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Portland Jazz Festival Review – Feb. 25-28, 2010

This year's Portland Jazz Festival had many addresses. They varied from Alex Sipiagin’s Russia, Luciana Souza’s Brazil, to Christian Wallumrod’s Norway.

Published on March 3, 2010

Portland Jazz Festival Review – Feb. 25-28, 2010

Portland Jazz Festival Review – Feb. 25-28, 2010  

(Sponsored by Alaska Airlines, Horizon Airlines and US Bank)

Having sold out seven of its eight concerts, and having a cash infusion from US Bank, it is likely that the Portland Jazz Festival – for at least next year’s 2011 Festival – is on sound footing. After last year’s shaky funding situation, where Alaska and Horizon Airlines had to step in at the last minute to rescue the Festival, which in the month before the 2009 Festival had been ready to fold its tent, this is heartening news

Happily I can say that the Festival is back and still kicking, and by cutting down the marquee events to a single four day weekend, it has resurrected itself. Festival Artistic director, Bill Royston, in a savvy mood brought in Don Lucoff and Spencer Crandall to handle managing and marketing and communications duties. Both Lucoff and Crandall are veterans in their fields and their experience showed as Festival logistics and publicity came off with little outward evidence of problems – the true mark of professionalism.

This year’s theme – "Is Jazz Dead (Or Simply Moved to a New Address?)," was meant to stimulate conversation. Those that follow jazz and its Festivals know that it is all about the talent presented at any festival. A combination of established stars – David Holland Quintet, the Mingus Big Band, the iconic Pharoah Sanders, Dave Douglas, and to a lesser extent, Luciana Souza – open up the possibility to introduce a new theme – in this case Norwegian jazz from ECM roster members In the Country, Trygve Seim and Frode Haltli, and the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble. Once the more established names are confirmed, then fans are more open to expanding their musical horizons by taking in lesser known but intriguing talent to round out their Festival experience.

The Portland Festival counts on bringing in Seattle residents to help populate downtown hotels, eat at Portland’s myriad of restaurant offerings and spend money at shops that normally have a downturn in January and February, when post Holiday shopping dries up. For Seattle guests, who stay downtown after either flying in or taking Amtrak, offering a free shuttle bus to the eastside Norse Hall, where the ECM artists held court, was a smart move as it provided the service and camaraderie that showed that their patronage was valued. The Norse Hall shows starting times were held up a bit to accommodate the requisite encores demanded by the Newmark capacity crowds for the Festival’s main attractions.

This year’s Festival began on Thursday night with Verve Grammy nominated vocal artist, Luciana Souza, who wowed the Hilton Pavilion Ballroom, with her native Brazilian interpretations of bossa nova combined with interpretations of the American songbook as well as American pop music. Her trio included well known Los Angeles-based guitarist, Larry Koonse, and bassist David Piltch. Luciana’s set was noted for her warm, smooth voice stylings and her diverse songlist. She sang Paul Simon’s Amulet, Joni Mitchell’s Down to You, a Sinatra tribute, and some bossa nova. It was a set heavy on ballads and Souza added some distinct percussion effects as well as some effective scat singing. She enthralled the capacity audience, even though the sound acoustics were a little weak for those sitting towards the back of the ballroom.

Friday night brought a stripped-down version of the Mingus Big Band, advertised as 14 piece, but to my mathematically challenged mind, had only thirteen members, as one band member must have been caught in the New York snowstorms. I kind of missed Frank Lacy, the peripatetic trombone player, who holds stage and prowls around the band stand as the de-facto leader of the much larger Mingus Memorial Orchestra. However, the Mingus Big Band, had several outstanding members including recording artist saxophonist Craig Handy (who functioned as band leader and “conductor”), pianist David Kikoski, tenor saxist Seamus Blake, trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, and veteran trombonist Earl McIntyre. However, the break-out star of the band as well as over several sets with other groups was wunderkind drummer, Justin Faulkner, all of 18 years old. Faulkner was a force to be reckoned with, as he was a dynamo, with full mastery of the entire drum set, and had the energy of a young Elvin Jones.

There was a palpable sense of excitement before the Mingus Big Band took the stage.  Their extended opener was Haitian Fight Song, which after a bass solo by Hans Glawischnig, the band and its controlled chaos kicked in. This song, written by Mingus for freedom fighter Toussaint L’Overture, featured noted pianist David Kikoski, and drum sensation Justin Faulkner. Following was Children’s Hour of Need, from Mingus’ Epitaph (which has 26 movements), and we heard a movement highlighted by the lead flute of the great Scott Robinson.

Other winning compositions included GG Train, a gorgeous reading of the ballad, Sweet Sucker Dance by tenor player Seamus Blake; Fables of Faubus with Craig Handy’s alto solo; E’s Flat and I’s Flat Too, where Kikoski’s bluesy solo and Alex Sipiagin’s trumpet took honors. All in all it was an exciting ninety minutes plus from one of America’s premier small size big bands.

On Saturday, Norwegian saxophonist Trgve Seim and accordionist, Frode Haltli, held court at a 3 pm concert at Norse Hall. They played a fascinating amalgam of jazz and folk music. Without a drummer, the two didn’t swing in the traditional sense, but Seim blew endlessly emotive saxophonist lines over Haitli’s atmospheric accordion.

Haitli made his accordion make almost every sound but the accustomed familiar accordion  tones, sometimes playing sheet-like chords that resonated like a sitar and at other times playing a sparkling flurry of notes. He opened with just the sounds of the air from the bellows – no notes. Seim’s strong and keening sax tone reminded one of fellow Norwegian Jan Garbarek.  For the uninitiated, it was an experience to remember and a challenge to their traditional “jazz ears.”

Saturday night was devoted to the Dave Holland Quintet, with Alex Sipiagin, on trumpet taking the place of regular member, trombonist Robin Eubanks. Holland shared how happy he was to make the gig as it took five reservations to get out of New York’s snow. Portland has a special place in Holland’s heart as he was given Leroy Vinnegar’s bass to play after Leroy passed away and Dave was chosen to honor Portland’s venerated bassist in a benefit at Jimmy Maks. I was fortunate enough to make that gig and will always remember the love that was shown for Leroy that night.

Holland’s group opened with a new composition, Step to It, which featured an extended open blowing solo by tenor saxist-and long time group member, Chris Potter. Last Minute Man, was next and Steve Nelson on marimba and Sipiagin’s trumpet work strongly stood out. Make Believe, a ballad, had a nice blend of Potter and Sipiagin.

Holland’s bass solos were few and far between, but one that stood out to me was on Free for All, where his unaccompanied solo had an Indian raga quality to it. Dave has kept his small group together for some time, a rarity in this age of constant changes in other groups’ personnel.

After Holland’s set, I raced to the shuttle to catch Christian Wallumrod and his Ensemble, made up of trumpet, violin, cello, concert harp, piano, and drums.
Few of their tunes were introduced and those that were whispered by Christian and not understandable to these ears. I can say, however, that the ensemble’s sound was a combination of contemporary chamber music, improvisations and anthems. There were moments of bliss mixed with dissonance and at other times a spareness that brought to mind Philip Glass. One tune in 3/4 time had more of a rhythmic hook to it than most of their offerings.  If you checked  your reservations, conceptions, and expectations at the door, you were in for a set of surprises with an overall feeling of sheer beauty. I can understand why this group moved Artistic Director, Bill Royston, so much when he heard them at a jazz festival in Norway and wanted so much to bring them to Portland.

Sunday turned out to be my favorite day of the Festival with the performances of the master, Pharoah Sanders as well as the set from Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy. Pharoah clearly had a great time, and was moved by the audience’s reaction as well as the playing of Portland via New Orleans’ transplant, Devin Phillips, who came out often onto the stage to emote when Sanders left the stage. William Henderson, Sanders’ long time pianist, was brilliant providing a varied palette of swirling colors for Pharoah to play off, and of course William would know which direction Mr. Sanders was heading. Pharoah was majestic both in his appearance, his dignity, and his joy in playing for and to his audience. He introduced few titles of the set and it was up to us to recognize song titles. Those I picked up were classics like My Favorite Things and The Creator Has a Master Plan.

Sanders’ tone is characterized by honks and squeals balanced out by lyrical blues lines. The rest of the rhythm section were Hans Glawischnig on bass and the return of drummer supreme, Justin Faulkner. Faulkner again was magnificent, and his future is limitless. Sanders closed the set with some funky dancing on stage and a call and response on a calypso, “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” as well as a moving chant of “Save our Children who are Dying.” Performances by musical geniuses like the inimitable Pharoah Sanders, are the reason we wait year-round for the next Festival as appearances by these masters for those of us that don’t travel often to New York or Chicago are a once in a lifetime experience that should not be missed.

Sunday night’s performance of Dave Douglas’ new brass group closed out the Portland Festival on a high note. Made up of Douglas on trumpet, Luis Bonnilla (superb!) on trombone, Vincent Chancey on French horn, Marcus Rojas on tuba, and Nasheet Waits on drums, this brass band both cooks and has an infectious joy complete with “high fives” after a particularly moving solo. They can play anything and do – ranging from New Orleans gumbo to Hank Williams, Otis Redding, and new tributes to Lester Bowie, Don Cherry, Fats Navarro, and Enrico Rava. Each member is a distinguished soloist matched by the ability to blend seamlessly as an ensemble. Douglas is a restless musician, who has covered many bases, so it is suggested that you see this band live or purchase its CD, Spirit Moves, before Douglas’ muse takes him in a new direction.

In the theme of this year’s Festival, jazz had many addresses. They varied from Alex Sipiagin’s Russia, Luciana Souza’s Brazil, to Christian Wallumrod’s Norway. However, for a brief four days in February, 2010, the Zip code for Jazz passed through Portland’s 97201 and vicinity. Those that passed through our environs were much richer for the experience. Next February it will time for a new voyage without leaving town.

– Jeff Krow, with assistance from Alex Mejia and Dan Krow

– Photos by Fran Kaufman, courtesy Portland Jazz Festival

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