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Portland Jazz Orchestra: Good Morning, Geek

Portland, Oregon, lays claim to institutions that have contributed mightily to jazzdom: the Portland Jazz Festival; the Jazz Studies program at Portland State University; and the Portland Jazz Orchestra. Linking all three, another institution…arranger-composer Charley Gray, whose imagination and discipline dominate all tracks of this debut release. The 18 sidemen (including one sidechick) are highly responsive to Gray’s dynamic shadings and cut-offs, playing with the maturity of a band that’s been together for many years, a luxury denied college ensembles — even the PJO, which blends students with professional veterans.

Nothing “geekish” about the title tune. Bookends provide up-tempo bossa; most of the chart is a straightahead swinger with great solos from trumpeters Matt Carr, Farnell Newton and tenorist Scott Hall. “Unlikely Event” resonanates on one harmonic change with fine solos from trumpeter Carr and tenorist Hall, plus a memorable solo from drummer Alan Jones. In “Better Than One,” Gray creates a complete makeover of Duke Pearson’s classic, “Jeannine,” inspiring outstanding solos by trombonist John Moak and tenorist Tim Jensen.

Solo highlight of the album: trombonist Lars Campbell’s “Lars Attack.” (Campbell is co-founder and co-director of the PJO.) Various “shades of Gray” turn an old folk tune into a fiery outlet for Campbell’s sweeping statements. Quiet suggestions of a tango from the rhythm section evolve into intense growling from Lars, ending with descending, overlapping pyramids from each section until the full canvas is covered by frozen sonorities. Gerald Wilson would love this chart.

“Knuckleball” is a whimsical update of the unsinkable “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “Three On a Tree Two” boasts shifting accents that should discourage dancers. But like all other tracks, they cook.

Originally Published