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Portland Jazz Festival 2011 - A Look Back

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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Portland Jazz Festival
Portland, Oregon
February 18-27, 2011
Promoter Bill Royston and general manager Don Lucoff have once again pulled off a hat trick of significant proportions. With the arrival and guest appearance of perhaps the greatest "star" that jazz has welcomed since Wynton Marsalis, this year's Portland Jazz Festival had the makings to be extraordinary.

Royston, always socially and culturally conscious, provided a theme surrounding this year's festival that celebrated the vast influence that jazz has had in breaking down racial and cultural differences, specifically, the joining together of Jewish and African American cultures. It is a history that has had its share of challenges, and a particular awareness is needed in order to appreciate the struggle these two cultures have had to endure.

Upon their arrival in America during the early part of the last century, Jews encountered another people whose culture and history was rooted in a similar oppression. In fact, both the Jewish and African American cultures were linked, but also divided by this very history of oppression. Moreover, though this is a history and relationship that is informed by mistrust, Jewish and African Americans had joined together to organize the NAACP along with the National Urban League. Additionally, and historically, a number of prominent Jewish rabbis marched hand in hand in brotherhood with Dr. Martin Luther King during one of the most grave and decisive freedom movements in United States history.

Over the next few decades, the relationship between these two cultures would confront new obstacles and challenges. Those of Jewish descent, after enduring the horrendous anguish and sorrow of genocide, would perceive America as a country that could provide a newfound freedom, while African Americans viewed America as the country that removed them from their homes and tore them apart from their families, while they were enslaved, raped and lynched. As a result, both share and are joined by a history that most can only hope to empathize with.

Always at the forefront, Jazz again is bringing these two cultures together. With considerable fortitude, this year's Portland Jazz Festival again reflected the artistic and cultural vision of one of the most important supporters of America's greatest cultural achievements today, Bill Royston.

Classically trained pianist Anat Fort spent her childhood in Israel and moved to New Jersey to attend William Patterson University. She moved to New York City in 1996 and studied under the composer/pianist who had considerable influence on the style and approach of Keith Jarrett, the great Paul Bley.

Her trio, consisting of bassist Gary Wong of New York and drummer Roland Schneider of Germany, has been tenaciously committed in their approach and musical direction for over 10 years, and the results are beginning to reflect a rich, poetic orchard of musical creativity. From the opening musical sequences, it was quite apparent that this was a trio ready to be heard.

I am not someone who usually gets taken away by technical virtuosity. Quite often, I find it only gets in the way, or only creates the illusion of something being expressed in a deeper, individualistic creative way. And though there are a number of virtuoso pianists today, Anat brings a sensitivity and feel with her left hand that I found quite unusual, but also refreshing. Left hand virtuosity creates a lot of conversation these days, but I find it usually only demonstrative of keyboard gymnastics. Fort is able to play with a feel and sensitivity with her left hand that brings another dimension to playing ballads, which I believe is her strength and her gift. Importantly, it enhances her patience and adds considerable power to the notes we don't hear. Moreover, this is a trio that is considered by some to be a part of the avant-garde, but I found it to be very accessible and the crowd seemed to agree. This is a pianist and trio that has wonderful future possibilities.

By now everyone is aware of the Grammy that was awarded to Esperanza Spalding for Best New Artist and hopefully this is an omen of more things to come. Certainly the condescending noise representing music that is thrown at us could not come in a lower form than what represents modern contemporary culture today. It is certainly a positive sign that perhaps a newfound appreciation is developing for artistic merit in music, and not the drivel that is shoveled at us from the lowest levels of contemporary culture. We certainly deserve better, and this just might be a turning point. Of course, jazz needs to come up with the goods and in Esperanza Spalding, they have come in a big way.

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