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Live Reviews

Jazz Port Townsend: Reborn

By Published: October 15, 2005

Speaking with many of the 230 work-shop participants, it was obvious that the session was a huge success. Clay-tons warm personality and boundless energy inspired enthusiastic reviews from students and teachers alike.

The Port Townsend Jazz Festival had a tumultuous year in 2004 with the messy departure of longtime artistic director Bud Shank. By hiring band-leading bassist John Clayton to replace Shank, organizers selected the perfect person to lead the festival out of the doldrums. This summer's event held in late July was truly spectacular.
Most of the professional clinicians who teach at the weeklong workshop preceding the festival returned, maintaining the lineage and familial qualities that make Jazz Port Townsend so special. Speaking with many of the 230 workshop participants, it was obvious that the session was a huge success. Clayton's warm personality and boundless energy inspired enthusiastic reviews from students and teachers alike.
By the time I got to Port Townsend, people were already raving about the opening Thursday night shows in the seaside town's clubs, particularly the straight-ahead pyrotechnics of tenor saxophonist Ricky Woodard, trumpeter Terrell Stafford and a hard bop sextet driven by drummer Alan Jones' muscular time-keeping at the Public House on Water Street.
Woodard teamed-up with New York-based Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen at Friday night's main stage opener, blending his blues-inspired, smooth swagger with the willowy Jensen's tart, harder-edged trumpet. Drummer Carl Allen's controlled rhythmic propulsion was reminiscent of Art Blakey, as the band burned through a pair of incendiary Hank Mobley remakes and a sultry "Grooveyard" before capping a bracing set with a good and greasy reading of Monk's "Bright Mississippi".

I've seen Chicago-based vocalist Kurt Elling several times with his regular band, but his tenure at Port Townsend's workshop and a fine band led by under-rated pianist Bill Mays seemed to inspire the loose-limbed hipster to really cut loose. From the opening, acappella intro to "More Than You Know", Elling's rich, expressive baritone was in full flower. His rubbery phrasing and dramatic improvisations sensuously caressed his repertoire of standards like "Easy Living" and "My Foolish Heart".

I skipped out of the concert's last number, an extended vocalese workout, and beat the traffic downtown where crowds had already jammed the festival's club venues. Organizers are severely limited in appropriate rooms, and space is always at a premium. I've learned to head directly to Ichikawa at the dark end of Water Street for excellent sushi in an intimate setting. Friday night, vibraphonist Susan Pascal teamed-up with guitarist Chuck Easton and veteran bassist Mike Barnett for a tasty, dream-like soundtrack for my Seventh Heaven roll.

Later I fell by a packed Pete's Place for a set by a septet with a four-horn front-line led by Bill Ramsay and Jay Thomas. They uncorked a steamy reshaping of Miles' So What that sent me whistling on a midnight stroll over to The Upstage for the last set of the evening by George Cables' trio. George looks frail, but when he sat down at the club's grand piano backed by John Clayton and Carl Allen, the elegantly funky pianist lit up the room with a quote-laced reading of "I Thought About You". Cables sang to himself softly as he goosed his playful original, "Spookerella" through its twists and turns, cranked out a smoking version of Dexter Gordon's "Fried Bananas", then sealed the evening with a gospel-infused reading of the old pop hit, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"

Benny Green, Russell Malone, and Christian Mc-Bride gathered onstage at tiny Joe Wheeler Auditorium for a Saturday morning clinic that offered sage advice to workshop participants and visitors lucky enough to catch the event. In essence, their message was practice as much as you can, listen to your bandmates, and absorb art, nature and life in general so you'll actually have something to say on your instrument when you play.

In his introduction, John Clayton promised a jazz feast for his "extended jazz family'" and Saturday afternoon's offering was an ample, delicious buffet kicked-off by the Christian McBride Band's high-voltage wailing.

The leader's prodigious bass chops were much in evidence on the "Wizard of Montara" opener, saxophonist Ron Blake channeling Coltrane's modal sheets of sound. A Milesian remake conjured-up the jazz great with a wicked groove, and McBride produced ethereal, spooky beauty on an arco bass reading of Wayne Shorter's "Miyako". Drummer Terreon Gully furiously pushed McBride's Fender bass showcase, a seething remake of Jaco Pastorius' "Hovona" that featured Blake's Shorter-inspired soprano sax. The band got even funkier and harder-edged with a ferocious reading of the Spinners' R&B hit "I' Comin' Home".

Following the McBride aggregation's maelstrom, the duo of Regina Carter and Kenny Barron were like a warm harbor after a storm. Standing almost motionless, produced a haunting, stately interpretation of Sting's Fragile followed by an earthy, hoedown echoing "Lady Be Good" that married the Deep South and the Hot Club of France. Barron's piano stylings linked the music's past to the modern with a minimalist's slight of hand.

Their version of "Hush Now" brought Billie Holiday's pain and transcendence back to life with an understated grace and seemingly simple brilliance. Carter's very human violin sound was spiced with quotes from the classical canon and capped with a "Motherless Child" coda. After the set, fans rushed Quimper Sound's record tent to buy-out their large supply of the duo's CDs and dozens signed up for orders.

John Clayton's tenure with Count Basie inspired the afternoon's tribute by the festival's big band. Clayton conduct-ed a team of clinicians through the Basie songbook, adding between-song anecdotes. Tom Marriott pitched-in a lovely, succinct trumpet solo on "Little Darlin'", a beautiful rendition launched by guitarist Bruce Forman's re-creation of Freddy Green's delicious chords. Ingrid Jensen added a knife-like trumpet solo to the big band's version of "Shiny Silk Stockings" followed by a flat-out swinging rendition of Ernie Wilkins' Basie.

Basie veteran Byron Stripling stepped-out of the trumpet section for a Joe Williams-like vocal workout on "Back O Town Blues", and then Carmen Bradford, another Basie alum, brought the house down with "This Can't Be Love", a heart-breaking "Young and Foolish", and a swinging "Love Being Here With You".

After Saturday afternoon's triumphs, I was almost afraid to return to McCurdy Pavilion for Saturday night's show, but Benny Green and Russell Malone's piano/guitar duos were even more magical. Malone's virile guitar married Green's more reflective piano musings on the opening "Falling In Love With Love", intuitively finishing each other's thoughts as Malone sat impassively in his cream-colored suit and Green hunched sweating over the keyboard. Russell strummed Hot Club chords as Benny produced light, fast, economical lines on the duo's version of "It's Alright With Me".

Malone tapped out the rhythm on his strings in the intro to Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love", and the duo produced a soulful, séance-like reading that left the 1000+ in attendance breathless before roaring their approval. The duo's version of Charlie Parker's "Bluebird" was steeped in grits and gravy blues. Malone's solo reading of Carole King's "You've Got A Friend" was another moving, pristine gem that led to a finger-busting, four-handed reshaping of Paul Chambers' A Tale of the Fingers. Their version of Milt Jackson's "Reunion Blues" was very cool, and the hyper-charged, frenetic "I Know That You Know" capped a spectacularly soulful, technically brilliant display of great playing, and more importantly, great listening.

The Clayton Brothers Quintet came out in natty, dark business suits, and from the opening "Blow Your Horn" they meant business. On Jeff Clayton's "Runway", John's alto sax blowing brother blasted a wicked solo, driving young drummer Kevin Cannor and John's son Gerald Clayton on piano squint-eyed and wrinkling their noses in pleasure as the band swung out. Trumpeter Terrell Stafford added a feverish, nasty solo before the band turned it down to simmer on John's original, "Gina's Groove". Jeff's feathery alto was featured on the band's moving reading of "Emily", a gorgeous version grounded by John's deep, arco bass ruminations on the melody.

The hard-charging Last Stop was reminiscent of the Adderley Brothers' highpoints, and not just for Jeff's Cannonballesque physique. Stafford's solo sliced shards of "Work Song" and "Night In Tunisia" while young Gerald's keyboard offering hinted at "Symphony Sid" in a hard bopping climax to an immaculate, inspired set.

After the concert, I headed back downtown for more Seventh Heaven sushi and some guitar jazz from Dan Balmer, Dave Forman and Russell Malone sitting in. It just doesn't get any better than this year's Jazz Port Townsend. Bravo!

Speaking with many of the 230 workshop participants, it was obvious that the session was a huge success. Clayton's warm personality and boundless energy inspired enthusiastic reviews from students and teachers alike.

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