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Portland Jazz Festival: A Celebration of ECM

Christian Scott

The most frenzied ovation of the 2006 Tranquility Jazz Festival-an unlikely BET-funded straightahead bash now in its fourth year-didn’t follow a set by McCoy Tyner, who appeared gaunt and unsteady but played with much of the clout and imagination he brandished in the 1960s. It didn’t follow Pharoah Sanders (pictured), who, at 66, blew through Trane standards with freightliner intensity before dancing and chanting like some Impulse-era version of the late James Brown.

The festival’s best reception didn’t trail the lean, slinky singer Nnenna Freelon, whose ’70s-style Afro-Centrism, sparkling vocal instrument and ability to rearrange Billie Holiday without committing musical sacrilege impressed a healthy opening-night audience at the posh CuisinArt Resort. Sadly, only a couple women stood to mambo during Eddie Palmieri’s Latin-jazz blowout, and only for one number. By the time Palmieri’s compadre Brian Lynch finished squealing his last robust chorus, the audience had teetered out and only a few sparse pockets of concert-goers remained. Not even Javon Jackson, who played from Now, his latest set of pseudo-smooth groove tunes, could incite anything you’d consider a party in a half-empty pavilion.

No, a packed house didn’t come down until Sunday at local jazz programmer Johnno’s seaside bar, when a group of well-meaning locals served up buttery tourist-jazz that fed the rum-punch buzz felt in the audience; among the highlights was a sax-led rendition of “Get Up, Stand Up” that transported this writer far away from the sterling white-sand beaches of Anguilla and onto the beer-stained deck of a Carnival Cruise. Blame marketing, bop and its “art music” ethic or Bob Marley’s cross-cultural influence, but the modest crowds at Tranquility failed the performances by a Caribbean mile.

Pity, too. The Tranquility Fest took place on blissful Anguilla, a roughly 16-mile-long island about nine miles north of St. Maarten in the British West Indies. An upper-crust vacation destination and up-and-coming celebrity haunt, Anguilla boasts all the rapturous lagunas, lucid waters and exclusive resorts without the junk shops and penny casinos that define Caribbean “paradise” nowadays. Uncrowded, uncluttered and pretty remote-the island has one tiny airport and many visitors ferry over from St. Maarten-what you see in Anguilla’s brochures is what you get. It’s worlds away from Dizzy’s and even further from the Vanguard, making Tranquility’s postbop and heavy swing a dramatic juxtaposition indeed. (Certain moments, such as when Pharoah Sanders asserted his majesty on the epic “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” seemed perfectly suited for such picturesque landscapes.) The breezy atmosphere and BET sponsorship usually indicate a different brand of “jazz” festival entirely (“Najee, you’re on after Lee Ritenour”), but for the hardcore who braved Anguilla’s spas and otherworldly shellfish, the festival’s “Straight, No Chaser” theme rung true and the sound and lighting were brilliant to boot-rare for an outdoor event on a jazz budget.

Two young guns turned in sets that skimmed many heads in the crowd but resonated long after they ended. Blue Note newsmaker Robert Glasper, whose Canvas was one of 2005’s most hyped and revered albums, performed songs off In My Element, his forthcoming follow-up. Those songs, including “F.T.B.” and Canvas leftover “One for ‘Grew,” displayed an artist who’s developed a signature sound very early in the game.

Much-perhaps too much-has been written about the hip-hop influence in Glasper’s music, a misleading analogy that underestimates the pianist-composer and associates him with the oft-abused jazz-rap axis. Lyrically informed by gospel, R&B and hip-hop-his melodies often evoke the same comfort as a successful neo-soul hook-Glasper never sacrifices the intellect and artsiness of the new-school piano-trio tradition. Glasper’s rhythmic foil, drummer Damion Reid, shares the pianist’s gift for mixing the simple with the abstruse, and turned out everything from club-thumping backbeats (not so much at Anguilla but on In My Element) to skittering polyrhythms to make Aphex Twin blush.

At Tranquility, a dreadless Glasper interchanged singable, cascading refrains with sprawling passages that recalled different techniques without stagnating on any particular one: Garner’s clusters, Monk’s Rubik’s Cube harmonic tinkering, Peterson’s runaway chromaticism and the modal playing of McCoy Tyner via Mulgrew Miller could all be heard. (Like Dizzy before him, Glasper further disarms any pretension in his very advanced music by playing the comic onstage and off.)

Another surprise came on Saturday night with the W.E.S. Group, a quartet named after Washington, D.C.-based leader-composer-tenorman Will E. Smith. The foursome powered through the leader’s original tunes with a muscle and spiritual curiosity that split its inspiration between Coltrane’s two ’60s quartets. Recalling glimpses of Sanders’ set the night prior, Smith wove hard-blown modal lines in and around the rhythm section and breathed fire with taste and reckless precision, giving legitimacy to his compositions’ stilted titles (“Journey Within,” “Timelessness” and “The Spirit of You”). The spry remainder of the group-bassist Corcoran Holt and twin brothers Noble and Nathan Jolley on piano and drums, respectively-was fiercely talented and full of promise. Pianist Noble packs a Tyner-ish wallop and his solos shone a real knack for textural drama. Drummer Nathan is an equally confident and expressive player whose performance was a display of youthful athleticism; he buoyed and bounced around the kit with an elasticity that matched the shifting dynamics of his drumming. It was explosive musicianship that deserved a bountiful audience.

Originally Published