February 2012 Portland Jazz Festival Reviews

by | Mar 4, 2012 | Special Features

Enrico Rava & Tribe – Friday, Feb. 18 – Winningstad Theater
Local pianist Tony Pacini opened for Enrico Rava with his trio, including our star drummer Mel Brown. He followed a rough theme of Italian-American jazz since that fit both the Rava concert and his own background.

Adding Enrico Rava and his current band, Tribe, to this year’s Portland Jazz Festival was a coup for Managing Director Don Lucoff.  Rava, age 72, a long-established trumpet artist for the ECM label, had never been to Portland before. It was reported that he had not been on the West Coast at all for several decades. (Having Rava perform the night before as part of the first concert of the Spring season of SFJAZZ certainly helped facilitate Rava’s entrée to the Portland scene.)
Rava has been known for many years as an introspective trumpeter noted for his moody, film noir-type recordings which bring a comparison to mid-50s Miles Davis, especially with Rava’s use of the mute. However, Rava’s concert on Saturday, Feb. 18, in the intimate confines of the Winningstad Theater, fell into a different bag. Much like Roy Haynes (who performed later in the Festival), Rava seems to have been invigorated by employing band members young enough to be his grandchildren.
His latest band is made up of Gianluca Petrella on trombone, and the rhythm section of Giovanni Guidi on piano; Gabriele Evangelista on bass; and Fabrizio Sfersa on drums. Listening to Rava’s set, I found that often Enrico’s lyrical blowing was overwhelmed by Petrella’s exuberant trombone playing, that brought to mind Roswell Rudd (a former 1970s partner of Rava) and Ku umba Frank Lacy (minus the stage antics). Gianluca certainly has the chops and power to combine gut-bucket and sheer volume to drive any high powered band, but on many tunes (no song titles were announced during the concert), he became the sole focus of the band, leaving Enrico satisfied with a supporting role. At other times the two-horn front line was the raucous core sound of the band. The rest of the band, especially pianist Guidi, were more in synch with Rava’s playing, and Giovanni had several effective piano solos throughout the set. Much the leader, Rava, roamed around the stage attempting communication with his quintet. It would have been a special treat if Rava would have communicated between tracks with the appreciative audience, but he let his Tribe do the talking.
Charles McPherson – Monday Feb. 20 – @ Jimmy Maks 
I have waited many years to see the great alto saxophonist, Charles McPherson, (at 72 just one month senior to Enrico Rava). Known as a Charlie Parker disciple with a lyrical side, Charles did not disappoint during his two sets at Jimmy Maks’ club. His first set was as a featured artist for a Portland State University Jazz Ensemble of gifted students; and his late evening set featured the Randy Porter Trio, with Randy on piano, Tom Wakeling on bass, and Alan Jones on drums.
Before the second set we were treated to a brief onstage interview between Porter and McPherson, in which Charles gave his opinion on how he would describe jazz: the use of tension and release; employing musical time and space; syncopation; and the use of tone and  improvisation; with a heavy emphasis on the blues idiom.
McPherson’s set with Porter’s trio was not surprisingly heavy on bebop. Charles has not lost a step in being able to fire off intense bebop choruses of cascading notes. Honoring Bird, and Pres (Lester Young), appropriate for the President’s Day holiday, Charles even threw in bop lines on the ballads he played. Mixing blues runs and playing against the beat, McPherson proved his prowess as a hard core bopper. The set list was heavy on standards and bop classics and included “Lester Leaps In,” “I’ll Remember April,” “Cherokee,” “Embraceable You,” and the closing “Night in Tunisia.”
Randy Porter had many chances to shine and show he is easily in the upper echelon of Portland jazz pianists. Wakeling was rock steady, and Jones showed his strong stick work, though a bit overpowering the quartet several times when a more sympathetic accompaniment would have been more welcoming. On the ballads, though, Alan was exceptional.
In the intimate confines of Jimmy Maks it was an exciting treat to hear a jazz master, still strong and vibrant. With the passing of Red Holloway over the final weekend of the Festival, it further shows the necessity to hear our jazz masters of the 50s while the last few are still with us. Thanks Don Lucoff, and Jimmy Maks for making this possible…
Bill Frisell – Solo and with Quartet 858 – Newmark Theater – Feb. 25
Bill Frisell is a jazz guitarist that can be described as a Renaissance musician. He can play straight ahead, hold his own with the avant-garde, and both play and honor folk, electronica, country western, bluegrass and pop music.  His use of variable timbre and vibrato makes his playing unique among electric jazz guitarists. Many jazz guitarists sound similar, whereas Frisell stands out as both a leader and accompanist. His sound is fully textured and almost seems to breathe like a horn player at times.
It can be ethereal and trancelike, and yet provide a blanket of comfort, especially when he explores folk Americana themes. It then enters the world of Aaron Copland, as a folklorist exploring a musical stew where jazz, country, folk, and bluegrass reside.
On Frisell’s second night at the Newmark, he played two sets. The first was solo and he had the audience entranced and in a sense of reverie exploring a mix of jazz, folk, and country. Monk’s “Evidence” met “Hard Times,” while “I Got Rhythm” received the Frisell unique treatment. Portland ace guitarist, Dan Balmer, siting nearby, thought he heard Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke” also covered, and I’ll gladly take his word for picking up on that one as rather shy and modest Frisell did not announce any song titles during either set.
One of Bill’s latest projects, Quartet 858, was featured on the second set. Comprised of Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, and Hank Roberts on cello, their “communication” with Bill was uncanny. Each a featured artist on their own, their blend onstage combines ensemble and lead work. As a whole their ambient mix, whether heavily lyrical or exploring the avant edge, was a pleasure to experience. Frisell provided the anchor for the three string players to both stretch out while still providing a mood for the audience to close their eyes and “drink” in the sound.
An encore exploration of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” left everyone present with a good feeling glow. The approximately one hour set of Quartet 858 was both soothing, inquisitive, and thought provoking. It sure makes me want to pick up Sign of Life, Quartet 858’s second CD after a five year hiatus.
Bill Frisell also did an earlier concert at the Crystal Ballroom on Feb. 24, playing the music of Speedy West (a noted pedal steel guitarist), Jimmy Bryant (a fiddler, guitarist and producer), and John Lennon. Frisell’s newest CD is devoted to John Lennon.
And another of the major Festival events was the Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras on Feb. 21st at the Mission Theater. Devin Phillips was on sax and Marilyn Keller did the vocals on this traditional/New Orleans-oriented musical evening and celebration.
Reviews by Jeff Krow
The Jazz Passengers, with local guitarist Dan Balmer – Winningstad Theatre – Feb. 19
Portland’s own Farnell Newton and his quintet opened for The Jazz Passengers. They offered a tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers—appropriate since that was also a strong influence on the Jazz Passengers. Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin” was one of the highlights of their set, and pianist Greg Goebel turned in some fine solos and support. Farnell’s saxist Scott Hall shared the front line with him and also did a couple of fun vocals, reminding me a bit of Clark Terry.
The Jazz Passengers who appeared onstage at the Winngstad was pared down a bit from the total octet. The front line was slide trombonist (Curtis Fowlkes), saxist (leader and founding member Roy Nathanson), an electric violist and Dan Balmer on electric guitars. Nathanson admitted that the band arrived two hours late for their previous Portland gig 15 years ago. After a decade-long hiatus, they were back again, doing mostly tunes from their new album, including its title tune “Reunited.”  It was a rousing ensemble piece with some humorous lyrics. Nathanson also kept the laughs going with some other comments and vocals, but I can’t say I saw much resemblance to Frank Zappa’s band, as mentioned in the promotion materials.  Dan Balmer really burned on a couple of the tunes, adding a vital element to the band’s sound.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Tribute to Billie Holiday – Newmark Theater – Feb. 23
Bridgewater had created and starred in a Broadway musical tribute to Billie Holiday called Lady Sings the Blues, so putting together a one-and-a-half-hour tribute to the singer was no stretch for her and her very able quartet (which was introduced as a quintet; I kept waiting for the guitarist to appear). Bridgewater is completely bald and wears no wig, but a gold dress and sky-high heels. Her pianist Edsel Gomez does all of her arrangements and turned in some terrific solos. Bridgewater did a number of songs connected with Holiday, such as “Lover Man” and “Don’t Explain,” as well as some outside of the Holiday theme. She made a reference to foggy Portland at the beginning of her treatment of Gershwin’s  “A Foggy Day.” Her delivery of the blues about her man who’s “fine and mellow” reminded me most of the appearance of Billie on the famous CBS-TV The Sound of Jazz towards the end of her life. “Miss Brown to You” was a strong up-tempo number that performers had great fun with. Near the end of her performance Bridgewater did an extremely moving version of Billie’s “Strange Fruit,” and she came back for a solo encore—engaging the audience with her in the final verse of “Amazing Grace.”  A most electric performer for sure!

The Festival had opened with Portland’s revered jazz trumpeter and teacher Thara Memory performing with a large ensemble selections from both of the classic Miles Davis/Gil Evans recordings, Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess, but we were not provided a ticket to that impressive event. Portland’s familiar duo of vocalist Rebecca Kilgore, with Dave Frishberg at the piano, played a popular event. Other major concerts of the ninth annual Portland Jazz Festival—in addition to dozens of other smaller free concerts at local venues—were Charlie Hunter’s “Portland Jam Band Marathon,” East Indian-infused jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and his group, and saxist Branford Marsalis and his band.]
Reviews by John Sunier

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