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Even as music fans settled in for the first music festival in well over a year, longtime Jazz in the Valley board member Don Solberg reminded them we’re not out of the woods yet.

There is a constant reminder COVID-19 still looms, even as the world is trying to put the pandemic behind us.

Jazz in the Valley organizers made sure this year’s abbreviated version of the festival that’s spanned over two decades was spread out throughout the downtown district, in mostly outdoor venues, but you can never be too careful.

Solberg stepped to the microphone as Harmonious Funk took the outdoor stage to a near capacity audience at the Red Pickle.

“We received a call from Dr. (Mark) Larson saying we’ve had several new cases reported. He’s recommending people continue to wear masks at the indoor venues,” Solberg said. “We have masks available if you didn’t bring one. They’re free, just come up and get one.”

Solberg’s message was anything but a buzz kill. Harmonious Funk ripped into its version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” they were on their feet and dancing and Day 1 of the 23rd Jazz in the Valley was off and running.

Over at the Hotel Windrow, a steady stream of fans filed in the Top of the Burg rooftop venue to hear the Mel Peterson Collection, consisting of Brandon Richards (vocals), Becky (keyboards) and Jon Griswold (bass), Thomas Snedecker (drums) and of course the sultry, southern vocals of Melanie Peterson.

“I’ve never been so separated from my fans before,” Peterson said before the show, looking out the stage on the rooftop of the Elks Building, some distance from the seating arrangements on the Top of the Burg.

The bandstand was actually lower than the adjoining seating where people sat looking out over the Ellensburg skyline and down on the musicians set up on the mural below.

“It’s nice to get out. It means that slowly but surely, we are working things out. It’s the first time in history that something like this has happened,” Peterson said.

“I did the Sunday show at Jazz in the Valley in 2019 and it was such an honor to bring the Gospel show to Ellensburg. We’ll change it up this year. It all depends on the crowd and how I’m feeling. But we’ll still have the same energy.”

She knows how to work a room, or in this case, rooftop, starting out under the awning covering with the band before walking out closer to the audience. Her set list still includes songs by influences like Billie Holiday and Roberta Flack and the others she listened to growing up in South Carolina.

There were just two indoor venues. Dmitri Matheny set up in the loft in the back room of the Pearl Bar & Grill, sending the sweet sounds of his flugelhorn down to a capacity audience below.

“I love making music in small venues where you can see the faces of the people in the audience and get their feedback and play too them,” Matheny said. “Some of these big outdoor festivals you do, the audience is 200 yards away. Sometimes the smaller the better.”

Vocalist Gail Pettis was unable to attend because of illness, but his all-star band, including Bill Anschell (piano), Jeff Johnson (bass), and D’Vonne Lewis (drums), set the tone for a night to remember.

“I’m happy with the way things turned out,” Jazz in the Valley board president Tony Swartz said. “We have had a lot of good feedback about the music and format.”

Organizers added the Hotel Windrow to the venue lineup this year. Michael Powers played the lobby show for a bustling dinner crowd on Friday and doubled up on Saturday with a show at the Pearl Bar & Grill.

Another new twist to the 2021 Jazz in the Valley was a musical set for the Ellensburg Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning as patrons moved up and down Fourth Avenue. The Griswold Quintet set up on the big stage in the Red Pickle parking lot, sending the cool sounds out to get Day 2 underway under the smoke-filled skies caused by surrounding wildfires.

In all, the sounds varied from local favorite Rusty Cage to Mel Peterson, to Bruce Marshall’s guitar work to the hopping sounds of Harmonious Funk and the blues guitar of Nick Mardon.

Even though the pandemic is still in the news and America’s still on edge with precautionary measures, Jazz in the Valley was a high note for people needing a lift and a sense of normal.

Rodney Harwood: award-winning journalist and columnist. Lover of golf and the written word. I can be reached at rharwood@kvnews.com

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