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The 33rd Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle

Washington State’s most important annual jazz event puts on its 2021 edition—with people

Immanuel Wilkins Quartet Earshot 2021
Left to right: Micah Thomas, Tyrone Allen, Immanuel Wilkins, and Mike Mitchell in the Langston Hughes Theater at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

John Gilbreath, executive director of Earshot Jazz, walked to the microphone on opening night to introduce the first concert of the 33rd Earshot Jazz Festival. Gazing out at the masked audience in the theater of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, he gasped, “People!” The Institute had limited seating to 50% capacity for the festival, but still it was shocking to see people in those seats (all of whom had shown proof of vaccination for admission). Last year’s festival had been virtual, as had all the other events presented by the Earshot organization since the pandemic hit in March of 2020.

Of course, in 2021 Seattle was just one of many cities across America and the world that were beginning to emerge into the light after all the dark months of COVID restriction. But the full return of the Earshot festival has outsize significance here: It runs from mid-October into November, and every year it is the most significant jazz happening in the city. That it was virtual-only in 2020 had left a gaping hole in the community’s year. This report covers the first 11 days of the festival, from October 13 to October 24; it continues through November 7.

Theo Croker was the act on opening night. He played music from his new album BLK2LIFE, but he was not traveling with the same company of players who had made the record, and who had brought in elements of rap, dub, reggae, and contemporary R&B. Croker’s quartet at Earshot (Mike King, piano; Eric Wheeler, bass; Shekwoaga Ode, drums) was a jazz band, albeit one that incorporated pop-culture references and electronic processing.

Croker has a pure, haunting trumpet sound and a preference for long, simple, suggestive lines. The intrigue of his music is centered on the tension between his minimalism and the maximalism of his drummer. Ode was the furthest thing from a timekeeper; he engulfed Croker’s glowing trumpet in huge, looming waves of dark energy. Shekwoaga Ode is a name to remember.

Theo Croker Earshot 2021
Shekwoaga Ode (left) and Theo Croker in Langston Hughes Theater at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

The description of Croker’s trumpet sound as “pure” only applies until he distorts or delays it through electronics. For the most part, the twitterings and oscillations and programmed voiceovers that were imported into the music were distractions. Pianist King has facility but took the same dense, loud solo every time. The concert was hit-or-miss.

The Langston Hughes Theater was the site for six different events during the festival’s first week, and it’s an ideal setting for jazz: compact enough for intimacy, yet imposing because of its high domed ceiling. (In normal times it holds 285.) On the second night, singer Eugenie Jones performed there. Seattle has a rich jazz vocal history that goes back as far as Ray Charles (as a teenager) and runs through artists like Ernestine Anderson, Jay Clayton, Dee Daniels, and Diane Schuur. Jones appeared with Velocity, a tight, quick band from Tacoma, Washington (Peter Adams, piano; Cliff Colon, tenor saxophone; Rob Hutchinson, bass; Brian Smith, drums). She’s an extroverted performer with swagger who loves what she does, which is swing. But on the most affecting piece—“The Gift of Life,” which she co-wrote with Adams—she slowed down. Its subject is one that may have never been addressed before in music: the experience of waiting for a life-saving organ donation. The song will be on her new album, Players.

Eugenie Jones at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival
Brian Smith (left) and Eugenie Jones in Langston Hughes Theater at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

Marina Albero, the festival’s Resident Artist this year, came to Seattle from Barcelona in 2014. Her parents were touring musicians in Spain; she often joined them onstage as a child, performing traditional Spanish music. As a teenager she spent several years in Cuba studying classical music. For 20 years she was the partner of the important flamenco jazz pianist Chano Dominguez.

Albero was booked four times at Earshot, with four different ensembles. Her first concert was at Town Hall on Seattle’s First Hill, just east of Interstate 5. It was built in 1916 by the Church of Christ, Scientist; no longer a church, it’s now a cultural center that contains two venues. Upstairs is the Great Hall, with pews that hold 857 beneath a high vaulted ceiling. Downstairs is the Forum, a less formal 300-seat facility with a bar.

The quintet with which Albero played the Forum included some of Seattle’s best jazz musicians: reed player Hans Teuber, bassist Jeff Johnson, drummer D’Vonne Lewis, and percussionist Jeff Busch. Albero is an irresistible package of boundless creative energy and showmanship. Her band began without her and then she made a wild, wailing grand entrance, walking to the stage through the crowd, shrieking on a Roland AX-Synth. Then she put the keytar aside and sat down at a Steinway.

Albero’s music is unclassifiable. Because of the melting pot of her background, many influences are audible: Catalan, Afro-Cuban, flamenco, classical, jazz. But the mix is fully blended. On piano she is an audacious, freewheeling 88-key improviser. She played her own compositions, which came from many points along her life’s itinerary, and one tune by Paco de Lucía. But the most memorable moment of the night was “Nardis.” At first it seemed like a surprising choice, but it is one of Miles Davis’ modal pieces with a “Spanish tinge.” Albero’s band killed it, in a sprawling, careening version full of many tinges, only one of which was Spanish.

Marina Albero at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival
Marina Albero in Town Hall Forum at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

Two nights later, when Jamie Baum appeared with her Septet+, the Forum felt like a very different place. Albero had thrown a rowdy party there; Baum conducted a dignified, austere, intellectually rigorous recital.

The band was an octet: Baum (flutes); Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet); Aaron Irwin (reeds); Chris Komer (French horn); Brad Shepik (guitar); John Escreet (piano); Ricky Rodriguez (bass); Jeff Hirshfield (drums). For many years Baum has been engaged in bringing South Asian, Arabic, and Jewish musical forms into jazz. These elements, and the atypical instrumentation, create exotic blends and colors. Her through-composed pieces are intensively arranged. The musicianship and the solo firepower in her ensemble is formidable, but Baum’s music puts the players in a box, with circumscribed roles. Sometimes it was frustrating when compelling solos felt cut short. But the box could be intriguing. “From the Well,” based on a scale common to Jewish music, made for uncommon jazz. One song was strangely moving: “There Are No Words,” a eulogy for Baum’s father, contained the incantatory solemnity of a Hebrew recitation for Yom Kippur.

Jamie Baum Septet+ 2021 Earshot
Left to right: John Escreet, Ricky Rodriguez, Jamie Baum, Jeff Hirshfield, Jonathan Finlayson, Aaron Irwin, Chris Komer, Brad Shepik in Town Hall Forum at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

For many years, the programming of the Earshot festival has reflected an independent mindset. Its lineups always cover a large swath of the jazz art form. Therefore, they always throw you at least one curveball. This year’s curve occurred in the Chapel Performance Space in Seattle’s Wallingford district, a plain but comfortable 150-seat venue that puts the focus on the music. Actually, call the concert a knuckleball. Bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake played while dancer/poet Patricia Nicholson whirled and flailed and muttered and raved. The first half-hour of the performance was rather fun for its sheer weirdness. It was also interesting to see Parker and Drake, two elder statesmen of the avant-garde, fill to overflowing all the space made available by the absence of other instruments. But the concert lasted an hour and a half. By the end it had become more work than fun.

Patricia Nicholson, Hamid Drake, William Parker Earshot 2021
Patricia Nicholson, Hamid Drake, and William Parker in the Chapel Performance Space at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

The biggest headlining event of the festival, the only one big enough to be located in the Great Hall of Town Hall, was billed as “Duets.” The artists were Dianne Reeves, Joe Lovano, and Chucho Valdés. Town Hall underwent a $20 million renovation in 2017, and its Great Hall provided an appropriately grand setting for this meeting of three masters.

The evening began with Valdés alone at the piano and with multiple independent melodic streams and deep layers of chords that eventually became “My One and Only Love.” Any song undertaken by Valdés is merely a starting postulate. He inundated “My One and Only Love” in lush new content. Then Lovano came out and began to play the kinds of lines he’s famous for, balancing complexity with clarity, power with finesse. In a duet with Valdés, Lovano serves as the voice of reason. The juxtaposition of Valdés’ ornate, extravagant comping and Lovano’s declarative urgency made tunes like Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” sound both familiar and fresh.

When Lovano left, Reeves came out and, with no microphone, burst into a dramatic rendering of “Stella by Starlight.” It was broken in odd places and contained stunning intervallic leaps made possible by her multi-octave range. Reeves seemed to be the most thrilled and liberated by this duo (and occasionally trio) format. She announced, “I’m going to places I’ve never been musically.” The bare setting provided a new showcase for her remarkable instrument. She sang classic standards like “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” and “Bésame Mucho,” reshaping them into free-form sonic sculptures. Even that most wistful of ballads, “My Foolish Heart,” was a hard-hitting testament, Reeves’ mighty voice resounding off the ceiling of the Great Hall high above. After Lovano came back out, the three did “Blue Monk.” Reeves scatted wordlessly, and her human saxophone and Lovano’s Selmer created a resonant blend.

Chucho Valdés, Dianne Reeves, and Joe Lovano Earshot 2021
Chucho Valdés, Dianne Reeves, and Joe Lovano in the Town Hall Great Hall at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

The concert got a long loud standing ovation from a crowd that had been starved for live music for too long, and who knew they had just witnessed something special.

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.