It was the warmest October on record in Seattle. Usually, when the Earshot Jazz Festival comes to town, it provides an escape from the autumn rains. But in 2022 the music had to compete with the weather. On October 16, the ninth day of the festival, the high temperature hit 88° Fahrenheit, shattering the previous October record by 16 degrees.
The Earshot festival is huge and diverse. Its reach extends beyond its primary audience of the Pacific Northwest jazz community. It attracts hangers-on, cultural tourists, and the merely curious. But October 8, opening night, was a special gathering for the committed. The occasion was a tribute to a Seattle jazz icon, Overton Berry, who died at 84 in October of 2020. Berry had attended Garfield High School in Seattle with Quincy Jones, and went on to a career in the city that spanned seven decades.
If a Seattle venue had a piano, Berry probably played it at some point. He mentored scores of musicians and helped launch many careers, including that of Diane Schuur. Berry discovered her in 1975, when she was an unknown new singer from Tacoma. Schuur was the headliner on opening night. She is famous for her big voice, but her version of “Send in the Clowns”—a song she had performed with Berry—was wistful and rapt. Other A-list Seattle vocalists who appeared were Gail Pettis and Greta Matassa. Pettis sang, beautifully, “I Thought About You.” Matassa offered a free yet heartfelt “For All We Know.” (Berry had taken Matassa under his wing when she was 17.) As more and more musicians had their moment on the stage (including bassist Bruce Phares, saxophonist Mark Lewis, and bassist/singer Jeff Davies), the large overlap between players central to the Seattle scene and players with a Berry connection became apparent.
When Berry died, his son Sean had said, “Maybe sometime next year, when we can get 500 people together, we’ll have a tribute concert.” It took two years, but all 500 were there.
Opening night was held in the Great Hall of Town Hall, on First Hill, a few blocks from downtown. Town Hall was built as a Christian Science church in 1916 but is now a cultural center. The Great Hall, with its pews and high vaulted ceiling, still looks like a church; its capacity is 857. A second venue in the building, downstairs, called Town Hall Forum, can hold 300, and is a less formal setting for music, with a bar. Five nights after the opening concert, in Town Hall Forum, another Seattle jazz legend was honored. This time the loss was new and therefore the sadness was acute. Chuck Deardorf had died on October 9.
The jazz scene of every major American city has its default bass player of record, its house bassist. In Seattle it was Deardorf, a quality musician and an even higher-quality human. He was taken by COVID-19 at age 68; a kidney transplant had weakened his immune system. The concert in Town Hall Forum by the Fellowship ’Ceptet became, on short notice, a memorial for Deardorf.
The ’Ceptet is an outgrowth of a project that’s another indicator of the Seattle scene’s communal spirit: the Seattle Jazz Fellowship. It’s a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is “to build community, increase mentorship, incentivize excellence, and lower barriers to access for jazz.” The director of both the project and the ’Ceptet ensemble is Thomas Marriott, who says, “The personnel of the ‘Ceptet shifts from gig to gig so we can maximize community participation. It’s basically jazz education in the old-school sense: Learn on the job from people much better than you.”
The band in Town Hall Forum included some of the region’s best players: Marriott (a trumpet badass), Mark Taylor (an alto saxophonist with a gorgeous sound), Marina Albero (an irresistible force of piano energy), and D’Vonne Lewis (Seattle’s first-call drummer). There were also young up-and-comers like tenor saxophonist Jackson Cotugno and trombonist Beserat Tafesse. They played quick, tight, hard-hitting arrangements of Marriott tunes such as “H.A.L.T.” and “Tale of Debauchery.” Because this band’s natural mode is affirmative energy, they turned an evening of mourning for Chuck Deardorf into a celebration of his art and life.
There are probably not many jazz festivals in the United States with the sheer scale of Earshot. It ran for almost a month, from October 8 to November 6. It included 37 concerts in 12 venues around town. Approximately half the shows were also live-streamed. There were films, “watch parties,” panels, lectures, and a photo exhibit. What follows is a necessarily selective record of moments that stood out in a vast festival experience.
Kurt Rosenwinkel played the Triple Door in downtown Seattle, one of the best-appointed music supper clubs on the West Coast. Rosenwinkel’s career has passed through many genres, from avant-garde to Brazilian. But his current quartet (Taylor Eigsti, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Gregory Hutchinson, drums) is a modern mainstream guitar band (very modern mainstream). It was as tight as an ensemble can only be on the last engagement of a month-long tour.
On stage, Rosenwinkel did not talk much. He just stood stock-still and played his ass off. His discography proves that he’s a very special interpreter of standards, so it was disappointing that he didn’t play even one. Instead he performed his own new music, which will be on a forthcoming live album from the Village Vanguard. He is a quality composer, writing lines of sun-bright clarity, and when he improvises he gradually increases the density and complexity of those lines while sustaining the clarity. His night at the Triple Door was a recital on a level of expertise and creativity that only a few living jazz guitarists can approach.
One of the best places to hear jazz in Seattle is the theater of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, in the Central District. There are 280 seats in a steep rise. Sight lines and acoustics are excellent. Marquis Hill performed there early in the festival, with a project he calls New Gospel Revisited. (It is also the name of his most recent album.) He is one of the preeminent players of the new trumpet generation, but his greatest impact has been as a composer, arranger, bandleader, and ensemble conceptualist. A Hill set is a single uninterrupted outpouring in which tunes are touchstones on the journey. Hard bop is the basis of his trumpet language, but he also thinks in R&B, hip-hop, and freer forms. In the Langston Hughes theater he juxtaposed these elements in evolving ensemble designs. His trumpet insertions were concise and riveting, as he dove in and out of the flow: fragmented melodies, spitfire runs, shattering trumpet choirs created by his occasional use of electronics. Hill’s hot young band had daring pianist Jahari Stampley, subtle bassist Joshua Griffin, and kinetic, volatile drummer Jeremiah Collier.
It is not easy for an emerging guitarist to break through the noise, but Dan Wilson’s 2021 album on Mack Avenue, Vessels of Wood and Earth, got attention for his obvious talent. The night after Marquis Hill, he played a lightning-fast “Eleanor Rigby” and stung its famous melody into the air of the Langston Hughes theater. Then he drowned it in his own extravagant variations. Another ferocious workout came on Freddie Hubbard’s “Birdlike.” Wilson has virtues that many speed demons do not, like taste and musicality.
Elnah Jordan opened for Wilson. If there were people in the seats who were skeptical about a local singer they didn’t know, Jordan, who has charisma to burn, obliterated their defenses with her opening number, “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” But then, after rocking the house, she turned the audience reflective with ballad stories like “Long Ago and Far Away” and “A Day in the Life of a Fool.”
Miguel Zenón is one of the most decorated alto saxophonists on the current scene, known for his blending of cutting-edge modern jazz virtuosity with the folkloric and traditional music of his native Puerto Rico. His new album, Música de las Américas, expands his reach across the Caribbean all the way to South America. In a sold-out Town Hall Forum, he played music from the album with his quartet: long-term collaborators Luis Perdomo (piano) and Henry Cole (drums), and recent arrival Luca Alemanno (bass). Songs like “Taínos y Caribes” and “Navegando” were rhythmically and melodically intricate, harmonically surprising and furiously intense. Zenón’s music occupies its own niche. It lacks space and nuance, and is so busy it can be exhausting. He has one gear—overdrive. But when he accelerates melodies into torrents, he can sweep an audience away. (Based on the whoops and shouts of the crowd in Town Hall Forum, they enjoyed being swept.)