Five unusually sunny days and a sumptuous solo performance by Cecil Taylor before at least 2000 absorbed listeners marked the first weekend of the fourth annual Portland Jazz Festival. Deconstructions by musicians and critics of the words “swing,” “jazz,” “sound” and “music” demonstrated this was a high ol’ time. What should we call it? Propulsive compositional improvisation?
Alto saxophonist-composer Tim Berne and trumpeter Cuong Vu (who uses electronic processing quite creatively in Myra Melford’s Be Bread quintet) questioned the power of words, suggesting in panel discussions held amidst concerts that terms commonly applied to their creative endeavors keep audiences away, rather than draw them, and limit understanding.
But to my mind, “jazz” and “swing” ought to be celebrated and clarified as capacious concepts, not cliches. Cecil Taylor’s very rich and uniquely meditative performance, more than an hour and including his reading of a hard-to-decipher prose poem, was not “jazz” or “swing” in any historically-applied sense, but contained the elusive essence of what those words represent, and thus expanded on their historic meaning to arrive at a refreshed idea of what the words and concepts can contain. I’m not alone in thinking so; just read how the Portland-centric Art Scatter blog, run by Vernon Peterson, got into the “Jazz Conversation” I engaged at the fest with Ornette and Denardo Coleman.
Did I mention Powell’s Books is one of the few places where readers can find volumes they never knew their favorite writers had written? That Stumptown Coffee delivers great flavor even without dark roasting? That the Columbia River gorge, at least as far as Starvation Creek which I explored, is spectacular? That there’s another weekend of the Portland Jazz Fest to come, with the duet of vocalists Nancy King and Kurt Elling among top attractions? howardmandel.com
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