by Hugo Kugiya
While not yet a time-honored tradition, the Bellevue Jazz Festival is starting to become a regular habit and a familiar scene each spring in downtown Bellevue, whose bars, restaurants, museums and hotels become stages for dozens of free concerts by celebrated, local musicians.
Anchoring each day of the five-day festival will be a featured performance at the Theatre at Meydenbauer Center, an intimate concert hall next to Bellevue City Hall.
The fourth annual festival starts the evening of June 1 with a concert by violinist Regina Carter and her group Reverse Thread, a thrilling and daring ensemble that explores African folk music traditions. Her band includes an accordion and a kora, a traditional west African string instrument.
The other featured musicians this year include saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Michael Formanek, singer Tierney Sutton, pianist Luis Perdomo, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, and percussionist Zakir Hussain.
This year’s festival is the first for new artistic director, John Gilbreath, head of Earshot Jazz and its annual fall, jazz festival. Gilbreath’s mark on this year’s festival was bringing in Formanek and Pardomo, who will open for the Grammy-award-winning Sutton and her quartet.
Perdomo, sideman to many greats including, most recently, Ravi Coltrane, grew up in Venezuela before studying at the Manhattan School of Music. Hussain, who was born in Mumbai, India, is a master and legend of the tabla, which he has performed with musicians of all genres. He will play with Lloyd’s quartet in Saturday night’s marquee concert. At age 76, Lloyd, a post-bop pioneer, is enjoying a resurgence of sorts after being largely absent from the jazz scene in the 1970s and 1980s.
“We worked toward a more international signature this year,” said the festival’s executive director, Leslie Lloyd, in a nod to Bellevue’s increasing diversity and growing population of foreign-born residents. “We strive to incorporate new ideas, and keep it fresh and interesting…We’ve heard the city of Bellevue has most diverse population of any city in the state. Our technology workforce is bringing that rich culture and tradition with them, and we want to reflect that in our lineup.”
Reflected in the lineup is also some serious intellect and imagination. Not one, but two of the festival’s musicians, are recipients of MacArthur fellowships, also known as “genius” grants. Pianist Jason Moran, who plays in Lloyd’s quartet, and Carter are former fellows (Moran in 2010, Carter in 2006).
The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra plays on the last day of the festival (Sunday afternoon, June 5) in the Theatre at Meydenbauer. The local, all-star big band will perform with the festival’s “Rising Stars,” a group of hand-picked high school students.
Jazz education has always been one of the cornerstones of the festival, which invites several high school and even middle school groups to perform during the festival. Its Rising Stars, who must audition before a panel of judges, represent the most promising student-musicians from around the state.
“We were pleasantly surprised by the volume of applicants,” Lloyd said. “We got three times the number of applications we got last year. We had kids from schools we never heard of.”
It was a lot of the students, and their band directors, Lloyd said, who convinced festival producers to book tenor player Chris Potter, who will perform with his group, Underground. A former prodigy, Potter is known as a musician’s musician, often copied, often studied.
“Everyone kept telling us, ‘you have to get Chris Potter, he’s the best'” Lloyd said.
Some of the local musicians who will perform in this year’s festival include singers Dina Blade and Gail Pettis, pianists Overton Berry and Bill Anschell, and the Kora Band, led by pianist Andrew Oliver. Anschell will lead the popular Saturday afternoon jazz workshop (led by Randy Halberstadt last year). Blades will host Sunday’s jazz brunch. The Kora Band will close the festival Sunday night at the Rock Bottom Brewery.
Tickets for individual shows cost $18-$38. A full festival pass costs $98. The festival is also selling VIP tickets to the Charles Lloyd show for $78; the ticket includes a private reception with Lloyd. Ticket prices for students range from $9 to $19. To purchase tickets or find more festival information, go to the festival website at www.bellevuejazz.com.
“We’re really right on track with our expectations,” Lloyd said. “Last year was our third year, and we actually generated excess margin to cover our overhead. We thought it would take upwards of five years to become established. Ticket sales are tracking ahead of last year, so we’re right where we want to be. We’re feeling really good about it. The city gave us a two-year renewal; they really like the event. We have the backing of civic leaders, sponsors (Microsoft, First Tech Credit Union, 4 Culture, KPLU, KING television, and 425 magazine), and the fans.”