One of the great pleasures of jazz is its capacity for surprise.
The exquisite concert by Sound Prints Saturday at Town Hall — the centerpiece of the Earshot Jazz Festival, which started a week ago Friday and continues through Nov. 11 — was a delightful case in point.
The debut album by the quintet, which features a front line of master musicians Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone and Dave Douglas on trumpet, won’t come out till next year (on Blue Note), but a live recording on line suggested that Sound Prints is all about a daring “sharing of musical space,” as Lovano put it in an advance interview with The Seattle Times.
And, indeed, the mercurial interactivity of the horn players and rhythm section — Joey Baron (drums), Linda Oh (bass) and Lawrence Fields (piano) — set the baseline strategy, taking jazz beyond the shopworn tune-solo-solo-solo-tune format to a five-way conversation in real time.
But the takeaway Saturday wasn’t nearly so conceptual or complex. It was the flat-out passion, lyricism and concise storytelling by everyone on stage.
The diminutive Douglas, wearing a beret-like cap and eyeglasses whose dark tint suggested the bebop mischief of a latter-day Dizzy Gillespie, set the no-nonsense tone from the gitgo. Foregoing introductions, he launched the group into a 26-minute excursion that segued from the staggered dissonance of the band’s title tune to the less agitated “Spirits.”
Five minutes in, Sound Prints had transformed the boomy acoustic environment of Town Hall into an intimate sonic shrine. For the next hour-and-a-half, there was nothing but pure music to breathe, much of it inspired by the rangy reach of the group’s inspiration, saxophonist Wayne Shorter. The crowd was enchanted into pin-drop silence.
Douglas, trumpet chops at a peak, followed through logically on each musical idea he proposed, whether tickling the stratosphere or ploughing through the basement. Lovano’s personal, throaty tone and off-center phrasing — which can sometimes go afield — stuck steadfastly to its subject, succinct and sensible. After a while, the dense thicket recalled nothing so much as the intensity and dark focus of the classic Miles Davis recording, “In Person: Live at the Black Hawk.”
Fields sparkled on Shorter’s “To Sail Beyond the Sunset” (written for the band), and after a vamping solo by Oh, the quintet somehow suggested the distant, anthemic pealing of cathedral bells. Baron’s hand drumming on the closer, “Power Ranger,” reinstated the feeling of intimacy.
The rapt crowd, not content to leave so soon, brought the group back with a thunderous standing ovation for an atmospheric encore on Douglas’ “Ups and Downs.”
How often does music take you to such a sweet and lyrical, but entirely unsentimental, spirit-drenched place?
What a lovely surprise.
Earshot Jazz Festival
The Earshot Jazz Festival continues with concerts at various venues by French pianist Jackie Terrasson (Wednesday, Oct. 22), saxophonist Greg Osby Thursday, Oct. 23), drummer Barry Altschul (Saturday, Oct. 25), Dave Liebman (Oct. 30), the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (Nov. 1-2), Cuong Vu (Nov. 2), Pharoah Sanders (Nov. 7), Miguel Zenón (Nov. 10) and many others; free-$34, festival pass, $300-$350 (206-547-6763 or earshot.org).