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Tacoma Jazz and Blues Festival

There's a lot that's new and a lot that's free this year.

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Best recipe for a successful family event: Memorial Day weekend, uncrowded section of downtown Tacoma, all ages welcome, and it’s FREE — no cover charges. It’s the 2008 Tacoma Jazz & Blues Festival, May 24, and if you’re keeping score, it’s the 5th annual festival directed by the impresario who knocks himself out to keep Tacoma on the jazz map, Rich Wetzel, founder/director and CEO of the festival.

“This year Freighthouse Square is the main venue,” explained Wetzel. “Big bands play on the main floor; small combos downstairs. That means you’ll hear music all day, coming or going from food booth to food booth, or while looking at books or artworks. Also one end of Freighthouse will be aimed at youngsters: making instruments and/or making music.”

Wetzel pointed out the benefits of parking in the structure in front of Freighthouse: “it’s out of the weather and free.” If you park across the street from Harmon’s Brewery and Pub (the third venue, featuring blues), you can hop on the free Tacoma Link light rail,” which takes you from Harmon to Freighthouse or vice versa.

They’ve thought of everything — “they” includes Wetzel’s co-partner, Gary Grape, who, as president of the South Sound Blues Association, took care of booking and logistics for the blues segments. What a well-planned cross-section of music they’ve provided.

The Johnny Lewis Big Band will be the first to occupy the big band stage. Based in Olympia, it comes in all sizes and can play any kind of gig, from a bar mitzvah to the Governor’s Ball.

The big band sounds of Road Attraction follow with a more hard-edged brand of swing. With trumpeter Keith Baggerly out front, sidemen get plenty of stretch-out room, something those players who work in the pit bands of Seattle‘s theaters really appreciate. 
Jazz Police, with “top cop” James Rasmussen, features 18 to 21 sidemen (and women). Lisa Gordanier and Cynthia Mullis, in the sax section of this progressive jazz band, also play in the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra. Male links between the Police and SWOJO: trumpeters Daniel Barry and Dennis Haldane.

Wetzel, wearing  more hats — leader and screech soloist with his own band, the Groovin’ Higher Jazz Orchestra — closes the big band segment. Wetzel re-creates the excitement of the big band era with updated arrangements of legends like Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

On the jazz combo stage, the versatile trio of Keith Klawitter, tenorist/altoist; Mike Jaap, pianist; and Garey Wiiliams, drums, alternate from Latin to funk. In between, they offer salsa, rhythm & blues, plus straight-ahead mainstream jazz. Klawitter, who plays all reeds, also gigs with Wetzel’s band.

You couldn’t ask for more contrast when Rick White begins his set. He’s a psychedelic rocker/guitarist/singer from Canada whose original songs contain the most provocative lyrics this side of Leonard Cohen.

Next: Hook Me Up. Can’t tell their book by its cover, but when you consider trumpeter Tracy Hooker and pianist Jim Cochran play in Rich Wetzel’s orchestra, you’re in for hard-swinging combo jazz.

Ditto for the next group: the David Keys Trio. The appropriately named Keys, on piano, simply doesn’t’ know how not to swing. As for ballads, he usually seeks re-harmonized chords to make each standard a new listening experience.

Stressing smooth jazz, Ed Taylor, who plays guitar and sings, doesn’t take long to betray his mixed roots: Motown and George Benson. What a pleasing ending for the small combo set.
Meanwhile, on the blues stage, Randy Oxford leads off the Harmon harmonies. “Trombone Man” was a top-five finalist in this year’s International Blues Challenge. Blues, Motown, funk, gospel, plus a touch of jazz.

More of same from Becki Sue and Her Big Rockin’ Daddies: gritty Texas-style blues, yet the demure Becki Sue hails from Olympia. Go figure.

Another female who is classically demure is Maia Santell. She and her House Blend are the toast of the dance crowd, but she can mix it up with down and dirty blues, rhythm and blues, swing, jump, dreamy vocals, Latin. You name it, she’ll provide it.

Finally, Nick Vagarino and Meantown Blues, including a fine tenorist, Sue Orfield. Vigarino offers home-made material he calls “Slop Jar Delta Funk.”

Tacoma Jazz & Blues Festival schedule, Saturday, May 24


Freighthouse Square main floor, 2501E. D St., Tacoma
1-2 p.m. — Johnny Lewis Big Band
2:30-3:30 p.m. — Roadside Attraction
4-5 p.m. — Jazz Police
5:30-7:30 p.m. — Rich Wetzel’s Groovin’ Higher Jazz Orchestra


Freighthouse Square downstairs
1-1:45 p.m. — Cayuce
2-2:45 p.m. — Rick White
3- 3:45 p.m. — Hook Me Up
4- 4:45 p.m. — David Keys Trio
5-5:45 p.m. — Ed Taylor


(Presented with the South Sound Blues Assoc.)
The Harmon Brewery & Pub, 1938 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
12:30-1:30 p.m. — The Randy Oxford Band
2-3 p.m. — Becki Sue and Her Big Rockin’ Daddies
3:30-4:30 p.m. — Maia Santell and House Blend
5- 6 p.m. — Nick Vigarino and “Slop Jar Delta Funk”

Enjoy…that’s an order!

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