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Ballard Jazz Festival: New Digs, Same Great Jazz Party

Parker Miles Blohm
Last year's Ballard Jazz Festival featured surprising pocket trumpet work from pianist George Colligan.

May 16 - 19, the Ballard Jazz Festival presents a big change in scheduling this year, but you'll find the same fantastic lineup of the Northwest's finest jazz musicians and internationally acclaimed talent over 4 nights in the city's increasingly crowded fishing village. Let's take a look at the changes, and preview some of my "must-see" performances.

To begin, please adjust your normal Ballard Jazz Festival clock. This year the main stage shows are at the beautiful brand new Nordic Heritage Museum on Friday night, rather than Saturday as in years past. It's a switcheroo - the usual Friday night "Jazz Walk" around Ballard Avenue has moved to Saturday night. The festival also adds a Saturday afternoon Jazz Picnic at 3p with Seattle's great vibraphonist Susan Pascal co-leading a Stan Getz tribute with legendary saxman Pete Christleib.

The Brotherhood of the Drum has upgraded to a gender-neutral Celebration of the Drum this year, though all four drummers leading bands on Wednesday night at Conor Byrne Pub are guys. Expect fireworks from veteran Gregg Kepplinger and youngster Xavier Lecouturier. Of particular interest are the excellent players featured among the four bands, including trumpeters Thomas Marriott and Nathan Breedlove, and saxophonists Levi Fuller and Neil Welch.

Three of the Northwest's favorites will perform at Thursday night's Guitar Summit at Conor Byrne. Seattle's Milo Peterson and Portland's John Stowell both lead excellent trios, but be sure to stay late for Andy Coe. A favorite with McTuff, Skerik's Bandalabra and his own Andy Coe Band, Andy teams with drummer D'Vonne Lewis and Tarik Abouzied on bass (well known for his drumming with McTuff and his own Happy Orchestra). Expect lots of big smiles, driving grooves, and a few surprises from these three top modern jazz talents.

The Mainstage concert moves to Friday this year, and to its new home at the brand new Nordic Heritage Museum on Market Street. Appropriate for their inaugural show at the new digs, talented young Swedish flugelhornist Oskar Stenmark opens the show marking his Seattle debut.

Headlining is drummer Clarence Penn and Penn Station. One of New York's top players for more than a quarter century, Penn came up with Ellis Marsalis and Betty Carter, now best known for his own group. Expect to hear songs from his recent updating up Thelonious Monk songs, Monk: The Lost Files. If you're playing Monk you need a great pianist, and L.A.'s Geoffrey Keezer certainly fits the bill.

The Ballard Jazz Walk takes the "best for last" spot this year, and some changes are afoot in ticketing and the addition of the Jazz Picnic at Peddlar Brewing.

Every show is a winner, more examples that we're in a new golden age for Seattle jazz fans. Wear your walking shoes, and try to catch at least a few of these I'm particularly excited to see:

Marina Albero Trio (7p Ballard Landmark) Seattle's favorite Spanish import never ceases to amaze, both at the piano and making the hammered dulcimer sound incredibly hip. Albero's passion for music is contagious, I'm never less than blown away with her performances.

Line Up! featuring Johnaye Kendrick (7p Bad Albert's) Stop by for a couple songs from Seattle's favorite co-led powerhouse, pianist Dawn Clement and saxophonist Mark Taylor's dynamic Line Up! band adds one of the Northwest's most exciting young singers. Kendrick spent several years touring with trumpeter Nicholas Payton and no less than the legendary Jimmy Heath says that “Johnaye is not just a vocalist. She is a complete musician with a beautiful instrument and open ears.”

Chamber 3 (7p Pono Ranch) Make time for a trip down Leary Way to Pono Ranch to see Chamber 3 from our friends Kareem Kandi (sax), Phil Sparks (bass), and Matt Jorgensen (drums). This is ostensibly Matt Jorgensen's collaboration with a pair of German musicians, guitarist Christian Eckert and sax player Steffen Weber. Fantastic players in any group they're found playing, I'm excited to hear this project with a distinctly Northwest edge. Let's go!

Chad Lefkowitz-Brown Trio (8p & 9:15 Conor Byrne) This is the mainstage headlining group playing two sets without pianist Geoff Keezer. Saxophonist Lefkowitz-Brown has spent time on stadium stages touring with Taylor Swift, but this New Yorker's heart is in jazz, and he gained a lot of attention on the latest Monk tribute from Penn Station. Penn's drums with the bass of Yasushi Nakamura form a potent trio version of the quartet onstage at the NHM Friday.

Todd Bishop/Jasnam Daya Singh Group (10:15 Egan's) This Portland-based group wrapped up my Jazz Walk last year, and drummer Bishop's co-led quartet with pianist Singh brings a modern edge to jazz favorites and cool arrangements of modern pop. Richard Cole's saxophone chops burn brightly, and Eugene-born bassist Chris Higgins has been making his mark on the New York scene.

Thomas Marriott Quintet (10:30 & 11:45 Conor Byrne) Seattle's favorite trumpeter has been generous with his talents, playing with just about every talented player in town (and others). It's his new quintet, though, that has those musicians and his fans excited. One of Jet City's jazz stars of the 80s and 90s, saxophonist Rick Mandyck has only recently returned to his musical powers after his health required him to put the horn aside. Mandyck is back, sounding great with a younger band including the talents of drummer Xavier LeCouturier and Tim Kennedy on keys, and Marriott's contemporary Geoff Harper on bass. This is a group looking to push each other to great musical heights, and you have two late night opportunities to catch the magic.

I'll stop there, but must repeat - this is the tip of the iceberg. Pick a venue and settle in, or map out a strategy and pack in as much as you can. Either way, you can't lose at the Ballard Jazz Festival this year. Along with the world class visiting musicians of Penn Station, it's a celebration that makes me proud to be a jazz fan in the great Pacific Northwest.