The Saturday afternoon triple bill at Jazz Port Townsend’s McCurdy Pavilion fired on all cylinders, unusual for a three-and-a-half hour show featuring three distinctly different acts.
Up first was the Clayton Brothers band — more accurately the Clayton family band, since it featured not only festival artistic director and bassist John Clayton and his brother, alto saxophonist Jeff, but John’s fiery, dredlock-bedecked son, Gerald, who plays piano. This was essentially the same sextet that tore up the Public House in Port Townsend Friday, with the difference that John Clayton replaced Joe Sanders and that the group played a prepared set, including a world premiere.
With Terrell Stafford on trumpet, Stefon Harris on vibes and Obed Calvaire on drums, the band had firepower to spare, and they took no prisoners in a set characterized by thick textures, high pressure, sizzling cross-rhythms, soulful swing and a refreshing variety of tempos, instrumentation and solo order. On the opening tune, a rhythmically tricky original by Jeff Clayton titled “Cha Cha Charleston,” Stafford let fly a bravura circus of high notes and muscular, percussive phrases, then continued to outdo himself all afternoon. Jeff, whose girth and mustache recall Fats Waller, mugged with minty surprise at Stafford’s virtuosity, one arm akimbo, as if to say, “Get a load of that!”
On another original by the alto man, “Saturday Night Special” — a reference, said John, to America’s epidemic of gun violence — Harris showed why he is considered one of the most original stylists on the vibes, as he followed a hailstorm of notes with a suddenly minimalist sequence in which silence, hesitation and space told the story.
Before the band closed with a spirited, newly-commissioned work by John, “The Hope and the Fear,” Robert Birman, director of Centrum, the arts non-profit that oversees Jazz Port Townsend, presented a framed, autographed page of the score to local resident Alexa Swaney, who accepted it on behalf of the commission’s anonymous donor. (This annual tradition is a fundraiser for the festival, as Clayton folds his fee back into the event.)
The afternoon show usually features an impromptu vocal session, a program that hasn’t always worked. But this year Sachal Vasandani and René Marie — he in a white sport coat and she in a multi-colored smock — hit just the right note with their playful, fizzy, fun-loving set. Chicago-born Vasandani, whose grandfather was a classical Indian vocalist, crooned old-school. On a medium tempo “The More That I See You,” his straightforward, cheerful delivery and slightly foggy timbre recalled Mel Torme more than the oily Sinatra-copycat trend that’s been going around.
Marie, for her part, invested the nostalgia of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” with pure yearning, then dared to sing a tune she’d composed canoeing, “Colorado River Song,” recalling Ella Fitzgerald in the way she made this silly ditty swing. She adopted a pixie-ish persona, leaning her cheek into her palm as she traded four-bar solos with bassist Chuck Deardorf.
Marie teased Vasandani for asking her to sing backup on his lightly rocked tune, “No More Tears,” but came through like a trouper, then joined him in a hilarious finale worthy of Lambert Hendricks and Ross, in which they began “Bye Bye Blackbird” by singing the whole song in 25 seconds.
the Centrum All Star Big Band closed the afternoon with a Quincy Jones program. Though the reed section was under-miked, the band played these sometimes difficult arrangements with passion and accuracy. Highlights included Bill Ramsay’s golden alto saxophone lead on the ballad, “The Midnight Sun Never Sets”; Dan Marcus’ plunger-muted trombone solo on “I Needs to Be Be’ed With”; Jay Thomas’ tweety-bird piccolo on the famous lick from “Soul Bossa Nova”; alto saxophonist Mark Taylor’s dazzling cadenza on “Quintessence”; and drummer Jeff Hamilton’s kickin’ licks from the bottom up, on just about every tune, including the barnburning “Birth of a Band.” What a workout! What a terrific afternoon!
The evening double bill – with the Anthony Wilson nonet and French singer Cyrille Aimée, with Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo — was not nearly as strong. Aimée and her accompanist, though obviously talented, came across as a sort of high quality lounge act, the kind of thing you might run across in a nice hotel. Figueiredo, dressed all in red and sporting an afro he sometimes shook, played acoustic guitar with orchestral gusto and lickety-split technique. Aimée offered a nimble “Dindi,” but the timbre of her voice — Betty Boop crossed with Shirley Temple? — must be an acquired taste, though the crowd seemed to have acquired it rapidly, offering the duo a standing ovation.
Guitarist Anthony Wilson, whose frequent appearances with Diana Krall have raised his profile, brought another all-star band — a nonet — to the stage. The music had some strong moments but muddy sound reinforcement often made it difficult to hear individual parts. Standouts included the muscular jazz-rock opener by Joe Zawinul, “Walk Tall,” including a sizzling Wilson guitar solo; a slinky arrangement of a tune recorded by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, “La Rosita”; a bronze-toned flight by trombonist Jiggs Whigham and a big finish by drummer Matt Wilson on “The Power of Nine.”
You might think two concerts totaling six hours would be enough jazz for one day, but Port Townsend fans come to gorge, not nibble. After the show, it was off to see the great pianist George Cables (who had more than ably accompanied the vocalists that afternoon). Cables usually plays the Upstage, a nightclub with a loft, built into the side of a hill. But the usually packed club is closed temporarily, so Cables’ trio was ensconced in the considerably less atmospheric American Legion Hall, complete with cafeteria tables and a makeshift stage.
There was a full bar, though, and revelers — fewer than usual — made the best of it. Cables, accompanied by Deardorf and drummer Gary Hobbs, kissed the festival good night with two sweet sets that included a slow-dancing “My One and Only Love,” a churning “Quiet Fire” and a playful “I Thought About You.” It’s hard to imagine anyone going home unhappy.
Attendance at Jazz Port Townsend was up 11 percent over last year, according to festival coordinator Gregg MIller, though Saturday night ticket sales were down. That was probably because there were no real marquee names, though it’s always a challenge for artistic director John Clayton to balance what he calls the festival’s “family” — i.e., the teachers already hired for the workshop that precedes the weekend — with outside talent, especially considering the festival’s tight budget.
All in all, from the spectacular show by clarinetist Anat Cohen Friday to the nonet’s high points Saturday and the tag by Cables, Jazz Port Townsend 2013 was a pretty good vintage.