Portland Festival, Take Five: Marsalis-Calderazzo Duo, Brubeckians

MARSALIS AND CALDERAZZO

Parts of Brandford Marsalis’s and Joey Calderazzo’s Sunday concert of saxophone-piano duets suggested the atmosphere of a 19th century recital somewhere in middle Europe. The beauty of Calderazzo’s “La Valse Kendall,” Marsalis’s “The Bard Lachrymose” and the short “Die Trauernde” of Brahms encouraged quiet reflection. These are jazz musicians, however—two of the most adventuresome—and a complete afternoon of stately salon music wasn’t in the cards. The impression they left the capacity crowd in Portland’s Newmark Theater was of good friends enjoying the rewards and risks of spontaneous creation.

Some of the music was from their 2011 album Songs Of Mirth And Melancholy. Calderazzo’s “Bri’s Dance” was, among other things, a reminder of the richness of Marsalis’s soprano sax tone, which is wide and nearly without vibrato. It was also an occasion for Calderazzo to unleash the Bach in his left hand and lead into a round of give-and-take exchanges with Marsalis that gained in both rhythm and precision as the action unfolded. Their performance of “Eternal” was at least as long as the 18-minute one on the 2003 Marsalis quartet album of that name and gave, if anything, an even more intimate tug on the emotions. Calderazzo’s loping 16-bar composition “One Way” has the character of something Sonny Rollins might have thought of in his “Way Out West” days. Marsalis’s tenor playing on it had that playful spirit

In a decidedly non-middle-European interpretation of Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” Marsalis took a tenor saxophone side trip through a quote from Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” Whether it was a convolution in the quote or something else that initiated a skipped beat, they collided in an oops moment that caused them to laugh as they suspended motion for a split second to put the time back in place. A tag ending led Marsalis into a repeated phrase that worked into a bit of “Jumping With Symphony Sid.” When the bout ended, both men seemed amused. Soloing in an earlier, unannounced, piece, Calderazzo’s left hand toyed with variations on stride patterns while his right fooled around with boldly reharmonized suggestions of “Cheek to Cheek,” bringing a wry smile from Marsalis.

Introducing his composition “Hope” as their encore, Calderazzo said that since the death of tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker in 2007, “Branford is the only one I want to hear do this.” On soprano sax, Marsalis alternately soared and subsided into quietness that had the audience holding its breath until the last long note died away.

BRUBECK INSTITUTE JAZZ QUINTET

The Brubeck Institute of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, sent a contingent to Portland. Simon Rowe, the institute’s new director, was in charge, but the front men were the current edition of the institute’s quintet. From the Marsalis-Calderazzo concert I hurried a few blocks to Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall to hear them. When I arrived, they were in the midst of free playing that seemed to have the odd mixture of wildness and self discipline required to make unstructured music succeed and—important point—they were having a good time. More important point—so was the audience. Audiences don’t, always, when they are listening to free jazz. I wanted to hear what made San Francisco Chronicle critic Jesse Hamlin describe this student group as “sensational” after they played a few days ago at a concert in memory of San Francisco drummer Eddie Marshall.

When they tackled “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” I got an idea about what excited Hamlin. Dave Brubeck’s famous 1959 tune is in 9/8, a time signature that used to make grown men cry but is now part of the water that young jazz players swim in. They took it fast and negotiated the complicated ensembles without a flaw. When the piece made transitions to 4/4/ time for solos, everyone improvised well, even daringly. I could quibble that in the heat of the moment a soloist or two packed in an oversupply of notes, but that is not a temptation unique to young players. Soloists of all ages and levels of experience succumb to it. Each musician stretched himself in a piece that in its blowing sections, after all, is just a good old blues in F. There was some outrageous and enthusiastic chance-taking. As far as I could hear, it all worked. It was their final number. I would like to have heard more, but based on the evidence of one performance of “Blue Rondo,” indications are that the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet is worthy of their namesake. You may care to take note of who they are on the likelihood that you’ll come across their names again: Alec Watson, piano; Tree Palmedo, trumpet; Bill Vonderhaar, bass; Rane Roatta, tenor saxophone; and Malachi Whitson, drums.

Listening to those young investments in the future of music was a fine way to end a good five days at the Portland Jazz Festival.

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