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Live Reviews

2005 Ballard Jazz Festival, Seattle, WA

By Published: February 2, 2006
The Ballard Jazz Festival Youth Big Band
Eric Alexander/Peter Bernstein Group
Joe Locke Quartet
Ballard Jazz Festival
Mars Hill Church Performance Hall
November 19, 2005

The Mainstage Concert that concluded the third annual Ballard Jazz Festival featured a delightful spectrum of the music. There was a brief opening set by The Ballard Jazz Festival Youth Big Band led by Jim Sisko, some meaty mainstream hard bop from the Eric Alexander/Peter Bernstein Group, and a high-energy set from vibraphonist Joe Locke's adventurous quartet.

Veteran composer-arranger Phil Kelly, now semi-retired and living in Bellingham, provided three charts for the big band. Comprised of musicians from a number of the high school groups participating in the festival, the large ensemble played with a combination of heart and precision that belied the members' relatively tender ages. Even more impressive was the fact—announced from the stage—that the scores arrived only four days before the concert and there was but one full rehearsal.

"Subzatoot Shuffle kicked off the evening's music in swinging fashion, with pleasing solo work from trumpeter Dylan Smith and bassist Eric Nils, both Ballard High School students.

"Baby Doll is an easygoing lope along Basie lane, delectably reminiscent of the "two Franks (Foster and Wess) edition of the Count's band. The dynamics in Kelly's arrangement were handled smoothly by the ensemble, highlighted by a fine solo from Brendan Carver on flugelhorn, evoking Clark Terry's influence. Garfield High School's Patrick Davis anchored the rhythm section in admirable style at the drum set; Sisko's announcement aptly pointed out that this kind of tempo and rhythmic feel are difficult to pull off. What sounds effortless requires plenty of elbow grease.

Kelly has a penchant for tongue in cheek titles. The set closing "Cuzn Bubba Luvz Ewe evokes a down home funk fueled by electric bass, demonstrating conclusively that Bubba is no hillbilly. Sisko's introduction took wry note of the possibly slightly unsettling connotations of the title. Vibraphonist Steven Bell took a brief yet compelling solo and there were also spots for uncredited trombone and tenor saxophone solos.

After the break MC Jim Wilke outlined the usual no flash photography, please turn off your pagers and cell phones ground rules, adding that audience members should also "make sure your Dick Tracy two-way communicators are off.

The Eric Alexander/Peter Bernstein Group was next. Wilke noted Alexander's Pacific Northwest connection (he graduated from Olympia High School.) Tenor saxophonist Alexander and his compatriot, guitarist Peter Bernstein, were joined by Seattleites Chuck Deardorf on bass and Ballard Jazz Festival co-Artistic Director Matt Jorgensen on drums.

Duke Pearson's composition "Jeannine opened the set. Alexander has credited George Coleman as a major influence, citing his hip harmonic approach. Although Alexander plays within the structures of post-hard bop, he does so sans clichés. His robust, chesty tone recalls past pre-bop masters like Ben Webster as well, with heft and resonance aplenty in the lower range of the horn. There was a crafty "Stranger in Paradise quote during his solo that dovetailed nicely and sounded a bit like a tip of the pork-pie hat to Dexter Gordon. Bernstein's solo showcased his fluid and mellifluous blend of chordal and single note lines in improvisation; he's also—ike Alexander—a master of rich tone and subtle nuance. Deardorf soloed next. Everyone was conscious of shape and form in their extemporizations, with Jorgensen's outing following an ensemble-drums "chase sequence and a rhythm trio segue.

Bernstein's hip, bluesy "Bones was next. Alexander took a great solo, showcasing his impressive range and control. He's a superb technician with true heart, and says something in his solos; they're stories with beginnings, middles and ends. Deardorf's solo was also very tasty, with elegantly subtle guitar comping.

The classic ballad "I Thought About You began as a euphonious duo for tenor and guitar. Jorgensen with brushes and Deardorf tiptoed in after a bit, caressing the contours of the lovely melody in eloquent fashion. Bernstein's thoughtful solo was followed by some refined tenor paraphrases and a lengthy unaccompanied tenor coda before the ensemble capped the performance: sweet in the true sense of the word.

Next up was a bossa nova. The title was never mentioned, but it sounded so familiar, something by Jobim? Deardorf soloed first for a nice change of pace. Some groups working in the time-honored "head-solos-head form display a disconcerting habit of having the instrumentalists always solo in the same order, making for a predictable "oh, here comes the tenor solo... feeling. Bernstein's guitar solo again demonstrated his graceful blend of chordal and single note approaches, with a touch of Wes Montgomery's patented octave sound. Alexander really plumbed the depths of the tenor's range in his solo here, dipping into baritone territory on occasion to telling effect. Jorgensen's succinct solo was multicolored and polyrhythmic.

Some steamin' hard bop worthy of the Jazz Messengers or Hank Mobley's classic Blue Notes concluded the set with a pedal-to-the-metal take on "End of a Love Affair. Alexander has a knack—as did Mobley—for playing complex, snaking lines at punishing tempos and sounding completely relaxed at the same time. This guy can move! He was positively incendiary at points here, and the tenor-drums "conversations were highlights, as was the rhythmically assured tenor interlude without accompaniment. Bernstein also soloed in fine style. The ensemble capper with drum breaks was enlivened by some canny tenor comments akin to witty asides in a chat with a friend. It's too bad all love affairs don't end on such a positive, uplifting note.

This wasn't retro-bop or the well-meaning yet often pallid neo-bop so prevalent in the 1990s, but music that unfolds the traditions like origami without ignoring their roots.

When the stage was set for the Joe Locke Quartet, Wilke thanked the Festival's Artistic Directors John Bishop and Matt Jorgensen, then introduced Jorgensen, who offered his thanks to the Ballard Chamber of Commerce and the lengthy list of sponsors. This is truly a grass roots festival—supported by and supporting the community—and obviously a labor of love on the part of its organizers.

Already well-known in Japan, this quartet—the latest in a multitude of groups and projects masterminded by Locke—made its North American debut at this concert. Another first was the fact that the group was performing all new music. These guys must thrive on challenges, as the concert set was also recorded for future CD release. In fact, Locke cut the opening selection short after three bars, saying, "This is a live recording tonight, so we're going to make sure we get it 100% right. His announcement was accompanied by a loungey snippet of "Tea for Two from Geoff Keezer at the piano.

When "Van Gogh by Numbers —the title selection from Locke's recent duo CD on Wire Walker with fellow idiophone player Christos Rafalides—got rolling it indisputably rolled, and rocked a bit as well. It's an intricate, very up-tempo composition. Keezer began at the acoustic piano, then switched to the electronic keys, soloing in probing fashion. Bassist Mike Pope alternated between six-string electric and contrabass throughout the evening; his propulsive six-string work helped this Vincent-inspired piece fly in a starry night.

A composition by Keezer titled "Tulipa (spelling only my guess) was next. Drummer Terreon Gully really shined on this piece, which is replete with shifts in rhythm, including a recurring portion with a feeling that evokes the "one-drop in Reggae. Locke is a joy to watch as well as to hear. An extremely animated performer, he's in constant motion. His lean form dressed in faded jeans, a crisp white shirt open at the collar and a black sport coat, his wavy silver hair slicked back, constantly mouthing/scatting along with his serpentine lines, he appeared to be playing the instrument and the music with his whole body, mind and soul: nothing was held back.

There is also a deep spirituality evident in his music, and—like all true spirituality—it has a sense of humor. He plays with a very clean, clear, crisp sound, eschewing tremolo and sustain for the most part. If he ever sells off a set of his vibes on eBay, a fellow malleteer should snap 'em up post-haste: the motor will likely be good as new. Keezer took a fleet, fluid solo that showed why he is one of the most widely respected keyboard players of his generation.

Also very pronounced in Locke's stage presence and music is a sense of egalitarianism. Jason West's interview with him in the November 2005 edition of AAJ-Seattle expressed this most fluently, touching on his displeasure with the increasing gentrification of jazz and his lengthy association with legendary multi-instrumentalist George Braith, playing on the streets of New York City twelve hours a day. It was certainly in concord with these sentiments that the quartet's North American debut was in the Mars Hill Church Performance Hall, rather than a glitzy club with a pricey cover charge and inflated drink/dinner prices.

According to Locke, the West African hilife feel of some of Pharoah Sanders' post-Coltrane playing inspired "Pharoah Joy . It is a relatively straight-ahead quartet number—at least compared to the edgy, doing Tai Chi on the edge of the abyss feeling generated by many of the other compositions heard this evening—with Pope on acoustic. A few crunchy glitches in the sound system slightly marred the opening ensembles; let us hope that the marvels of digital technology and an engineer with big ears can repair these minor distractions so this galvanizing performance will appear on the CD. Locke's solo was busy, bustling and ballsy. It's obvious why Cecil Taylor has played extensively in duo with the vibraphonist. I can't imagine how they manage to stay out of each other's way, but I'm sure they do. Locke's adamantine clarity and blinding speed is certainly comparable to the scarily effusive Taylor. Pope's sound on the stand-up was big and round as a Chinese gong on his turn in the spotlight, with Keezer's comping providing gentle accents. The piano solo was very energetic and densely textured: rather McCoy Tyner-ish circa Sama Layuca.

Another Keezer composition—"Honu, Honu ("honu is Hawaiian for turtle according to the composer)—was a bit more reflective, and found Pope returning to his electric instrument. The dynamics gradually built to forte, and there was a floating, shimmering quality in the ensemble sound provided by Gully's beautifully controlled cymbals and Locke's bar-talk. A delightful vignette toward the end was a good example of just how original and innovative a player Locke is. He appeared to wet a couple of the bars on the vibraharp with his tongue—something I'd never seen before—then used the stick portions of the mallets on the ends of the bars, summoning up echoes of ethnic idiophones in a unique percussive way.

Locke's personable stage presence was again to the fore as he mentioned his two previous trips to Seattle, both blessed by—some might say—atypically sunny weather, and now this one, blessed by a fine festival with workshops and a premiere concert but with more "normal cool gray weather. He showed off an excellent framed black and white photograph of Milt Jackson presented to him by photographer Ron Hudson. One of Locke's recent projects is a tribute to Bags.

"Fractured by Keezer sported one of Locke's hottest solos of the night, an intense, riveting matrix of interlocking ideas that forged ahead in a whirlwind of textures. The composer also soloed in memorably multi-layered fashion, and provided delicious interjections during Pope's acoustic solo.

Locke finally removed his sport coat at this point; it's a wonder that he kept it on this long, taking into account the alacrity and power of his playing. Set up by Gully's fatback drums intro, the ravishing melody of James Taylor's "Native Son brought forth more emotive solo work from both Locke and Keezer, back on the electronic keys for this one. The group's spiritual depth was again noticeable in this deeply affecting performance; one felt the tugging emotion of Taylor's lyrics in the conversational contours and almost vocal cadence of the instrumental arrangement. Locke mentioned Taylor's evocation of the havoc that war wreaks—guys coming home never to be the same again—in his closing comments.

A Locke composition redolent of multihued sunsets on the Pacific at the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society—a fabled California club where he often plays—made its debut at this concert. "Miramar has a beautiful melody, and is firmly in the jazz tradition of ballads that can be reflective and forceful, often simultaneously. A comparison to Bobby Hutcherson at his best might be drawn here—albeit obliquely—as Hutch has often mined similar territory in his compositions and improvisations over the years. Both Keezer and Pope utilized their acoustic instruments. Truly oceanic in its scope, "Miramar brings to mind soothingly lapping small waves kissing the shore at times, then gigantic breakers crashing in. The ebb and flow, calm and turbulence, serenity and movement of the Earth's lifeblood permeate this composition.

The quartet's set closed with "The King, another up-tempo Locke original with segments where the pace practically doubled, particularly effective for Keezer's airborne piano solo. Gully's mastery of blistering tempi was again supremely evident. He is among the most assured ensemble drummers now active, and doesn't need a solo to make his creative presence known. In fact, he took no solos per se during this set, a pleasant change from the format of seemingly obligatory drum solos on general principle found in the performances of many groups.



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