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New Century, Same Genius: Ornette Coleman at JVC

The third year of the Portland Festival found it settling further into maturity and urban sophistication that give it much in common with European festivals like Vienne and Umbria. There is a notable difference; the continental festivals are in the warmth of summer. Portland takes its chances with the Pacific Northwest’s variable winter weather.

This time, there was no false spring, as in 2005. The region was in the grip of record low temperatures-into the single digits at night on the opening weekend. Swathed in wool hats, earmuffs, scarves, gloves and heavy coats, concertgoers moved briskly between concerts in hotel ballrooms and sessions in clubs. The good weather news: there was no trace of the rain that often keeps Portland damp for weeks at a time.

Nearly four decades after his death, John Coltrane looms over jazz. He was a major presence in Portland. More than a dozen concerts, workshops, panels, photo exhibits and book signings were devoted to or evocative of Coltrane. His son and the pianist most closely associated with Coltrane played at major events. Ashley Kahn, author of two books about Coltrane, spoke on several occasions about the great tenor saxophonist. Educator, broadcaster and jazz storyteller Lynn Darroch unveiled a new half-hour tale-part biography, part prose poetry-about Coltrane.

Guitarist John Stowell and tenor saxophonist Rob Davis accompanied Darroch, coordinating their Coltrane tunes with his narrative and playing superb solo interludes. Darroch, Stowell and Davis gave three recitals in a bookstore during the weekend, to audiences of twenty-five or thirty listeners.

Darroch on Coltrane’s intensity perceived as anger:

“John was not an angry man, and his music was not entertainment-no, it was a search for transcendence.”

On Coltrane’s universality:

“Make him what you need.”

In the reading I attended, Darroch told the Coltrane story and others about Red Rodney and Betty Carter. He may need to trim the Coltrane. It ran on a bit, but it was quiet, moving and focused, a highlight of the festival events I heard.

Pianist McCoy Tyner’s trio with bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer Eric Gravatt played the opening concert. Before a capacity audience in the gargantuan grand ballroom of the Portland Hilton, Tyner pulled out the stops, meaning that on a dynamic scale of 10, he kept the music between 8.5 and 10. A monster sound system, suited to a rock concert in a stadium, grossly over amplified Moffett’s bass so that Gravatt had no choice but to compensate with full drum power. What could Tyner do but lean into the piano with all of his considerable strength, exaggerating his natural tendencies. Tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, brought out as a guest artist early in the set, remained to the end. Whatever subtleties he possesses as a soloist were held in reserve, of which there was virtually none for the duration of the concert. It was undiluted excitement at volume verging on distortion. The crowd loved it. They gave Tyner and company a standing, shouting, ovation and demanded an encore.

“These once-a-year jazz fans tend to get really excited,” a crusty and experienced listener told me afterward.

The next afternoon, Miguel Zenon demonstrated that it is possible for musicians to achieve intimacy in a cavernous ballroom. At the Governor Hotel, the young alto saxophonist and his quartet concentrated on the music from his Jíbaro CD. Through changes of tempo, dynamics and mood-including a slow-rising crescendo a la late Coltrane-the Zenons captivated an audience that had entered the room largely unfamiliar with them. Referring to Puerto Rican traditional music but not of it, Zenon’s compositions incorporated elements ranging from Latin sources to the edge of free jazz.

In its slightly strident timbre in the upper register, his saxophone at times had a palpable Ornette Coleman wail. He has absorbed Coleman’s ethos, but only occasionally ventured beyond harmonic bounds, the contrast making his outside trips all the more interesting. Zenon sensed when his solos were running long and relinquished before boredom set in. Sometimes dense with two-handed chords, Pianist Luis Perdomo’s improvisations were to the point melodically and rhythmically. Bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole were strong and flexible in support. Cole’s execution at the drums is that of a seated dancer, as fascinating to watch as to hear. A splendid concert.

Trumpeter Nicholas Payton faced and overcame a wintertime setback. His pianist, Danny Grissett, and drummer, Marcus Gilmore, were trapped in the east by a monster snowstorm. Festival impresario Bill Royston helped Payton recruit the veteran Portland pianist Darrell Grant and drummer Mike DiFlorio, one of several displaced New Orleans musicians who have relocated to Portland. Payton’s concert at the Crystal Ballroom went on with only a slight delay. His frontline partner was Sophie Faught, an 18-year-old Indiana University freshman he discovered at a master class. Faught played with poise and assurance beyond her years. Grant and DiFlorio substituted impressively.

I first heard Payton in 1990 when he was seventeen, in a session organized by Ellis Marsalis in New Orleans. I was encouraged that here, at last, was a young lion who not only had formidable technique but also seemed to be on the path of harmonic improvisation opened by Fats Navarro. I heard riches in Payton’s chord concept and looked forward to his development as a harmonic and lyrical successor to Navarro, whose example had been overlooked by the new wave of trumpeters emerging in the wake of Wynton Marsalis. As Payton’s recording career progressed, he played beautifully, but with less and less of the approach I heard that night in New Orleans. At the Crystal, it was gone. Except for his cohesive choruses on Kenny Barron’s “Voyage,” his technically impressive solos were predictable, without originality. Perhaps, distracted by personnel problems, he was having an uninspired day. If his Navarro muse is sleeping, I hope that Payton can reawaken it.

The Portland festival’s main halls are in hotels. At the Marriott by the Willamette River, Dee Dee Bridgewater packed the ballroom for an evening of songs from her J’ai Deux Amours CD. Her bassist, Ira Coleman, was hors de combat because of the storm in New York, so the show went on without him. Bridgewater has remarkable empathy with her French sidemen, guitarist Louis Winsberg, accordionist and occasional bass guitarist Marc Berthoumieux and drummer Minino Garay, who mans a sort of neo-Sonny Greer array of percussion instruments. An award-winning actress, she plays off them with dramatic and often sexy flair. She featured Garay in a percussion solo, but it was the accents and rhythmic displacements behind her singing that were most impressive. Winsberg accompanied brilliantly on guitar and played a memorable solo on “The Good Life.”

Bridgewater’s perfect Gallic diction and pronunciation (so I was told by a French-speaking companion), combined with her polished musicianship and presentation skills, made an entertaining and rewarding two hours. All of her songs but one were French, many of them familiar to the audience in their English versions, “Beyond the Sea,” “My Man,” “The Good Life,” “Two Loves Have I” among them. Her beauty and her costume, a bright red form-fitting dress, enhanced the experience. Vigorously flourishing a fan that matched the dress, she said, “This dress is made of plastic. It doesn’t breathe. Bad idea for a woman of a certain age, n’est-ce pas?”

The one American song was Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk.” Bridgewater announced it as strictly for the women in the audience. She sang it in French, then English. As it progressed, she morphed from sophisticated Parisienne into a Della Reese/Pearl Bailey persona and converted the song into a sketch about picking up a man in a bar, taking him home to bed, then dismissing him without their ever learning one another’s names. If that sounds earthy and outrageous, it was, explicitly so, with illustrative body language. It was “just between us girls” and it was very funny.

Following a guitar interlude that allowed the crowd to recover, Bridgewater did her best singing of the evening in “I Bring You Love.” She sang it naturally and simply in French with a flatted-fifth transition to English, a percussion solo, an ensemble passage with her voice as an instrument, and a subtle ending. She ended the show with-what else?-a socko version of “La Vie en Rose,” leaving no doubt that nothing could follow it. Except the standing ovation.

Later that night, the Dave Peck trio played at the Paramount Hotel. As in his Good Road CD, the Seattle pianist’s sidemen were bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer Joe La Barbera. Placed squarely in the middle of the lobby, they played as listeners occupied couches, chairs and a few small tables and as hotel guests made their way past the band toward elevators and staircases. A group of four elderly couples headed for an elevator, but one of the women pulled her husband’s sleeve and implored him to stop. They stood and listened to the rest of the set. During a break, Peck said that a decade earlier, being placed in a situation like that would have made him blow up. He has mellowed. Not only did he accept playing in traffic, but he, Johnson and La Barbera focused on the music and one another and appeared to be enjoying the gig. The empathy was obvious and the music was deep. It was the best I have heard Peck play in the ten years or so I’ve been listening to him.

The last of the festival events I attended was a concert at the Portland Marriott by Bill Frisell’s Unspeakable Orchestra, one of four bands the eclectic guitarist heads these days. The string section was violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts. Tony Scherr was the bassist, Kenny Wollesen the drummer. Frisell announced no numbers, in fact said little beyond telling one of his snail jokes and saying to the audience, “This is great. You guys are cool.”

The strings began playing parts over active bass and drums ornamentation, Frisell comping lightly. Allusions began to creep in, to “The Tennessee Waltz,” Monk’s “Misterioso,” “You Are My Sunshine.” They were all too short to be considered quotes; feelings, perhaps. The harmonic basis was vaguely country, vaguely blues. The time was 3/4. Roberts soloed, Scheinman soloed. Kang soloed. Then Frisell developed a gorgeous dissonance over the sweetness of the strings and there was the first of several segues, this one into Kang’s viola lead that was more or less Far Eastern. Intensity built through written parts for the strings, the violin carrying the lead.

The next segue led to more written parts, although it was becoming difficult to determine what was written and what was free improvisation. As the piece bloomed, the strings went into a tremolo mode while Scherr and Frisell-smiling at one another-invented unison fragments. Then Scherr and Roberts, the cellist, began a series of unison chromatic lines leading into another segue transition. Suddenly Frisell’s guitar was in solo on a peaceful melody as the strings made a transition from free playing to a folk melody. Behind them, Scherr raised the intensity with an arco solo, then the activity decreased back toward peacefulness, but it was a more troubling peace, a dissonant, polytonal, Schoenbergian peace that didn’t end but melded into Frisell playing heavy guitar over a slow, insistent waltz beat.

The strings slid under him in ensemble, and suddenly the guitar was emitting wah-wah and chicken sounds, intimating country music and rural blues, everyone in unison, with guitar interjections. Then, the band was fully into country-real yee-hah stuff-a hoe-down, a barn dance, Frisell conducting his orchestra from the guitar with smiles and directional nods of his head.

When that ended, Frisell made his “You guys are cool” remark, and kicked off a Monkish melody over Scherr’s walking bass, the only conventional 4/4 playing he had done so far. The melody was a wild, through-composed line that went on for a couple of choruses before it began to dawn on me that it was built on the changes of “What Is This Thing Called Love.” Scheinman played a gorgeous solo, followed by Frisell in a solo that was as close to pure bebop as we’re likely to hear from him. The audience gave a standing ovation. The encore was Burt Bachrach’s “What The World Needs Now,” which may or may not have been done tongue-in-cheek. With Frisell, you’re never quite sure.

Originally Published