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Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble: From Maxville to Vanport

Jack Bowers By

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From Maxville to Vanport is music with a purpose, saluting the courage and resilience of black Americans who helped build those cities in the '20s and '40s in the face of unrelenting prejudice and hostility and in so doing helped make the state of Oregon what it is today. The music is by Ezra Weiss, the lyrics by poet S. Renee Mitchell, the performance by the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble featuring vocalist Marilyn Keller. As a part of the score was written for documentary films, one can only imagine its more persuasive import if seen as well as heard, even though this CD conveys as best it can the depth and scope of Weiss' and Mitchell's eloquent vision.

In keeping with the musical heritage of its honorees, the album opens with a blues, the optimistic "Oregon Sounds Like Freedom," before delving into the starker aspects of everyday life for those early wayfarers with the somber "What Do Your Trees Tell You?," reminiscent in some ways of Billie Holiday's groundbreaking and gruesome ode to lynching, "Strange Fruit." Keller's allusive voice enriches both, as it does on every track save "Marjorie" and "Water," which were written for short films by Kalimah Abioto that will become available with the download of the album. Track 3, "Woman's Work," introduced by Keller and bassist Bill Athens, uses an R&B groove to unfold the story of the hard-working women of Maxville, while the generally placid "Marjorie" recounts the vision of the wife of a Maxville logger who dreams of a glamorous life in the city as a musician, abetted by Jasnam Daya Singh's lyrical piano and Mieke Bruggeman's sinuous baritone sax.

"Stacked Deck," another bar-lit blues, asks how anyone can win at cards or in life when the deck is clearly stacked against them, while "Water," a second theme written for film, veers from playful to ominous as its deep chordal phrases portend the ruinous Vanport Flood of 1948. The powerful finale, "From Maxville to Vanport," is an homage to the endurance of people who abandoned a peaceful and familiar life for an uncertain future: "Oregon didn't want black folks to stay / But we planted roots here anyway"—roots that held fast and flourished in the face of every obstacle to win the day. For what it is, a thematic pilgrimage of sorts, From Maxville to Vanport is quite well done on every level, from composition to lyrics to letter-perfect performances by Keller and the Portland JCE. Whether that strikes an auspicious note with listeners rests in the ear of the beholder.

Track Listing: Oregon Sounds Like Freedom; What Do Your Trees Tell You?; Woman’s Work; Marjorie; Stacked Deck Hand; Water; From Maxville to Vanport.

Personnel: Ezra Weiss: composer; S. Renee Mitchell: lyricist; Marilyn Keller: voice; Douglas Detrick: trumpet, flugelhorn; Farnell Newton: trumpet, flugelhorn; Lee Elderton: soprano sax, clarinet; John Savage: alto sax, flute; Rob Davis: tenor sax, clarinet; Mieke Bruggeman: baritone sax, bass clarinet; John Moak: trombone; Denzel Mendoza: trombone; Ryan Meagher: guitar; Jasnam Daya Singh: piano; Bill Athens: bass; Ken Ollis: drums.

Title: From Maxville to Vanport | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: PJCE Records

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