In the student competition held in connection with the festival, first-place prizes went to alto saxophonist Joel Steinke and singer Jacob Houser, both from Edmonds-Woodway High School near Seattle. Backed by the trio of pianist George Colligan, a Portlander transplanted from New York, they each played two numbers as they opened for bassist Christian McBride.
McBride’s trio had the bright young sidemen Christian Sands on piano and Ulysses Owens, Jr., on drums. Their three-way exchanges on the Ellington-Tizol standard “Caravan” and on Sands’ waltz-time “Sand Dunes” were compelling. McBride is a larger-than-life personality whose stage presence complements his ability to play with absolute command of the bass at any tempo. Dazzling even when his blizzards of notes amounted only to blizzards of notes, he counterbalanced displays of virtuosity with depth and earnestness as he bowed the melody of Rodger and Hammerstein’s “I Have Dreamed.”
McBride introduced Freda Payne as a surprise guest. She sang “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” and “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” in carbon copies of what she had done two nights earlier at Jimmy Mak’s club (see the report). A natural raconteur, McBride recruited the audience to participate by clapping time on “a 1970s R&B hit” whose title he did not announce and, it turned out, did not need to. Called back for an encore, he said “Gonna lay a little Thelonious Monk on ya.” There was no detectable Monk melody in what followed, but he, Sands and Owens had great fun playing the blues and earnedguess what?that’s right, a standing ovation. The Portland audience is generous with those.
These days, the 88-year-old Lou Donaldson’s alto saxophone solos consist mostly of quotes as sound gags, and clichés from his own and other peoples’ recordings. His repartee, long on wryness and glancing reflections on human failingshis own and others’is as sharp as ever. With guitarist Eric Johnson, drummer Fukushi Tainaka and Hammond B3 organist Pat Bianchi, Donaldson made his way through a set long on jokes, blues singing (“Whiskey Drinking Woman”) and extended solos by Johnson, Bianchi and Tainaka. He had Johnson, with a wireless transmitter on his guitar, wander around the audience for a lengthy traveling solo on Donaldson’s 1967 hit “Alligator Boogaloo.” All of this endeared Donaldson to the audience, which evidently arrived knowing what to expect.
The Bill Charlap Trio is a chamber group of a quality customarily found only in equally long-lived classical ensembles. In their years together, pianist Charlap, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington have achieved singleness of purpose and unity of thought to a degree rare in any musical idiom. At the Portland festival, they applied their wisdom, experience and empathy in a recital of pieces from Frank Sinatra’s vast repertoire. From the opening “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” to the closing “One For The Road,” their balance, restraint and swing, their regard for the material and one another, combined in an hour and a half of absorbing playingand listening.
The concert was a succession of memorable moments. A few of them: Charlap’s unaccompanied performance of Rodgers and Hart’s “It Never Entered My Mind” melded into the trio as they sustained the mood in “It’s Only A Paper Moon.” They concluded the piece with a blues ending and, after all of Charlap’s and Peter Washington’s sophisticated harmonic changes, the surprising openness of a major chord. Sinatra made a recording of “Stardust” that consisted of only the song’s introductory verse. Charlap played the verse thoughtfully by himself, perhaps with Sinatra’s version in mind. The Washingtons joined in the chorus, firmed up the swing and then the three wound down to a final eight bars of lyricism. With wire brushes on snare drum, Kenny Washington demonstrated in “There’s A Small Hotel” that he is a modern master of what someone once called that tough, straight art.
“In The Still Of The Night,” taken at a fast clip, incorporated bass and drum solos during which Charlap listened intently, absorbing every nuance and occasionally nodding in understanding or approval. After the first chorus of “On A Slow Boat To China,” the tempo kicked up to near the edge of insanity, exciting the audience and leading them to demand an encore. They got two; “Only The Lonely” played by Charlap alone, and a trio performance of, appropriately, ‘One For The Road.” There was a standing ovation.
The concert was one of those listening experiences that one wishes he could take home and play back.