Pianist Billy Childs and vocalist Alicia Olatuja, their flight delayed for hours by snowstorms in the east, made it to Portland barely in time for Childs’ concert of songs by Laura Nyro (1947-1997). The material came from Childs’ 2014 Nyro tribute album Map To The Treasure. Olatuja and vocalist Becca Stevens each sang several Nyro songs. Olatuja made a major impression with “Been On a Train.” Childs introduced the piece as, “a powerful song.” In an impressive act of vocal drama, Olatuja (pictured right) made doubly powerful the story of a witnessed death.
Stevens was effective in “And When I Die” and “Stoned Soul Picnic,” Nyro songs that became anthems for a generation of young people in the late 1960s and the ‘70s. Supported by Childs’ atmospheric piano and arrangement, she was exquisite in “Upstairs By a Chinese Lamp,” and in Nyro’s beseeching “Save The Country,” a reaction to the unrest, uncertainty and inequality of the civil rights era and the Viet Nam conflict. The focus of the concert was on Nyro’s material and the singers, but Childs allotted himself enough solo opportunities to remind the audience of his preeminence among contemporary pianists. He also featured guitarist Peter Sprague as a guest artist and major soloist on several pieces. Wild, at times barely restrained, Sprague’s work on “Map to the Treasure” matched the virtuosity of Childs’ own solo. Throughout the concert, both of them interacted to great effect with bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Donald Barrett.
Ms. Stevens and pianist Taylor Eigsti opened for Childs and company. Their initial festival collaboration earlier in the week was obscured in an acoustically impaired church. The Newmark Theatre’s sonority and superior sound system brought Stevens’ clear voice to the fore. Now, it was possible to understand every syllable of the lyrics of Eigsti’s songs “Magnolia” and “Plane Over Kansas.” The piano was in bold relief for his accompaniments and the brilliance of his solos. Their short set concluded with Duke Ellington’s “Prelude To a Kiss.” Stevens interpretation of Irving Gordon’s words added poignancy to, “My love is a prelude that never dies.”
The Portland Jazz Festival swings into its final weekend this evening with Julian Lage hosting fellow guitarists John Stowell and Dan Balmer, and bassist Dave Captein in a tribute to the late Jim Hall.
In one of those scheduling coincidences that make for hard consumer choices at the Portland festival, the adventurous pianist Hal Galper will be playing at the same time as Lage. His trio includes bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer John Bishop.