As the holiday season gets thick, the gigs tend to get a little thin. That doesn’t mean there aren’t great choices out there–there are. Outside of the SRJO performance of the Sacred Music of Duke Ellington, there is no holiday fare here. I’m not going to list the annual selection of Christmas programs, they simply do not need help filling seats. I’m focusing on the seams, on real jazz taking place in the month of December. I’m still searching for New Year’s Eve dates, with a non-jazz show at Jazz Alley and Tula’s a thing of the past. In December, Jazz Alley brings us “Heavy Hitters,” Thomas Marriott plays a set at the Seattle Jazz Fellowship and Miles alumnus Mike Stern turns up the heat, with a fusion barn burner at Jazz Alley and much more!

Photo Credit: Jim Levitt

Thomas Marriott Quartet

Wed Dec 6, 7:30 PM/ Seattle Jazz Fellowship at Vermillion

Seattle trumpeter Thomas Marriott is an internationally acclaimed jazz artist that is the author of fourteen albums as a leader. His most recent Seattle appearance saw him perform at Town Hall with bassist Eric Revis, legendary drummer Roy McCurdy and pianist George Colligan, as part of the 2023 Earshot Jazz Festival. In the final Wednesday session before a brief holiday hiatus, Marriott settles in with his Seattle quartet. Pianist Tim Kennedy and drummer Xavier Lecouturier are familiar faces on the Seattle scene as leaders, and have been performing with Marriott frequently over the past six years. Trevor Ford is a relative newcomer by comparison, while quickly making his mark as a top shelf addition on double bass. To see a quartet of this quality in the intimate digs at Vermillion is quite something and not to be missed. This date is highly recommended, and represents the last SJF gig of the year.

The Racer Sessions: Evan Smith

Sun Dec 3, 7PM/ Gallery 1412

Tenor saxophonist Evan Smith last played the Racer Sessions at the real Cafe Racer in the U district. With the latest incarnation of Racer on Capitol Hill shuttered, the legendary sessions have moved on to Gallery 1412, a tiny space in the Central District. Smith describes his relationship to jazz as “free improvisation,” a vague notion that often leaves listeners shaking their heads. What does that actually mean? Free from the incumbrances of harmony and linear rhythm? You get into the gig free? The truth is, great players can play free in and out of traditional forms, in which case, the definition of free improvisation is playing at a high level of artistry. Smith generally plays trio with bass and drums, beyond the restraint of chordal instruments. It’s an odd thing really, as Smith is known as a classical saxophonist that is meticulous in his time consuming preparation for his projects. That rubs against the grain of the tradition practiced at the Racer Sessions. In essence, Smith rips off the band-aid and leaves himself completely vulnerable to the impulse of his talents, his technical explorations and the interrelationship with his audience. 

If you are a straight ahead jazz fan, you owe it to yourself to get out and check out this long running tradition in Seattle. The Racer Sessions may take you out of your comfort zone, but then again, it may take you somewhere you never dreamed of being to your delight. Smith should provide a session that would suit your test run!

Mike Stern Band featuring Dennis Chambers, Jimmy Haslip, Bob Franceschini, and Leni Stern

Tue Dec 5 – Wed Dec 6, 7:30 PM/ Jazz Alley

Guitarist Mike Stern is best known for his time with Miles Davis in the 1980’s, but his legend as a fusion musician is based on the forty years since that turbulent decade in his life. Stern can play straight up jazz guitar, or hang out on the edge of hard prog rock, the very definition of the oft-used term “fusion.” He leads a band of fusion well-knowns including bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Dennis Chambers. Guitarist Leni Stern adds a twist to things as a second guitar voice in the band, and a notable one at that. SaxophonistBob Franceschini rounds out the band tonally. A must see semi- annual event at Jazz Alley for fusions fans.

Photo Credit: Lisa Hagen Glynn

Marina Albero

Sat Dec 9, 7 PM/ Frederick Holmes & Company Gallery

Barcelona born and raised pianist Marina Albero has been in Seattle for close to a decade, and in that time, has developed a large following. Her extremely versatile virtuosity allows her to present wide-ranging performances that bring to light her musical world that includes jazz, flamenco, classical and folk incluences. In the end, it’s Marina, a truly original voice on our scene here in the Pacific NW. In this instance, she brings her music to Occidental Square, as part of this intimate series at Frederick Holmes Gallery.

Albero’s lifetime of musical experience allows her to interact fluently with a wide ranging variety of musicians. For this performance, drummer Xavier Lecouturier and bassist Kelsey Mines are the core of the band, as they often are with the fleet minded pianist. Young tenor saxophonist Jackson Cotugno has been making his mark on the Seattle scene, and serves as an interesting choice here. Trumpeter Marissa Kall has been playing around the edges of the Seattle jazz scene, making this a bit of a coming out on the scene with one of its major stars.

The Heavy Hitters ft. Mike LeDonne, Eric Alexander, Jeremy Pelt, Vincent Herring, Kenny Washington & Alexander Claffy

Tue Dec 12 – Wed Dec 13, 7:30 PM/ Jazz Alley

With the myriad of musical forms that seem to surround jazz, it’s nice to have an evening of hard hitting, top tier musicians swinging madly with abandon. While an all-star assemblage as this may in itself seem like another “project” gig, the opposite is actually true. The band can put full focus into playing tunes without the constraint of vigorous arrangements, or the singular touch of a notable leader–these cats are all leaders. 

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt returns after appearing at Jazz Alley in October with his quintet. He is joined on the front line by alto legend Vincent Herring and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. Alexander has Seattle roots, and plays with an embracing warmth that balances Herring’s rapid fire approach. He co-leads the band with pianist Mike LeDonne. The in demand keyboardist is a top Hammond B-3 organist as well as a master jazz pianist. Bassist Alexander Claffy teams with legendary drummer Kenny Washington holding down the rhythm section. To many, Washington is the standard for modern jazz drumming. Horn players in particular tend to sing his praises, which bodes well for this evening of modern jazz.

Make no mistake here–this will be ninety minutes of straight-ahead, hard swinging jazz with no apologies, thank you. The quality of the players delivering it speaks for itself.

South Hudson Music Project: New Music Mondays and Monday Night Jazz Jam with Thomas Marriott

Monday Dec 4, 11, 18- Set at 7:30, jam at 9 PM/ Royal Room

Special Note: Mon Dec 18, 7PM

Trombonist/composer/arranger David Marriott celebrates his 50th birthday for the early set, working its way towards the 9PM jam. Marriott as well will celebrate thirty years of perfroming in Seattle. Performances by the Marriott Brothers Revival plus special guests for an all-star band, The Spirits of ’73.

Mondays are traditionally community days in jazz culture, and so they are in Columbia City with the now well established “New Music Mondays.” The set up is the same each week. At 7:30, Wayne Horvitz exacts his unique form of conduction upon a revolving cast big band, performing his compositions and those of bebop pioneer, Thelonious Monk. Horvitz loves to throw in a piece by Robin Holcomb, Bill Frisell or Gerschwin, utilizing a conducting methodology that includes direction towards improvisation. In mentioning a revolving cast in the band, the main core of the band is consistent, including Seattle stalwarts Geoff Harper, Ryan Burns, James Falzone and David Marriott, Jr. In any case, the talent level is high, the compositions brilliant and swinging and the energy level through the roof.

At 9 PM, Thomas Marriott curates an open, all ages jam session. There is a sign up sheet, guaranteeing everyone gets to play. Marriott keeps a keen eye on the matchups, supporting the mentorship cycle and giving younger musicians the opportunity to play with more experienced professionals. The trumpeter starts things off with a select quartet for two or three tunes and then opens up the session. While the Monday night affair doesn’t have the historic status of the Tuesday night jam at the Owl, it has several advantages. Most notably, it is all ages, allowing jazz students an outlet outside of the academic world. Secondly, The Royal Room offers a superb backline, with a Steinway B on stage right, a solid drum kit, bass amp and guitar amp to boot. As a added advantage, many members of the RRCME hang and participate in the jam. Typically, more people attend the jam than the RRCME set, something one hopes will change. I believe if more RRCME members stayed for the jam, more fans would appear for the first set.

Tuesday Night Jam at The Owl

Tuesday nights at 9:45 PM/ Owl ‘n Thistle Pub

The Tuesday night jam at the Owl has been a Seattle tradition since 1996, and is as funky as ever. After all, this is a jazz jam in an Irish dive bar. There is no house piano, or a back line to speak of, but somehow the musicians get it done. Pianist Eric Verlinde is the constant here, with a new house set each week at 9:45 PM, and an open jam to follow until closing. Touring bands passing through town have a habit of dropping in. More importantly, it is a potent spot for musicians to gather and play and a weekly opportunity to enjoy community! The Owl has a vibe, one you have to experience to understand, and they know the proper way to serve you a Guinness.

SRJO: Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music

Sat Dec 30, 7:30 PM/ Town Hall

SRJO’s annual performance of Ellington’s 1960’s masterpiece that proposes a union of all faiths within one musical performance. Who will play Cootie Williams’ famed trumpet part, and who will be featured on tap? Will SRJO utilize a full choral group as it once did? These are all questions going in, with all possible answers being just fine–the music is worth experiencing as a source of spiritual revival no matter the approach to presenting it. SRJO founder Clarence Acox felt strongly that the piece be performed in a church, as is the case at Town Hall. No religious agenda or commercial holiday vibe here–Duke had the right idea, a revelation late in his career. 

Gallery 1412, Jam Session, Jazz Alley, Live Jazz, Royal Room, Seattle Jazz Fellowship, South Hudson Music Project