The 2011 Portland Jazz Festival

by | Mar 3, 2011 | Special Features | 0 comments

This year’s Portland Jazz Festival (sponsored by Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air and presented by U.S. Bank) was built around an unusual theme that had been in the talking stage for seven years – Bridges and Boundaries – with its subtitle: Jewish & African Americans Playing Jazz. There was concern that top artists coming to Portland would reinforce the premise and locals artists and organizations would join in. No problem – both the Jewish and African American communities rallied with some great ideas and the visiting artists fit perfectly into the theme of jazz breaking down racial and cultural differences.

Among local events were a Gospel Brunch at one location the first Sunday morning, followed by a Klezmer Brunch the next Sunday at a local synagogue. One of the several panel discussions was on Jewish & African Americans Beyond the Music, and the Oregon Jewish Museum hosted a showing of two films on performer John Zorn.  Portland middle schools saw performances of “The Incredible Journey of Jazz" in celebration of Black History Month. There were many local Portland performances in both afternoons and evenings during the entire Festival, from February 18 thru 27.

The main box office concerts started off with pianist-composer Randy Weston in a rare solo piano concert.  He is known for his longtime exploration of African music and jazz.

Pianist Anat Fort made a huge impression at the Portland Jazz Festival on Saturday. Israeli-born, she was inspired (like countless others) by the music of John Coltrane, spending the last several years in New York, studying and developing jazz compositions. Touring in support of her 2010 CD, And If, Fort and her trio (bassist Gary Wong and drummer Roland Schneider) performed a ten song, ninety minute set of improvisational jazz that showcased her considerable talent. They appeared at the Winningstad Theatre on February 19.

The set confirmed the rapport of the trio (together for twelve years), as they sailed through complicated arrangements that traversed many jazz and classical styles. The cohesion of the bass and drums allowed Fort to develop a wide variety of inventiveness, not unlike Keith Jarrett. A highlight was “Something About Camels” which began with a fluttering bowed bass and a plucking harp-like riff on the piano strings. The piece segues into a hypnotic rhythm as the piano weaves a Middle Eastern theme that goes through tempo shifts (including a spirited drum solo) and melodic patterns. The trio percolates on “Nu” (a Yiddish rhetorical), brandishing a torrent of crisp, menacing runs that exhibit a halting cadence. Inspired by her new homeland, two songs, “Minnesota” and “Lanesboro” are plaintive, elegant hymnals that evoke the earnest lyricism of the heartland.   Above all, her bravura technique was on display in cascading flourishes, or with delicate nuance.

Portland’s own Dave Frishberg was the next front-liner at the Festival.  His concert was a special treat for Portlanders because he has had a practice of only accompanying vocalists or playing in bands here without ever singing any of his often hilarious songs in the style of Bob Dorough and Mose Allison. The primary interest is not in the beauty of the voice or delivery, but in its witty/crotchety personality and delivery of the hip and intellectual lyrics. This time his entire program was his own songs, including one his former performing partner Blossom Dearie had composed and he created the lyrics for.  Naturally he had to do his "Van Lingo Mungo" song listing the myriad baseball players of many years ago. Perhaps his reluctance to sing his own songs is influenced by his difficulty remembering all of the lyrics – he informed us he short-changed us 16 bars of his hit “My Attorney Bernie.”  My favorite was one of his songs which is included on one of his many CDs available at his web site, but which was new to me – “Not the Hopi Way.”  It lists all the bad things some people do today, but then observes that he wouldn’t do them because “It’s not the Hopi Way” – accompanied by Native American drumming figurations on the piano.

Don Byron was the next headliner at the Festival. The clarinetist and reed man is known for his thorough researching of various somewhat offbeat areas of music and then giving us his unique jazz take on them.  One of his previous efforts was the music of Raymond Scott, which he promoted as “Bug Music,” and released on a Nonesuch album. This time it was the music of the Jewish Spike Jones, Mickey Katz.  The work of this klezmer pioneer (who was also Jones’ bandleader) and comedian is often hilarious and well worth reviving for non-Jewish listeners.

Ah, Esperanza Spalding.  Director Don Lucoff observed that the Jazz Festival couldn’t have asked for a better promotion than Esperanza winning a Grammy for best new artist.  Her concert sold out immediately of course, and it didn’t hurt a bit that she was already the Festival’s new Artistic & Community Ambassador.  The widespread popularity of her new “Chamber Music Society” CD also fit in well.

She has a terrific stage presence and blends many different musical influences with jazz in her vocals and bass playing. She opened and closed her concert relaxing with a glass of wine in a living room setup in a corner of the stage.

The crowd at the Alberta Rose Theatre was told to expect something different on the night of February 25th. Returning to the venue that introduced them to the American jazz scene, Nick Bartsch’s Ronin Quintet did exactly that. Combining frenetic displays of polyrhythmic structures and minimalist instrumentation, jazz enthusiasts were treated to a ninety minute set of “zen funk” or “ritual groove”. With precision, Bartsch demonstrated an exploratory approach to the acoustic piano, playing the keyboard and internal strings. Various original songs (from the latest release, Llyria) with melody lines developed by the textured play of reedist Sha (alto saxophone/bass clarinet), were countered or coalesced with the piano notation, especially high register trills. This created a crisp layered effect with sustained repetition, energized by a driving, groove- inhabited rhythm section (bass, drums and percussion). There were also melodic interludes as the numbers seem to be constructed in movements. Without any discernable soloing, Bartsch and Sha offered counterpoint, trailing and dual leads that pushed the sonic limits of their instruments. Invariably, the ensemble improvisation would recharge to a climactic finish or a slowly descending fade. The percussion was forceful and subtle, never incongruous to the flow.

Presentation was front and center as backlight “stage smoke”, strobe lights and purple neon brought a level of showmanship not always present at jazz concerts. The band (all dressed in black) exuded a neo-expressionist countenance, while their pulsating hypnotic ambiance recalled the groundbreaking work of 1970s Pink Floyd, Soft Machine or Tangerine Dream.

Blue Cranes, Portland’s own indie jazz ensemble, delighted their exuberant fan base with a vibrant performance. Relying on the clout of double saxophones (tenor and alto), the ensemble combined their muscled, orchestral themes with a crowd pleasing hard rock downbeat. Continuing in their repertoire, the group added a string trio (cello, viola and violin) on a moving opus, “Soldier”. Eventually the band swelled to a four horn soul chorus on the closing number. The Blue Cranes will be embarking on a month long cross country train tour in March.

The Three Cohens and the Afro-Semitic Experience shared the Saturday afternoon program on tehe 25th at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom.  Reedist Anat and trumper Avashai Cohen are based in New York City, while their brother Yuval remains most of the time in Israel.  Their pianist Aaron Goldberg and the rest of their band has been with them for some time, and their set was tight, super-swinging and exciting. Things got underway with a lengthy, rather quiet instrumental intro by their rhythm section, then the three Cohens paraded out and brought the house down with a strong front line on the hard-driving blues tune on their respective alto sax, trumpet and soprano sax. The second number was “Prayer” – an original by Anat, and a lovely contrast to the opening salvo. Yuval began with a fine soprano sax solo, followed by a long and varied solo from pianist Goldberg.  The third tune was dedicated to Charles Mingus, “The greatest of them all.”

Ellington’s “The Mooche” got a tremendous positive reaction from the audience for its hard-hitting updating of Duke’s original.  Each of the three Cohens took imaginative and virtuoso solos in turn, but Anat’s skills on the clarinet put her right up there in Artie Shaw territory as far as I’m concerned. After a barn-burner “Rhapsody in Blake” the Cohens gave us a complete change of pace with a short totally unaccompanied “How High the Moon” on their three horns.  Yuval’s “Freedom” was the penultimate tune of the long set, which featured an extended and creative exchange of bars between the piano and drummer Eric Harland.  The band closed out with “Shufla de Shufla” – having – according to Anat – something to do with shuffling in Israeli.

After the break, the stage was filled with The Afro-Semitic Experience – a sextet which has been doing their thing in Portland for 13 years but was new to me. Its founders are David Chevan and Warren Byrd.  It is a band of African-American and Jewish-American musicians (three of each) dedicated to preserve, promote and expand the rich cultural and musical heritage of both the Jewish and African Diasporas. Their music often mixes sounds from the two cultures: gospel, klezmer, nigunim, spirituals, bebop and swing.  They have taken part in church services throughout the country, and do workshops that go along with their concert program. One part of the workshop is a brief history of the use of sacred music and jazz.  The band featured a drummer and a conga player, and violinist Stacey Tulz also sometimes played dobro. As an example of their bridging stance, one of the original tunes they did is titled “A Torah Afloat in a Leaky Boat Lands in Congo Square.”

On the night following the Three Cohens in the afteroon we heard The San Francisco Jazz Collective – which holds a distinctive place as a jazz group. Begun in 2005, their purpose is to honor on a yearly basis, a jazz artist by writing new songs to honor their tribute choice, or to write new arrangements of some the artist’s own work. When their individual schedules permit the Collective travel to present their tributes live.

Since 2005, the SF Collective has honored McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, and Horace Silver. The group’s membership has changed over the years with the only original member being alto saxist, Miguel Zenon. Members have to be given an invitation to join the Collective and the present group includes Mark Turner on tenor sax, Robin Eubanks on trombone, pianist Edward Simon, vibist Stefon Harris, trumpeter, Avishai Cohen, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer, Eric Harland. They are all top tier players and most have led groups of their own.

This year’s tribute artist is a departure for the group as its honoree for the first time is not a jazz musician. They chose Stevie Wonder, for whom a jazz group to honor on first glance would be a surprise. Their tribute to Stevie in 2011 is just beginning and their set at the Newmark Theater on Saturday evening was the first public performance of their new compositions and arrangements. In fact, they are taking much of the month of March off from traveling and performing to “woodshed” and fine tune their new work.

You would not have known how “new” their Stevie Wonder material was as the five original tunes (including their encore) and four new arrangements  sounded fresh, grounded, and inspiring. Beginning with “My Cherie Amour” and including “Visions”, “Do I Do”, and “Superstition” the new arrangements used Stevie’s familiar melodies  to expand into fresh solos that showed the Collective’s strengths – ensemble work, bright solos, propulsive drum work by Eric Harland, and sensitive understated piano accompaniment by Edward Simon.

The new material included bassist Penman’s “Triple Threat” in which Robin Eubank’s solo and Zenon’s inspired playing stood out. Avishai Cohen showed off lyrical chops here as well. An unnamed Stefon Harris composition had just the rhythm section highlighted for a bit and Penman’s contribution was striking. Mark Turner’s tenor playing on both this track and others was noteworthy for its deeply felt plaintive soulful emoting. Turner’s new composition, “Brother Sister 2” showed his compositional talents.

What stood out most in the Collective’s tribute to Stevie Wonder was how “natural” his choice of a tribute artist is. Wonder’s lifetime body of work shows a joyfulness, sweetness, and highly rhythmic swing feel that the SF Collective captured well in live performance.

Jazz pianist Gerald Clayton performed by Tony Starlight’s the next night. He had two Grammy nominations and his new CD – Bond – will out in May on Decca. 

The Crystal Ballroom hosted jazz violinist Regina Carter that night.  Her program really tied in with the Festival theme since it centered around her discovery of a tribe of Ugandan Jews in Africa.  Her latest album – Reverse Threads – juxtaposes their indigenous folk music with a contemporary feel. 
Saxist Joshua Redman, the son of Dewey Redman, appeared the next afternoon with the rhythm section of the Three Cohens’ band.  Redman is involved with the San Francisco Jazz Festival and is part of the SF JAZZ Collective.  The final concert the last evening the Festival was saxist Maceo Parker – known for his funk sound and his long tenure with James Brown as well as Ray Charles.  He is considered one of the main figures in the history of funk.

And so ended a terrific festival focused on a courageous idea which worked out beautifully in giving the festival a new life and interest for many, as well as bringing people into it who may not have been previously served

— Reviews by Jeff Krow, Robbie Gerson, John Henry

— Photos (except Dave Frishberg) by Mark Sheldon


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