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.

I had heard all the noise and all the hype surrounding Spalding, which historically is a sign of another pretty package being developed and marketed, but this was something completely different. When I heard that Pat Metheny had said that she had the "X" factor, I immediately became a little more open minded and even curious. It's been a very long time since someone considered part of the jazz mainstream knocked me out like this. Brad Mehldau certainly, but this is an artist who has star power. If jazz is going to survive in mainstream contemporary culture, a star is going to be required.

Regardless, it is completely extraordinary that someone so young has a grasp so strongly on whatever it is that is deep inside the creative spheres that beckon us. It can be found within the artists on the outer fringes of contemporary culture, but it is rare outside of that realm. Amazingly, it also exists in her bass playing as well. When you get to this level, comparisons rightly go out the window. She radiates poetry and beauty in all things artistically creative, but also those things which cannot necessarily be grasped by the human touch.

With the lights slowly dimming... Esperanza tenderly walked across the stage to a living room chair, a small wooden side table, a lamp, and a bottle of red wine that awaited her. After slipping off her shoes and pouring a glass of wine, she gently sat in the chair as lush chamber music played softly in the intimate and lavish setting. She was onstage in her native home of Portland, confident, relaxed and at ease. With the curtain opening, she moved to center stage, picked up her bass and with the first note her charismatic, poetic artistry owned us all.

But it wasn't only the audience who sensed something special was happening. Each member of the band was just as sensitive and respectful to her, and the moment as well. It clearly had a lot to do with the intensity and aura of this artist, which clearly is something to behold.

Each band member was well selected with the disciplined and adept Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, Lois Martin on viola, Sra Caswell on violin, Jody Redhage on cello and vocals, Leala Cyr on vocals and the underappreciated and talented Darrell Grant on piano. I have heard Grant on a number of occasions but it was here, in this setting, where he seemed to rise to another level of pianistic valor and grace.

Two years ago, a young jazz ensemble from Scandinavia made their debut appearance at the Portland Jazz Festival and to this day, it remains a favorite Portland Festival performance. Pianist/composer Nick Bartsch and Ronin returned again this year for an encore performance. Bartsch calls his band the Zen Funk quintet and describes his music as ecstasy through asceticism. This quintet (recorded on ECM) includes Kaspar Rast on drums, Bjorn Meyer on bass, Andi Pupato on percussion, and Sha on sax and bass clarinet. Bartsch explained that his music is based on the tradition of urban space, from the universal sound of cities. He went on to explain that the music draws its energy from the tension between compositional precision and the self-circumvention of improvisation.

But it is here, in the live setting, where the music worked surprisingly well. Think in terms of music being created architecturally, establishing a setting of moods within a newly discovered universe, and that universe is the place in which Bartsch's compositions reside.

Maceo Parker and his band closed the festival at the Crystal Ballroom, which is the perfect setting for this funk master's party like atmosphere. Funk is a music of a particular attitude and Parker is simply brilliant at being able to carry on a tradition with the enthusiasm and joy he seems to bring to the bandstand every single night. As he likes to say, he learned from the University of Funk, the school of James Brown and he carries on the tradition proudly. He also spent time with George Clinton , Ray Charles and even Prince.

Funk is a music and genre that does not receive enough credit, nor enough respect. It is one of the most original forms of American music that can make a statement when performed by those who know how to break the code. As with all great art forms, its simplicity is its complexity, and Maceo Parker is one of the most important artists to have enriched this music for future audiences to study and hear. He is truly one of the greats, and the day will arrive when people will wonder in amazement why they did not know more about this unique and creative artist.

Bill Royston understands all the facets of music that various people want to hear and experience when attending a festival. There are those who want to listen and be exposed to new music, and there are those who want to celebrate and have a great time in a party-like atmosphere. Royston understands the needs of his audience, and the expectations of his sponsors; along with his desire to educate his audience, he brilliantly delivers year after year. This year's Portland Jazz Festival was no exception, as he delivered once again.

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