The Portland Jazz Festival is now in its 7th year under the artistic direction of Bill Royston
. And at this point, it's pretty safe to say that this is a festival that has earned it's due as one of the most creative festivals that has not only survived the current economic downturn but has done so successfully on its own terms. Unfortunately, many jazz festivals today have to rely on the inclusion of other genres of music, especially those coming from pop and rock sensibilities. Now that's not a criticism as much as it is a sign of the times.
So how does a festival in the Pacific Northwest in one of the rainiest months of the year (February) pull off selling out seven of its eight major acts? The reason has more to do with the vision and creative wisdom of Bill Royston than it does any other factor. Is there a process template behind this type of success? I doubt it and tend to think it has more to do with Royston's ability to understand and perceive the make up of his audience along with his ability to share his enthusiasm with the local business community. I'm sure there is more to it than that but if I was starting a festival today or if I had one that was struggling, I wouldn't think twice about knocking on Royston's door.
This year's festival included a focus on the jazz of Norway, which in concept I appreciated but found myself wishing that Royston would have opened up the gates just a little bit more. Many of the musicians, as good as they were, brought similar approaches to their musicality. With an audience that is now clearly following Royston's lead, this creates an opportunity to open the parameters more while educating his audience on the outer fringes of artistic creativity; of which there are vast amounts within Norway and Europe. Again, this is more of a wish and I realize I am only one voice.
After saying that, I was completely knocked out by some of the performances. The Mingus Big Band was a nice surprise and pianist David Kikoski again validated his ability to swing and influence the emotional feel of a large ensemble. Seamus Blake continues to impress with his ability to take any approach of music and not lose his beautiful, deep and thick vibrant voice. There was also plenty of talk about the young 18 year old drummer, Justin Faulkner. However, on this set as impressive as his technical abilities were, I felt his musical feel was being compromised for the more crowd pleasing hand attacks. But more on Falkner later.
The solo of the night and the surprise of the festival, at least for me, came from trumpeter Alex Sipiagin. He has the X factor along with whatever that thing is that enables musicians to leave the notes on the sheet and take sound and feel to another level.
He also sat in with the Dave Holland Quintet while trombonist Robin Eubanks fulfilled prior commitments with the San Francisco Jazz Collective. I have been a big fan of this ensemble over the years but felt that perhaps over a period of time, it became a bit predictable. Holland, like his mentor Miles Davis, has the unique ability to not only assess new talent but also assess group chemistry along with the vision of the creative possibilities of the individuals and the group itself. It's just a small piece of this very brilliant and humble man.
Though I didn't feel as if Sipiagin reached the creative level of his solo in this set as he did with the Mingus set, he certainly had the chops to swing with Chris Potter while importantly, bringing a very telling fresh intense passionate spirit to the music. It was clearly noticeable and welcomed. I'm looking forward to watching this young artist as he further matures.
Since Nate Smith joined the quintet, he has developed into one of today's most rhythmically diverse drummers. His ability to seamlessly change rhythmic feels is almost spellbinding along with his encyclopedic sized rhythmic repertoire, which is just amazing. Every musician regardless of instrument should be taking notes.
Holland himself brings a joy to music and sound that can fill large rooms, which was the case here. What a beautiful soul this man must have. I have seen him perform more times than I can count but on this night, he provided a solo as soulfully enriching and poetic as any other I have been blessed to hear.