Portland Jazz Festival, Take One: Chuck Israels

(Portland, Oregon) The Portland Jazz Festival’s two-week extravaganza has been filling this Columbia River city with music since February 17. For the duration, concert halls, restaurants, hotel lounges and Portland’s flourishing year-‘round jazz clubs ring with music. Concerts, seminars, workshops and jam sessions run from shortly after dawn until the wee hours. To see the schedule, go here. Dedicated festival pass holders who have attended nearly everything tell me that highlights in the early days included performances by two trumpeters, the audacious Italian Enrico Rava with his band called Tribe, and Thara Memory, the veteran educator being honored as 2012’s Portland Jazz Master. There is lingering excitement about alto saxophonist Charles McPherson’s Monday concert in tribute to Lester Young and Charlie Parker.

Name performers from elsewhere are booked into the big theaters and performance halls. Musicians from the Pacific Northwest, some of whom have developed followings outside the region, play in clubs like Touché, Jimmy Mak’s, Brasserie Montmartre and Ivories. Portland’s jazz clubs seem to be flourishing—at least staying afloat—despite the lousy economy that has sunk counterparts in bigger cities. That is an indicator of the high degree of Oregonians’ interest in the music. The enthusiasm for jazz has attracted notable musicians to move here, most recently the New York pianist George Colligan. Pianist-songwriter Dave Frishberg, pianist Randy Porter and drummer Todd Strait have lived here for years. Bassist, composer and arranger Chuck Israels chose Portland as home base not long ago.

Israels, the bassist in the Bill Evans Trio for nearly six years, came here after 20 years as director of jazz studies at Western Washington. He has put together an eight-piece band primarily dedicated to playing his arrangements of pieces written by Evans or strongly associated with the Evans trio. My introduction to this edition of the Portland festival was the Israels band’s performance last night at a new club, Ivories, in the Pearl District. The octet is composed of some of the city’s most accomplished players. Cryptically, Israels told the packed house about the challenge of moving Evans’ music to an ensemble setting: “One man; lots of fingers. Eight men; many more fingers, many brains.”

Translating the music from Evans’ fingers through eighty fingers and eight brains requires more than technical ability in playing and writing, although it requires plenty of that. It demands an understanding of and feeling for the underlying impulses and emotions in the music. Last night was one of those occasions on which an audience’s concentration and approval is palpable well beyond its applause. We were feeling what the musicians felt in the profundity, beauty and joy of Evans’ music. After a demanding baritone-tenor-alto sax soli recreating Evans’ solo on “Show Type Tune” tailed off into a quiet conclusion by piano and cymbals, there was a collective intake of breath before the applause began. Earlier in the piece, trombonist John Moak executed the melody of the tune’s bridge section with exuberance so pronounced, so right, that it lit the room with smiles. “Beautiful Love,” “Elsa,” “Waltz For Debby,” “Israel” and “My Foolish Heart” were among the pieces in which Israels translated the rhythmic and harmonic complexities in Evans piano solo into intricately crafted ensembles for five horns. Israels’ daughter Jessica sang “Waltz For Debby” and his wife Margot Hanson “My Foolish Heart,” in arrangements made so that although the lyrics were perfectly clear, their voices were integrated into the ensemble sound, to great effect.

The photos, provided by Diane Mitchell and her iPad, show the band at Ivories. The second one finds the leader exulting following a performance that pleased him.

Emphasis may be on arrangements based on Evans solos, but Chuck Israels’ Jazz Orchestra is also a soloists’ band. There were impressive solos by all members. They are Chuck Israels, leader, arranger, bass; Dan Gaynor, piano; Todd Strait, drums; Robert Crowell, baritone sax and bass clarinet; David Evans, tenor sax and clarinet; John Nastos, alto sax and flute; Paul Mazzio, trumpet and flugelhorn; John Moak, trombone. This band is worthy of being on a festival main stage.

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  1. says

    Thank you for posting on Chuck Israels. I’ve been a fan of his ever since I first heard him on Bill Evans’s recordings. Translating Bill’s music through that many “fingers” as you say must have been a challenge. Thanks for your post!