It was just around four months ago, when it appeared that the long anticipated 2009 Portland Jazz Festival was given last rites, due to a major donor pulling their funding because of the trying times that major companies are facing in our financial crisis of 2008-2009. Northwest hearts were broken due to the fact that the theme of this year’s Festival had so much promise – the celebration of the seminal jazz label, Blue Note Records, whom in 2009 is celebrating both their 70th anniversary as a music label, as well as the 25th anniversary of their resurrection (in 1984) under the able direction of Bruce Lundvall (with the assistance of Michael Cuscuna). Bruce and Michael were largely responsible for bringing back Blue Note to prominence after it suffered through at least a decade of mismanagement from the mid 70s to early 80s – when disco, fusion, and pop took over the airwaves and jazz musicians had to either flee to Europe or water down their craft to make a living in the States.
The demise of this year’s Festival was thankfully short lived since the jazz gods were evidently flying over the Portland vicinity as Alaska/Horizon Airlines came to the rescue with a major cash infusion, and Portland businesses stepped up to bridge any gaps. Suddenly just a few months ago, Festival Artistic Director Bill Royston had to madly scamper to re-book acts and venues to begin to bring the Festival back to life. Blue Note assisted by opening their present-day roster of artists and Bruce and Michael kept their agreement to come to town for the Festival’s opening weekend to lead panel discussions on the founding of the label by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff – two German émigrés who arrived in New York in the late 1930s virtually penniless but aglow with the love of jazz. Lion initially signed Sidney Bechet and boogie-woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and James P Johnson. He soon brought piano geniuses Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell onto the label. Within several more years Lion lead the way with hard bop icons Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Lou Donaldson and others. Even with stiff competition from more prosperous labels like Columbia, Blue Note Records became THE jazz label for connoisseurs from the mid-50s to the late 60s, a period which became noted as the Golden Age of Jazz.
With recording duties being handled by ace engineer Rudy Van Gelder, and way ahead of his time graphic designer Reid Miles, using Francis Wolff’s moody and striking photos, Blue Note albums became collector’s items with the coolest color covers and literate liner notes whetting the appetite for the hard bop, soul jazz, and beginning stages of avant music contained on the vinyl LPs inside. First edition Blue Note LPs with Van Gelder’s RVG initials and the “ear” on the dead wax, still fetch a bloody fortune on e-Bay especially from overseas jazz fanatics. A major portion of Blue Note’s present income comes from the remastered issuance on the RVG and Connoisseur series of 1950s to 1960s Blue Note masterpieces.
The Blue Note legend is still celebrated by both hip-hop artists in sampling and graphic designers who attempt to “borrow” the label’s “look” for a new generation of both jazz fans and hipsters who were just a gleam in their parents’ eyes when Blue Note was in its heyday. Lion and Wolff are responsible for both the resurgence of jazz when the big bands began to break up as well as introducing what is still considered stone classic jazz nirvana, just by recording the music they loved and treating their roster of musicians with both respect, love, and the unheard of luxury of rehearsal time instead of just being happy to get jam sessions.
Enough gushing over the Blue Note label, the question is whether the Portland Jazz Festival met its goals of honoring the label in the first Festival in what will be a year of Blue Note tributes throughout 2009. With a tight time constraint to rebook artists, having to change venues, and the prospect of dealing with a brutal economy, it could be argued that the Portland Jazz Festival was an unqualified success. There were bumps on the road – i.e. the cancellation of Cassandra Wilson’s concert at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall due to poor ticket sales – but many of the concerts, especially by Blue Note veterans, McCoy Tyner, Lou Donaldson, Bobby Hutcherson, and Pat Martino, were cause for celebration. Second generation Blue Note artists, Joe Lovano, Terence Blanchard, Diane Reeves, and John Scofield also put on superb sets.
Highlights were numerous and I’ll try to briefly account for some moments of jazz bliss:
The opening night concert of Terence Blanchard’s quintet backed by the Portland Jazz Orchestra performing “A Tale of God’s Will – A Requiem for Katrina” was as moving as the performance I witnessed at the Monterey Jazz Festival a few years back. Blanchard’s mournful trumpet backed by strings tugged at the heart as the devastation of the hurricane accompanied by the seemingly indifference of the Federal government was relived. Blanchard’s description of bringing his mother back to her house to witness the muck and mire of their family’s home, both was moving and brought feelings of anger and outrage that this tragedy witnessed on television was like watching a third-world region, and not a beloved city in OUR country. Blanchard’s CD recording of this requiem is a must in any jazz collection.
Saturday’s performances were highlighted by an afternoon with Jacky Terrason’s piano trio and Joe Lovano’s new band, US5. Terrason was in prime form and his playing had elements of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett – both introspective and percussive. Classics like My Funny Valentine were performed along side lilting Caribbean melodies, which had a Herbie Mann vibe. Jacky’s set was a bit short and left the audience wishing for more.
Lovano’s group was propelled by two drummers, bass, and an excellent pianist, James Weidman. As with many sets at the Festival, song titles were seldom announced, but Joe did point out Fort Worth, and mentioned the title track to his new CD to be released this May. Lovano’s group was half his age but had energy to burn and the tribal beats they produced were quite intriguing. Joe’s wife, vocalist, Judi Silvano, came out to scat/vocalize on a couple tracks when Lovano was on clarinet.
Saturday night was a time to witness the rich warmness and vocal range of the brilliant Diane Reeves. She was backed by the Oregon Symphony for a Valentine’s Day tribute to Sarah Vaughan, and she made a believer out of me. Her graciousness was in evidence as she sang Happy Birthday to an orchestra member and also serenaded the harpist who was getting married that weekend.
Lullaby of Broadway was given a swinging treatment and later Reeves told a riotous story about meeting Sarah Vaughan many years ago at a Cannonball Adderley tribute when Diane was a teenager and telling Vaughan (not knowing whom she was talking to) that Sarah was her inspiration in wanting to become a jazz singer. Diane’s set made a very romantic evening for the Schnitzer audience.
Not being available to two venues at the same time, I’ll let Michelle Eraut describe John Scofield’s set which was also on Saturday night:
For a nice valentine date, the John Scofield trio played at the Portland Jazz Festival, to a crowd packed more tightly than Economy class on a United Airlines flight. Scofield with Bill Stewart on drums and Matt Penman on bass kept the inter-generational audience engaged throughout the fun and unpredictable performance. Scofield opened with Green Tea and Strangers in the Night, and performed a unique version of Satisfaction. Joe Lovano, who introduced the trio, delighted the crowd when he later joined the trio to do one of his original songs, Big Ben. Scofield showed his continued originality with some wild foot pedal work during The Low Road. Lovano returned with the trio for the encore, Hackensack, with Scofield and Lovano trading solos and bringing a great set to a close.
Sunday Feb. 15 was devoted to McCoy Tyner and Lionel Loueke with Judi Silvano. Tyner’s set had some initial problems with the sound mix, but once that was sorted out McCoy took over the stage. He initially looked frail as he has had some health issues and lost some weight, but once behind the keyboards he took command. His rhythm section of Gerald Cannon and Eric Gravatt were dynamic with Gravatt bringing to mind Elvin Jones with his sheer power and command of the skins. Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit; Search for Peace; and a new composition, Angelina, all stood out, but it was Coltrane’s Moment’s Notice that most knocked me out. Joe Lovano contributed mightily to the mix and seemed elated to be on the stage with Tyner.
I missed the Lionel Loueke set with Judi Silvano but former Oregonian reviewer, Joe Diven, aptly describes their concert:
Silvano appeared with a trio, including Joe Lovano, a drummer and a bassist whose name I didn’t get. She and Lovano were out front and their collaboration over the years was clearly evident as her vocalizing and his horn wove electric lines through “CoCo LaLaLand,” “Dust,” “Cleomie” (?) and “Calypso,” all originals. None had lyrics and none were needed with Silvano’s powerful, inventive scat bobbing and weaving with the horn. She showed more traditional vocal prowess on Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space” and “Bougainvillea.”
Loueke played powerful, subtle guitar, accompanied by a drummer and bassist. There was the flavor of his native Benin in West Africa in the opening tune, “Caribou,” with a brief nod to Afro-pop on the guitar and clicks in his vocalizing that punctuated his lines. More evident through the set, in tunes like “Benny’s Tune,” was his study with Wayne Shorter and a stint at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, just part of the journey that has brought him recently to Blue Note Records, including a stop at Berklee. His trio has been together ten years, which showed in some galvanizing match-ups between guitar and bass and guitar and drums.
The second weekend of the Festival had fewer headliners. On Thursday night the innovative Portland Jazz Orchestra presented their big band arrangements of hits by Blue Note Legends, in the Old Church venue. The two events that most defined that weekend were those of Lou Donaldson and Bobby Hutcherson and the Saturday afternoon performance of Pat Martino.
Lou, at age 82, is the oldest artist still on the Blue Note roster with a tenure going back to the early 50s. His sweet blues-based alto tone still prevails and he admits his influence by Charlie Parker as he bopped on two Bird numbers as well as showcased classics such as Alligator Boogaloo, and Blues Walk. He did his requisite tribute to Satchmo with It’s a Wonderful World, as well as Miles’ Bye Bye Blackbird. He brought out many laughs with his two vocal staples, Whiskey-Drinking Woman, and It Was a Dream. Lou is never short on opinions with his firm belief that if you cannot play the blues you cannot be a jazz musician as well as calling “free jazz” free because that is all you can be paid for playing that idiom. He even shocked the crowd by stating that Blue Note’s all time best-selling artist, Norah Jones, would have had her records thrown out onto the street in the old days. For more “Louisms” check out a future Jazz Times listening test article in which he opines on the talents of Frank Morgan, Ornette Coleman, and Wynton Marsalis. I kind of doubt they will include his full interview…
Bobby Hutcherson’s set featuring the great drummer, Eddie Marshall, was truly bittersweet as Hutcherson is presently in poor health relying on oxygen between songs, but still a magician with the mallets pouring out his heart and soul on the bandstand. Hutch played moving versions of For Sentimental Reasons, I Thought About You, That Old Devil Moon, and Lush Life. It was a privilege to be in the same room as this vibes giant!
All in all the Portland Jazz Festival’s Tribute to Blue Note at 70 was top notch – great panel discussions (Ashley Kahn, Michael Cuscuna, Bruce Lundvall, Blue Note artist interviews, etc); superb headline acts, local sets by Portland stars (Dave Frishberg, Rebecca Kilgore, Allan Jones Sextet, and many more) contributed to the fact that Portland belongs on the major circuit for top American jazz festivals. With New York and Chicago holding the mantle as the jazz meccas of the States, let’s not forget the Northwest and the emergence of the Portland Jazz Festival as a two-weekend slice of jazz heaven. Kudos to Alaska Airlines for keeping the jazz flames lit and to Bill Royston and his staff for honoring the preeminent jazz label, Blue Note. Who knows what goodies are in store for us next year? Any of the other major jazz labels (ECM has already had their tribute here) should welcome the honor that Portland could bring to their label. Bravo!
–Jeff Krow (with special assistance from Michelle Eraut, Joe Diven, and Alex Mejia)