Further reflections on highlights of the festival’s first weekend:
Gonzalo Rubalcaba opened the first major concert of the festival with a band of young sidemen who are in the thick of the latterday New York Latin jazz explosion that is producing some of the most important music of the new century. The virtuoso pianist’s quintet is twice or three times removed from the Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie generation but it has a distinct bebop lineage, particularly in the ensembles. The rhythms are manifestations of the various Cuban traditions of which Rubalcaba is a master. The Rubalcaba band’s melding of the two strains produces harmonic astringency and irresistible time feeling. Alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry, bassist Yunior Terry and drummer Ernesto Simpson are Rubalcaba’s fellow Cubans. Trumpeter Michael Rodriguez is a New Yorker fully immersed in the Latin mainstream and, like Terry, a soloist who seems bound to become a major figure.
A typical piece in a Rubalcaba concert begins with the pianist unaccompanied in a meditation at the keyboard. Gradually, his playing takes on rhythmic character that intensifies as bass and drums undergird the time. Trumpet and alto saxophone express the melodic line harmonized or in unison, then solo at length. In some pieces there are drum or bass solos. Rubalcaba often chooses to go last in the solo sequence.
The other night, Yosvany Terry blew billows and clusters of notes with a vigor that often bordered on ferocity. Rodriguez was more considered in his note choices but played with nearly equal force and with excursions into the stratospheric range that seems to be standard equipment for young trumpeters. Simpson’s roiling drum patterns urged them on. There may be no pianist at work today with more technique than Rubalcaba. He astonishes listeners with his command of the instrument. And yet, when he solos following the elation of a drum, bass, trumpet or saxophone solo by one of his sidemen, the level of passion drops. It may be that he means to create contrast. In any case, for all of the beauty of his playing, in his solos the emotional level of the music subsides. Judging by their reaction, the Portland audience didn’t notice that, or it didn’t matter to them. Rubalcaba and the band received thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
The second half of the opening night concert was trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard’s post-hurricane lament for his home town, New Orleans. As in the CD of the work, “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)” presented Blanchard’s quintet and a 40-piece orchestra. Written by Blanchard and members of his band, the music expresses the grief, anger and frustration that dominated the city in the wake of Katrina and the Bush administration’s botched response to the disaster. Painfully, New Orleans is recovering from both. A thirteen-movement suite, “A Tale of God’s Will” has uplifting moments as well as dirges, but Blanchard delivered the uplift on waves of anger expressed not only in his playing, but also in spoken sentiments onstage. Still, passages of quiet beauty remain in the mind, notably in Aaron Parks’ “Ashé” and in “Dear Mom,” Blanchard’s portrayal of his mother’s ordeal in the flooding of New Orleans.
Blanchard’s orchestral writing, still evolving, sometimes bypasses the potential for harmonic depth and variety in the string section, but when he brings in the brass, he achieves moments of swelling grandeur. It is mystifying why Blanchard or the concert producer thought it was necessary to amplify the orchestra. In the good acoustics of Schnitzer Hall, the balance between soloists and orchestra would have been better au naturale. Blanchard’s excessive use of slurs and scoops in his playing has always disturbed me. In “Levees,” with its echoes of “St. James Infirmary,” the slurs were effective. Nonetheless, as they accumulated through the concert, they amounted to a distraction.
Bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott have been with Blanchard for some time. Pianist Fabian Almazan and young tenor saxophonist Walter Smith are new to the band. All played beautifully in a work whose substance should give it a life beyond its timeliness as commentary on a tragedy.
In her concert at the Schnitzer, Dianne Reeves did what she does best. She sang good songs simply. Accompanied by her trio and the Oregon Symphony orchestra conducted by Gregory Vajda, Reeves avoided the gospel and soul affectations that have sometimes marred her work and employed her glorious voice in the interpretation of standards appropriate to Valentine’s Day. She included “I Remember Sarah,” which she wrote with Billy Childs, and followed it with an engagingly self-deprecating anecdote about her first encounter with Sarah Vaughan, her idol, when Reeves was a teenager.
Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born” and Gerhswin’s “Embraceable You” were high points. Both had affecting piano solos by Peter Martin. Martin, with her other longtime trio members bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Kendrick Scott, backed Reeves with what may have been extrasensory perception. It was, hands down, the best I have ever heard her sing. Reeves’ performance was an emotional experience for her and her audience.
At the Portland Art Museum, guitarist John Scofield had bassist Matt Penman and drummer Bill Stewart in his trio. With the tonal qualities of a hip hurdy-gurdy, his daring intervals and thrilling runs, Scofield delivered a concert packed with intensity and good-natured swing. Continuing his ubiquitousness, Joe Lovano sat in with his old friend and recording partner for a not-quite-impromptu meeting of their mutual admiration society. Lovano, who evidently either never forgets a tune or can absorb and perform one simultaneously, was in lockstep with Scofield on complex melody lines. They had a great time entertaining one another and the audience. Penman and Stewart were in equally fine fettle.
Meanwhile, at the Art Bar of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, the cooperative trio of tenor saxophonist John Gross, pianist Dave Frishberg and drummer Charlie Doggett were playing to a modest crowd until the Scofield concert ended. Then, the bar in the PCPA atrium filled up with thirsty musicians and others, some of whom paid attention to the music, which was a good idea, because it was remarkable. Gross, who made his mark in the most avant garde band Shelly Manne ever had, is a tenor saxophonist who calmly and with a rich tone plays iconoclastic ideas. Frishberg is a celebrated performer of his own songs whose policy is never to sing in Portland, his home town. He does, however, accept gigs there as a pianist. He is one of the best pianists in the mainstream. Doggett is a young drummer who accommodates himself to the extremes of Gross’s and Frishberg’s styles and helps fuse the trio into a cohesive and coherent group. I had to come and go during their three hours on the stand, but heard their performances of Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now;” Gary McFarland’s “Blue Hodge;” Bob Brookmeyer’s “Dirty Man;” and three Ellington pieces, “Dancers in Love,” “Strange Feeling” and “Scronch.” Some of those are on their only CD, which I have recommended before and recommend again. It was a pleasure to hear them in person.
That’s enough for now. In the third and final installment of this Portland report, I’ll give you a few words on McCoy Tyner, Don Byron and Lionel Loueke.
Portland Jazz Festival, Part 2
Further reflections on highlights of the festival’s first weekend: