In music, as in much else, Portland welcomes the eclectic and the exotic. Saturday, the ninth day of the Portland Jazz Festival gave listeners much to welcome at the Crystal ballroom. In that bastion of eclecticism on the edge of the Pearl District, Vijay Iyer, an American pianist of Indian heritage, joined with Prasanna, a South Indian guitarist, and Nitin Mitta, a tabla player whose background is in classical music of North India. They call their group Tirtha, which translates as “feeling.” Many of the pieces they played were from the 2011 album of that name. The record brought additional attention to Iyer, who was already being heralded as a rising star of his instrument.
Iyer, Prasanna and Mitta do not fuse jazz and Indian elementsa la John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra or his later band called Shaktiso much as intertwine and transform them. Perhaps the presence of the piano is what makes the difference, but I rather suspect it’s the fact that Iyer is the one playing it. When Prassana was developing a sitar-like solo, Iyer and Mitta were likely to be churning complex contrapuntal lines beneath him. Prasanna and Mitta did the same for Iyer. Not infrequently, the three improvised collectively, listening closely to one another and reacting to the subtlest changes. The piano is a percussion instrument, and Iyer frequently used it as if it were an extension of Mitta’s tabla, echoing or amplifying the drummer’s patterns. During Iyer’s piece “Falsehood” when he played a passage that evoked a “Maiden Voyage’ mysticism, Mitta responded with 32nd-note ripples across the surfaces of his drums, emulating melody.
The music had the feel of jazz, including riffs, bebop phrasing over bluesy chords or classical Hindustani drones, and humor. By their appearance, many in the audience looked as if they had first-hand knowledge of Indian music. Prasanna grinned slightly as he injected an unlikely quote from “My Favorite Things” into a solo that had much of the character of a raga. Deadly serious about what they were hearing, no listeners I could see betrayed even the trace of a smile. Perhaps puzzled by all those somber visages, after one piece Iyer said to the crowd, “This is American music.” It is. That does not mean that it is not also Indian music. It is music.
Bill Frisell’s second main stage concert of the festival began with a solo recital. Introducing his fellow instrumentalist, Portland guitar hero Dan Balmer stressed that Frisell’s originality equals his technical ability and his appeal. Frisell demonstrated. He employed the controls at his feet to set up a continuous overtone as the background for a folksy melody with chordal movement suggestive of “Amazing Grace.” As the overtone faded after a few minutes, Frisell introduced dissonance. By the time he ended the piece, it had grown in harmonic interest and structural complexity without losing the simple charm he gave it at the start. It was a microcosm of the Frisell modus operandi.
In the course of the unaccompanied set, Frisell explored variations on “I Got Rhythm” and two pieces by Thelonious Monk, “Epistrophy” and “Crepuscule With Nellie.” He announced the names of none of the selections. He played a song that swung from phrase to phrase like country gospel; one that ended with a cascade of sparkling notes; one marinated in pedal tones; and a piece that suggested a full orchestra complete with counterpoint across horn and string sections. Frisell’s stage persona is quiet and shy, but he wears red slippers, and socks with bold horizontal stripes.
Back for the second set, Frisell said, “I feel safe now because I have my friends with me.” The friends were his colleagues in the 358 Quartet, cellist Hank Roberts, violist Eyvind Kang and violinist Jennie Scheinman. They played music from the album Sign Of Life, beginning with “It’s a Long Story.” The piece, with its phrase from the sea shanty “Blow The Man Down,” established the folk-like character that underlay much of the music and is deceptive. This is contemporary chamber music rich in classical influences. Those influences include minimalism found in composers like Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt and John Adams.
The music is also jazz. “Old Times” morphed from something akin to a hoedown into a blues tag ending, then into what sounded like free playing, though at that point the quartet was reading. In another piece (again, no title announcements), Frisell, Scheinman and Kang set up an irresistible groove under, in and around a Roberts pizzicato solo that gained force as the ensemble dug in. Winding down, Kang’s viola gave a whiff of the Scottish highlands. He and Scheinman both soloed spectacularly during the course of the set. With this music, it’s best not to look for labels. One of the striking aspects of the group is the fullness of the ensemble sound. It is electronically assisted, however subtly, by Frisell’s amplified guitar, but much of the power comes from the swing he implies in his accompaniments.
Following a standing ovation (the Portland festival audience does not restrain its enthusiasm), Frisell and the 358s paid tribute to John Lennon with a medley of “Strawberry Fields” and “All We Are Saying.” Its highlights were a funky Frisell sequence employing guitar distortion and considerable quartet volume that tailed off into quietness, leaving a hush before the theater broke out in applause and cheers.
PORTLAND JAZZ QUINTET
In one of the festival’s sidebar events, the Portland Jazz Quintet appeared at Ivories Jazz Lounge. Led by trumpeter Dick Titterington, the band formerly known as PDXV (I miss that name) has become increasingly impressive. Its repertoire contains pieces written by band members and arrangements of others by mainstream pioneers including Joe Henderson, Nat Adderley, Kenny Dorham and Harold Land. I arrived in time to hear the final set by Titterington, saxophonist Rob Davis, pianist Greg Goebel, drummer Todd Strait and bassist Scott Steed subbing for Dave Captein. They tackled John Scofield’s “Dance Me Home,” Adderley’s “Work Song” and “Dat Dere,” and two by Goebel, “Sunny in Berlin” and “Three For Insurance.” Titterington was impressive in his feature of the set, “Red Giant,” Dick Oatts’ tribute to the late Red Rodney. They closed with Henderson’s “Our Thing,” the demanding line executed at top speed, the ensemble precision typical of this band, the solos satisfying. The PJQ is dedicated to hard bop and does it extremely well. For a Rifftides review of a previous, collaborative, venture by the band, go here.