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Portland Jazz Festival Day 2: February 17, 2007

John Kelman By

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Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

Day two of the Portland Jazz Festival (PDX Jazz) was a bit of a rarity, with the sun burning away a thick layer of early morning fog, and temperatures rising to the mid-60s. But the majority of the heat was generated indoors, with a number of outstanding performances, and the continuation of the ECM Jazz Roundtable.

Chapter Index
  1. ECM Roundtable: Cover Art
  2. Jazz Dialogue: Charles Lloyd
  3. Diego Ramirez
  4. Geri Allen Trio
  5. Trygve Seim
  6. Don Byron
  7. Dave Douglas Quintet

ECM Roundtable: Cover Art

The subject for the day's ECM Roundtable was cover art. In addition to ECM's Steve Lake and Tina Pelikan, writers Josef Woodard and Neil Tesser and writer/moderator Howard Mandel, the panel also included Dorothy Darr (wife of Charles Lloyd, co-producer of the woodwind multi-instrumentalist's releases since 2000's The Water is Wide, and overseer of cover art and graphics) as well as Portland resident Dave Anolik, Vice President and Creative Director of Quango Design and Marketing.

Anolik kicked off the roundtable with a remarkable presentation that brought together almost all of ECM's nearly 1000 covers, grouping them into various themes (eg. triangle, water, sky, typography). Most striking was the revelation that these themes often spanned many years and were not linked closely together. This apparent disunity brought the discussion back to the auteur issue—whether there was a specific plan with respect to these various themes or whether it was a more organic process, something that emerged more out of the label (and, specifically, Eicher's) aesthetic.

Another interesting point regarding cover design came via Gary Burton, who had shed some light on the subject during a dinner on Thursday evening with some of the participants. In the early days, partly as a cost-saving effort, Eicher would have books of artwork and, rather than commissioning an artist or photographer to create something to be used, the artists would have the opportunity to go through the collection of pieces and "reserve" one for their next release. Burton explained how there was a distinct advantage to this, as it was possible to see something that linked in some way to the music, rather than hoping a commissioned artist would get it right.

The fact that, unlike most classical recordings, the ECM New (or composed) Series releases rarely have liner notes and, if they do, rarely address the music directly, came up as an omission that also differentiates the regular (or improvised) series from other labels. Eicher believes the music should speak for itself and that there are plenty of places to seek informative background, enabling the label to shift its focus from words to more aesthetic matters.

There was some discussion about the changing landscape of music delivery—from the vinyl days, where album covers were 12"x12" to the CD which, despite the reduced scale of covers, offers expanded opportunities for imparting information or integrating creative visuals through booklets. However, the next prospect—offering music in downloadable form—was seen as a threat, potentially eliminating artwork altogether.

For a label that views its musical releases as complete packages integrating music with visual art, this is a significant and potentially distressing development, as is the idea of selling single songs off CDs on which much effort has gone into programming—the sequencing of the material so that the entire disc has a defined narrative arc. Still, over the course of 38 years ECM has stuck to its aesthetic, choosing not to bow to the pressures of marketplace trends, and ultimately been the stronger for it.

Jazz Dialogue: Charles Lloyd

Following the roundtable discussion the audience was treated to a jazz dialogue with Charles Lloyd. It was more a monologue than a dialogue; Lloyd delivered a stream-of-consciousness series of anecdotes that sometimes seemed tenuously linked but were always intriguing.

Swedish bassist Anders Jormin once spoke about working with Lloyd throughout the 1990s: "His directions were very typical Charles Lloyd—I can give you an example from my first rehearsal, which I'll never forget. He looked at me and said, 'Give me some St. Petersburg.' That was what he wanted to hear from me, and I was of course, quite unsure. What kind of music is that? And another, 'Take me to India.' Most of his instructions were so emotional and colored by his imagination and his way of thinking musically, so what they actually meant, both for me and for [pianist] Bobo [Stenson], was, 'Go ahead guys, and play what you think fits the simple sketch I've done.'" Lloyd's humble and self-effacing manner was instantly charming, even if some of his comments were equally cryptic, such as "I think it's beautiful to go down with the ship."

Along with stories about hanging in New York in the '50s with his high school friend Booker Little, Lloyd also was clear about the many reasons he chose, when coming back to performing in the late 1980s, to pass on labels offering more money and go with ECM—and continue a relationship now nearing its 20th year. Lloyd recounted how he was told that Eicher was a straightforward and honest person. He spoke of receiving a contract from an unspecified label that was forty pages of legalese, as opposed to working with ECM, where there are no long-term contracts, each album based on an agreement almost as simple as a handshake. And, looking forward to the following day's roundtable on The Myth of the ECM Sound, Lloyd spoke of the detail and clarity of the recordings—of the ability to hear every nuance. "ECM makes music that sounds like my ears hear it," he said.

Diego Ramirez

There were other educational streams throughout the day (as there were on previous and subsequent days), which made it necessary to pick and choose. The performance schedule began at 1 pm with pianist Geri Allen (who would also appear the following day with Charles Lloyd) and her trio with bassist Kenny Davis and legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb.

But before Allen and her trio took the stage, PDX Jazz Artistic Director Bill Royston introduced a short solo performance by the young Mexican pianist Diego Ramirez. Royston made a point of describing the somewhat insurmountable obstacles that Ramirez has faced in getting his music heard, not the least being the American government's restrictions on Mexicans entering the country on work visas—Ramirez was only permitted to stay in the US for five days.

Ramirez made the most of his brief set, allowing the audience to see that he's an artist with plenty of potential. On a series of largely original compositions, the pianist demonstrated impeccable technique, a broad emotional and dynamic range, and an understanding of the jazz tradition. Like many young Latino performers these days, including pianists Edward Simon and Luis Perdomo, Ramirez integrates his own cultural heritage within that tradition, creating something new and exciting from a shared musical base.

If there was a flaw in Ramirez's work, it's that the combination of his youthful exuberance and his playing, in front of a festival audience like this for the first time, caused him to come across as too busy, as if he had something to prove. Still, one could forgive such shortcomings, especially on his three-part suite "Eras," which he introduced as his impression of three different aspects of Mexican history. It was the highlight of a set that also included a taste of Monk and, at times, an almost encyclopedic approach. From its tumultuous beginning to the more lamenting finish, it best demonstrated Ramirez's ability to traverse considerable territory, from a delicate touch to great power.

Ramirez is clearly someone to watch, but let's hope that the immigration and work visa laws that currently hamstring this promising young artist can be relaxed so that he can gain the practical experience and maturity that will come from playing to the larger audiences he deserves.

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