Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

The Earshot Jazz Festival Owns Seattle’s Early Autumn

Thomas Conrad reports on the 34th edition of the Rainy City’s most significant annual jazz event

Fabian Almazan, Harish Raghavan, Ben Wendel, and Nate Wood at the 2022 Earshot Jazz Festival
Left to right: Fabian Almazan, Harish Raghavan, Ben Wendel, and Nate Wood at the 2022 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

Columbia City is a diverse, semi-gentrified district on Rainier Avenue, about five miles from downtown Seattle. Within a few blocks, there is a dense concentration of cool shops and restaurants and bars. One is the Royal Room, a commodious music joint. Tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel played two ass-kicking sets there with his quartet (Fabian Almazan, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass; Nate Wood, drums).

Wendel is a representative of what might be called “the new avant-garde.” Fifty years ago, saxophonists like Albert Ayler and John Coltrane took jazz into new sonic and metaphysical dimensions, but their audience was limited to those willing to work through a lot of shrieking and shredding in return for spiritual breakthroughs. Today’s most forward-thinking jazz musicians can provide extreme experiences (like Wendel’s night in the Royal Room), but without the harshness. Wendel’s compositions were usually simple little anthems (one was called “Simple Song”), but through obsessive repetition in wave after wave of wild runs, he turned them into incantations. His world-class rhythm section abetted his fury. The difference between artists like Wendel and the original avant-garde saxophonists is that Wendel’s runs sang. Another difference is that his onslaughts did not entirely abandon form. They had a basis in the time-honored structure of head-solos-head—even if the heads were minimal and the solos were maniacal. The packed house in the Royal Room loved it.

The following night, in Town Hall Forum, could not have been more different. Pianist Darrell Grant appeared with his MJ New Quartet, playing music of meticulous measured refinement. It is an appealing and timely project that pays homage to the Modern Jazz Quartet. It was fun to hear again MJQ classics like “Django” and “Bags’ Groove” and “Concorde,” revisited and refreshed by Grant’s capable chamber ensemble (Mike Horsfall, vibes; Marcus Shelby, bass; Cecil Brooks III, drums).

Anat Cohen calls her new project “Quartetinho,” Portuguese for “little quartet.” But Cohen’s band sounds anything but little. In the Great Hall of Town Hall, it made the whole large space resound and ring.

Cohen is originally from Israel, but Brazil has long been a major component of her musical universe. Her band played tunes from their new eponymously titled album, including pieces by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Egberto Gismonti as well as original compositions by all four band members. Cohen is clearly inspired by the melodious extravagance, revelatory rhythms, and rich colors of Brazilian music. For her, its prevailing message is joy. Joy launched her into wild, wailing, soaring flights. She played these intricate songs with no music in front of her; a music stand would have gotten in her way as she whirled and bobbed and weaved. She has been winning jazz polls on clarinet for years, but her work has steadily grown stronger and deeper and freer. In Town Hall, her treble streamings sometimes took on a raw edge, from passion.

Tal Mashiac, Vitor Gonçalves, Anat Cohen, and James Shipp at the 2022 Earshot Jazz Festival
Left to right: Tal Mashiac, Vitor Gonçalves, Anat Cohen, and James Shipp at the 2022 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

The range of sonorities generated by Quartetinho is enormous because everyone is a multi-instrumentalist. Vitor Gonçalves (from Brazil) played piano, Nord Stage 3 and accordion. Tal Mashiac (from Israel) played bass and guitar. James Shipp (from the United States) played vibes, percussion and electronics. Cohen sometimes switched to bass clarinet. While the evening’s primary vibe was ecstatic, there were two songs that turned the mood temporarily melancholy: “The Old Guitar,” by Mashiac, and “Going Home,” from the second movement of Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Cohen, in a gesture tragically appropriate to our time, dedicated “Going Home” to “displaced people.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Alex Dugdale, the festival’s artist-in-residence, appeared four times. His most ambitious project was a newly formed multigenerational big band of Seattleites. They performed several Dugdale originals, three pieces by Seattle’s Marina Albero and two standards. Dugdale is a formidable alto saxophonist. His solos on “Who Can I Turn To” and “Isfahan” were searing. He can also do something that very few of his saxophonist/composer/bandleader peers would ever attempt: tap dance. He opened his second set with a slick dance routine. Dugdale allotted solo space to everyone in the band. Trumpeter Walter Cano, tenor saxophonist Jackson Corugno, trombonist Connor Eisenmenger and pianist John Hansen were among the standouts.

Alex Dugdale Big Band at the 2022 Earshot Jazz Festival
Alex Dugdale Big Band at the 2022 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

In a festival of adventurous au courant jazz, three concerts were notably successful in tapping into the riches of the music’s past. The Count Basie Orchestra had the 857 people who filled the Town Hall’s Great Hall bouncing in those pews. The Roosevelt High School Jazz Band opened. Seattle has a long tradition of excellence in high-school big bands (the Garfield High School band had played on opening night). The Roosevelt band is now led by Hannah Mowry; she took over this year from Scott Brown, who had been the director since 1984. The band played “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and smoked it. Teddy Goldman on alto and Taiyo Fuwa on tenor had a knock-down saxophone battle.

Basie led his orchestra from 1935 until his death in 1984, but the band’s history has never stopped. It still tours the world, now under the direction of Scotty Barnhart. They roared with one voice on classics like Steve Allen’s “This Could Be the Start of Something Big,” in Quincy Jones’ original 1963 arrangement. Even when they occasionally relaxed and got relatively quiet, as on Neal Hefti’s “Li’l Darlin’,” from 1957, they swung. The crowd shouted for an encore but the band could not comply. They had a plane to catch, a redeye to Manhattan for a show the next night. Not New York: Manhattan, Kansas.

Scotty Barnhart leading the Count Basie Orchestra at the 2022 Earshot Jazz Festival
Scotty Barnhart leading the Count Basie Orchestra at the 2022 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

Owen Broder has a new record out called Hodges: Front and Center, Vol. 1. In the Royal Room, he performed songs played by Johnny Hodges, one of his forefathers on alto saxophone. Broder did not try to channel Hodges; he referenced him. He made you remember him fondly, when he included Hodges-esque touches in his solos: the lilting runs, the trills, the quick ascents culminating in pure, ringing cries. “Shady Side,” a contrafact of “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” was smooth as the finest suede. “Viscount” glided with the kind of natural grace that has mostly vanished from today’s on-edge jazz. Broder is a scholar of the music, a sure-handed arranger, and an immaculate player. His band (Alphonso Horne, trumpet; Carmen Staaf, piano; Barry Stephenson, bass; Dan Pugach, drums) nailed the charts even as they stayed “in character.” This performance succeeded because Broder walked a fine line that’s critical for such projects: a line between honoring history and applying a contemporary perspective to the past.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Since 1995, the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, now under the direction of Michael Brockman, has been the Pacific Northwest’s premier big jazz band. On the second-to-last night of the festival, in the acoustically superb Nordstrom Recital Hall, they presented “Reminiscing in Tempo,” a 15-minute piece in four parts composed by Duke Ellington in 1935 as an elegy for his recently departed mother. It was released on two 78-rpm records (one part per side) in 1935 and has never been recorded again. Ellington performed it in public only a few times in his life, but he once included it on a list of his 11 favorite compositions.

It is an intriguing work, completely different from everything else SRJO played at the concert, which was mostly Ellington’s hits (“Take the ‘A’ Train,” “The Mooche,” “Creole Love Call,” et al.). “Reminiscing in Tempo” sounded strikingly modern, with sudden mood swings, from loving memories to dark grief, portrayed in a wealth of motivic variation. The SRJO’s players executed this piece, and all of Ellington’s other music, with love and precision.

At 84, Charles Lloyd’s curiosity is undiminished. He is still a seeker. He has launched a new project, Trio of Trios, and a new ensemble format. Two Blue Note albums have been released so far, Chapel and Ocean; a third, Sacred Thread, is coming soon. Lloyd closed this year’s festival with an extraordinary concert in a packed Town Hall. It was billed as the Ocean Trio, but there was a personnel change from the album: bassist Harish Raghavan replaced pianist Gerald Clayton. Anthony Wilson was the guitarist. It was only their second gig with this combination.

Advertisement
Advertisement

In the presence of this band with no drummer and two stringed instruments, a rapt quietude descended over the Great Hall. For almost two hours, the trio performed old songs from Lloyd’s repertoire like “Little Peace” and newer discoveries like “La Llorona,” a Mexican folk song (with a long, lovely solo introduction by Wilson). Lloyd played with surpassing patience and gentleness. Yet his tenor saxophone sound, in its luminous spiritual fervor, filled the large room. Wilson, with his surprising, lyrical lines and his glowing, mysterious chords, was a powerful collaborator. So was Raghavan, that shaman of the bass, with his ritual ostinatos.

In his ninth decade, Lloyd now deals in last truths that need only be whispered. He ended with two hymns, “Abide with Me” and Ellington’s “Come Sunday.” They made you remember that Lloyd thinks of himself as a vessel. They sounded drawn out of him. They sounded like emanations from the innermost voice of his soul. When he ended, the evening’s spell was broken at last. But Lloyd’s songs never truly end. They subside back into the silence whence they came.

Charles Lloyd at the 2022 Earshot Jazz Festival
Charles Lloyd at the 2022 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

There was something special about this year’s Earshot festival. You felt it from the first nights, with the emotional memorial concerts for Berry and Deardorf. All month, you felt an energy in the air. Perhaps it was the return to live music, with no COVID restrictions, after two very tough years on Planet Earth. A third of the shows were sold out. Many others were close to capacity.

Advertisement
Advertisement

A major reason for that energy was the consistently high quality of the music. Executive director John Gilbreath books the festival, and his taste is not only reliable but also eclectic. For 30 years, Gilbreath has cast an unusually wide net for Earshot. He can get with take-no-prisoners balls-to-the-wall ensembles like the tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance. (Toward the end of the festival, they laid to waste the Chapel Performance Space, in Seattle’s Wallingford district.) But he can also do time travel with bands like the Basie Orchestra and the SRJO.

Oh, by the way: Before this marathon festival was over, the Indian summer of early October was a distant memory, and it was raining sideways again in Seattle. But locals are unfazed by vicissitudes of random moisture. Even when a major windstorm hit on November 4, creating massive power outages and blocking many roads with fallen trees, capacity crowds still found alternate routes to SRJO and Charles Lloyd. When they arrived at these final concerts, Seattleites, undaunted, famous for disdaining umbrellas, just shook the water off their raincoats and made their way to their seats.

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.