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".