Friday, September 14, 2007

Anacortes Jazz Festival 07

Anacortes (Named after Anna Curtis, wife of the town’s founder), is a lovely old fishing and lumber town in the San Juan Islands, Northwest of Seattle.

Their Jazz Festival is in the last week of August, near the Labor Day holiday, held out on a large wharf on the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The ’07 was their fourth festival, and the first one I attended. There had been an annual jazz festival in Friday Harbor for many years, maybe thirty. Friday Harbor is a small town on another of the San Juan Islands, nearby, but that festival became so popular, despite the difficulty of getting to the island, that it overwhelmed the town. There just wasn’t any way to feed or accommodate thousands of fans, so the festival had to shut down.

Anacortes, which is reachable by a bridge from the mainland to Guemes Island, is more able to handle crowds, or will be in the future. I was lucky to find a room on the outskirts, as everything in town was sold out. Anacortes hopes to rekindle the spirit of the Friday Harbor festival, according to the chamber of commerce festival organizer, with whom I spoke briefly.

There were about 500 people at the Anacortes Festival on Saturday, but I would say only one hundred fifty on Sunday, so they have a long way to go. Cool weather and intermittent rain spittle probably contributed to the poor Sunday turnout. That’s just bad luck. But the acts were much stronger on Saturday and weaker on Sunday also. I did not stay for Monday. Here were some of the highlights for me.

I enjoyed Pearl Django, a hugely popular Northwest quintet specializing in the music and styles of Django Reinhart and Stephan Grappelli. I’m a sucker for a backbeat, and they certainly do that well, but I have to say that this group’s music is in the region of Jazz that borders pop, and I tire quickly of the repetitiveness of pop music. It’s a good group, and I especially like the accordion, but a little goes a long way with me.

Jessica Williams was so cold on the outdoor stage that she actually had to wear gloves with the fingertips cut off. Wrapped in a wool blanket, she huddled over the keyboard to the accompaniment of her trio. But it wasn’t long before she was in outer space and the blanket slipped off her shoulders and the gloves came off. I can’t remember what she played, although it was one of her originals. It was just stunning. Ships passing in the straights of Juan de Fuca stopped, cut engine, and hovered behind the bandstand to listen. She played more originals and a few covers, possibly Easy to Remember or Night and Day, but they were revelations, not “standards” the way she played them. I snapped up three of her CDs, not all of which are easy to find. Worth the price of admission.

The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (SRJO) is a local favorite group now in their thirteenth year. About two dozen players specialize in big band jazz, which I am not a fan of, but this group surprised me. They were much better than I expected. I could have used more of the bass trombone, an instrument I was not familiar with. The band's sound tended to big and brassy, a little weak in the winds, but overall it really did swing. Some soloists were moderately hot. I appreciated the mix of younger talent and seasoned old timers.

A local quartet, Frankly Moanin, entertained to the outdoor picnic tables during the lunch break. Bass, drums, keyboard and guitar had obviously worked together for a long time, and I really liked this group.

Devin Phillips plays a very hot saxophone, mostly tenor but also alto and bass. He is based in Portland, OR now, having left his native New Orleans after Katrina. His quartet was the leadoff hitter on an overcast Sunday morning at 11 am, which, for jazz players, is the middle of the night. They actually seemed groggy at first but soon got into the groove. Phillips’ playing is fast and aggressive, and that is his virtue and shortcoming. On a slow ballad, he can hardly hold himself down long enough to let much personal expression come through. But on an exuberant piece, like his group’s signature Wade in the Water, he is in his element. The others in the group are also very good but pianist Oliver Anderson is a special standout. Phillips is also interesting to look at. The way he scowls and stalks about the stage, sometimes I see Miles Davis in his face. But when I shook his hand and spoke to him after the show, he was quiet, gentle, polite, and sincere, not at all like the stage persona he projects. I’m quite sure we’ll be seeing more of him. I picked up a CD, called, Katrina-appropriately, Wade in the Water, which is available at

I am crazy about Hammond B3 so I had hopes for the soul-funk group McTuff, which played after lunch. Unfortunately, they cranked the sound system up so high that even with earplugs, the threshold of pain was fast approaching. I moved way to the back of the wharf, but got little relief. Besides the earsplitting sound, I was disappointed by the music, which was raw and rowdy, the sort of stuff you would expect in a bar down by the docks on a Saturday night. It confirmed my bias that “funk” means “unprincipled.” Anyway, just not my cup of tea, and the harsh sound forced me off the festival grounds to walk about the picturesque docks and the Anacortes old town.

(Cool fireboat nearby)

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