According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, Darrell Grant moved to the state in 1997, “in search of a place where his music could have a greater impact.” Not that the pianist had been ignored. He had worked for Roy Haynes, Tony Williams and Betty Carter, among others, and recorded successful albums as a leader. The encyclopedia article quotes him, “I was looking for a sense of community, a place where I could make a contribution and serve.”
Grant became a professor of music at Portland State University and began absorbing the history and culture of the city, the state and the region. His concert at the 2014 Portland Jazz Festival was a performance of his composition The Territory, a suite that he premiered last summer and performed recently in New York. In the course of its nine movements, Grant reflects on the region’s geologic, cultural and human history, including the the ice age Missoula Floods, Chief Joseph’s surrender, the homeland exile of Japanese-Americans in World War Two, good times in Portland’s black community, and the rivers that sustain the Pacific Northwest.
The nine-member ensemble that performed the work consisted of Portlanders with guest vibraphonist Joe Locke, who flew in from New York to again be featured in the suite (pictured: Grant, left; Locke, right). The emotion of Locke’s improvising balanced his precision in executing Grant’s demand material. His work in tandem with cellist Hamilton Cheifetz in the movement that pays tribute to native Americans, “Hymn to the Four Winds,” was rich in harmony and feeling. In “Chief Joseph’s Lament,” Locke was moving, as were bassist Eric Gruber, drummer Tyson Stubelek and the remarkable alto saxophonist John Nastos, whose solo demonstrated visceral understanding of Eric Dolphy without mimicking or parodying the late saxophonist. For “The Missoula Floods” Grant may have written for the ensemble what sounded like simultaneous improvisation or it may have been truly improvised. In either case, the closing passages evoked order out of chaos, stunningly appropriate to the subject.
Introducing the seventh movement, “Sundays at the Golden West,” Grant said,
“This is a jazz song.” Was it ever. Grant designed the piece to recall weekend hilarity at the first Portland hotel owned by African-Americans. It may not have been a blues per se, but Grant, Nastos, tenor saxophonist Kirt Peterson, trumpeter Thom Barber and vocalist Marilyn Keller all produced solos marinated in blues feeling. Barber played his only solo of the suite with a plunger mute in the spirit of Bubber Miley. In this piece, the simultaneous emoting by the horns was unquestionably improvised. Ms. Keller capped the movement by quoting Fats Waller—“One never knows, do one?” Following a sobering movement that commemorated the unprosecuted massacre of 34 Chinese gold miners in Oregon in 1887, Grant’s suite concluded with “New Land,” a confirmation of the promise that continues to draw 21st Century setters to the Pacific Northwest. They join Grant, whose choice of place worked out nicely for him and for his listeners.
After the standing ovation that seems to be mandatory in Portland (the piece deserved it), Grant announced the encore as “a song that, when I get to Heaven, it’ll be playing there all the time.” It was John Lennon’s “Imagine,” with a vocal by Ms. Keller and another of Nastos’s magnetic alto sax solos.
Next time, more from the Portland festival.