The Portland Jazz Festival (PDX Jazz) in its fifth year has already joined the ranks of world-class jazz festivals. More than 35,000 attended shows at over 25 venues, ranging from Arlene Schnitzer Hall (the "Schnitz," with its capacity of 2,700 consistently housed nearly sold-out performances) to quainter venues like the city's primary jazz club Jimmy Mak's. One of the main reasons is its ringleader, Artistic Director Bill Royston who each year seems to come up with a dandy theme to thread everything together. Royston successfully creates a feeling of jazz community that stretches from local interest, through the Northwest, and to us on the "right" coast and beyond. In fact, the weekends were very New York-like: one day this reviewer caught seven sets of music!
Last year's theme was "The Story of ECM Records" (next year: the Blue Note Records legacy celebrating the label's 70th anniversary as well as its 25th under the leadership of Bruce Lundvall), and this year was "The Shape of Jazz To Come" featuring living legends iconoclastic pianist Cecil Taylor and of course altoist Ornette Coleman (PDX Jazz borrowed its theme name from Ornette's classic 1959 albumeven though it was his Something Else!!! recording debut which celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier that very first week of PDX Jazz '08).
The just-turned 78-year-old saxophonist's brand of ever-challenging jazz was on display with his new quintet: Tony Falanga (acoustic bass), Charnett Moffett (electric bass), Al McDowell (electric piccolo guitar), Denardo Coleman (drums) and the leader on alto, trumpet and violin. At the Schnitz (the first of a half dozen cross-global dates in just over a two-week period for the living legend's group), Ornette's earthy yet bright tone was crystal clear and spot-on. The house mix for the rest of the band, however, left much to be desired. And without the proper mix, it was hard to grab onto the group's dynamics with its demanding instrumentation of three string players (four when Ornette fancied the violin).
Moffett's continuous wah-wah broke through the murkiness of the ensemble and the hall's acoustics but only on occasion; otherwise he served as a distraction to the action elsewhere on stage, thumb-popping notes to Falanga's more sensitive and creative arco adagio tremolos. McDowell's garnished solos sounded more meandering than they presumably werehe was well low in the overall mix and may have had some brilliant shining moments but honestly they were hard to detect under the circumstances. The sound subtly improved midway through for Denardo Coleman but still was not enough. Playing his tail off, there was just not much corresponding volume in sound to show for it, particularly his cymbal work, near inaudible regardless of how actively he performed on his kit. During one of the potential and more than momentary concert highlights of the group's surprise rendition of Bach's "Cello Suite no. 1," Denardo provided a rather awkward drum foundation following Falanga's exquisite bowing while Ornette took to violinhis more classical axe of three instruments. Here and elsewhere, Ornette's playing affairs with his non-primary instruments were brief flirtations; he would quickly return to alto here as he did elsewhere after blink-like, almost indecisive moments with either violin or trumpet. Perhaps for this tune more than anywhere else in the set, the sub-par acoustics became ever more noticeable and the group's message lost. A studio session would shed much more light on what transpired but failed to make it into most listeners' ears that evening.
Ultimately Coleman's group simply wasn't given the proper megaphone to get their collective point across, a common downfall in such oversized venues that this group demands. It was a rare instance of the festival's otherwise commendable syncing of performer-to-venue, though admittedly to the festival organizers' defense there was really no other choice available of a venue that could house the near-capacity crowd. If you came to hear Ornette, and not necessarily Ornette's band, there was much less to complain about, so for first- timers the legend did not just whet appetites. Bluesy renditions of the now-classic themes of "Turnaround" and particularly the "Lonely Woman" encore, had the 2,200+ in attendance walking out at concert's end with the shared grin of having witnessed an historic figure still in fine form.
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