Portland Jazz Festival Highlights 2013
Published on March 4, 2013
For its tenth year of jazz in Portland, this year’s U.S. Bank festival, presented by Alaska Airlines, kicked off with a number of sold out shows. An imposing array of internationally-recognized and local musicians played a variety of jazz styles, and the festival’s recognition of Black History Month was seen in a number of community-wide initiatives tied in with the festival.
In addition to the headline performers on the main stages—which included recent Grammy-winner Esperanza Spalding, Barry Harris, Nancy King, Gerald Wilson, Patricia Barber, Steve Kuhn, Kenny Garrett, Jack De Johnette, Terri Lyne Carrington, Geri Allen, the Art Abrams Swing Machine, the Blue Cranes, the Afro-Cuban All-Stars and SexMob— there were simultaneous performances by local musicians at various watering holes around the city.
One of the highlights was the February 22nd concert at the Newmark Theater: “The Jazz Message: Celebrating Art Blakey. The assembled sextet consisted of Javon Jackson, tenor sax; Bobby Watson, alto sax; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Eddie Henderson, trumpet; George Cables, piano; Buster Williams, bass; and Lewis Nash, drums.
There are occasional nights in which the stars align and the jazz gods look down upon us lowly mortals and decide the time is right to present a musical concert that we will remember as a highlight not soon to be forgotten. Such was the case for an all-star tribute to a one-of-a-kind jazz innovator, Art Blakey, who led and fostered “The University of Blakey,” better known as the Jazz Messengers, for almost four full decades. Blakey was known as a jazz incubator developing and mentoring talent, who would go out on their own to lead groups, after “graduating” from Blakey’s tutelage. It would take pages to name all the master musicians who were fully formed after getting their jazz chops developed by the master. It’s not really a case of who benefited from their time with Blakey, it’s more of an argument of who could have reached greater heights if they had developed under Art.
During a pre-concert jazz discussion with two of Art’s men, Bobby Watson and Javon Jackson, these two gentlemen reiterated the legend of Art Blakey, and how he was a father figure to so many young jazz musicians. Whereas jazz artists like Miles Davis “raided” musicians after they were fully formed, Art Blakey took raw talent and delivered them within a few years to leave his nest and stretch their wings ready to tackle the world.
Artistic director Don Lucoff pulled off a major coup in bringing together an aggregation of super stars, who except for Lewis Nash (a fellow drummer), had entered the Jazz Messenger fold and could honor the man by playing his most memorable compositions in manner honoring their teacher. Ranging from the most elderly, Curtis Fuller, at age 78, to Javon Jackson, who served with Blakey near the time of his death in 1990, The Jazz Message was well served at the Newmark Theater. It was hard to tell who was more happy to be there, the audience or the band members on stage, excited to honor their “teacher”, as evidenced by the camaraderie of a group of seasoned veterans separated by decades, and together for one magic evening (could there be rumors of taking this group on the road if the jazz gods are generous…).
Led by de facto band leader Javon Jackson, the septet worked as a well-oiled Jazz Messenger group, led by a dream rhythm section of Cables, Williams, and Nash. On most of the numbers they played this magical evening, each member had some solo time.
From “A La Mode”, written by Curtis Fuller to classics like “Along Came Betty”, “Blues March”, and “Moanin”, the Messenger elite kept the Blakey book alive and the full house elated. Personally, when this line-up was announced last October, I knew that the Portland Jazz Festival in its 10th year had truly arrived in the upper echelon of U.S. jazz festivals. Those that attended this most special of jazz evenings can surely attest to how much they were moved, and their joy for this music fully affirmed.
It was a wise move for Festival Director, Don Lucoff, to formally open this year’s Portland Jazz Festival with the piano master Barry Harris. At a sprightly 83 years, Harris still has a twinkle in his eye, the wisdom gained by keeping active as a jazz educator and having played with everyone from Charlie Parker to today’s up and coming talent.
Barry has stories to tell and a rapt audience was ready to listen and bask in his presence on Friday night. I had thought that catching the second set at Jimmy Maks would make sense in getting a seat and dealing with a less hectic scene. Boy, was I wrong… It was packed and I could only find a perch to stand near the ill-placed walkway to the rest rooms. The intimacy of a night club was special, (and probably led to Barry playing for over two hours), but the Newmark’s cushy seats would have made a more comfortable listening experience. However, the word about Mr. Harris was out, and the opportunity to hear this be-bop piano master share his gift for the first time in Portland was too good to pass up.
Barry was backed by Portland’s finest, bassist Chuck Israels, who is now a Portland resident ( a wise move for both Chuck and a jazz hungry Rose City), and our own local legend, the always tasteful and swinging drummer supreme, Mel Brown. Israels, whose first recording was the meeting between John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, and served with distinction in the early ‘60s as bassist with Bill Evans, was heard to comment early in the set with Harris, “he really makes me work.”
Harris opened with “There Will Never Be Another You.” Taken at a lovely introspective pace (like much of the evening), Barry had the audience in his pocket, clapping with enthusiasm after each solo. Kudos were given to Mel and Chuck as well, when it was their turn to shine. The adoration for Harris was so palpable that when he decided to do a “jazz karaoke” to a made-up title “7-6-4-3-555” that the crowd sang along with the beat, whether it be mainstream or a bossa nova turn. “My Romance” featured Israel’s intent soloing on one of the largest doublebass that I have ever seen.
“Round Midnight” and “Lotus Blossom” were done tenderly, as Harris much like Hank Jones, is known for the use of space, of the “less is more” school. Barry can mix be-bop lines with classical flourishes as well as anyone.
Those that were in a midnight mood were also treated to stories about Charlie Parker’s strings sessions, Harris’ thoughts about “bad” music (read Kenny G), and several blues numbers, including one in 12/8. He made Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” his own. Other treats were a sing-a-long to Latin tune, and a memorable “Night in Tunisia.” With the passing in the last week of Harris’ contemporary, Donald Byrd, seeing a master like Barry Harris is both a duty and a pleasure for jazz fans of any stripe.
Another Jimmy Maks event was the Gerald Wilson Evening on February 18, which began with the 94-year-old bandleader /trumpeter /composer directing the PDX Jazz All-Star Student Big Band. Later in the evening local pianist/composer/ professor Darrell Grant directed the octet of the PDX Jazz Public Schools‘ Jazz Educators Ensemble in some reduced arrangements of some of the top Wilson band numbers, such as his “Blues of Nya Nya” (written for his cat). The octet sounded great, and bassist Stan Bock, who came up from Salem for the evening, did a scat bit which seemed incongruous for his stately appearance but really swung. But it was unfortunate that those who purchased tickets only for the second half of the Gerald Wilson evening, who never even saw Wilson (who was sitting at the edge of the stage) or heard him do a single tune.
Kenton fans galore packed the Scottish Rite Auditorium on the evening of February 16 for the local Art Abrams Swing Machine Big Band and vocalist Rebecca Kilgore in a “Tribute to Stan Kenton.” Abrams mentioned that all the musicians in the band were local and they worked hard to master the often difficult Kenton charts. He also told some fascinating stories about Kenton’s life and recording career. Such Kenton hits as “The Concerto to End All Concertos,” and “Artistry in Rhythm” pleased the crowd. The concert had been opened by local trad jazz group The Shanghai Woolies, which seemed a somewhat odd mix with the avant-for-the-time Kenton music.
For fans of old school jazz tenor sax, listening live to Scott Hamilton certainly fits the bill nicely. There was a time in the mid ’70s when Hamilton came on the scene that he was considered the second coming of Ben Webster, Stan Getz, and Zoot Sims. Almost forty years later, Eric Alexander has taken the place of the new young lion, as master of the tenor ballad, and Hamilton is the seasoned veteran, who sometimes teams with Harry Allen (who became the 1980s’ Hamilton prototype), in reinterpreting the classic jazz songbook.
On Feb. 19th during the first complete week of this year’s Portland Jazz Festival, Scott took the stage at Jimmy Maks, backed by our own piano accompanist extraordinaire, Dave Frishberg, and veterans Dave Captein on bass, and Gary Hobbs on drums. Hamilton, who has resided in Europe for quite awhile, seldom comes to Portland. Drawing an older crowd fond of mainstream ballad playing, Jimmy Maks was packed with tenor sax fans eager to relive the golden days of swing, and Scott certainly served up a warm evening of the classics.
Mel Torme earned the moniker of “The Velvet Fog” for his husky toned voice and mellow interpretations of well known jazz chestnuts. It would be an apt description of Scott Hamilton’s delivery to compare his prowess in wrapping the audience in a velvet fog embrace as well. His emoting is like comfort food for jazz fans in the best sense, as listening to Hamilton brings on a feeling of all is right in the world when you are in an intimate setting wrapped up in a warm blanket of old school favorites like Johnny Hodges’ “Squatty Roo”, “Just You, Just Me”, “I Surrender Dear” and Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Love You Madly.”
Hamilton can also mix it up with “Cherokee”, which let drummer Gary Hobbs shine. It was also a special moment to see Scott beam with a warm smile after a particular snappy piano solo by Dave Frishberg, who is beyond compare as an accompanist. These were four jazz professionals having a good time entertaining an audience eager to soak up a night of ballad mastery.
Another special Jazz Festival moment at Jimmy Maks was the February 20 appearance by Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts Quartet. Matt Wilson is a drummer who can fit into most any jazz genre setting: inside, avant garde, small group, full band, and more. Wilson is like a jazz pied piper, ready to lead the way, with a perpetual grin, and a sly impish manner, enjoying himself and eager to share his gifts with an audience happy to experience a wide range of jazz idioms. His current group is comprised of Terell Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn, Martin Wind on acoustic bass, and multi-instrumentalist Gary Versace on piano, Hammond organ, and accordion.
The group opened with a Monk number that featured Stafford on a powerful solo that reached Roy Eldridge high notes. “Free Range Chicken” followed and it can only be compared to a Twilight Zone episode with a heavily percussive master clinic by Matt in the midst of whistles, Hammond B-3 effects, Stafford’s plunger mute, towels dampening the drums, and bells spicing up the musical stew.
Going from raucous to sublime, the quartet followed with a sumptuous “The Cruise Blues”, a ballad written by bassist, Martin Wind. From the group’s most current CD, An Attitude for Gratitude, this composition was gorgeous, and Stafford’s flugelhorn solo was deeply moving.
Matt Wilson is a Midwest native and grew up near the home of Carl Sandburg. He was inspired by Carl to write the tune, “Bubbles”, and it covered all bases from Americana to a gypsy jazz section featuring the accordion of Versace. Martin Wind’s Arco bass solo was inspiring here.
Stafford sat out on a heartfelt version of Paul Simon’s “A Bridge Over Troubled Waters, that was highlighted by Wilson’s adept brush work. Matt got the audience on their feet on a closing, “Feel the Sway Now” from his 2007 CD issue, The Scenic Route.
Although this year’s festival did not have a theme per se, there was a preference for drummer-led groups by Jack DeJohnette, Terri Lyne Carrington, and the tribute to Art Blakey. Matt Wilson showed at Jimmy Maks that he clearly is a master craftsman behind the drum kit as well. His joy in bantering with the audience, and leading them in audio adventures going in all directions, made his concert a special event.
There was also a special PDX Piano Perspective Series going on at the Classic Pianos recital hall on the East Side of Portland. Three top pianists from the Jazz Festival inaugurated the series with solo performances there. They were George Cables, Wayne Horvitz and Alfredo Rodriguez. Festival Managing Director Don Lucoff credited KMHD’s George Fendel with assisting in the inauguration of this series during the festival.
—Reviews by Jeff Krow & John Sunier; Photos by Mark Sheldon