In its second year, the Portland Jazz Festival completed its metamorphosis from a summertime beer-and-sunglasses fiesta into the maturity of an urban cultural happening. Hotel ballrooms and a dance pavilion now replace outdoor stages, perhaps a loss for partiers but a benefit to serious listeners. Portland is often moist in February, but a premature visit by springtime made for pleasant navigation among performance sites in the city’s vibrant, compact downtown.
Across 10 days, the festival team headed by Bill Royston and Sarah Bailen Smith coordinated ninety-one concerts, club dates, master classes and discussions. The events began quietly with a panel on Jim Pepper, the late Oregon tenor saxophonist to whom the festival was dedicated, and ended with the Bad Plus roaring in full cry. Along the way were concerts in big rooms by performers with international reputations and recitals in small rooms by players and singers from the Pacific Northwest’s extensive pool of jazz musicians.
In line with growing festival practice around the world, simultaneous scheduling made it impossible for the most dedicated and well-conditioned club crawler to take in even half of the music. If patrons chose, as an example, Charlie Haden’s Quartet West concert at the Portland Marriott, they knew it was overlapping six club performances, including that of another formidable bassist, David Friesen. It was some consolation that after Haden, they might be able to catch Friesen at Jimmy Mak’s club, pianist Randy Porter at the Paramount, guitarist Dan Balmer at the Marriott’s upstairs bar, the interesting tenor saxophonist David Evans at the RiverPlace Hotel or pianist Darrell Grant at the Hotel Vintage Plaza. But, that would mean passing up Patricia Barber’s concert at the Portland Hilton. If they ducked out of Barber early, they might have a chance of snagging standing room at the midnight jam session in the bar atop the Hilton.
Haden assembled Quartet West for the first time in seven months, following three bouts with pneumonia. Looking thin, but in good humor, he was unusually voluble in his opening spiel. “The sun was out all day,” he said, reflecting his evident pleasure at working again with the group. Young Rodney Green, who succeeds Larance Marable, showed a drumming attribute that has been in short supply since Philly Joe Jones, the ability to bring down volume without a loss of swing or intensity. That serves him well in a band where dynamic subtlety is integral. Haden’s anti-virtuosic bass work was even sparer than usual. Through the set, he kept the time flowing while executing only essential notes in the chords, sometimes one or two to a bar. Ernie Watts, anything but anti-virtuosic, is still full of Coltrane, still a formidable technician. Nonetheless, he used self-editing that gave his solos new leanness. He also incorporated an edge of humor I don’t recall from his previous work, as in the Sonny Rollins references in the calypso “Child’s Play.” In the same piece, Alan Broadbent played a piano solo that escalated in harmonic and rhythmic complexity until he broke the creative tension emphatically by ending the solo with the opening phrase of Rollins’ “St. Thomas.” Green followed that funny moment with a solo echoing what Broadbent had just played. In Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” Broadbent developed an astonishing unaccompanied interlude that could have been subtitled, “The History of the Piano.” It was a sustained explosion of virtuosity alluding to styles as various as Rachmaninoff, Bud Powell and Willie the Lion Smith. For all of its involvements, Broadbent appeared to bring it off with little effort and left the audience stunned—until the cheering started. For an encore, Haden and Broadbent played “Body and Soul.” Haden came out of the closet with a no-holds-barred bebop solo, making clear that his earlier minimalism was by choice.
Vibraharpist Joe Locke’s Four Walls of Freedom quartet included Tommy Smith, Scotland’s impressive contribution to the world’s post-Coltrane tenor sax population. Performing in kilts, Smith matched the high-tension energy and stop-on-a-dime tempo and mood shifts of Locke, bassist Ed Howard and drummer Gary Novak. Locke’s lightning vibes work, the personality and depth of his group and the new economy of his compositional approach constituted a highlight of the festival. He told a master class at Portland State University, “Now I try to write simple melodies, simply harmonized.” He demonstrated with “Eva,” a song inspired by the late singer Eva Cassidy. “It’s all just triads,” Locke said, and added, disarmingly, “It’s great to share this with you guys because talking about it helps me understand what I’m doing.”
Luciana Souza electrified and charmed a packed house with the purity of her voice and musicianship, mastery of the swing and elasticity of Brazilian rhythms and the naturalness and affection in her collaboration with guitarist Romero Lubambo. The concert included two of her settings of Pablo Neruda sonnets and a breathtaking medley of songs from Baia in which Lubambo sight-read six feet of sheet music, a feat that helped to earn the pair two standing ovations.
Other memorable moments:
John Patitucci and Adam Rogers premiered their bass-guitar duo with a recital that drew on music from Kern, Monk, de Falla, Coleman and Jobim, among others. It was a gorgeous concert. A recording of acoustic duets by the two would seem mandatory.
Arriving at the last moment following an airline snafu, Danilo Perez’s trio launched slowly, then played a brilliant final 20 minutes.
Dave Holland, suffering the temporary loss of Robin Eubanks to another commitment and Chris Potter to appendicitis, played a quartet date with trumpeter Alex Spiagin, a stunning technician. Dianne Reeves appeared with her superb trio of Peter Martin, Reuben Rogers and Gregory Hutchison, entrancing her enthusiastic audience. Both Holland and Reeves saturated their performances with brilliance, but the intensity was so unrelieved that sameness set in. When everything is over the top, the top disappears.
Andy Narell whipped a corps of fellow steel drummers, a rhythm section and a saxophonist into the shape of a big band and made the ungainly monster swing.
The Bad Plus attracted an audience full of young people who attended no other festival event. That gave impresario Royston encouragement. Introducing the band for the festival’s final concert, he announced, “This is the hope and this is the future of our music.” If he’s right, the future will be entertaining, wry and very loud.