Portland Jazz Festival, Part 1

The sagging economy has led the Portland Jazz Festival to cancel one of the major concerts of its final weekend. Artistic director Bill Royston announced that for the first time in his 32-year-career as a jazz impresario he was pulling the plug on a primary event. Advance sales to a Friday night concert by singer Cassandra Wilson and pianist Jason Moran amounted to about 400 seats in a 3000-seat hall in downtown Portland. Royston called the cancellation “an arduous decision.” 

Despite difficult economic times, Royston (pictured) said, overall attendance at the two-week

Royston.jpgfestival so far has been down only twelve percent compared with the 2008 festival. Tickets for the Wilson-Moran concert lagged despite Ms. Wilson having won a Grammy award last week. Royston said that other weekend concerts will go on. Among the headliners are Bobby Hutcherson, Lou Donaldson, Aaron Parks, Pat Martino, Jane Bunnett and Kurt Elling.

Last weekend, it seemed that, except for a few empty rows in the backs of the halls, the concerts were well attended. Portland’s weather, which can be rainy at this time of year, was cold and dry, making for exhilarating trips through downtown between concert halls, clubs and restaurants. Since I last attended the Portland festival in 2007, it has made a significant improvement in the way it presents music. The prime-time evening concerts now take place not in hotel ballrooms with boomy acoustics and frustrating sight lines, but in performance halls designed for satisfying aural and visual experiences.

“We’ve grown in that regard,” Royston told me. “It was time.” Most of the concerts were in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, home of the Oregon Symphony, or in the auditorium of the Portland Art Museum. One exception to the no-hotel policy was a concert in the Pavilion Ballroom of the Portland Hilton. In the gargantuan ballroom in the hotel’s nether regions in previous years, performances were all but unlistenable. The Pavilion is a cozier hall with good acoustics and a lovely little stage. 

Before I give you brief impressions of what I heard, I must observe that the festival’s eye-catching logo should do wonders for the hairdessing and soprano saxophone industries.

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In recognition of Blue Note Records’ 70th anniversary, the festival was heavily populated by musicians signed to that label, with Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall and executive producer Michael Cuscuna avuncular presences through most of the weekend. Cuscuna was on several panels. Introducing one concert, he said, “My voice is going. They’ve had me talking since I got off the plane two days ago.”

My first event was an hour chatting with Joe Lovano and an audience. Lovano might be described as the festival’s house saxophonist. In an introduction, Royston called him ubiquitous. As articulate and interesting talking about music as he is playing it, Lovano participated in four concerts and two extended gabfests, in addition to unofficial and

Lovano.jpg entertaining after-hours discussions at the bar. At the art museum, he unveiled a new group called Joe Lovano Us 5, previewing Folk Art, the CD they will release in May.

With a wireless microphone on his horn, roaming the stage, bear dancing, conducting with body language, Lovano was riveting to hear and fascinating to watch. The band had James Weidman at the piano, Michael Formanek on bass, and two drummers, Francesco Mela and Gerry Hemingway. Lovano was the star, but inventive interaction among all hands was the rule. The drummers did not engage in battles, but traded the primary percussion role and had drum conversations in which listening was as crucial as reacting. With Hemingway and Mela, it was a cooperative venture in rhythm and mutual appreciation, the opposite of one-upmanship. The same principle applied in interchanges between Lovano and the drummers, between Formanek and Lovano, between Weidman and the drummers. The pieces, all Lovano compositions, were mostly new but also included the ballad “The Dawn of Time,” recorded on his Symphonica and Universal Language CDs. Here, it took on new levels of abstraction. 

The interaction continued and intensified when Lovano’s wife Judi Silvano sat in. A vocalist of

Silvano.jpg astonishing range, control and accuracy, she and her husband improvised melodic lines in unison, paralleling one another with timing tighter than split-second. Two nights later, in her own concert, Silvano sang with Lovano, Formanek and Hemingway as her sidemen. A dancer, Silvano uses gestures, eye movement, turns of the head and subtleties of shoulder motion as she does wordless singing that seems like speech, captivating audiences for whom music so experimental and daring might otherwise be mystifying. 

Preceding Lovano at the Friday night concert were pianist Jacky Terrasson and his trio. Terrasson played a succession of pieces in which the hard edge of his technique 

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ruled. For all of his considerable harmonic knowledge, the piano under Terrasson’s hands was primarily a percussion instrument. Even an original ballad with melodic touches suggesting “Skylark” developed into an exhibition of keyboard power. Toward the end of his set, he reverted to subtlety in the development of a calypso piece that had harmonic suggestions of Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas.” Building on astringent harmonies, Terrasson constructed a towering edifice of sound. As he shifted back down, it turned out that the piece had indeed been “St. Thomas” all along. He simply chose to withhold its identity until the end, a surprise the audience accepted with enthusiasm.

One evening following a concert, I walked twenty blocks or so to the Pearl District, where drummer John Bishop, guitarist John Stowell and bassist Jeff Johnson were playing at the Rogue Pub. I found them in a corner with their backs to plate glass windows on two sides, playing to a packed house of Portlanders in a mood to celebrate, drinking lots of Rogue ale. About six of the patrons were listening through the loud conversations of the other hundred or so. Stowell, who is capable of the greatest refinement in his playing, cranked up his amp, Johnson and Bishop adjusted their volumes accordingly, and the trio known as Scenes wailed. All of the tunes I heard them do, with the exception of “Solar,” were original compositions by members of the band and all of them were intriguing. During a break, I asked Bishop how he liked working under those conditions. “Great,” he said. “it’s a gig.” They are easier to hear on their CD, which also includes tenor saxophonist Rick Mandyck.ore on the Portland festival in the next post. 







For now, to quote Dave Frishberg, who had a sideman role at the festival, I gotta get me some Zs. It was a long weekend, and it’s catching up with me.
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  1. says

    A good summation of my impressions as well, Doug. Good to see you there, and great to hear Joe Lovano at length. He’s truly one of the most intriguing saxophonists of this era, and Us5 was clearly one of the highlights of the first weekend, though his guest appearance with John Scofield’s Trio ranks up there as well. Sound people in Schnitzer seemed to be having their problems. I thought amplification of the orchestra during the Terence Blanchard concert was not only unnecessary, but degraded the experience. The music was wonderful, but grainy amplification detracted from my enjoyment. Sound was generally good at the Art Museum Ballroom, and more pleasant concert experiences.
    (Mr. Wilke is the proprietor of the syndicated Jazz After Hours program of Public Radio International. See the URL link above; his name in red, underlined — DR)

  2. says

    Those few in the know are fully aware that SOLAR is NOT Miles’ tune. The musician who created it is CHUCK WAYNE.( Now deceased for 4-5 years). He was my dear friend as his his widow, Diane.
    Chuck tried for years to reclaim it from Miles but in vain! It;s not the only tune Miles STOLE!! His widow can produce the original chart. Chuck titled it, “Sunny”.
    Ever hear this truth?
    (Yes. I have known that for decades. When John Stowell introduced “Solar” the other night, he credited Chuck Wayne. I saw no point in distracting from my review of the music by Scenes to refuel that old controversy. It is what it is. — DR)

  3. Dan says

    Next Festival might be better served with better promotion.
    What little I heard about it, led me to think it was comming up shortly.
    One of the things I looked forward too after a 20 year absence and I missed it.