell, was reconfigured in crystalline abstractions. “Serenity,” from 20th-century iconoclast Charles Ives, was too dark to be entirely serene. Stenson transforms such material into music that is, in its open invention and its pulse, unmistakably jazz. But it is jazz made of unfamiliar, finely detailed patterns and swirling asymmetrical shapes. Always, in the spaces and rests, are the yearning interventions of Anders Jormin.

Stenson does standards infrequently. “Re: Person I Knew” was exhilarating in its freshness once it made itself known. The encore was the title track to Stenson’s latest CD, Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye,” which sent everyone home pensive but fulfilled.

It may seem strange, in a festival that presented so many significant living artists, to close with an event that featured one who died in 1970. But the United States premier of My Name Is Albert Ayler, a documentary film by young Swedish director Kasper Collin, was the single most important revelation of the festival.

To make Albert Ayler live again is a daunting task for a filmmaker, because little archival footage exists of Ayler’s life and career. But through an inspired assemblage of photos, rare films, music, audio interviews with Ayler and extensive recent filmed interviews with family members, friends and fellow artists, Ayler is indeed made flesh. The interviews with Ayler’s 89-year-old father, his brother/sideman Donald Ayler (who now struggles with mental illness) and drummer Sunny Murray rivet the viewer’s imagination and haunt it when the film is over. Director Collin achieves the almost impossible: He creates a portrait of artistic sainthood that is persuasive and unsentimental.

My Name Is Albert Ayler is one of the most starkly beautiful and moving documentaries ever made about a jazz musician. Collin has not yet secured a U.S. distributor for his film. More information can be obtained at mynameisalbertayler.com.

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