02/21/09

Portland Jazz Festival

If a visitor to this year’s Portland Jazz Festival hadn’t been privy to the behind-the-scenes drama already, it didn’t take long to hear the tale. As intrepid director Bill Royston repeatedly explained in concert introductions and everywhere he could, this festival nearly succumbed when a major donor pulled out last September, but was rescued by generous 11th-hour corporate largesse from Alaska/Horizon Airlines. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer, smarter festival.

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Ayano Hisa

Joe Lovano

This is a festival, in short, that came back from the brink of collapse, back from the void where well-intentioned but finance-toppled cultural ventures end up. No doubt, new realities in the economic downtime will see many more casualties in the cultural wars. But in 2009, this fine, well-organized and well-designed festival has prevailed, and just in time to host an official birthday tribute to Blue Note Records in its 70th year.

Royston started the festival six years ago and has lately honed an admirable thematic focus in the festival’s programming. Two years ago, the focus was a tribute to ECM Records and last year, things leaned enticingly to the left, with memorable appearances by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Myra Melford and Tim Berne—not to mention the Bad Plus, who are closet avant-gardists despite their deceptive partytime trappings.

Having Blue Note Records as a focus and a fount of programming possibilities would seem to be an easier sell to the jazz public than either of the past two years’ fare. But economic heebie-jeebies change everything. Ticket sales aside, the musical richness of the festival’s strong first weekend (the program continues through Sunday, Feb. 22) was inspired and inspiring.

Truth be told, the birthday math is a bit fuzzy. While Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff started the feisty independent and influential label in 1939, and saw its zenith in the ’60s, there was a fallow period in the ’70s and early ’80s, before Blue Note’s second wave, headed heroically by Bruce Lundvall. In effect, the secondary birthday angle this year is the 25th year of the Lundvall era. The Portland festival programming, apart from old guards like McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson and Lou Donaldson, is largely a celebration of the musical might wrought under Lundvall’s watch. The challenge with the label, and also with this representative festival, is the delicate balance of tradition and innovation.

Reasonably enough, the finest arbiter of those twin creative poles, and also the festival’s de facto artist-in-residence, was Joe Lovano. Lovano, clearly at the very top of the list of current tenor saxists breathing, appeared in no less than four settings, including his own fascinating new US 5 quintet, with bass, piano and two (count ’em) drummers, Gerry Hemingway and Francisco Mela. The presence of two drummers, especially with the sensitivity and liberated spirits of these players, is still a rare and radical enough ensemble gesture in jazz to succeed in expanding and destabilizing our bearings, and to potentially open new expressive portals.

Of Lovano’s many projects, the US 5 group, releasing a Blue Note CD later this spring, may be the most flexible and best suited to reflect the more adventurous aspects of his expansive musical voice. Lovano also appeared as an integral part of the Tyner/Lovano Quartet, naturally begging comparisons to the classic Coltrane quartet, but acquitting himself beautifully, working inside and out alongside Tyner’s muscular ruminations. Soon after his Tyner gig, Lovano appeared, down the street at the Hilton, with his wife Judi Sylvano’s band. She slid gamely between originals and a game cover of Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space.” The rapport between these partners in marriage and music is sometimes reminiscent of the old horn-voice kinship between Steve Lacy and Irene Aebi.

For old times’ sake, Lovano also sat in with his old “boss” (aka compadre), guitarist John Scofield. The Lovano-period Scofield quartet from the early ’90s—also with drummer Bill Stewart, currently in Scofield’s trio—was one of the finest jazz outfits of that decade. In their match-up at the Portland Art Museum, it felt like the stuff of a magical, if fleeting, reunion: they’ve got to keep on meeting like this again.

Scofield is soaring in trio mode again, in a format in which he worked faithfully very early in his solo career—back then, with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum, and here, with bassist Matt Penman and the coolly hot, ever-amazing and hard-listening drummer Stewart. By this point, Scofield may be the guitarist most likely to have found the ideal balance between grit and headiness. With his intuitive blend of tone and touch—moving right position and string attack in ways that affect the tone ever so subtly, however down and dirty the sound may seem—Scofield digs into the soil of funk and also drifts off into experimental sonic ether or heady harmonic gymnastics, moment-by-moment and song-by-song.

As it happened, the two boldest pianists of the weekend came from ports outside of America proper, and brought along unique cultural imprints and tastefully disposed virtuosity to their respective tasks. In the case of Cuban émigré Gonzalo Rubalcaba, his current quintet officially opened the festival in a righteous, fitting way, retooling the old paradigm of the Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers band format with metric trickery and an Afro-Cuban/Cubist imagination. Frenchman Jacky Terrasson, a pianist who has still to get the credit due him for his supple, inventive and technical prowess, put in a set with his trio in which deconstructing standards was both a playful game and a case of high-stakes homage. Included in the set was a funny, as in delightfully peculiar, take on “My Funny Valentine,” on this Valentine’s Day.

Orchestras came out to play on the festival’s first weekend, too, and in different ways. Terrence Blanchard’s poignant project Tale of God’s Will (Requiem for Katrina) was presented in its full, orchestrally expanded glory. This music, mostly penned by Blanchard but also by former bandmate Aaron Parks and current bandmate Kendrick Scott, conveys an inherent power and social-environmental compassion. At times the illustrative and atmospheric nature of Blanchard’s film scoring experience sneaks into the DNA.

Dianne Reeves, backed by her quartet and the Oregon Symphony, playing charts mostly written by Billy Childs, was a logical pick for a Valentine’s Day spotlight. But the agreeably mushy stuff—i.e., “Embraceable You” and “Misty,” sung in dedication to Lundvall, in the third row—was counter-balanced by headier musical feats, such as a fascinatingly quirky “Fascinating Rhythm.” Lionel Loueke, currently jazz’s new guitar voice-of-choice, led his nimble trio, itself now 10 years old, although only newly signed to Blue Note, in the last set of the weekend, Sunday at the Hilton.

After the first weekend, even though houses hadn’t sold as well as hoped and one concert, Cassandra Wilson’s, was cancelled due to slow tickets sales, the 2009 Portland Jazz Festival nonetheless marshaled high spirits and stubborn optimism. It is a festival—one that has done all the right things and taken a rightful place high in the ranks of American festivals—that almost got away. At least for the moment, God and the economy willing, PDX remains firmly planted on the go-to festival map.

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