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Portland Jazz Festival 2008

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Tord Gustavsen, an ECM-er who didn't make last year's ECM-themed PDX line-up (similar to Nik Bartsch's Ronin who was featured the second week of this year's festival), played at the Scottish Rite, graced by the best acoustics of any of the festival's venues. Every cymbal touch and stick slice, every lightly plucked acoustic bass string, every key of ivory touched resonated beautifully through the space. The downside in this case, however, was that the set of mostly originals never veered above mid-tempo and the set quickly became sleepy and uninspiring.

One time New York-based guitarist turned Portlander Margaret Slovak performed one of the more surreal sets of this year's PDX. Imagine Bola Sete meets Nick Drake meets Julian Bream meets Gene Bertoncini, but at a really loud sports bar and you're fairly close. At the Broadway Marriott, Slovak tried to make sense of the situation, situated below 17 autographed Miami Dolphin footballs that graced one wall and various framed action shots on the others commemorating the 1972 team whose still intact unbeaten season record and a Super Bowl victory was threatened this year (but remained in tact when New England lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl less than two weeks previous). Needless to say, it was another unfortunate mismatch of artist to venue, as her delicate renditions on acoustic six-string of "Manha de Carnival," "Summertime" and "Nature Boy" competed with drunk hotel guests cheering on the NBA slam dunk contestants on the TV just over the bar across the way. Perhaps some more rhythmic pieces would have helped Slovak's cause, but I don't blame her for feeling defeated before she even stroked her first string. This said, listeners were on the edge of their seats intently soaking in the beautiful chords and what sounds they could decipher and digest, all trying our best to ignore the pandemonium outside our bubble of music.

The Classical Jazz Quartet performed one of the festival's more tasteful and swinging sets, and like Bad Plus successfully fused two genres of music into one. Kenny Barron (piano), Stefon Harris (vibes), Ron Carter (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums) performed jazzed up variations of Bach and Rachmaninoff themes, immediately bringing to mind their concept and instrumentation's obvious inspiration—the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). Harris took that inspiration a step further and spoke fondly of one his heroes, before playing a personal dedication through his composition to MJQ's vibraphonist, Milt "Bags" Jackson, called "Epilogue for Milt." Carter sounded especially comfortable as the group's elder statesman - the set's encore featured some of the bassist's finest and most relaxed playing in recent memory. "Frisky!" as an audience neighbor put it.

Brent Jensen (curved soprano) with John Bishop (drums) performed at the Embassy Suites in a quartet with Dave Speranza (bass) and Bill Anschell (piano). From "You and The Night and The Music" to the obvious Portland guest of honor for those two weeks—Ornette Coleman—and his "When Will the Blues Leave," the group played a strong set. Jensen jested, ''I guess we need to get more bassists up here!"

Scrambled Ape played the Rogue, which was off the beaten path just a bit, as the jazz festival maintained a very central focus in the city, where every venue was in walking distance (the Rogue just being a slightly longer walk). The New Orleans-style marching band sextet featured tenor sax, clarinet/alto sax, trumpet/vocals, drums, tuba, and baritone sax. With a sprinkling of Raymond Scott meets Balkan music, they covered "Mardi Gras," "Work Song" (referred to by the vocalist/nominal leader of the group as "the devil child of an Adderley brother and Herb Alpert"!), "Basin Street Blues" and some Stevie Wonder.

Other PDX Jazz highlights: Mel Brown, Portland's jazz drumming veteran, held down three nights with different groups at Jimmy Mak's. His swinging septet (pianist George Mitchell, bassist Dave Speranza, altoist Warren Rand, tenor saxophonist Renato Caranto, trumpeter Derek Sims, and trombonist Stan Bock who also played euphonium, tuba and added vocals) alternatively set up on stage, one brass, one reed, one brass, etc. They strung together various standards in a set marked by soloist economy and tight arrangements, as on one very successful melding of a piano trio "Straight Up & Down" feature threaded together by the leader's diminuendo and crescendo soloing into Nat Adderley's "Work Song." On a following night, Brown's organ trio featured guitarist Dan Balmer, which was preceded by Balmer's Monday night trio with Mitchell (keyboards) and Alan Jones (drums), and on two numbers guest John Nastos (alto sax). Jimmy Mak's, a nice sounding room with a pleasant overall vibe, had volume issues for a jazz club, unfortunately at more rock than jazz club levels.


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