There’s a lot happening at night in the City Of Roses during the Portland Jazz Festival, but overlapping scheduling makes it impossible to hear many of the excellent Pacific Northwest musicians featured in clubs and hotels. During my five days in town, concerts at the big theaters precluded catching Gretta Matassa, Kerry Polizer, Mel Brown, Randy Porter, David Friesen, Rob Davis and at least a dozen other accomplished regional artists. From Montreal to New Orleans to Montreux and Tokyo, that is the 21st century style of big jazz festivals, and it is unlikely to change.
The first evening concert of the final weekend at PDX was by drummer Jack DeJohnette’s quartet with Portland keyboardist George Colligan, bassist Matthew Garrison, and Don Byron playing clarinet and tenor saxophone. Byron flew in from New York as a last-minute replacement for Ravi Coltrane. An array of keyboards supplemented Colligan’s concert grand. Garrison attached his electric bass to a hefty amplifier and big speakers. DeJohnette announced that the first piece would be unplanned and free. As the musicians prepared, it was natural to wonder if we were in for an onslaught. In the event, there was plenty of volume, but from the first moments of the free piece, the balance among the instruments was good.
The untitled opener was pure invention, the musicians paying close attention to one another as they developed the shape of the piece. From the drums, DeJohnette set the rhythmic direction. Garrison’s distinct notes avoided the muddiness that often reduces electric bass lines to mush. There were no solos in the traditional sense, but the diatonic melodies that Colligan and Byron created offered the listeners guidelines through the stream of improvisation. DeJohnette is a melodic drummer, often playing phrases that inspired Byron to expand on them. In the course of the piece, and through the concert, Byron alternated between clarinet and tenor sax, Colligan played three electronic keyboards and the 9-foot Yamaha, often two of them at once. He moved to the grand piano for John Coltrane’s “Crescent,” playing in a way that conjured McCoy Tyner, Coltrane’s longtime pianist. DeJohnette may have been inspired in his early days by Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones, but his playing on this piece was exemplary of the individualism that long ago made him one of the music’s most identifiable drummers. Byron’s clarinet solo was notable for its intensity.
Polyrhythmic, popping and snapping, DeJohnette introduced “Ramblin’.” The performance was pianoless because Colligan produced a pocket trumpet to play the melody and an extensive solo on the Ornette Coleman piece. Byron’s tenor solo caught the Coleman spirit of freedom based in the blues. The opening notes of DeJohnette’s ballad “Lydia,” named for his wife, got a round of applause as many in the audience recognized the melody. The band also performed “Seventh D,” the energy-laden first movement of a piece from his 2009 album Music We Are. Garrison’s solo was a highlight .
DeJohnette closed with “Witchi Tai To,” Jim Pepper’s best-known composition. The tenor saxophonist (1941-1992) was based in Portland. His spirit is deeply felt in the Oregon jazz community, as it is by Native Americans and folk musicians and in roots music circles around the world. Some in the hall sang along as DeJohnette chanted the famous opening lyric. The band followed with a round of brief solos. Cheers and a standing ovation began before the tune ended. DeJohnette’s recognition was a moving way to close a concert in a city where, 21 years after his death, many people venerate Pepper.
Getting underway, Bernstein did not announce the tune. Rather, he shouted, “Kenny Wollesen,” triggering an opening solo by the drummer, who concentrated on cymbals and soon moved into collaboration with bassist Tony Scherr. Bernstein and saxophonist Briggan Krauss stood watching on opposite sides of the stage. Krauss now and then moved toward the wings, then forward in a creeping crouch vaguely reminiscent of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. His sax playing combines impressive technical execution and a conception bordering on chaos. Scherr’s bass, like Matt Garrison’s in the DeJohnette band, is electric, heavily amplified and resonant. More often than not, he plays it leaning forward, taking long strides toward and back from whoever is soloing at the moment. A concert by this band is more than a listening experience.
The opener, it turned out, was the theme from Amacord. Bernstein’s slide trumpet solo featured circular breathing that allowed him to play a continuous melodic line and generate a hypnotic atmosphere. Introducing Rota’s theme from Juliet of the Spirits, Bernstein admitted that he’s never seen the movie. It’s hard to know whether having seen it would have made a difference in the wild solo he played, but it was notable for more than wildness; it made melodic sense. The band segued into Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans,” then the Rota melody from La Strada. “You might call that a Hoagy sandwich,” Bernstein said when the medley ended. In the next tune, whose title went unannounced, Bernstein employed his trumpet and Krauss his alto sax to exchange phrases simulating the twittering of birds or chattering of mice.
Bernstein introduced a piece whose name he didn’t know that came from a film he said he hadn’t seen. He told the audience that the movie starred Terence Stamp as a man with an LSD problem in the Fellini section of a motion picture by three directors.* The Sex Mob version of the music featured odd little pastiches of unison horn licks, rehearsed to great precision, with Wollesen in the background driving and coloring the proceedings. Wollesen is continually busy with sticks or mallets on drums, cymbals and gongs, giving the music pulsating drive, often in an atmosphere of misty ambience. He nearly always has a deadpan expression that belies the grittiness and emotion of the music. Sex Mob enjoys assuming an air of punk rock randomness. Beneath the surface of its frequent pandemonium beats a jazz heart.
*(It was the Toby Dammit segment in the 1968 Histoires Extraordinaires, aka Spirits of the Dead.)
Nancy King is indelibly associated with Oregon the state and Oregon the band. At the Willingstad Theater Sunday afternoon, King and Oregon’s bassist Glen Moore had one of their rare reunions. They were the first half of her concert of duos. The second was with pianist Steve Christofferson, for 35 years one of King’s main partners in music.
King and Moore opened with Rodgers and Hart’s “Mountain Greenery,” which in her expansive welcoming speech she referred to as “our theme song.” It’s on their 1995 CD Impending Bloom. Moore initiated it with rhythmic slaps of his bow on the bass strings, setting the time and the whimsy. King is a master of scat, that misunderstood and abused form. After her initial chorus she improvised a solo that any trumpet player would be proud of, if he had the range and the chops to bring it off. Moore’s plucked solo followed. He reapplied the bow for their final chorus. The set included several songs by Moore with idiosyncratic lyrics by his wife Samantha; “Alligator Dancing,” “Man in the Oven” and “Little Bronco” from their Potato Radio album and “Chihuahua Dreams” from the 1990 Oregon album 45th Parallel with King as guest vocalist.
Following intermission, King introduced Christofferson. The two opened with Frank Loesser’s “Joey Joey Joey.” Blowing into a melodica, playing its keyboard with his right hand and the piano with his left, Christofferson added poignancy, enhancing a song that King’s phrasing and low notes had already rendered an unexpectedly emotional experience. She decorated the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” with more of her scatting, which in its musicality is like no one else’s alive.
King’s reading of “Morning of the Carnival” showed respect for the simple beauty of Luiz Bonfá’s melody and Tori Amos’s English lyric. Wordlessly using Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” as an intro, she and Christofferson transformed it into “Just Friends” and performed both melody lines simultaneously. What she called a “threefer” of “The Apple Trees,” “Young and Foolish” and “Again” was built on the happenstance that the first word of each of the last two songs was the last word of the previous one. That contrivance aside, the medley provided an interlude of reflection and beauty.
Now, the duo became a trio as Moore returned for “Poinciana.” Moore soloed for 16 bars, then Christofferson for 16 bars, and King was off on a scatting excursion that melded into a duet with Moore, then the trio, with Christofferson adding melodica to the mix. They took it out on a King high note of tonal precision and delicacy. The hometown crowd gave themwhat else?a standing ovation, standard operating procedure at this festival.
ACS is pianist Gerri Allen, drummer Teri Lynne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding. Portland jazz hero Thara Memory Introduced them Sunday night. Memory is the winner of a 2013 Grammy for his arrangement of Spalding’s “City of Roses” in her Radio Music Society album. Long a champion of women in jazz and their tough taskmaster as a teacher, the trumpeter and educator recalled the time not long ago when as a child Spalding, a Portland native now 28, was at lessons “running around in her little dresses. “But,” he said, slipping into the vernacular, “She all woman now.”
That puts Spalding in good company with Allen and Carrington, at the highest level of jazz. They began their set with Wayne Shorter’s “Masqualero.” The piece was full of time-play and dependent on sympathetic reaction that requires sensing more than knowing what is happening and about to happen. Eye contact between Allen and Spalding as the piece settled was typical of the communication among the three throughout the set. Spalding set the time for “Beautiful” as smiles abounded and all three delivered splendid solos, Carrington clickety-clacking on her drum rims in support of Spalding’s choruses. Smiling broadly, Spalding took the melody lead on bass for Bob Dorough’s pungent “Nothing Like You,” then slipped into support of Allen’s lyrical solo before equaling it with her own.
With flawless intonation, Spalding bowed the opening of “Fall,” their second Shorter tune of the evening. It developed as a shared experience with Allen, a mix of romanticism and urgency. Carrington introduced Allen’s composition “Unconditional Love” as “one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.” She set the tempo, the bass and piano played the melody in unison, Spalding sang a wordless vocal, and Allen soloed impressively on her creation. Spalding took a second solo, a unison improvisation with her voice and her bass two octaves apart. She introduced the next piece as “a song you’ll probably recognize in there somewhere.” It was “If I Were a Bell,” highlighting the power, tight control and rhythmic inventiveness of Carrington’s soloing.
Introducing Eric Dolphy’s “Miss Ann,” Spalding noted that he named it for Charlie Parker’s mother. “I didn’t know that,” Allen said. What she did know was how to solo on the piece with the power of melody in octaves. Impressive all evening for her individuality, Allen’s chord voicings in Leonard Bernstein’s “Lucky To Be Me” set her apart from Bill Evans, who is so strongly identified with the tune that most jazz pianists who play it emulate his approach. Spalding played the melody of “All of You,” Carrington backing her in the beginning with patterns resembling a march that moved into 4/4 swing with drum interjections. Things freed up for a bass solo floating on Carrington’s touch with wire brushes on her snare drum and cymbals. As considerate soloists often do, Spalding revisited the melody briefly as a reminder, traded eight-bar phrases with Carrington, then took the piece home.
The encore was Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha.” There was delightful play between Allen and Spalding, a final Carrington solo shot through with bebop spirit, rampant smiling, and extended reaction from an audience that was reluctant to let the musicians leave the stage. But the festival was over.
The Portland Jazz Festival has grown over its ten years. It has done so with careful professional management overseen by founding managing director Bill Royston, his successor Don Lucoff and a supportive board of directors. The festival went through a rough patch during the economic unpleasantness of the past few years, but resourceful management and wide community support from sponsors and officials kept it alive. That is a credit to the city.
(The Rifftides staff gives profound thanks to Mark Sheldon for letting us use his pictures for several of these reports. To see more of Mark’s jazz photographs and other work, please visit his website).