Alto saxophonist Gary Bartz opened his Portland Jazz Festival concert singing a slow blues. He wasn’t lamenting his or anyone else’s troubles. The main message of his lyric was, “Sadness gotta leave this room.” It was his only vocal of the evening. If there was sadness, he banished it quickly in a series of four-bar exchanges with guitarist Paul Bollenback. The quartet picked up the tempo and Bartz soloed with phrasing and humor reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, one of his early inspirations. Indeed, Bartz’s sound has more in common with Rollins’s commodious tenor saxophone tone than with that of most other alto players. In the course of his set he constructed a saxophone triptych of sorts, briefly quoting “Like Sonny,” John Coltrane’s piece in tribute to Rollins.
In his slim-cut suit, Balbo beard and long white hair flowing from under a broad-brimmed hat, Bartz looked the part of a sanctified country preacher. But his music gave him away; he is a thoroughgoing bebop alto player with a personal vision of the music. In the blues and in standard songs including “Wonderful, Wonderful” and Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You,” Bartz alternated keening long tones with complex passages. Particularly in the Porter piece, his improvisation often seemed free of the chords, but not to the extent that the sense of the song was lost—a neat trick. Bartz is a listener. When he wasn’t soloing, he locked in with concentration and evident enjoyment on every solo by Bollenback, bassist James King and drummer Greg Bandy. Bollenback is strangely disregarded in discussions of jazz guitarists despite his history of stimulating work with Bartz, Joey DeFrancesco and Steve Gadd, among others. He soloed well and accompanied Bartz’ solos with blues-inflected chords. Bollenback and Bartz indulged in a couple of free-range games of tag that merged into funky endings. Like Lloyd and bassist Gary Peacock the night before, Bartz did not announce tunes, sliding from one into the next. As he neared the end of the set, he substituted his curved soprano sax for the alto, quoted “I’ll Never Be The Same” and leaned into the blues, riding on Bandy’s drum backbeat and managing to smile as he played.
Sadness had left the room.