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Portland Jazz Festival: A Celebration of ECM

Jason Moran

Seattle’s annual Earshot Festival is known for its edgy, adventurous, spot-on programming. This year’s event contained stimulating choices like Billy Bang, the Kamikaze Ground Crew, Rashied Ali, the Odeon String Quartet with Bill Frisell, and a broad representation of the Pacific Northwest’s most interesting jazz artists. But pianists were the strength and depth of the 2006 festival. Andrew Hill, Matthew Shipp, Wayne Horvitz, Allen Toussaint, Cyrus Chestnut, Bill Anschell, Dawn Clement and Marc Seales will be unfairly ignored in this piece, in order to concentrate on those below:

Toshiko Akiyoshi gave a short but dynamic solo piano recital before a house full of worshipful fans at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It was clear what Toshiko has been doing since disbanding her orchestra. She has stayed home and practiced piano. On pieces like “Tempus Fugit” and “Just One of Those Things,” she rattled and tumbled and spewed notes and criss-crossed angular block chords with multiple strands of decoration.

Manuel Valera played Tula’s (Seattle’s funky, homey jazz dive) with bassist Ricky Rodriguez and drummer Bill Campbell. Valera is only 26, but has made three recordings (Forma Nueva and Melancholia on Mavo and Historia on Fresh Sound New Talent) that have started a buzz. His formal education, in Havana and New York, has been comprehensive, and he speaks many musical languages, like sensual Latin grooves, classical European harmonies and postmodern jazz tangents. “De Un Pajaro Las Dos Alas” (from Melancholia) had rhythmic urgency but no sharp edges because Valera’s piano flowed all through it, not in lines but waves. “Displaced” (from Forma Nueva) began in convoluted meter (10/4?) but settled to an insistent Havana throb over which Valera lavished color in swirls and splashes. Valera’s music is heady, seductive stuff, sweeping yet precise.

The revelation of this year’s festival was Roberta Piket. She belongs to that large worldwide community of pianists guided by the spirit of Bill Evans. At Tula’s, she made her Evans connection explicit by performing his compositions (“Comrade Conrad,” “Laurie”) and songs Evans played (“Alice in Wonderland”). Her oblique, softly lit chord voicings and touch recall Evans. But she breaks up musical space more freely, and thinks in large juxtaposed related ideas rather than in linear narrative.

What she truly shares with Evans is a particular inner world of feeling. It was audible in her unsentimental ascent out of sadness through music on her own “For Uncle Harvey.” At a time when so many treat the piano as a percussion instrument, Piket plays it like a stringed instrument. She never pounds it. She firmly caresses it until it sings. Her improvised designs always cohere, even when her logic is most personal. “Up, Up and Away” was haltingly contrarian, refusing obvious resolution as it shifted among meters, yet it still made sense.

Piket was supported by two highly distinctive musicians, Billy Mintz and Ratzo Harris. If you are a fan of modern jazz drumming but have not heard Billy Mintz, you have not heard it all. Mintz is perversely quiet, yet his energy is real and the timing of his myriad details is exact. He can play the melody of “Come Rain or Come Shine” all by himself. Harris uses the Merchant vertical bass, in which he can reach high “C” on its sixth string. The instrument cannot provide the woody, resonant riches of an acoustic bass, but in Harris’ very fast hands it is a special whirring twanging medium of expression.

Piket also sometimes sings, in a vibratoless, waif-like, pitch-perfect voice. This unique trio has an album coming called Love and Beauty on Thirteenth Note.

Another fascinating pianist in this festival was Craig Taborn. He appeared on Halloween at the Poncho Concert Hall of Cornish College with 7 Black Butterflies, a group led by bassist Drew Gress. The edgy, hermetic, rather spooky music was perfect for October 31. Gress’ tunes were frames, intricately askew, within which trumpeter Ralph Alessi played long tones broken by fragmentary fanfares, and alto saxophonist Tim Berne shot verticals. As for Taborn, he never once did what you expected. Sometimes he let the trumpet/alto frontline play Ornette-ish, tilted singsongs without him. Sometimes he invaded the soloist’s space, like on “Heavenly Hell,” where he clanged and clattered upon Berne’s already exacerbated lines. On softer pieces like “Stars and Stripes Forever,” taken as a deadpan dirge, he played hard. On hard, dissonant pieces (“Chevelle”) he injected sweet, ironic interludes. Sometimes he soloed elaborately with two index fingers. Actually, he almost never soloed yet never quite stopped soloing, in a nightlong counterline.

Victor Noriega grew up in the United States and is now based in Seattle, but his ancestral homeland is the Philippines. His use of Filipino folk music and popular songs creates fresh, light, graceful textures for jazz. “Harana” was written by Noriega’s great uncle, a well-known Filipino composer and conductor in the 1930s. It had the poignance and dignity of a hymn, although Noriega described it as a serenade.

Noriega appeared at Tula’s with his working trio (bassist Willie Blair, drummer Eric Eagle) and two of Seattle’s best horn players, trumpeter Jay Thomas and alto saxophonist Mark Taylor. “Bayan Ko” was cool and quiet yet rapt, Thomas and Taylor holding soft one-note riffs against Noriega’s gently dramatic flourishes. Noriega is a pianist less sequential and less right-handed than the norm. He creates alluring circular designs with an ever-present subtle pulse, and he often works from middle “C” and down.

George Colligan appeared at Tula’s on Nov. 3 with one of Seattle’s strongest rhythm sections, bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer Matt Jorgensen. On this night, Colligan was almost exclusively about sheer speed and drive. “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” was representative. He first pieced it out, held it back, and then blasted it. His furious streaming runs sometimes got caught in hammering sticking points, then broke free and rocketed onward.

The Triple Door, where Jason Moran’s Bandwagon played on Nov. 5, is one of the best places to hear and see jazz in America. The lighting and the haze machine gave the trio a dramatic presence, floating in mist and shadow, with the starry night of a fiber optic curtain as backdrop. Moran’s recent recordings (e.g. Artist in Residence on Blue Note) import vocal “found sounds” to create unprecedented consciousness-expanding effects. On the opening piece of his second set, a looped female voice melded with clamorous piano trills. “Body and Soul” used a recording of Eddie Jefferson singing in praise of Coleman Hawkins’ famous solo, interspersed with Moran’s own piano fragments of the theme, to make a dizzying hall-of-mirrors refraction of the song.

At times, in his huge one-handed, smashed intervals and his widely spaced, jagged chord blocks, it sounded like Moran was playing some riotous, jangling new percussion instrument. It was therefore exhilarating when he released into passages of actual pianism, like the passionate “Motherless Child” that somehow appeared during “Body and Soul.” Electric bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits created ongoing, eruptive, thunderous sonorities. Bandwagon is something beyond the piano trio as we know it.

The atmosphere of a Moran performance is suspenseful because of the wildly creative spirit in the air. The night was a fitting climax to a festival dominated by pianists.

Originally Published