We are not living in the balmiest of times when it comes to the local arts scene. For years, Portland, Oregon had boasted several fine Jazz venues, and it was just a matter of choosing between them on a Friday night. But then, one after another closed up. The last one, the legendary Jimmy Mak’s, closed its doors last fall. However, before we could begin to wallow in despair, a relief operation was mounted by the outstanding Jazz PDX organization, which promises to revitalize jazz in the city and put Portland back on the map for world-class Jazz events. PDX Jazz goes back to 2003 when it began as the presenting organization for the Jazz festival. The Festival was established as both a cultural tourism initiative and as an educational outreach aimed at broadening understanding of the rich legacy of Black American music.
It is in the last two years, though, that PDX Jazz has redoubled its efforts to promote jazz. Last year’s Jazz festival brought out Maria Schneider, the most illustrious modern jazz composer of our time, and her orchestra to Portland for the their West Coast debut. And as the leaves begin to fall and the rains begin, the auspices look favorable for this year’s fall PDX-sponsored events. The biggest names in the business arrive one after another: Bill Charlap, Brad Mehldau, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, Dave Holland. We might ask executive director Don Lucoff what we did to deserve this generous treatment.
On Thursday, October 19th, local fans were rewarded with yet another top-flight group, The Marquis Hill Quintet, which traveled from their base in Chicago to play two sets at the Fremont Theater (yet another venue which is closing). Hill, the 2014 Thelonious Monk Competition winner, is a fixture on the Chicago Jazz scene. His recent release, “This is How We Play,” is a confident assertion of the group’s jazz orientation and prowess. On one hand, the bebop legacy is upheld, especially the ‘60’s hard bop Song Book. On the other hand, the groove has been deepened and darkened. Drummer Jonathan Pinson and bassist Jeremiah Hunt propel the music headlong at the furious tempos preferred by the leader. The quick-sticked Hunt hears everything and piles on layer upon layer of commentary and emphasis. The texture of the group is notable for the substitution of vibraphone for the piano. Here, Mr Hill enlisted the help of what must the most hyper-kinetic mallet player on the jazz scene. Joel Ross is a true eccentric with a matchless harmonic sensibility and a razor-sharp technique that veers from frenzied wailing to bluesy riffs.
Hill led off with a couple of his own compositions, intricate heads played in unison, followed by solos which built patiently to vehement declarations. What prevailed was jazz with lots of sharp edges and unswerving velocity. A couple of standards, Gigi Gryce’s “Minority” and the unlikely “Corcovado,” gave the group both a chance to find its connection to the wider jazz language and assert its own special hard-hitting attitude.
A highlight was the leader’s own “To Be Free,” which demonstrated a keen sense of balance and variety in a complex arrangement. The group played together with a cohesion which made it possible for individual soloists to scatter and burst into fragments, only to be regathered once again into the collective groove.
In all, a memorable night for Jazz by a group that followed Sam River’s edict “leave nothing out,” ensuring that our ears were ringing and our hearts full.
—Fritz Balwit, Photos by Hiroshi Ujiie
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