The Portland Jazz Festival is in the final week of its 12-day run, with performances by headliners Julian Lage, Hal Galper, Sheila Jordan, Laurence Hobgood, Ron Carter and bluesman Lucky Peterson. Also scheduled: a plethora of Portland and Northwest artists, among them David Friesen, Pink Martini’s Phil Baker, Clay Giberson and Darrell Grant with Marilyn Keller. For the schedule of remaining events, go here.
These are impressions of some of the music I heard before I returned to Rifftides world headquarters:
Young Lions Revisited is a band of players in their twenties and thirties, mostly based in Portland and devoted to the spirit of the hard bop revival that Wynton Marsalis spearheaded in the early 1990s. Its co-leaders are tenor saxophonist Devin Phillips, who moved to Portland from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and drummer Christopher Brown, a Portland native. Pianist Matt Tabor is a student and protégé of Portland pianist and educator Darrell Grant. Bassist Dylan Sundstrom from Tacoma, Washington, lives in Portland. Their PDX concert included two guest tenor saxophonists, the veteran New Yorker Ralph Bowen and Kamasi Washington, who is based in Los Angeles. (Pictured left to right, Bowen, Phillips and Washington.)
Opening for Lee Konitz, The Young Lions began with Marsalis’s “Delfeayo’s Dilemma.” Phillips and Washington demonstrated contrasting conceptions within the post-Coltrane tough-tenor tradition; Washington gruff and headlong, Phillips with equal urgency and smoother phrasing. Bowen joined in for “Summertime” with a searching solo that seemed based in a mode rather than in Gershwin’s harmonies. Tabor’s solos on this and other pieces suggested an intriguing sense of touch and dynamics. He’s someone to keep an ear on.
The three tenors lined up for a tune whose title was unannounced but whose harmonies hinted at Miles Davis’s “Milestones.” In their solos, Washington and Phillips chattered through the changes. Bowen came closer to spinning out a story. The high point was in their three-way tenor sax coda, a collective triumph. The mini-concert ended with Paul Barbarin’s “Bourbon Street Parade.” Phillips the New Orleanian, not surprisingly, nailed the street feeling, abetted by Brown’s parade-beat drumming. It was a joyful ending to a short set.
Konitz, 87, brought Dan Tepfer, the 33-year-old pianist with whom he has collaborated so intriguingly over the past few years. Portland bassist Tom Wakeling and drummer Alan Jones rounded out the quartet. With no rehearsal and an unwritten tune list based on a pre-concert conversation, the four played as if they had been together for months. Konitz (pictured with Jones) was feeling elocutious. He opened with the first of several monologues. It had to do with Russia and ended with advice for Vladimir Putin; “He should try something new.”
He took the advice to heart himself, abstracting “Stella By Starlight” in a duet with Tepfer. “Improvisation means it should be different from the last time you did it,” he explained before they began. In the course of his solo, he took a pause and a few people in the audience began to applaud. Konitz removed the horn from his mouth and extended both hands palms out as Tepfer continued to outline the harmonies. Then, with the audience instructed in listening etiquette, Konitz finished the solo. It was not the final lesson of the evening.
In “I’ll Remember April,” Konitz vocalized in harmony with Tepfer’s introduction before he began playing his horn. He was sitting in a chair center stage, and it was possible to see that he kept time with both feet, the right one on all four beats, the left one on 2 and 4. After Konitz made new melodies, he and Tepfer vocalized, singly and in counterpoint. It was the first installment of what amounted to ear training that continued on and off through the rest of the concert. Konitz urged the audience to hum a basic note that he provided. He and Tepfer played “Alone Together.” He then asked if anyone would like to improvise. Midway in the theater, two women took him up on it and scatted alternating phrases, in tune and with good time. Konitz ended the piece vocalizing like a cantor.
Introducing the next tune, Konitz said that it was based on “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “and it’s called…” A man in the audience finished the sentence…”Subconcious Lee.”
By now, Konitz had dispatched Tepfer to the wings to bring out “the bass player and drummer, if you can remember who they are.” Wakeling played walking bass as Tepfer and Jones found one another’s time feeling, then produced a diversionary phrase that Konitz adapted and refashioned, and the quartet was off on an adventure. Through “Body and Soul,” there was more vocalizing by Konitz and Tepfer, exquisite brush work by Jones behind Tepfer’s piano solo and Konitz calling forth the huge tone that he has developed in his later years. Jones made dynamic use of sticks to introduce “Cherokee,” in which Konitz played random phrases and Jones had a full-out solo.
Konitz announced that he felt like playing “Kary’s Trance,” his composition based on “Play, Fiddle, Play,” a 1932 popular song that was a hit for Arthur Tracey, the Street Singer. Wakeling said he didn’t know it. They played it anyway and within a chorus or two, Wakeling knew it. Ending the song, Tepfer and Konitz played the complex melody in unison, and Konitz wound it up vocalizing another cantorial ending. So the evening went, with the audience engaged as the fifth member of the band and everyone, including Konitz, having a splendid time.
There are those whose who moan that Konitz no longer plays like the 20-year-old Lennie Tristano sideman he was in the late forties or with the shimmering brilliance of his work with Stan Kenton and Gerry Mulligan in the early fifties. If they had been in the Winningstad Theatre the other night, they might be persuaded that the experience and wisdom of old age can bring its own rewards, including laughter.