Ballard Jazz Festival 2004

The final tune of the second annual Ballard Jazz Festival was “School Boy Thug.” In tribute to heavy metal (“a musical genre that we have ignored tonight up ’til now”), Matt Wilson donned a long, hideous black wig, flailed over his drum kit as though he were having a seizure, then threw his sticks toward the rafters. Jeff Lederer stood stock still, emitting horrific jackhammer blasts on tenor saxophone, while Andrew D’Angelo leapt high and scissored like Peter Townshend, hurled a cup of water at the audience, and collapsed on his back, yelping and croaking on alto saxophone. It brought the house down.

Lourdes Delgado

Matt Wilson

“School Boy Thug” was a distinct departure from most of the music played during the four days and nights that led up to it. And yet it was a fitting denouement for an occasion with the name Ballard Jazz Festival. In Seattle, Washington, the funky working class neighborhood of Ballard, founded by Norwegian fishermen, has long been the butt of Scandinavian jokes. Ballard, a cliché in local humor, is said to be dangerous because of its legions of overly cautious elderly drivers. To a Seattleite, the very term “Ballard Jazz Festival” is amusingly oxymoronic. Yah sure, you betcha.

Yet a jazz festival Ballard had, and a very cool one at that. Presented by the Ballard Chamber of Commerce and Origin Records (Seattle’s independent jazz label), there were clinics, performances by Seattle high school jazz groups and two percussion-dominated nights called “Brotherhood of the Drum.” On the third night, Friday, there was the Ballard Avenue Jazz Walk. On an uncharacteristically dry and cold and clear November evening, and the scene was a most convivial progressive house-to-house party. Ten bands held forth at nine different clubs. Crowds spilled along red brick Ballard Avenue, from Greta Matassa at the Lock & Keel Pub to Brent Jensen at Bad Albert’s to Dawn Clement and Laura Welland at Portalis to David White at Bop Street Records.

But the apex of the festival was Saturday night at the cavernous, well-appointed Mars Hill Performance Hall. The three groups that provided four hours of music drew from wildly divergent source materials. Tim Ries’ Stones Project used some of the most familiar themes in modern world culture. The New Stories Trio with Don Sickler performed songs by one of the greatest and most neglected of jazz composers, Elmo Hope. The Matt Wilson Quartet played music newly sprung from their own creatively twisted imaginations.

It is hard to imagine “Honky Tonk Women” as a swing tune until you hear Ries, Ben Monder, Gary Versace and Matt Jorgenson do it. Like every Rolling Stones song they played, it took a moment to realize that this sophisticated music had been transformed from “Gimme Shelter” or “Street Fighting Man.” Ries’ credentials for such a project are solid, since he had just returned from his second world tour with the Stones. His relationship to Mick Jagger/Keith Richard material was complex: not parody, certainly not literal, but allusions that segued in and out of contact with their sources as they expanded and embellished them.

“Paint It Black” was best, a feature for Ben Monder, the least demonstrative of guitarists. He stood still and expressionless as a statue as his hands wove counterlines upon counterlines, deep within which, barely audible, resided the unlikely song.

On both tenor and soprano saxophones, Ries elaborated his ideas with satisfying clarity of tone and purpose. The Stones Project, with drummer Matt Jorgenson in the role of a more measured and thoughtful Charlie Watts, played quiet, cunning, wailing music. There will be an album in March.

Elmo Hope, friend and inspiration to Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, died at 43 in 1967. In their counterpoise of complexity and grace, his songs make you think of Tadd Dameron. But Hope’s music develops according to its own rules, with unexpected chord resolutions and uneven forms. It is tricky, challenging stuff, but Don Sickler and his colleagues made it look easy.

Sickler’s years of research into Hope’s musical legacy led to a recent recording project on the Origin label, Hope Is in the Air, with Seattle’s best rhythm section, New Stories (Marc Seales, Doug Miller and John Bishop). The band that played the festival was the one from the Origin album, with Sickler on trumpet and flugelhorn, but Brent Jensen on alto saxophone instead of Bobby Porcelli. Their set was six Hope tunes, all different, all elegant. Sickler was crisp and articulate and Jensen’s solos were flowing and seamless. But the highlight was a trio piece, “Stars Over Marrakech,” a haunting, hovering escalation, driven slowly heavenward by John Bishop’s drums.

While this night, and in fact this whole festival, had been strong in the drum department, Matt Wilson came out and reset the rules of engagement. He immediately established why he is widely regarded as an emerging major voice on his instrument. He commands a special level of rhythmic force that can flatten anything in its path, and do it while cruising, without breaking a sweat.

But Wilson is not interested in a role of drum maestro. His quartet is wildly, willfully destructive of propriety and precedent, as much performance artists as musicians. Andrew D’Angelo will bust up a number on impulse, shattering it with braying shrieks, writhing and slithering on stage. On “Choose,” Jeff Lederer interrupted his ferocious tenor solo with “butt piano,” flopping onto the keyboard of the Steinway that had been unwisely left on stage. Both horn players were nasty on “Big Butt,” a graphic celebration of voluptuous joys.

In such a manic atmosphere, serious art, when it came, stood out in shocking relief. On “Raga,” D’Angelo took a long, majestic alto solo, like cries in the wilderness, over Wilson’s steady clattering on a small handheld drum and the moaning drone of Martin Wind’s arco bass. Later, Lederer almost played a ballad, in a slow, fiercely arpeggiated burn, with the audience waiting for the joke that never came.

Then there was “Schoolboy Thug,” and all hell broke loose.

The second annual Ballard Jazz Festival left Seattle anxious for more, and made third and fourth and fifth annual versions obligatory.

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