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Swingin' In The Rain: Portland Jazz Festival 2016

Chuck Koton By

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Sonny Fortune and Azar Lawrence
Jimmy Mak's
PDX Jazz Festival
Portland, OR
February 18-19, 2016

Any American burg that aspires to "great city" status has got to have a solid jazz scene. Sorry, but hipster hat shops, artisanal juiceries, and $6 coffee from beans grown on sustainable farms in Africa and Latin America just wont do.

Portland, the Rose City of the rugged Northwest, is one of those aspirational cities. And after a recent 3 day visit, I'd say that Portland merits all the praise it has garnered.

On the weekend of February 18th, the 13th annual Biamp PDX Jazz Festival, in celebration of what would have been John Coltrane's 90th birthday, featured several artists whose musical consciousness was pulled off its axis by the irresistible gravitational pull of Trane's musical spirit. Executive Artistic Director, Don Lucoff, truly assembled an illustrious group of musicians to highlight the Festival's focus on Coltrane and the "wider sphere of (his) influence." Pharoah Sanders, Charles Lloyd, Reggie Workman, Gary Bartz, and Coltrane's son, Ravi Coltrane, among others, also appeared in a variety of settings that celebrated the music of John Coltrane.

Philadelphia-born master of the saxophone and flute, Sonny Fortune, and his Los Angeles-based veteran rhythm section of pianist Theo Saunders, bassist Henry "the Skipper" Franklin, and drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith, kicked off the weekend's festivities at the sold out Jimmy Mak's, with a tribute to the "engine" driving Coltrane's band, drummer Elvin Jones. Fortune has had an especially deep connection to Coltrane, who moved to Philadelphia after graduating from high school in North Carolina and left an indelible imprint on the City of Brotherly Love's jazz history. Though he committed to a life of music at a relatively advanced age (read more), Fortune loved jazz and heard Coltrane perform often with the ascendent Miles Davis Quintet at Philly clubs, such as the Jazz Showcase, in the 1950s and later, with Trane's own quartet.

Fortune's band opened with a steamin' version of "You and the Night and the Music," an old show tune by Schwartz & Dietz that they surely never dreamed could sound like this. Fortune, on alto, and Saunders raced up and down the keys of their respective instruments, generating Coltranesque "sheets of sound" that compelled the rapt audience into a hypnotic, finger snappin' groove.

On the Bronislaw Kaper standard, "Invitation," Fortune, on flute, blew passionate sounds that conjured up romantic images of lovers on secluded, moonlit Condessa Beach, while Franklin's deep bass groove and Smith's slick brush work generated a feeling of ocean waves gently caressing the shore. Such is the power of music that merely by closing one's eyes, a listener could be transported from cold, wet Portland to tropical Acapulco.

During the 2nd set, an increasingly rare, magical moment transpired as old friend and fellow "Trane-ite," Azar Lawrence, tenor in hand, mounted the stage. Lawrence, like Fortune, was not only inspired by Coltrane but also played for years in the bands of both McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, two original members of Trane's stellar quartet. The band then tore into a Fortune original, "Waynish," dedicated to jazz master, Wayne Shorter. Fortune wailed on the alto sax, and Saunders seemingly intent on testing the limits of the piano keys, nearly levitated off the bench. Franklin and Smith drove the beat with a merciless fury. And Lawrence, a saxophonist of limitless power and energy, left the audience awestruck with his manic solo. The music carried the band and the listeners on a fiery ascension as the Cats pushed each other to play chorus after intense chorus.

The band closed with a detour to the land of Ellingtonia, roaring through Juan Tizol's "Caravan." Smitty Smith's drum solo highlighted the evening's finale. Smith attacked the kit with a dervish-like madness, then dropped his sticks and tapped out blistering rhythms with his hands, all the while wearing a beaming, joyous smile. What a night!

Fortune, who hadn't performed on the West Coast in several years (a jazz crime deserving of six months in the Hole), reminded listeners why he played and recorded with the most important bands of his time; Miles Davis, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner all wanted his brawny and relentless sound to enhance their music. Equally important on this evening was the power, intoxicating swing and, most important, the synchronistic musicality of the rhythm section. Saunders, Franklin and Smith play together regularly in Los Angeles and, as a result, communicate easily with just a glance, and more often, responding reflexively to each other's rhythmic improvisations.

In an era when soloists too often have to pick up a local rhythm section in city after city, these Cats, and the staff and sound system of Jimmy Mak's, one of the nation's premier jazz clubs, made Fortune's gig truly a night to remember.

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