Winks, Honks, and Earshot Jazz

On Sunday night, two quartets will lay down different rules to the game.

Irony entered jazz at around the same time it took over the culture at large. There had been novelty acts and humor and absurdity, like the brilliant nonsense scats of Slim Gaillard or the wry wit of Sonny Rollins. But it wasn’t until a couple decades ago that the avant-gardists of jazz–some of them, anyway–began to solo and compose in a manner that seemed less about expressing themselves and more about referencing other music. As they created a virtuosic web of Balkan, klezmer, Latin, corny cartoons, and other sounds, a lot of downtown New York players seemed to put their every note into “inverted commas.” These cats could play everything, but they didn’t seem particularly committed to anything–stylistically or emotionally.

The apex of that trend has probably passed now, but it’s still a strong influence on the modern jazz scene. And two New York–based quartets, playing at separate venues on Sunday night, demonstrate different ways of emerging from the shift. One, led by drummer Matt Wilson, maintains a giddy enjoyment of wink-jazz, but this group’s less about gypsy syncretism than a pure American mash-up of kitschy pop, honking horns, delicate balladry, and ebullient swing. The other quartet, a collective known as Tarbaby, has taken a sharper turn back to the darker, more soul-searching, pre-ironic jazz of the ’60s and ’70s, with a serious goal and earnest intensity.

Having two high-caliber acts of such divergent interest playing blocks apart on the same night would be just another Sunday in New York. But in Seattle, it happens only once a year, courtesy of that annual gusher known as the Earshot Jazz Festival. Earshot’s director, John Gilbreath, has what the jazz types call “huge ears,” and he always manages to assemble a fantastically diverse picture of the current state of the genre. Unlike other big festivals in town, Earshot doesn’t chase passing fashion. Nor does it turn to smooth headliners or megastars like Diana Krall to generate interest, as many other jazz fests do. Gilbreath’s brand stands for quality alone.

Earshot runs Oct. 16 to Nov. 8, and Wilson will be its multi-tool, performing Sunday with his own sharply drawn quartet and later in the week with a very different, freer-floating trio (see sidebar)—as well as leading workshops at Cornish College and performing with the celebrated Roosevelt High School jazz band. His four-player project has been around for more than a decade. And while personnel have changed, the lineup has always been Wilson, a bass, and two saxes. A trumpeter, for the first time, will be joining the band on this new tour, taking the seat of Wilson’s longtime sax comrade Andrew D’Angelo, who attended Roosevelt in the early ’80s. “You can’t replace D’Angelo with another sax player,” says Wilson.

Keeping the band free of a chordal instrument like piano or guitar creates more space. “It allows the drums to be a nice part of the ensemble,” says Wilson. “I really like comping,” he says, using the jazz term for backing up and interacting with a soloist. Which is not to say that Wilson fills any vacuum. To the contrary, on his latest quartet disc, That’s Gonna Leave a Mark (Palmetto), he leaves things pretty open behind the horns, often locking into a clean jazz ride with bassist Chris Whitecap.

“People play their best when they’re with me,” says Wilson. “That sounds like ego, but it’s really a gift.” Wilson’s less from the Elvin Jones school of rumbly ass-kicking and more from the Max Roach tradition: smudge-free and melodic. His snare drum alone has amazing depth, evoking a range of voices, depending on how and where he strikes it. And his precision is almost military—even during a roll, it’s as though you can hear each tap of the stick.

The song titles on Leave a Mark are enough to convey the quartet’s genial tone: “Shooshabuster,” “Getting Friendly,” “Celibate Oriole.” There’s even a Wilson tune named for the character made famous in Onion headlines: “Area Man.” “I like to make people feel comfortable,” says Wilson, who grew up in rural Illinois and calls his song-publishing unit Grainfed Music. “Humor is a natural way to invite the audience into the spontaneous thing. There’s a circular flow. It allows a range of other emotions to come through. If music’s flatlined, if it’s just complicated music that’s meant to impress you, that’s depressing.”

Still this band gets plenty complicated, with seriously atonal detours, overlapping solos, and aggressive flurries from saxophonist Jeff Lederer. Says Wilson: “I like alignment and I like collision.”

The Seattle Art Museum will be a suitably pristine setting for the somewhat controlled and purposeful feeling of Wilson’s group. The rougher atmosphere of Tula’s will be a similarly fitting place to hear Tarbaby, a band founded on the idea that jazz has gotten too head-y and self-conscious.

“We saw the music becoming extremely intellectual,” says pianist Orrin Evans. “It lost the original approach—swing, reckless abandonment, and open-mindedness to go somewhere. We had to keep the visceral aspect going on.”

Evans had been playing off and on with drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Eric Revis since the mid-’90s, as the three built highly successful independent careers. But it was just a couple years ago that they decided to get together, introduce some horns, and document their convictions. Evans put out the band’s self-titled release on his own label, Imani Records. They also chose a deliberately provocative name. A figure from “Br’er Rabbit” stories, the name “tar baby” carries a tinge of racial slur, while also being a metaphor for any problem that you get more mired in the more you try to deal with it.

“You don’t want to get stuck on it because you might be stuck with it,” says Evans. The same, he says, is true for the “go-for-broke approach to improvising” that parts of the jazz world have become “afraid to touch.”

Nothing comes in quotation marks with Tarbaby. From the first note, this band sounds fully committed. They swing hard, with an equally spiritual and political vibe. Evans builds from a McCoy Tyner base, constructing energized, complex melodies that never lose their soulful grounding. Drummer Waits slashes and attacks with powerful outbursts. And Revis, best known for his work with Branford Marsalis, is completely in his element, muscling everyone, showing a mastery of all rhythmic and tonal directions. (Disclosure: The bassist has also performed and recorded with my brother, woodwind player Avram Fefer.) The recording includes two saxophonists, but just one remains with the band: Stacy Dillard, the youngest and probably least well-known member of Tarbaby, but one with a versatile and deeply mature style.

“How we respond to each other is what makes us Tarbaby,” says Evans. “It’s like the ingredients in a stew.” Tarbaby can deliver a hymn with subtle shades, or take a more evasive, faintly menacing approach reminiscent of Miles in the ’60s. The main goal is an uncontrived pursuit of the players’ expressive abilities. “We have these tunes in front of us,” says Evans, “but if the powers that be take us over here, we’re going over here.”

Other Highly Recommended Earshot Festival Shows This Week:Miguel Zenón QuintetEarshot has a history of showcasing the most progressive players in Latin jazz, and Puerto Rican saxophonist Zenón gets this year’s nod. For innovation, I don’t think his band quite measures up to recent visitors like Dafnis Prieto’s ensemble, and the leader’s tone seems highly derived from a dozen other modern alto players. But for propulsive, agile Latin-infused excitement, this band, with pianist Luis Perdomo, is a sure thing. The Triple Door, 7:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 17.

3rd ManThis drum-sax-accordion trio combines ease, wit, and amazing musicianship. Drummer Han Bennink is a European hero who brings the “quirk” in a way that powerful American drummers rarely do. And woodwind player Michael Moore has a remarkable mastery of the further registers of his instruments. This will be chamber jazz with a strong infusion of joy. Chapel Performance Space, 7:30 p.m. Mon., Oct. 19.

Trio MThose M’s being pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Matt Wilson. If you have any interest in acoustic improvised music, these are three to see. Their free jazz is melodic and passionate, sophisticated and complex, without ever becoming academic. If their most recent CD, Big Picture, is any indication, this will be one of the festival’s most compelling nights. Seattle Asian Art Museum, 8:30 p.m. Tues., Oct. 20. MDF

Branford's bass player Revis is fully in his element with Tarbaby.

Branford’s bass player Revis is fully in his element with Tarbaby.

Matt Wilson’s band goes for “circular flow.”

Matt Wilson’s band goes for “circular flow.”