The 16th Annual Ballard Jazz Festival

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The 16th Annual Ballard Jazz Festival

Clarence Penn photo courtesy of the artist

By Paul Rauch

May 16–19
Various venues, Ballard

The Ballard Jazz Festival returns with its 16th edition May 16–19, in Seattle’s historic Ballard neighborhood. Headlining the festival’s mainstage is Clarence Penn & Penn Station, a New York ensemble that includes pianist Geoffrey Keezer, saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, and bassist Yasushi Nakamura. Swedish trumpeter Oskar Stenmark will open the concert, which in turn celebrates the grand opening of the brand-new Nordic Museum Auditorium.

Penn in many ways typifies the approach of artistic directors John Bishop and Matt Jorgensen, bringing in an artist highly regarded in the jazz community, ready for discovery by the Seattle jazz audience. Penn has established himself as both a leader and sideman, paying his dues performing with iconic artists such as Betty Carter, Jimmy Smith, Dave Douglas, and Stanley Clarke. Penn Station explores the eclectic world of the compositions of the great Thelonious Monk, with a contemporary twist. Stenmark approaches jazz through the lens of traditional Swedish melodies, tempered by New York-style post-bop sensibility.

Taking place over four days in historic Ballard, this year’s event has taken on a few notable changes. The Mainstage Concert, normally the closing event on Saturday evening, moves to Friday, while the ever-popular Ballard Jazz Walk will be held on Saturday. This enables the expansion of the walk to the afternoon hours, beginning with the Saturday Jazz Picnic at Peddler Brewery, an all-ages event that welcomes families and under-21 jazz fans. Vibraphonist Susan Pascal will perform with a quintet that includes legendary tenor saxophonist, Pete Christlieb.

Promoted by Seattle-based Origin Records, the event has maintained a true Seattle feel, presenting Seattle jazz fans with the opportunity to take in the best of the Seattle jazz scene, mixed with national and international artists.

“I want to make sure it’s a local festival, so it sounds like Seattle,” says Bishop of the philosophy he has maintained throughout the festival’s 16-year run. Indeed, the Seattle jazz scene’s annual rite of spring connects the city’s historic and colorful jazz past, with the modern progressive mindset of its vibrant present.

The festival commences on Wednesday, May 16, and Thursday, May 17, with two individual concerts at Conor Byrne Pub, formerly the historic Owl Cafe. Wednesday’s event, dubbed “Celebration of the Drum,” features three bands led by drummers, including legendary drummer/drum tech Gregg Keplinger. Also featured are veteran drummer and educator Brian Kirk, 20-year-old wunderkind Xavier Lecouturier, and New York drummer Stefan Schatz. Kirk will feature his Nu Trio with beloved performers Phil Sparks (bass) and Nathan Breedlove (trumpet). Lecouturier enlists young bass phenom Ben Feldman, along with two young rising stars, guitarist Lucas Winter and pianist Gus Cairns. Schatz, who recently relocated to Seattle, will in a true sense introduce himself to his new city and its jazz audience.

Thursday brings the “Guitar Summit” to Conor Byrne, featuring bands led by guitarists Milo Petersen, John Stowell, and Andy Coe, each bringing their unique tie into the jazz tradition. Stowell has a long history in live performance and recordings, most notably with bassist David Friesen and the trio Scenes, with Jeff Johnson and John Bishop. Seven-string guitar ace Petersen has long been Seattle’s first-call guitarist, honing his chops with luminaries Cedar Walton, Ernestine Anderson, and Elvin Jones to name but a few. Andy Coe has taken his progressive approach to guitar into the jazz genre, as well as the well-established jam band scene in the Pacific Northwest. He is known in Seattle for his work with Skerik’s Bandalabra, McTuff, and the jam ensemble, The Andy Coe Band.

The Mainstage Concert on Friday evening, May 18, features the aforementioned Penn, and Stenmark, housed in the brand-new Nordic Museum facility in Ballard, which opens  on May 5. The new digs also provide a larger capacity, enabling more seats for this perennially sold out show.

The Ballard Jazz Walk on Saturday, May 19, features 21 bands in 10 venues strewn from the Ballard Bridge, down old Ballard Avenue, and up onto Market Street. The event creates a Bourbon Street-like atmosphere for one celebratory evening in old Ballard. It gives area jazz fans the opportunity to sample the depth and quality of the Seattle jazz scene in one location, on one night. The walk upholds the long-held Seattle tradition of pairing the best of the Seattle scene with visiting jazz dignitaries. It is how the festival began in year one, and remains the one day of the festival that is an absolute “can’t-miss” event on the Seattle music calendar.

The uncertainty of the completion date of the new museum, coupled with the loss of a few venues on Ballard Avenue, raised some concern about the viability of the event going forward this year. Bishop and Jorgensen had to come up with an alternative plan.

“The biggest challenge was out of fear, just the fear of not being able to come up with something,” says Bishop. In the end, the facility became available, and provided the means to create an even more viable future for the festival.

“This is a huge step up. We thought we were lost, but now we’re found. There’s lots of room to grow, if we’re smart about it,” remarks Bishop, alluding to the myriad of possibilities the new facility presents.

The Ballard Jazz Festival is a mirror that reflects the current state of affairs out on the jazz scene in Seattle throughout the year. In many ways, it upholds the tradition one can experience year-round in clubs and concert halls throughout the city. It is four days that jazz aficionados and those new to the genre alike can witness jazz played at the highest level in a way that tells our story here in Seattle.

For a full schedule, or to purchase tickets, visit ballardjazzfestival.com.