Portland Jazz Festival
February 15-24, 2008
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.
The musical brother of Ornette unquestionably was Don Cherry, whose son David Ornette Cherry (note the namesake) performed in the Paramount Hotel, conveniently right after and just around the corner from Ornette. The originally intended acoustic piano trio of this recently turned Portlander expanded threefold in headcount, plus each band member was a multi-instrumentalist. Taking over the hotel lobby space, countless instruments were strewn through the open areaincluding melodica, kora, piano, flutes, guitars and banjo, tenor saxophone and clarinets, acoustic and electric basses, talking drum, drum kit, balafon and various percussion, not to mention an odd dancing routine from what many initially thought was just an eccentric and moved audience member who at one point intentionally extended her routine to block hotel guests from getting to the elevator to get to their rooms! Cherry's ethnic-sounding, highly rhythmic ensemble and jam-based repertoire had the looseness of a Fela Kuti unit, and boasted an especially pleasant surprise in its undeniably most talented playermulti-reedman Tah Rei, whose foundation lay squarely on such strong European saxophonists as Peter Brotzmann and Bernt Rosengren as well recalling the "New Thing" tone of Pharoah Sanders. With all the sounds and textures on hand, the not-so pleasant surprise was the fact that Cherry strangely still on occasion relied on his electric keyboard as if discontented with the diverse palette of sounds already around him.
Myra Melford's Be Bread performed at the Winningstad, an Elizabethan 'black box'-style theater, which deceivingly holds up to nearly 300. It was curious that Melford's Be Bread was booked rather than her more recent Trio M group collaboration (with Mark Dresser and Matt Wilson), whose Big Picture(Cryptogramophone) release was one of last year's most memorable, speaking of the shape of jazz that's here and to come. Regardless, Melford (piano and the harmonium pump organ) played a strong, late-night set of music with Stomu Takeishi (electric bass), Brandon Ross (electric guitar), Cuong Vu (trumpet and effects) and Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums). Be Bread ran through Melford's compositions, including "To The Roof," which recollected the strength of the tune's appearance on the group's self-entitled 2006 Cryptogramophone recording. They also performed memorable compositions such as "Moonbird" (featuring a fantastic Vu solo, Melford on piano), "I See A Horizon" and "Knocking From the Inside." The ensemble's mesmerizing lines - in comparison to Ornette's set - reached the listener without getting lost in a muddy mix.
Former Portlander Tim Berne (alto) also played the Winningstad, with Craig Taborn (piano) and Gerald Cleaver (drums), a trio that certainly qualifies for The Shape of Jazz To Come moniker (as would any group under Berne's leadership). Their densely packed, highly rhythmic cyclic patterns and triangular exchanges and excursions varied in volume but not intensity. A fine move by festival organizer Royston was having fellow artists performing elsewhere during the festival offer introductions and concert-opening statements for their fellow musicians as Joe Lovano (in town with the SF Jazz Collective) did for Ornette, and Melford for Cecil Taylor. Berne gave one of the more memorable and ludicrously hilarious band introductions for The Bad Plus concert at the Crystal Ballroom. Incorporating a Scientology theme that involved Bad Plus drummer Dave King (we'll just leave it at thatit was a "you had to be there" off the cuff ramble), he immediately set the mood for the basically sold out crowd of near-900 as jovial and lively.
Very much in line with the festival theme, The Bad Plus continue to bridge the gap between the traditional jazz crowd and the downloading generation. Ethan Iverson (piano), Reid Anderson (bass) and Dave King (drums) have gathered a repertoire based off of standards (not to mention strong originals) rooted in their generation, and not just jazz either. The band played several tunes featured on their latest release Prog (Heads Up): rocking-yet-jazzy renditions of such '70s rock anthems as Rush's "Tom Sawyer" (King donning the Neil Peart meets Rashied Ali "hat") and an extended rendition of David Bowie's "Life on Mars" (with an ever-intense improvisational-based conclusion), were intermixed with originals such as Iverson's "Mint" with its escalating spiral staircase-like twisting progression and frequent intensifying drum breaks, and Anderson's "Physical Cities" and "Giant." The latter featured an extended bass solo intro that segued into another King spotlight - from delicate brush work to digging his elbow into the floor tom, creating a musical creak that Denardo Coleman could only have envied because of the sonic clarity of the mic placement and acoustic superiority of this space versus the Schnitz (high rock club-like volume doesn't hurt either in this case). In comparison, Denardo looked as if he were pantomiming in the Schnitz. And in dedication to the festival's marquee performer and theme, The Bad Plus intuitively showed that Ornette's music is ever relevant to those young ecstatic and still impressionable ears with a rendition of his "Song X." Royston (a huge Bad Plus supporter for many years now as they've frequently played Portland thanks to him), has always realized the band's potential and core audience and so for this occasion set aside the entire and sold out balcony section to the under-21 attendees, safely distancing them from the main floor of delicious micro-brews on tap that Portland and the Northwest boast! He warmly addressed and pleaded to those in the wings at the end of the set's standing ovation: "Please don't let this be your last jazz show!"
Saxophonist/flutist Rob Scheps and veteran bassist Glen Moore (charter member of the well-known group and local favorite Oregon) played at the basement ballroom of the Marriott Waterfront Hotel, opening for Cecil Taylor in an intriguing if not quite curious double-bill. The artists realized this blatant fact as well. At one point, Moore frankly announced to the audience, "Thanks for allowing us to entertain you... We are but small flies on the windscreen...(but) we are looking forward toas you are hearing Cecil." Their performance of "Moot," with Scheps percussively doubling by tapping his saxophone's keypads as well as music stand, and "Caravan" demonstrated that there were a few sonic links between the duo's set and Cecil's ensuing one. Perhaps urged on by the daunting and once in a lifetime circumstance, Scheps on the latter stretched and heightened his tone's frequency, given he still maintained melodic clarity. Their set of such standards as "Cheek to Cheek" and "Lover Come Back To Me" overall provided no auditory preparation for the whirlwind that would soon touch ground, or rather lift the piano and stage (not to mention listeners' ears) skywards.