Thara Memory wanted to make one thing perfectly clear. “This is new music,” the venerable trumpeter and educator told the Portland Jazz Festival audience. “New. N.E.W. Have you got that?” He said it was not going to be ninety minutes of “that free jazz,” but it would be adventurous.
That was Dr. Memory’s emphatic way of introducing the Spring Quartet, an all-star band headed by veteran drummer Jack DeJohnette, whose track record encompasses Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans and nearly every other trailblazing jazz artist of the past half-century. Indeed, with multi-reed player Joe Lovano, the uninhibited young Argentinian pianist Leo Genovese and bassist Esperanza Spalding in the group, there was little chance that there would be old music. From the beginning number, Lovano’s “Spring Day,” it was clear that this power quartet would operate at full steam outside of conventional forms and harmonies. Genovese’s polytonalities rubbed against Lovano’s idiosyncratic post-bop tenor sax improvisations. DeJohnette bounced chattering polyrhythms off the sinew and flexible time of Spalding’s bass lines. The second number, titled “Herbie’s Hands Cocked” in tribute to DeJohnette’s frequent piano associate, continued in more or less the same vein.
The next piece left some members of the audience behind. DeJohnette started it with a modified bossa nova beat and moved to an electronic drum pad for a long solo packed with digital effects exploring a variety of rhythms. Lovano, Genovese and Spalding developed what might best be described as a communal solo that was considerably freer than Thara Memory’s opening assurance predicted. Genovese improvised with one hand playing the grand piano as he strained to put the other had to work on the electronic keyboard behind him. During a solo packed with intentional dissonances he developed a motif that led into a few bars of conventional 4/4 swing, then to a fierce group improvisation that seemed unattached to identifiable chord patterns. Lovano concluded with a wild series of rhythmic phrases in the altissimo range of his tenor sax. Through the applause when the piece ended an unhappy customer yelled, “Musical masturbation.” Spalding responded more or less instantly by quoting Noel Coward:
The chimpanzees in the zoos do it
Some courageous kangaroos do it
Let’s do it, let’s
fall in love.
That broke the tension created by the heckler. Then Spalding captivated a hometown audience that clearly adores her, performing vocalise in unison with her bass. Lovano, on soprano sax, then Genovese and DeJohnette, joined in. The piece ended with the two sopranos, Spalding’s voice and Lovano’s saxophone, in eerie unison that conjured memories of Adelaide Hall singing with Duke Ellington’s band in the 1920s. As the concert moved along, there were more moments of free-range improvisation. A neo-riff in Genovese’s “Ethiopian Blues” was almost old-fashioned, if only in spirit. In DeJohnette’s “Ahmad the Terrible,” an homage to Ahmad Jamal, his variegated rhythms provided encouragement and inspiration to Genovse, and then to Lovano in a tenor sax solo of relentless ferocity. DeJohnette’s own solo was a melodic statement of happiness.
For the encore, DeJohnette further ingratiated himself with the crowd by calling for Jim Pepper’s “Witchi Tai To,” the late Portland saxophone hero’s hymn to his fellow native Americans. The drummer sang the lyric, and Lovano’s tenor saxophone solo summoned not merely the spirit but the letter of Pepper’s style in a solo during which, his face turned to the sky, he shouted “Yes, Jim Pepper,” “Yes, Jim Pepper,” “ Yes, Jim Pepper.”
The standing ovation lasted a long time.
(Photo courtesy of Jim Brock Photography)