Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival at 25

Upholding a legacy of creative programming

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The Bad Plus at the Triple Door in Seattle, October 2013. l. to r.: Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King
By Daniel Sheehan

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Autumn comes hard in Seattle. Even if there are some dry days in late October, Seattle people know that summer’s over, and they know what’s coming: days on end when 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. are indistinguishable in their sodden, uniform grayness.

But for Seattle jazz fans, autumn has contained a major consolation over the last quarter-century. The Earshot Jazz Festival is not as famous as Monterey or Newport, but it has a strong alternative Northwest identity. The programming tilts left-of-center but is diverse. Earshot director John Gilbreath has an instinct for locating the leading edges of the ever-evolving jazz art form. He booked Tomasz Stanko, Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Jason Moran and Craig Taborn before it was fashionable. Every year at Earshot, artists debut new projects and form interesting new collaborations. Musicians come from the Pacific Northwest, but also from exotic places like Kiev, Havana, Bucharest and Brooklyn.

In 2013, on its 25th anniversary, Earshot was bigger and badder than ever: seven weeks, 320 artists, 60 events, 16 venues around town. Here are some quick hits from the first 20 days.

Opening night was Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, in one of their four U.S. concerts in 2013. They almost filled Benaroya Hall, home to the Seattle Symphony. “Fever” swung so hard it swept up everything in its path before it melted away. Twenty-two-hundred people bounced in their seats. But the ballads were best. “Blame It on My Youth,” rapt, achingly slow, was released reluctantly, with exquisite timing. It made those same 2,200 people sit very still. The crowd demanded and received four encores. The last was “When I Fall in Love,” freely rendered, only the introductory chords fully retained. Then the song broke into waves of emotion that rolled through the hall.

Two unrelated trumpeters named Thomas played Tula’s, a jazz dive and Seattle institution. Jay Thomas is a mainstay of the Seattle scene. Willie Thomas, 82 years old, had a promising career going in New York in the ’50s until he lost his cabaret card. He became a respected educator (see jazzeveryone.com) and now lives off the grid on Orcas Island, Wash. Willie’s version of postbop is technically unique, with strange harmonic colors, all in the service of soulfulness.

Saxophonist Yosvany Terry’s quintet lit up the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Their polyrhythms come from Cuba, Africa and Spain; their edgy jazz structures are hardcore New York. Trumpeter Michael Rodriguez and pianist Osmany Paredes are players to watch.

One of the revelatory jazz albums of recent years is Be Still, Dave Douglas’ engagement with hymns and old folk songs. In the Poncho Concert Hall at Cornish College, Douglas’ world-class quintet (saxophonist Jon Irabagon/pianist Bobby Avey/bassist Linda Oh/drummer Rudy Royston) applied their fearless imaginations to hymns like “This Is My Father’s World.” The Westerlies, a rare jazz brass quartet, opened, and later joined Douglas’ band for a wild, improbable “Barbara Allen.” Douglas’ trumpet plus the Westerlies raucously proclaimed the 17th-century English melody. Then Irabagon, on tenor, blew it to hell.

The only significant disappointment of the festival’s first 20 days was Mehliana, Brad Mehldau’s new electric project with drummer Mark Guiliana. At the Triple Door, Seattle’s high-tech downtown dinner club, Mehldau came out and, before he sat down, hit a switch on one of his “vintage synthesizers.” With that, the gestalt of the evening was set: monotonous drones, twittering toy decays, distorted voices, chords oscillating through filter sweeps. Barely audible within the din, Mehldau noodled little cute ditties and hooks on Fender Rhodes. Soon, hopefully, he will recover his taste and go back to being one of the world’s best piano players.

At the Royal Room, a cool new jazz venue in hip Columbia City, Steve Lehman’s trio with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid played smart, unforgiving 21st-century bop. Lehman’s sound is a piercing alto saxophone cry with a honk at the bottom. He plays short bursts of jagged lines alternating with long streams of notes that shoot straight up. He is an outcat with discipline. Every concise tune was burned into the air of the Royal Room. Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” and Duke Pearson’s “Jeannine” were as personal for Lehman as his originals, but contained external cultural reference points that hurtled by.

The Bad Plus rocked the Triple Door. They were loud, inappropriate, deadpan, belligerent, theatrical, nasty, conniving, rash, hilarious and flawlessly choreographed. In Seattle, it would have been nice to hear them do some Nirvana, but they played only originals. Ballads like Ethan Iverson’s “Inevitable Western” were hard, perverse lullabies. Most songs were melodramatic cliffhangers, like Iverson’s “Self-Serve,” with schizophrenic tempo shifts, violent dynamic swings, maniacal block chords, single piano notes in delicate strands and hammering grooves. Dave King randomly interrupted his ongoing hissing and clattering for an explosive drum solo that drove the crowd wild; TBP understands showmanship. Earshot 25 was a progressive birthday party, and no jazz band knows how to party like TBP. They make you grin ’til your face hurts.

Originally published in December 2013

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