FORGET ROCKTOBER. Forget Octoberfest. True Seattleites know that October means jazz, because it brings the amazing brew of sounds that is the Earshot Jazz Festival.
This year, Earshot director John Gilbreath and his staff have put together another remarkable two weeks showcasing the breadth of jazz, from its most accomplished mainstream adherents (pianist Kenny Barron) to its wildest forward-thinkers (guitarist James Blood Ulmer). Because of the conservatism of most Seattle jazz programming, Earshot's mission has always been to present players who might not otherwise get a local hearing, and this year's festival includes its share of experimentalists. But as Gilbreath notes, the lineup offers "music that's serious, but doesn't take itself seriously."
Earshot Jazz Festival
various locations, October 15-30
Case in point: the two headliners who kick off the festival this weekend—the Willem Breuker Kollektief (October 17) and Ray Anderson's Pocket Brass Band (October 15-17). Both are fun-loving, large bands that combine a playful attitude with second-to-none virtuosity. Pocket Brass, led by the madcap trombonist Ray Anderson, often turns up at the New Orleans Caf頡round Mardi Gras time, where their advanced Second Line antics please discriminating jazz heads and beer-addled frat boys alike. The Kollektief is a group of Amsterdam-based players who have been performing together for 25 years, combining every imaginable type of music into a fine-tuned circus act that Gilbreath describes as "half tongue-in-cheek, half stunning musicality."
A party atmosphere is also likely to break out when David Murray's Fo-Deuk Revue (October 22) takes the stage. The great tenor player, a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet, marries upper-register squeal-talk to the breathy romanticism and swaggered swing of Coleman Hawkins. Murray's new band, the result of a visit to Dakar, brings together Senegalese pop musicians, a boatload of percussionists, poets, and rappers in multiple tongues, for a celebration of overlapping traditions in black music. ("Fo deuk," in a West African dialect, means, "Where do you come from?") Murray lets the drums take the lead and layers them with Afro-pop melodies from impassioned vocalists (including Baba Maal's brother Hamet) and his own spark-shower solos. It's a setting guaranteed to inspire the evening's other guest, poet/activist Amiri Baraka.
Perhaps the most searing experience of the festival will be offered by well-out guitarist James Blood Ulmer (October 20), who has been raking downtown eardrums since his '70s work with Ornette. Ulmer's New Art Jazz Quartet includes two avant garde masters, Reggie Workman and Rashied Ali, both Coltrane alums, on bass and drums, along with the top-flight, KPLU-friendly pianist John Hicks—which should make for an odd meeting of cocktails and psychedelia. Gilbreath describes Ulmer as "powerful and kind of scary. The band starts out at about 98 percent and never lets up." Ulmer labels this his "straight-ahead jazz project"; Gilbreath retorts, "He's probably the only one who would call it that."
Suffusing the festival will be reflections on Duke Ellington, whose centennial is this year. "Family Jazz Day" occurs Saturday afternoon at Town Hall, with all-star musicians from local high schools playing Ellingtonia, followed by an evening performance by the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (October 16), made up of top local pros. Later, the festival will present two solo explorations of Ellington/Strayhorn compositions by John Hicks (October 19) and soprano sax innovator Steve Lacy (October 25). The great Latin conguero Ray Barretto will also be running down Duke tunes with his perpetual-burn band New World Spirit, including special guest guitarist Kenny Burrell (October 27).
Gilbreath is quick to distinguish his Ellington programming from the kind of re-creative repertory approach taken at Lincoln Center by Wynton Marsalis, who has won plaudits from the high-brows and jeers from the hipsters. "We want to look at how the effect of Ellington is being carried forward," Gilbreath says, "rather than deal with it as a museum piece."
Not to worry, John. No one's likely to accuse this festival of being stuck in the past.