The 2008 Portland Jazz Festival – A Big Step Forward

by | Mar 1, 2008 | Special Features | 0 comments

The 2008 Portland Jazz Festival – A Big Step Forward

This year’s Portland Oregon Jazz Festival had as its theme, The Shape of Jazz to Come. Its focus was on the avant but it had jazz flavors for all. There were headline acts as well as free local jazz musicians and discussions open to the public. Whereas, past Festivals (this was the fifth edition of this Winter jazz marathon), seemed to be feeling out their focus and getting their feet placed on terra firma, the 2008 Festival showed that Portland can now be a force in competing for both major jazz artists and as a jazz visitor’s mecca during what would otherwise be the slow season for jazz festivals.

Bill Royston, the artistic director of Portland’s festival chose this year to spread a wide umbrella over nearly all phases of jazz idioms – thank goodness that Smooth Jazz did not rear its boring presence. For the avant fan, there was Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Myra Melford, Nick Bartsch’s Ronin, and Tim Berne. For the more straight ahead jazz genre there were superb concerts from the San Francisco Jazz Collective (all band leaders in their own right but here to set aside ego and devote an intriguing set to the music of Wayne Shorter, both in Wayne’s compositions and in newer material from band members inspired by Shorter’s spirit.)



The all-star Classical Jazz Quartet, made up of jazz elite: Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, Stefon Harris, and Lewis Nash, played in the intimate confines of the Newmark Theatre inside the Performing Arts Center, and their superb set gave off a sophistication and class that is seldom experienced in Portland. The venue felt as if you were in a New York club and the band’s combination of jazz interpretations of Bach and Rachmaninoff combined with the style of the Modern Jazz Quartet was enthralling. It was a highlight of the Festival. 
The marquee performers on the avant side were Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor.
Ornette’s band was made up of a unique combination-Greg Cohen (bass), Denardo Coleman (drums and percussion), Tony Falanga (bass), and Ornette (alto, violin, trumpet.) Falanga largely held the free form compositions together with his arco bass, and his at times classical bass techniques gave Ornette’s compositions substance that would have been lacking just with electric bass. Ornette’s “noodlings” on violin and trumpet were distracting from his soulful blues playing on several songs. It was much the same set as I experienced in Monterey earlier this year. 2006 was a big year for Coleman after release of his CD, Sound Grammar, and he is again a force in jazz circles outside of New York. No one can argue that the man has paid his dues over several decades and he is reveling in adulation from new audiences, who formerly knew him only from his 1960s’ groundbreaking issues.

Cecil Taylor’s set was mind-expanding to say the least. Playing solo, he both played with his highly percussive trademark passion, but let tender moments creep in to contrast with his explosive power chords. It was both challenging and invigorating, keeping the full house at the Marriott Hotel entranced and on the edge of their seats. Mid-set, Cecil stopped playing and recited a metaphysical “Ginsberg-like” poem that was wild. He then sat back down and finished his set to rapturous applause.

Other highlights were numerous and included Tord Gustavsen, whose neo-classical quartet combined the best of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett (minus Jarrett’s grunting). Gustavsen’s introductions were as soft and mellow as his keyboard musings. His ECM CDs should be checked out for very quiet late night listening. His set was held at the Scottish Rite Temple; an older ornate SE Portland building that also had the privilege of hosting the brilliant Israeli clarinetist, Anat Cohen, and her band of young New York musicians. Cohen also superbly plays the tenor sax and her set of Klezmer, Brazilian Charro, Benny Goodman swing jazz, and Israeli-influenced compositions were magnificent. Cohen’s infectious dancing on the stage spurred on her band. She is a rising star that will only gain stature in the future.

I missed the Joshua Redman trio set at the Crystal Ballroom, but special guest reviewer, Charley Korns described this set aptly: “The day he played at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, Joshua Redman was a tad distracted, in a good way. His son turned two that day. The matter of age seemed to be weighing on Redman. When someone in the crowd acknowledged him as one of the “young lions” of jazz, Redman was quick to say that he’s not young anymore, having turned 39 this month, but that his son is indeed a young lion. That comment drew some chuckles from the audience, most of who appeared to have ten or twenty years on the Berkeley-raised tenor/soprano saxophonist. Redman and the rest of his acoustic trio, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Brian Blade, quickly turned their focus to their instruments and kicked off the 90-minute show with The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, the first tune from Redman’s Grammy-nominated album, Back East.

As Redman, Rogers and Blade transitioned from one tune to the next, old-timers in the crowd may have flashed back to the sound of the piano less quartet that Sonny Rollins was working with in the late 50’s. Rollins’s 1957 release Way Out West established the piano less bass-sax-drum configuration. The Redman trio night at the Crystal included several tunes from Back East, which takes a refreshing detour from Redman’s previous work with his Elastic band. Redman dedicated what turned out to be my favorite tune of the night, “Zarafah,” to his mother. His ethereal introduction on his soprano eventually gives way to a sweet integration as the bass and drums begin to flirt. The tune starts out as a gentle melody that could charm snakes and ends up with the poignancy to charm any species that happens to be in listening range. Check out a YouTube performance of this track from North Sea Jazz in Rotterdam last year, and you’ll see what I mean.

Redman would play a couple of tunes and then name the last one and the next one, graciously acknowledging the crowd. When the tempo picked up, so did Redman’s knees, pumping to the rhythm in a very physical exertion; the man was having fun. The evening ended with an encore of Just Like You, which Redman dedicated to his son and his father, Dewey Redman, a free style sax artist who died in 2006. It was a night that honored three generations of Redman’s and left fans wanting more.”

Truly straight ahead jazz fans were also feted with performances by the estimable Bill Charlap Trio, doing  impeccable interpretations of the Great American Songbook composers, as well as a vocal evening with Portland’s own, Nancy King and Kurt Elling, both masters of scat singing.

I caught just a bit of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra-who had an invigorating salsa crowd dancing throughout the Crystal Ballroom in ecstasy.

The closing night of the Festival was made special by the funkalicious tight band of brother Maceo Parker, the alto sax genius of James Brown’s famed band. Maceo’s band was non-stop booty-shaking soul funk and his trombone and trumpet players were perfect foils, as was his electric Hammond player.

The true ending to the Festival were the closing night performances at Schnitzer Concert Hall by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, whose eclectic set backed by the gorgeous strings of the Oregon Symphony were a fitting conclusion to this year’s Portland Jazz Festival. It was a Festival that crossed all boundaries of the wide circle of the world of jazz styles – our great American art form.

As a teaser for next year’s Festival, Royston announced that it will be a tribute to Blue Note Records, for whom 2009 will be their 70th anniversary as well as their 25th year of revival in 1984, lead by Bruce Lundvall. It promises to be a blend of both the few remaining Blue Note legendary artists from the 1950s-1960s as well as the present Blue Note roster of artists. It surely bodes well for next year’s Festival and the presence that the Portland Jazz Festival has brought to both the Northwest, and as well as becoming a major national jazz festival in the U.S.

— Jeff Krow & Charley Korns      All photos Copyright 2008 Mark Sheldon


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