by Roberta Penn
1998 Jazz Port Townsend Festival - Straightahead, And StretchingCopyright © 1998, Roberta Penn
Tradition runs deep at the Jazz Port Townsend Festival. For 16 of the festival's 20 years Bud Shank has been artistic director, heading up a week of workshops and guiding the festival booking towards mostly straight-ahead jazz with melodic solos arising from bebop, West Coast cool or big band ensembles. And year after year many of the same artists have been featured on the mainstage.
Among the regulars have been saxophonists Pete Christlieb and Bill Ramsay, trumpeter Bobby Shew and pianist George Cables. However, gradually the Jazz Port Townsend line-up has expanded a bit to include younger artists as well as more New York-based, African American and female jazz players. Change often brings controversy, and though this year's festival was mostly a mellow affair, the young pianist Benny Green caused a stir among some traditionalists.
Green played with Betty Carter, Art Blakey and Ray Brown before going off on his own, and over the past several years as he searched for his own style and statements the pianist has become a more dissonant and intense player. His last date at Seattle's Jazz Alley was peppered with long, bold solos that incorporated a modern classical sound. It was a kind of freeness that showed Green was seeking but not quite sure what he would find.
In the opening concert at McCurdy Pavilion Friday night, it sounded as if the pianst's ideas had come to fruition. After a bright set by the Bill Ramsay/Milt Kleeb10-piece band, which showcased many of Kleeb's tightly-knit arrangements as well as solos from featured guest tenor saxophonist Christlieb, the Benny Green/Christian McBride Quartet took the stage. Accompanied by drummer Tony Reedus and tenor player Tim Warfield, the quartet ripped into a tune bassist McBride wrote for pianist Cedar Walton, "In the Shade of the Cedar Tree."
Green's solo was dazzling, combing clusters of notes with the drama of Bartok-like chords. And on solos by McBride and Warfield he showed the unmost in sensitivity, responding, filling in and enhancing what they were playing. As a balance, McBride's solo was flashy but sweet, and the two men hugged after the crowd roared in response to the tune.
On McCoy Tyner's "Passion Dance" the band went a little further out with Warfield, who stills seems to copying the masters rather than finding his own way, taking too long a solo. The rest of the quartet's set moved between mainstream jazz and the more open approach. Green's solo on "Body and Soul" was stunning, and McBride's take on "Midnight Sun" was as luxurious as a velvet cape. Warfield however over-blew on every tune, and Reedus is out of his league with this band.
Most of the crowd went wild for the Green/McBride band, but a few people left because the music was too aggressive for their tastes. And evidently Shank either didn't care for it or had heard some complaints. During the set break on Saturday night he made a plea for donations to help Centrum match an NEA grant, but first he said he thought Green had played more notes than he'd been paid for and that some people felt Warfield's notes weren't all "legitimate."
Though Shank seemed to be speaking in jest, some were offended that he chose to speak so glibly about a band led by two of the most-respected players of their generation. The fact that he said it in conjunction with a plea for money made it sound like a sort of apology or worse, a kind of censorship.
Both of Saturday's McCurdy concerts were gentle. In the afternoon the Carl Fontana/Jiggs Whigham Quintet focused on tunes from the two trombonists' recent CD, Nice 'n' Easy. While toddlers frolicked in the grass outside the open doors, an artist sketched and couples rubbed sunscreen on each other, the band covered classics like "Sweet Lorraine," the trombones amiably harmonizing. Next up was an unfocused set of what sounded like new age, classical music by flutist Holly Hofman and pianist Bill Cunliffe. The show closed with a one of the weekend's highlight, the festival All-Star Big Band under the leadership of Maria Schneider.
An assistant to both Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, Schneider now composes, arranges and leads her own band. On "The Days of Wine and Roses" she wove sections of the 17-piece ensemble around the melody like a rubberband ball, the trumpets stretched over the saxophones atop the trombones. It was a robust rendering of the tune with saxophonists Mark Taylor and Christlieb taking hefty solos.
Several of the pieces were tunes Schneider had written about monsters, with which she said she was infatuated. One was funny, with Greg Fulton's guitar sounding like an electronic apparition, and another featured trumpeter Jay Thomas playing like a fire-breathing demon.
Saturday night's show opened with trumpeter Bobby Shew and the New Stories Trio offering a tribute to Chet Baker. Shew's trumpet playing was as smooth and rich as cream on ballads like "But Not For Me" and "My Funny Valentine." And in keeping with Baker's image, Shew even sung a tune, "Look for the Silver Lining." It was his first public appearance as a singer and he promised not to do it again, though the crowd loved that he had the nerve to try it.
The real singer of the evening and the showman of the festival was Freddy Cole. With a voice just husky enough to sound as if he felt every emotion within a song, Cole was magnificent on the ballad "The Right to Love." His version of "Candy" drew deeply from the blues within the tune. And Cole did a medley of tunes recorded by his older brother, the late Nat "King" Cole. But to make sure there was no confusion he ended with the humorous "I'm Not My Brother, I'm Me."
To be one with the Port Townsend jazz experience is to take in the music that's presented nightly in the clubs. Here the setting is intimate and the players relaxed, and though jazz fans see Don Lanphere and New Stories playing often around Seattle, catching them in a small, hot club on the peninsula gives a different perspective. Saturday night, pianist Marc Seales played at least one extended solo that felt like a world cruise, transporting the packed house through the tropics with swinging jungles of notes. And Lanphere, the Eastern Washington-bred saxophonist who was part of the be bop revolution and lived to tell about on his instrument, played solos so warm that they glowed. Between tunes he spoke humbly about his career in jazz, but then his playing has such a lifeforce in it that there's no need to brag.
On Friday vocalist Nancy King and guitarist Ron Eschete's club date featured the singer scat harmonizing on tunes like Imagination." King's voice has deepened and her resonance is richer, allowing her to interpret a ballad like "My One and Only You" as if she were a baritone saxophone. It was mesmerizing.
The club dates also allow the mainstage artists to check out Northwest groups. Friday night Benny Green caught blues and jazz singer Edmonia Jarrett. And on Saturday Freddy Cole dined to the sounds of trumpeter Jim Sisko's quintet.
Judging by the full houses and packed clubs, Jazz Port Townsend was a success this year. There was a lot of good music and some great moments. Though the booking is conservative, even by mainstream jazz standards, the inclusion of Green and McBride gave those looking for fresh sounds something to rave about, and these younger artists give hope to all the students who spent the week before the festival studying the music. Their enthusiasm is part of the fun of the festival, and their presence insures the future of jazz.
Roberta Penn is a frequent conributor to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in which this review initially appeared. She is a veteran jazz journalist, and a blues deejay; see also her profile of violinist Evand Kang.
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