Centrum's Jazz Port Townsend, which ended Saturday night, lived up to expectations and then some. Highlights included a sparkling performance by the Centrum Faculty All-Star Big Big Band in a program of Johnny Mandel's compositions, conducted by the composer; engaging vocals by Dena DeRose and Mary Stallings; the premiere of a new work by festival...

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Concert Review |

The anticipated highlights at Centrum’s Jazz Port Townsend on Saturday — the afternoon big-band segment at Fort Worden’s McCurdy Pavilion featuring songwriter and arranger Johnny Mandel conducting his own tunes and the “round midnight” set at the Upstage by pianist George Cables — handily lived up to expectations. Even better, there were some pleasant surprises, including the premiere of a new piece by artistic director John Clayton.

The crowd greeted 86-year-old Mandel with a standing ovation as he walked gingerly to the podium with the aid of a cane, having broken his hip last year. Mandel showed no signs of frailty in his patter, however, cracking wise in a residual New York accent.

“That tune was one I wrote for [Count] Basie called ‘Low Life,’ ” he said after the barn-burning opener. “It’s autobiographical.”

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Moments to savor in Mandel’s set included a swashbuckling tenor sax solo by Pete Christlieb on “Close Enough For Love”; velvety woodwinds (flute, clarinet, bass clarinet) on the waltz, “Emily”; “Black Nightgown,” the sexy riff from the 1958 Susan Hayward film, “I Want to Live”; trumpeter Terell Stafford’s bravura rendition of Mandel’s biggest hit, “The Shadow of Your Smile”; and, of course, the piccolo-tippled theme from the TV show “M*A*S*H.”

The Centrum Faculty All-Star Big Band did a good job of reading Mandel’s difficult charts (as always, this was a one-rehearsal deal), but stumbled on the encore, “TNT,” which Mandel had to start a second time. Nobody seemed to mind, on- or offstage.

Pianist Benny Green’s trio, jet-propelled by the crackling drums of Rodney Green (no relation), opened the afternoon show with a swinging set of originals. Too-little-heard pianist-vocalist Dena DeRose caressed the crowd with her silky voice and crackerjack delivery.

Clayton’s last-minute addition, titled “The Dad Groove,” had a fun boogaloo feel but unfortunately stretched an already long concert to nearly 3 ½ hours.

By contrast, the evening show was brief but bejeweled by Mary Stallings’ svelte renditions of “Hello Yesterday” and “Don’t Misunderstand,” calling to mind the salted-caramel timbre of Carmen McRae and Nancy Wilson’s urban sophistication. Young guitarist Graham Dechter topped the evening with a jamming, five-horn front line at the finish

Out in the clubs, Cables’ trio, with drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Chuck Deardorf, was on fire, sounding at times like an exploding percussion trio.

It was easy to find a seat at the Upstage and, indeed, crowds were light, particularly at the Friday and Saturday night concerts, according to Centrum Executive Director John MacElwee.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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