Friday, February 20, 2009

PDX Jazz 09

The Portland, Oregon jazz festival ( was Feb. 13-22, but it almost didn’t happen at all. Just a few months ago it was bankrupt due to lack of sponsors. The whole town and jazz fans everywhere were devastated. Then at the eleventh hour, Alaska Airlines came through with a major sponsorship and some others followed. The festival is now officially called the Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air – Portland Jazz Festival. Fly Alaska!

I attended a few events over the long President’s Day weekend, and from what I experienced, the festival was as great as ever, even though crowds were thinner. Most venues looked to be only 2/3 full. The theme this year was a celebration of Blue Note Records’ 70th year of producing jazz music (25 years since its resurrection). All the festival artists were Blue Note performers.

The opening headliner was pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I have appreciated this Havana-born artist since the “The Blessing,” (1991), still one of my favorite albums. His quintet included trumpet, trombone, bass and drums. He teased with the occasional Latin rhythm but mostly stuck to simpler rhythms in favor of complex melody. Instead of a sequence of notes, the melody was comprised of a repeating finger pattern moving around the keyboard. Each gesture was like an individual note in a regular melody. There were few chords. The tunes were mostly minor key, sounding plaintive or angry, but always contained like a pressure cooker within two octaves of middle C. Even a piece that started out light and humorous turned dark and anxious. One wonders what goes on in his head.

Legendary trumpeter Terence Blanchard came on with an orchestra. My first reaction was, “Oh boy, here we go. This never works.” Because despite a composer’s desire for complexity, subtlety and nuance, an orchestra is not a jazz instrument. The sounds blend into the mediocre “orchestra” sound as it tries to express jazz ideas. This kit included a tuba, 3 French horns, 2 trombones, and an enormous bass drum (maybe5 feet tall) in the back row; then a row of 2 flutes and 3 clarinets; then a healthy string section of 6 violins, 4 violas, and 2 cellos. All this was fronted by a piano, bass, sax and drum quartet, plus a conductor for the orchestra, then finally, Blanchard squeezed into a space so tight he could hardly turn around.

But my fears were unfounded and I was happily surprised by what Blanchard did with all this resource. He played from his new album, A Tale of God’s Will: A Requiem for Katrina. He and the orchestra plumbed the depths of emotion surrounding the 2005 tragedy of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Blanchard’s home town. If I understood him correctly, the album is the sound track, or derived from the sound track of Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary. Blanchard has scored numerous Spike Lee films.

The music was soulful, spiritual, expressive, and emotional, but also representational, evoking cries of despair and soulful laments along with the relentless forces of nature and the disorganization of the community. All this had a New Orleans flavor: simple, bluesy, well punctuated, and accessible. And the orchestra, instead of fusing into one voice, played discrete layers of sound and meaning so that although it was not a concerto structure, the exchanges with the jazz quintet were chatty (except for one piece, featuring electric guitar, in which the orchestra devolved into “just an orchestra.”). It was a masterpiece of composition, orchestration, and performance; a highlight of the festival.

By Saturday the “Joe Lovano Festival” had begun. The ubiquitous saxophonist headlined with his group, “Us5” but also walked on to jam with John Scofield’s trio, accompanied singer Judi Silvano, and featured with McCoy Tyner. That’s not a complaint; I love the guy, but he was clearly doing his best to support the festival this year. His own show with “Us5” was introduced by his wife, Judi Silvano, but her gushing, over the top praise for him seemed way off base and was embarrassing. She sang a number or two with him where she was able to match her voice closely to the tone and timbre of the sax, making some interesting effects. Still, I was relieved when she stepped away from the mike. The paradox of Lovano is that his sound is hot but he is cool. The music is complex, evolves very quickly and organically, making it exciting and original, but he doesn’t personally get bent out of shape. He rarely resorts to horse whinnies and squeaky balloons as clichés for “emotion.” He lets the music speak for itself, and it’s very good music, albeit somewhat intellectual.

Jacky Terrasson and his trio opened for Lovano. This talented pianist was a winner of the Thelonious Monk competition and that was evident in his music. I enjoyed his rendition of “Caravan.” You would not think there is anything left to say with that song, but he gave it a makeover. Overall, however, I thought his sound was Jarrettesque and although pleasant, undistinguished.

Jazz singer Diane Reeves appeared with the full Portland Symphony Orchestra, 100 pieces or more. She served up an array of standards and other material, interspersed with reminiscences and humorous anecdotes. Those were more than just filler, for they revealed her personality, which is charming, and added value to her singing. She referred several times to her high school days, and “the girl I used to be,” so one wonders if she is going through a period of self-examination just now. I was impressed by her precise diction, in speaking and singing. For some reason I was put off by her interpretations of songs like Fascinatin’ Rhythm and Lullaby of Birdland. They were reworked to seem “creative” but came across only as manufactured. This was a regularly scheduled performance of the Portland Orchestra that had obviously been grafted to the Jazz Festival for cost-saving synergy, but it didn’t really work. Symphony goers are a different population than jazz lovers. Loud, overweight, middle-aged physicians in dark suits were accompanied by over-perfumed, bejeweled wives. Reeves’ playlist was probably designed for that audience. The orchestra was competent but sounded like an orchestra, nothing more. They did not swing.

Guitarist John Scofield has been in the limelight for a long time and his performance at the festival proved again why that should be so. He has played with Miles Davis, Charles, Mingus, Herbie Hancock, and many others. Joe Lovano was a member of his original quartet in the early ‘90’s. I appreciate Scofield’s diversity of styles from traditional to funk, rock and even a heavy metal sound (“The Low Road” performed with Lovano). After a beautiful, soulful rendition of the Tennessee Waltz, he launched an amazing avant-garde piece involving a full array of special effect floor pedals. He was verbing and looping his own licks right there in real time, essentially doing engineering work as we watched, to produce a completely bizarre output. The group also did a tremendously energetic rendition of “Satisfaction.” It is amazing what can grow out of those first 10 notes of the bass line. And it is worth noting that the bass was well miked so you could actually hear it, something that is surprisingly overlooked in many jazz performances. Drummer Bill Stewart, a legend in his own right, treated us with several spectacular solos.

Singer Judi Silvano, wife of Joe Lovano, is a well-known jazz vocalist and has one Blue Note record to her credit. I think she calls herself a vocalist rather than a singer because she does not actually sing recognizable songs, but produces sequences of vocal effects to scat lyrics. It was hard to follow. There were lots of staccato jumps across octaves, but nothing in familiar tropes. It also seemed repetitive and artificial to me, rather than organic, although that could just be my ignorance of her music. I could not get a grip on what her musical ideas were. It seemed she was most intent on demonstrating her impressive vocal range, and it was a large range, especially for a 58 year old, because she can fluidly slip into a falsetto. But it is not the same kind of a range you heard in young Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez, for example. She used her voice as an arbitrary musical instrument rather than as means of personal expressiveness, but then accompanied it with gestures designed to look meaningful, as if to suggest that what she was singing had some human meaning, rather than being contrived. Pseudo-beatific smiling and knowing nods were gratingly inauthentic. She did not move well. Her personal stage presence was thus in conflict with the sound of her performance. I appreciated her skilled vocal control after I closed my eyes. I never thought I would say this, but her presentation of “Love in Outer Space” by Sun Ra was a familiar port in stormy seas. Joe Lovano did what he could to support her.

Lionel Loueke’s Trio was a perfect way to end my jazz weekend. This young guitarist from Benin, in west Africa, is a graduate of Berklee College and the Thelonious Monk Institute. He has played with both Terence Blanchard and John Scofield. The Scofield influence really shows. But Loueke is his own man, much more romantic and self-expressive than Sco. He has a beautiful voice, and sings African songs as he plays, often using the complex click patterns characteristic of African languages such as Xhosa, but using them in a way to create a mini-rhythm section in his voice. On most tunes he sings along with himself even when he is away from the microphone. The guitar is very hot, and he can get an amazing diversity of sound from it. One tune had it sounding very much like a steel drum, and in another, he put a tissue between the frets and the strings to make a sound like a large African hand drum. His drummer, a Hungarian named Frank Nemeth was the most subtle drummer I have ever heard. “Subtle” is not a word you normally associate with drums but this guy excelled in leaving out beats at key moments, not pounding them in. Sometimes in the middle of a fast run the stick would come down but curve away, missing the head, producing a kind of syncopated effect. I could have watched him all night. Bassist Massimo Ducat was also outstanding in his own way. It is a strong trio and they played creatively off each other with good communication. A noticeable characteristic of Loueke’s compositions and the trio’s performance was abrupt changes in tempo. One composition, which Loueke explained had 17 beats to a measure, went far beyond Monk’s wildest dream.

As always, I hated to leave with so much talent yet unsampled. It is a huge festival for being such a small festival. If it returns next year, so will I.

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