As usual at the Portland Jazz Festival, no one can take in more than a slice of the music filling this city of 610,000. A friend and I paused at a crosswalk to hear a musician, tip basket at his feet, serenading passersby with his bass clarinet. He was no Eric Dolphy and he wasn’t officially a part of the festival, but he was providing some of the music heard everywhere in Portland, from street corners to bars, clubs, restaurants, hotel lobbies and theaters.
Trying to hear as much music as possible in my four days here, I began with pianist Taylor Eigsti and singer-guitarist Becca Stevens sharing an evening with Joel Harrison and his Free Country Ensemble. Pictured below, left to right: Eigsti, David Binney, Ted Poor, Harrison
They played in the venerable First Congregational Church in the heart of downtown. Stevens is a pop and folk singer who performs frequently with jazz artists, among them pianists Brad Mehldau and, notably, Eigsti. Their rhythm section included drummer Kendrick Scott and the young bassist Zach Ostroff. Eigsti introduced the trio’s opening piece with a vigorous attack that culminated in a run of fists up the keyboard before he settled into the rich chording and cleanly articulated single-note lines that make him one of the most impressive pianists to have emerged in the new century. Throughout the set, Scott’s propulsiveness and crisp placement of accents made his drumming a compelling center of attention. Ostroff’s bass work was largely lost to the booming acoustics of the high-ceilinged sanctuary.
Ms. Stevens’s first song was the Burke and Van Heusen standard “But Beautiful.” She did one chorus with an extension that featured her improvised vocalese, an aspect of her work that the audience made clear it adored. The remainder of the set was songs written by Stevens or Eigsti, some as collaborations. It was difficult to determine whether her variable intonation was a flaw or an intentional feature of her style, which tends toward the folk tradition. Her vocal lines in unison with her guitar were cleanly in tune. Eigsti’s “Play With Me” has demanding intervals, which Ms. Stevens nailed. The audience included knots of 20- and 30-somethings who were loud and vocal in their appreciation; there was a lot of woo-hooing and whistling. They were all, apparently, Stevens fans and left en masse when the Taylor-Eigsti set ended.
Joel Harrison’s Free Country Ensemble concentrates on songs by Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard and other specialists in Americana. Harrison plays country-rock-pop guitar with jazz tinges. Ted Poor is a straight-ahead jazz drummer able to flex among several idioms. Michael Bates was the bassist. Alto saxophonist David Binney goes a long way toward justifying the “Free” in the name of the band. Binney’s solo on the spiritual “I’ll Fly Away” was beyond outside, but when he came back to earth, his blend with Harrison’s guitar was exquisite. Eigsti’s piano made the group a quintet. His full-bodied accompaniments and improvisations enriched the proceedings. “Wayfaring Stranger” was replete with guitar atmospherics, drones and loop effects supported by unfettered exchanges between Bates’s bass and the slash and chatter of Poor’s drums. As I was leaving to head across town to another concert, Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” was getting a Harrison makeover.
More coming from Portland