Ballard Fest Boosts Seattle Scene

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Dawn Clement performs at the Ballard Jazz Festival in 2019.

(Photo: Jim Levitt)

Named for the charming old wood-and-brick Scandinavian neighborhood where it takes place, the Ballard Jazz Festival is a celebration of Seattle’s vibrant local jazz community that weaves national headliners into the mix. Initially planned for May, the events have been rescheduled Nov. 11–14

Over the years, the festival has hosted Gary Bartz, Lee Konitz, Orrin Evans, Ernie Watts and Sonny Fortune, among others, often pairing them artfully with local rhythm sections. This year, much-admired trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and up-and-coming Danish vocalist Sinne Eeg share the festival’s big final show, held May 30. But the real heartbeat of the spree will come the previous evening at the Ballard Jazz Walk, which has a Mardi Gras-like vibe, with fans strolling in and out of a dozen bars and restaurants, greeting old friends or musicians taking five on the sidewalk.

“What’s special is the hang,” said drummer John Bishop, who co-founded the festival in 2003 with drummer Matt Jorgensen, also his partner at Origin Records. “The gathering of musicians and that audience we’ve had now for 18 years, they show up every year.”

That faithful audience tops out at about 2,000 people—modest, but pretty much “at capacity” for the venues, Bishop said.

No doubt because Bishop and Jorgensen are drummers, the Ballard festival begins on a Wednesday with a bash called Brotherhood of the Drum, followed by the Guitar Summit and the Jazz Walk, which this year features Eeg, as well as a trio with Matt Wilson (drums), ex-Seattleite Dawn Clement (piano) and Seattle bassist Chuck Deardorf. Also on the walk are trumpeters Dmitri Matheny and Thomas Marriott, the George Colligan Trio, Seattle vocalists Greta Matassa and Gail Pettis, and a showcase of local avant-garde players organized by Seattle label Table & Chairs.

For the past two years, the Saturday show has taken place in a jewel of a venue, the luxuriously wood-paneled and acoustically exquisite, 300-seat concert hall at the National Nordic Museum, which opened in 2018. The museum provides the venue rent-free in exchange for showcasing Scandinavian acts, and this year Eeg fits that bill. (Last year, it was Norwegian guitarist Lage Lund.) In a phone interview from Denmark, Eeg said the Nordic connection resonates with her.

“There is a ton that Scandinavians contribute [to jazz], kind of an open concept of rhythm, a very horizontal way of thinking in time,” she said. “And also different harmonics that we adapt from the folk music and classical music of our countries. You can hear that in some of my songs.”

This will be Eeg’s debut at the Ballard festival, but not her first encounter with Origin: Her swinging, dusky voice appeared on the 2013 album Hymn For Life by Denmark-based reed man Marc Bernstein. Eeg has been steadily working to make a name for herself in the States with appearances at the Vail Jazz Festival and A-list clubs like Dizzy’s, Birdland, Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley and Yoshi’s. Her two most recent albums, Dreams (ArtistShare), with drummer Joey Baron, bassist Scott Colley and her longtime pianist Jacob Christoffersen, and We’ve Just Begun (BFM), a punchy and evocative collaboration with the Danish Radio Big Band, have been well received.

As always, locals will be aiding and abetting visiting artists in Ballard this May. Eeg will be backed by Seattleites Paul Gabrielson (bass) and Xavier Lecouturier (drums), plus Portlander George Colligan (piano). Behind Pelt will be Jorgensen and Seattle’s Michael Glynn (bass).

Supporting and nurturing the Seattle jazz scene is what Bishop and Jorgensen are all about. They not only spotlight regional players at their festival, but their label, Origin Records—and its affiliates, OA2 and Origin Classical—showcase Northwesterners along with national and international artists. Since 1997, when Bishop founded the label, the imprint has released more than 600 CDs, including titles by Seattle stalwarts Clement, Deardorf, Jay Thomas, Marc Seales and Bill Anschell, as well as national figures such as David Friesen, Hal Galper, Ray Vega, Jessica Williams and Ira Sullivan. In addition to the festival and label, the label honchos also oversee the online chronicle, Seattle Jazz Scene.

Bishop and Jorgensen were recognized for their efforts by the Jazz Journalists Association with a 2019 Jazz Heroes award, but Bishop, an aw-shucks kind of guy, modestly argues that doing service for your community is merely a matter of survival—and common sense.

“Every town needs to have activity, a sense of self,” he said. “You need to feel like you’re part of something. Mostly, this is just about saying, ‘Hey, that might work, why don’t we give it a try?’” DB



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