With the theme of the Portland Jazz Festival centered around the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth, two artists with top billing focused on interpreting songs associated with Sinatra. Mini-concerts by winners of the festival’s student competitions preceded some of the featured performers. Warming up the audience for Kurt Elling, a 20-voice choir (pictured below) from Battle Ground High School in Washington, sang two pieces. They included a spirited expansion of the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross version of “It’s Sand, Man” from the Count Basie book.
Elling’s outsized self-regard has often overwhelmed the songs he sings. But in Portland, following a laudatory introduction spoken by pianist Bill Charlap, he concentrated on the substance of 15 pieces from Sinatra’s repertoire and was all the better for it. Backed by the Art Abrams Swing Machine, Elling sang with power, elegance and little of the forced hipness that sometimes mars his work. In “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Witchcraft,” “All The Way” and, particularly, “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” he came uncannily close to summoning up Sinatra’s essence. Elling conducted the band, setting the tempos with no-nonsense finger snaps. He allotted generous solo spots to alto saxophonist John Nastos and trumpeter Buzz Graham.
For all of the effectiveness of the band, however, the high point of the concert came after Elling called Charlap from the wings. Their voice-piano duets on “Lucky To Be Me” and “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” were perfection. Charlap’s “Wee Small Hours” interlude, a moment of pure impressionism, led the two to a quiet ending that left a hush in the halluntil loud, sustained, applause broke out. After the emotional impact of his ballads with Charlap, Elling’s swaggering “My Kind Of Town” and “The Lady Is A Tramp” with the big band were anti-climaxes.
There was more of Charlap to come before the weekend ended, but first another pianist, five years younger, took the stage of the intimate Winningstad Theater. Vijay Iyer’s trio has attracted attention through heavy radio play, cover stories in the major jazz magazines and several successful CDs, including the recent Break Stuff. Iyer, bassist Stefan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore work in the tradition of rhythmic and improvisational interdependence established by the Bill Evans Trio. As they adjust to one another, they develop streams of time. In Thelonious Monk’s “Work,” none of the three played with a 4/4 beat, but a satisfying undercurrent of 4/4 feeling emerged from their interaction. Crump’s solo on the piece was typical of his work throughout the set; he was faithful to the form and harmonic structure while within them he made rhythmic departures and invented melodies. In any given piece, whether employing brushes, sticks or mallets, Gilmore makes the drum set another melody instrument.
Iyer’s advanced keyboard technique and his willingnessor eagernessto take chances resulted in moments of adventurousness like one in which the trio’s mutual time play morphed into repetition of a snatch of melody. It might have seemed the antithesis of swing, except that it swung hard, right up to an abrupt ending that left the listener breathless. It is worth noting that from the first of their set Iyer, Crump and Gilmore had the audience. The attention of the listeners was riveted on the music, with none of the whooping and whistling often in evidence at this festival, in fact at most jazz performances in recent years. Toward the end of the set, Iyer spoke his thanks to the audience over a quiet trio vamp with closing chords that somehow brought to mind the romanticism of Edward McDowell’s piano sketches. Then he moved the vamping into churchy chords that, with Gilmore’s offbeats, hinted at Ray Bryant. This is an interesting band.
Next time: Christian McBride Trio, and Charlap on Sinatra