Portland Jazz Festival, Day 1: February 16, 2007


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February may seem like an odd time to have a jazz festival in the Pacific Northwest, but in many ways the Portland Jazz Festival is held at the perfect time. The weather may be damp, but compared to the Northeast, it's a relatively balmy 50-60 degrees. In four short years, Artistic Director Bill Royston and Managing Director Sarah Bailen Smith have created a festival that is international in nature yet retains its focus on the city's vibrant local music scene at a time when clubs seem to be closing weekly in other North American locations. In cooperation with Portland tourism and various hotels and venues, they've also created a ten-day event that's remarkably affordable, taking place in the downtown core, where everything is within easy reach.

More than just an opportunity to catch some good live music, the Portland Jazz Festival (PDX Jazz) set out, from the get-go, to create an event with a greater responsibility to not just entertain its audience, but educate it as well. And by creating a signature event each year, it provides a specific artistic focus that differentiates it from other festivals.

This year the signature was Crystal Silence: The Story of ECM Records. Pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton celebrated the 35th anniversary of their landmark duet release, Crystal Silence (ECM, 1972), providing the perfect opportunity to bring attention to the remarkable German label that has single-handedly redefined the art of music documentation.

The first weekend of PDX Jazz included performances by four notable ECM groups, public interviews with the performers, and a series of roundtable discussions that covered various aspects of the label's work. The latter featured a number of notable writers and members of the ECM team, plus screenings of a number of ECM-related films. It was a rare opportunity to delve deep into the label on so many fronts that, by the time the weekend was over, festival-goers had a far deeper understanding of the label and its unique aesthetic.

Chapter Index
  1. Jazz Dialogue: Gary Burton
  2. ECM Roundtable Discussions
  3. Jazz Dialogue: Trygve Seim
  4. Chick Corea and Gary Burton Duo
  5. Branford Marsalis Quartet

Jazz Dialogue: Gary Burton

The festivities kicked off with an engaging Gary Burton interview at Portland State University by local radio personality Phil Brenes. An affable and engaging man, Burton spoke at length about how the duet with Corea came to be, and how an idea that began as an impromptu jam at a Munich jam session turned into a recording for which neither he nor Corea had any expectations of success. The resonance of Crystal Silence and their subsequent duet records has turned into one of jazz's longest lasting partnerships; the two have performed every year since the record was released. Corea and Burton, in fact, began a tour in the fall of 2006 that will, when it's done, have lasted two years and seen them celebrating their 35th anniversary in front of audiences around the globe.

Burton provided interesting insight into the duet's musical relationship. When they attempted to work together in a quartet setting in the '60s, things never seemed to click—in part because of the not unexpected challenge of two chordal instruments stepping on each others' toes. Which made things all the more remarkable when they jammed in Munich and recorded Crystal Silence, where an uncanny ability to work together seamlessly and never get in each others' way was as surprising to them as it was captivating to the audience.

Burton's condensed 35 years of history, described it in the most personal of terms, and shed real light on what he called "having a conversation with your best friend."

ECM Roundtable Discussions

The first of three roundtable discussions followed, with the participation of ECM's Steve Lake (who, along with British writer Paul Griffiths, is responsible for the book Horizons Touched: The Story of ECM Records, due out at the end of March). Also joining in were Sarah Humphries and Tina Pelikan, as well as writers Neil Tesser, Marty Hughley and Josef Woodard, and radio host Steven Cantor (who has co- produced albums by artists including the Pat Metheny Group and Lyle Mays). Noted writer and Jazz Journalists Association president Howard Mandel moderated all three roundtables, and while there were many points of agreement, there was enough contention to keep things interesting and balanced.

The first roundtable was a more general discussion about the label and its aesthetic. While ECM has been accused of focusing too heavily on European artists, one look at its rich catalogue finds artists from almost everywhere in the world, as well as significant recordings by American musicians. Lake put it best when he explained that the label's head and primary producer, Manfred Eicher, doesn't subscribe to the theory that Europe is the best source for recording artists. In fact, music is where you find it, though the label has focused on bringing lesser-known artists from outside of North America to international attention.

One of the core themes that arose was the idea of Eicher as an auteur, someone whose artistic vision is fundamental and, unlike many record producers, crosses many boundaries in the process of creating a recorded work. What emerged was a clear view of Eicher as a hands-on producer and label owner, in contrast with producers who are mainly play roles as timekeepers and budget keepers. Equally important was the concept of an almost "anti-marketing" approach—where it is not expected, for example, that a group will tour to promote a record.

Jazz Dialogue: Trygve Seim

The roundtable was followed by the second of the festival's Jazz Dialogues, an interview with Norwegian saxophonist/composer Trygve Seim by The Oregonian scribe Marty Hughley. Seim performed his first and, at this point, only North American appearance in Portland with his ten-piece ensemble. It seems he has finally begun to receive the credit he's due from the North American press. While Seim is a more than capable improviser, his focus with this ensemble is on music that provides room for extemporization, but within the context of detailed composition. Sangam (ECM, 2005) was a revelatory experience, appearing on a number of critics' top picks for that year.

Seim discussed his background, the writing process and his experience with the late, notable Finnish drummer/composer Edward Vesala and his wife, pianist/harpist/composer Iro Haarla. He also spoke of the impact that instruments, including the Armenian duduk and Japanese shakuhachi, have had on his playing. Rather than trying to ascribe any specific process to writing, Seim explained how he looks for ideas that touch his heart and, humbly, how he hopes to continue finding better ways to express those feelings through his music.

Chick Corea and Gary Burton Duo

Corea and Burton opened up the festival's performance schedule with a stunning duet performance at the equally impressive Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Always the comedian, Corea (who would alternate introductions with Burton) spoke to the crowd first, suggesting that "if you use a flash on your camera, you'll just get the backs of the heads of other people in the audience. I know, I've tried." After this lighthearted introduction, the duo delivered a ninety-minute performance largely culled from Crystal Silence and the duo's last recording, Native Sense: The New Duets (Stretch, 1997).

As lighthearted as the approach may have been, the simpatico Corea and Burton share was substantive throughout. Both have a reputation for being able to create consistently inventive and nearly perfect improvisations, but the pair's effortless shifts between accompanist and soloist explain why, after 35 years, they are still driven to work together.

A spirit of adventure—and a resistance to rehashing the material in predictable ways—keeps them coming back to a repertoire largely composed by Corea. On record, the title track from Crystal Silence was a spacious and atmospheric tone poem. Live, the duet provided more of a pulse, seemingly paradoxical to the sonic image evoked by the title, yet still contextually referential.

Corea's mischievous nature kept things approachable throughout, and Burton was no less playful. Faced with the complexity of Corea's "No Mystery," Burton at first tried to play it without a chart. During one of the many staggeringly quick and complicated lines the duo broke down and stopped playing. Burton then went to the back of the stage, brought out a music stand, attempted to place the multi-page chart on it, then went back again to grab a second music stand. Burton's subsequent flip of the lengthy chart between beats halfway through the tune may— or may not—have suggested that the horseplay was for the audience's benefit, but either way it was a way for the musicians to connect with their audience in a more personal way.

Many vibraphonists use four mallets for accompaniment or while executing scored parts, but Burton's command is so exact that he is able to intersperse chordal passages throughout linear phrases during his solos, creating a more harmonically expansive sound. His ability to make four voices sound so broad allows Corea to dispense with his left hand entirely at times.

Both players have immediately recognizable approaches. Corea has assimilated elements of Spanish music, classical influences and, of course, a clear jazz-centric language that's rooted in pianists like Bud Powell and Bill Evans. But his music does not lack the element of surprise. As Burton said earlier in the day, the duet is his favorite group size because it's like a conversation with a best friend, and it was clear from this set that these two good friends still have plenty to talk about.

Branford Marsalis Quartet

One of the great things about PDX Jazz is that the major performances are scheduled so that it's possible to attend them all. The Newmark Theater for the Performing Arts, another wonderful venue, was literally a quick hop across the street from the Schnitzer, so there was no problem making it for the beginning of saxophonist Branford Marsalis' quartet performance. While Marsalis has never had a shortage of fiery energy, recent years have found the saxophonist maturing into a stance where he can move with balladic elegance as well as overt virtuosity.

Marsalis' quartet is now in its eighth year, although drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts has been working with the saxophonist since the beginning of his career. Bassist Eric Revis first appeared on Requiem (Columbia, 1999), while pianist Joey Calderazzo joined a year later for Contemporary Jazz (Columbia, 2000). Since then, the quartet has been a permanent working unit, and it shows. Few quartets would have the nerve to try pulling off a contemporary look at John Coltrane's A Love Supreme; Marsalis' quartet is the only one to date to capture its spiritual essence and passionate improvisational fire.

The quartet opened up with expected energy on "In the Crease," featuring strong solos from Calderazzo and Marsalis on tenor that led into an ostinato which provided Watts his first powerful highlight of the evening. There's no substitute for the kind of musical camaraderie that evolves when the same people have hit the road and the studio for many years, and from the first note, this was clearly a group capable of getting deep inside itself.

Marsalis has always been a fine tenor player, but in some ways his soprano work stands out more, sounding less nasal than most players and delivering a tone that could melt butter. When Calderazzo first emerged, he came clearly from the McCoy Tyner school, but in the intervening years he's evolved a more expansive style that's as comfortable on his own ballad, "Hope," as it is interpreting the music of Henry Purcell on "O Solitude," both from the quartet's most recent release, Braggtown (Marsalis Music, 2006).

Marsalis is the titular leader of the group, but it's clearly a democratic affair; everyone contributed material, including Watts' humorous "Vodville." Despite the abundance of discussion at the event about the pristine approach of ECM Records (which would ultimately debunk the myth), the visceral nature of Marsalis' show was in sharp contrast to Corea and Burton's. There's no question that both performances had areas of intersection, but Marsalis' group more closely embodies what many consider the American jazz tradition. This quartet can swing hard, though its members have no aversion to contemporary rhythms—Watts laid down a surprisingly integrated hip-hop pulse behind the burning Monk tune that closed the set.

Tomorrow: ECM Jazz Roundtable: Cover Art; Jazz Dialogue: Charles Lloyd; Geri Allen Trio; Trygve Seim; Don Byron; and Dave Douglas Quintet.

Visit ECM Records, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Branford Marsalis and Portland Jazz Festival on the web.

Photo Credit: John Kelman

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