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Portland Jazz Festival: A Celebration of ECM

Dr. Lonnie Smith

Gliding down the side of a 10,000-foot mountain in complete silence, I watch the town of Telluride in the center of a ring of tall peaks come into focus. The river bordered by pines and blue spruce bubbles into view at the edge of town and the ground station is under me with a bump and a fast stop. I step out of the gondola trying to get the lay of the land and locate the jazz office.

Telluride in August is a step back in time, with walking and biking the main transportation and big dogs parked lazily in front of little shops. It’s a leap into fantasyland with turquoise and yellow houses girdled in exotic wildflowers surrounded by giant mountain peaks. I always do a lot of sighing when I arrive and it’s only partly due to the altitudinal breathing challenges. I find the jazz office, which is relocated every year to keep things improvisational, and I get the schedule so I know when I’ll hear Regina Carter and Herbie Hancock.

I stroll down to the town park where people are gathered to hear a free concert. Just a local band, I think, but then they start to play and a three-foot trumpet player and mini-singer wow me with their talent. It’s the Young Rascals from Virginia Beach and they’re here and ready to swing. The fun has begun.

After the concert I stop into a little Italian restaurant with sauce that takes you to the Italian countryside and I run into Javon Jackson and Dr. Lonnie Smith enjoying a meal before the action starts. Telluride is small but the restaurants are world-class and you’re likely to spot the artists enjoying the fantastic cuisine.

At the park Nnenna Freelon sings as though the rain weren’t pouring down on our heads and people huddle under tents and umbrellas to hear her voice soar out through the mist. Herbie Hancock brings a whole new kind of sound, with Lili Hayden singing and playing electric violin in the ensemble and the crowd shows it’s appreciation by crowding the stage and cheering every solo.

In the star-filled evening it’s time for the indoor action and you’ll find plenty of it in this little town this weekend. Javon Jackson and Dr. Lonnie Smith get their groove on at the Blue Moon Saloon and the place is rockin’ with dancers. Nnenna enchants a full house at the charming old Sheridan Theater which seats about 200, and Ernie Watts plays a late show full of style and improvisation that is the real deal. The hard part is choosing which act to go and hear.

Morning comes early but I don’t want to miss a note and when the Young Rascals take the stage you can’t help but smile watching the future of jazz. Then the Falconaires, the Air Force Academy big band, set the mood for a hard swinging set by the New York Voices that blows away any hangover you had left.

The clouds seem to be parting for Terence Blanchard’s band to start generating some heat. After some serious rain we’re grateful for the sun and rainbows accompanying Blanchard’s band. Then Regina Carter keeps the ball rolling; she is a pint-sized powerhouse, just full of drive and drama and Greg Tardy deftly weaves his clarinet through Carter’s violin lines as they float over the crowd.

I’ve had this same experience before in Telluride, listening to James Moody, Ray Brown or Flora Purim. It is being a part of a work of art: The energy of jazz permeates the air around you. Every time I go I wish I could take everyone with me to share this celebration of jazz. I hope that next year you treat yourself to a jazz journey in the Colorado Mountains, walking by the river, hiking to the waterfall and sharing the rocky-mountain jazz high.

Originally Published