Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Portland Jazz Festival: A Celebration of ECM

George Wein

A few dozen professional musicians, thousands of fans and more than 10,000 students from seven states and three Canadian provinces jammed onto the University of Idaho campus for the 40th annual Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival. It was the fourth festival since Hampton’s death in August of 2002 and the last to be overseen by its founder, UI music professor Lynn “Doc” Skinner. Bassist, composer, arranger and bandleader John Clayton now has the reins as artistic director and is planning the 2008 festival. In retirement, Skinner will stand by as an advisor.

Hampton first performed at the festival in 1984, developed a fast friendship with Skinner, and the next year began a formal association with what was then known as the University of Idaho Jazz Festival. Soon, the festival took Hampton’s name. His presence and influence were so powerful at the university that in 1987 it named its school of music after him. Skinner told the 2007 audience in the huge Kibbie Dome that from the beginning his goal for the festival was to use jazz education “to make a difference in the lives of young people.” With his characteristic enthusiasm, Hampton joined Skinner’s campaign. He played at the festival and supported it for 23 years.

Some of the musicians at this year’s festival were Roy Hargrove, Roberta Gambarini, John Pizzarelli, Terell Stafford, the Jeff Hamilton Trio, Monty Alexander, Jane Monheit, Benny Green, Christian McBride, Claudio Roditi, Russell Malone, Julia Dollison, Byron Stripling, the Clayton Brothers Quintet, Igor Butman, John Stowell and Freddy Cole. The Lionel Hampton New York Big Band, made up largely of former Hampton sidemen, also performed.

At the opening concert in the University of Idaho field house, there was evidence of the strong Moscow-to-Moscow relationship Dr. Skinner has developed with Russian musicians. Pianist Leonid Vintskevich and his saxophonist son Nick performed as a duo and with a strings orchestra, playing pieces written by Dr. Skinner. Tenor saxophonist Lembit Saarsalu, from Estonia, also played at a high level. Saarsalu and the Vintskeviches followed the unusual solo guitarist Enver Izmailov, who taps the instrument’s strings, in the manner of Stanley Jordan. He developed the approach in Ukraine never having heard or heard of Jordan. Izmailov’s virtuosity encompasses jazz techniques, blazing speed and harmonic ingenuity. His artistry is deepened by his incorporation of folk elements and effortless use of time signatures native to his part of the world. After hours at the main festival hotel, a jam session featured a changing cast of Russian music students attending the festival to participate in workshops. None looked older than 17. All played at or near professional level.

Here are a few highlights from days of concerts, workshops and jam sessions: The festival’s house rhythm section-drummer Jeff Hamilton, pianist Benny Green, guitarist Russell Malone and bassist Christian McBride-backed trumpeters Claudio Roditi, Terell Stafford and Vern Sielert. All were splendid in Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” and Kenny Dorham’s “Lotus Blossom,” but the set’s indelible moment came in the ballad medley with Roditi’s uncomplicated, heartfelt “Body and Soul.”

A concert dedicated to the late bassist Ray Brown featured musicians who achieved fame as colleagues in Brown’s bands. Pianist Green’s trio with McBride and Hamilton set a high standard with an explosive performance of Brown’s “Buhaina Buhaina.” Hamilton likes to swing: The more intense the rhythm became, the broader grew Hamilton’s smile. He smiled constantly throughout the week.

Skinner introduced Roberta Gambarini by quoting Hank Jones from a phone call that afternoon. He said Jones had called Gambarini “the finest vocalist I’ve heard in the past 60 years.” Then, with McBride, Hamilton, guitarist Malone and her empathetic piano accompanist Tamir Hendelman, she demonstrated what led to that exalted level of praise. Gambarini is deceptive; she makes perfection in every department-swing, intonation, diction, control, coloration, taste, interpretation of lyrics-seem easy.

In two sets, one with a quartet, one with a trio, pianist Monty Alexander achieved the power, drama and propulsion of his work with Brown 30 years ago. He reached a climax of hard, happy swing in the reunion of his own trio with Hamilton and bassist John Clayton. Their “Battle Hymn of the Republic” had the musicians in the backstage bistro area riveted to the big monitor screen and cheering along with the audience when Alexander’s roaring performance ended. Earlier, Alexander sat in as the house rhythm section backed vocalist Freddy Cole in a set paying tribute to Cole’s older brother Nat, a profound influence on Alexander’s development as a pianist.

At an after-hours jam session, the student alto saxophonist Grace Kelly from Massachusetts sat in with a group that included the veteran guitarist John Stowell. I know of no explanation other than genius for this slight 14-year-old girl’s attainment of maturity in her art. She has mastery of the instrument, passion, profound swing and judgment that one would expect in a player with 20 years of professional experience.

The four days of the festival are packed with workshops, clinics, adjudications and competitions for elementary, middle school and high school music students. The kids sit down with seasoned jazz performers, who share their knowledge and experience. In a workshop, Hamilton demonstrated the sweeping wire brush strokes he favors and went beyond matters of technique to explain how his personalized use of brushes fits his musical philosophy. Hamilton and the festival’s house rhythm section performed for the students. A boy who appeared to be nine or 10 years old asked what it’s like when they’re all playing together. Malone said, “We’re having a conversation.”

At other workshops, the discussions got considerably more technical. Corey Christiansen showed young guitarists how to expand their improvisational vocabularies through the use of short lines and phrases. Hendelman worked with students on development of melodic and rhythmic ideas in solos. Vocalist Dollison showed how she reharmonizes standard songs. Gambarini provided tips on natural vocal technique and, amusingly, demonstrated over-the-top jazz singing. In a concert later in the festival, Jane Monheit also sang. I don’t think that she attended Gambarini’s workshop.

The current Four Freshmen are the latest in a line of successors to the original vocal quartet founded in 1947. I dropped in on their workshop to see whether I had an accurate impression from their recordings that they have more musicianship than previous editions of the group. The hour contained more repartee than music. Bob Ferreira, Vince Johnson, Brian Eichenberger and Curtis Calderon are raconteurs who have perfected a style of casual interactive standup comedy that was a big hit with the audience of mostly teenagers. Few of the students’ questions or the Freshmen’s answers dealt with issues of musical substance. Calderon’s cornet playing was impressive for his range and lyricism. Ferreira’s drumming, Johnson’s bass playing and Eichenberger’s guitar work did a functional job of support at the workshop and at their concert that night. Except for Calderon, they played no extensive instrumental solos. The group was entertaining, with more to offer than nostalgia, but the question about musical depth remained unanswered.

The house band then played “Have You Met Miss Jones?” swinging like crazy. Still swinging, they accompanied, in order, the Russian tenor saxophonist Igor Butman, trombonist Bill Watrous and the Australian brass phenomenon James Morrison. Except in Watrous’ intricate and charming “I Thought About You,” each horn man seemed determined to exhaust every technical capability of his instrument, leaving no note unplayed, no space unfilled. Not content to break altitude and speed records on trumpet and trombone, Morrison added to his arsenal a borrowed euphonium. Following Morrison’s featured spot, Butman and Watrous came back on to join him in a rendition of Sonny Rollins’ “Tenor Madness” at warp speed. Butman led off the solos with one chorus that evoked Rollins. After that came the deluge. In the immortal words of Louis Armstrong, “Chops was flyin’ everywhere.” The three technical monsters outdid themselves and one another, culminating in an exchange of four-bar phrases, then twos, ones and, finally, nones, improvising simultaneously with a ferocity that had the audience on its feet. Morrison was in danger of exploding his friend’s euphonium. Along the way, Green and Malone soloed, choosing contrast rather than competition. They did not damp down the swing, but introduced welcome breaths of air.

In the week’s final concert, trumpeter Roy Hargrove kicked his quintet into a fast modal piece that sizzled with excitement and a sense of risk-taking that characterized most of the set. In an unnamed Latin tune (Hargrove made no announcements), alto saxophonist Justin Robinson played an impressive, if busy and slightly repetitious, solo. Hargrove followed with a lesson in the use of space to make a solo breathe without losing intensity or rhythm. Gerald Clayton inflected his piano choruses with bebop figures that melded into the Latin groove. Bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Montez Coleman had a rhythm fiesta.

Hargrove’s “Fools Rush In,” on flugelhorn, was a highlight of the festival. His chorus of pure melody led into a lovely solo by Clayton. Then, with his cashmere sound, Hargrove improvised a chorus in long tones and a few fluid runs, caressed the final eight bars of Rube Bloom’s melody, added a held note and ended with a sweet afterthought of a tag. It was simple and beautiful.

Clayton stayed onstage to play in the Clayton Brothers Quintet led by his bassist father John and his uncle Jeff, one of the few alto saxophonists who take Cannonball Adderley as a primary model. Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and drummer Obed Calvaire completed the group. Castellanos, one of the bright lights of Southern California’s jazz scene, played brilliantly in the front line with Jeff Clayton and helped to remind the audience that the postbop tradition of Art Blakey and Horace Silver is alive. In a piece called “Gina’s Groove,” Gerald Clayton summoned up Silver’s infectious style. His father, a protégé of Ray Brown, continues the Brown institution of solid time and a fat sound. An exemplar of the bow, in the course of the festival he played several masterly arco solos.

The bands and soloists named best by the judges played or sang on the festival’s main stage as opening performers at the evening concerts. Seattle’s Garfield High School won top honors in the AAAA big band category, edging out its crosstown rival, Roosevelt High. The two are perennial one-two finishers in student jazz band competitions nationwide. In another competition, Roosevelt’s Logan Strosahl and Garfield’s John Cheadle tied for first place in the alto saxophone division. They took part with 13 other instrumentalists in a pre-show concert, everyone playing two choruses on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

The festival wrapped up with the Lionel Hampton New York Big Band backing three guest vocalists. Roberta Gambarini gave a commanding performance of Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low.” Dee Daniels, who applies gospel soul to everything she sings, did “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” complete with a just-us-girls suggestive monologue. John Pizzarelli, guitar in hand, sang and played three songs from the Frank Sinatra tribute album he made with the Clayton-Hamilton big band. For Pizzarelli’s set, the Jeff Hamilton Trio served as the rhythm section with the Hampton Band. Pizzarelli sang with his usual boyish charm and verve. On “You Make Me Feel So Young,” he played an intricate solo and negotiated a tricky guitar part with the ensemble. He achieved serious swing in his guitar/voice unison improvisation on “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.”

For the penultimate number, the Hampton band played-what else?-“Flyin’ Home,” with solos all ’round. Doug Lawrence tore it up with a tenor saxophone solo that would have had Hampton grinning ear to ear. Finally, things quieted and the live band accompanied the recorded Hampton singing “What a Wonderful World” as a digital slide show on huge screens illustrated the history of the Lionel Hampton festival from 1984 to that very evening. It was an emotional remembrance of Hamp and a sentimental retirement sendoff for Doc Skinner, who leaves a monument of a festival. John Clayton says that he wants to make the festival even bigger.

Originally Published