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.

The following afternoon, Fortune and Lawrence regaled their listeners with memories of the many years they spent in Jones' band. Lawrence reminisced about being introduced to Jones by his childhood friend, Reggie Golson (Benny's son). Jones, who was performing at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach with tenor saxophonist, Steve Grossman, and bassist, Gene Perla, then invited Lawrence to play with the band. Apparently, the Emperor Jones dug what he heard because he then asked Lawrence to join the band (Dave Liebman had just left to join Miles) and come back to NYC with him. What a way to make it to the heart of the jazz world!

Sonny Fortune had his own remarkable tale to tell. Early in 1967, he was still working full-time at a box factory in Philadelphia when he was invited to New York by Philly bassist, Jymie Merritt, for a gig at Beefsteak Charlie's. The rest of the band happened to include Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and Elvin Jones. After the gig (which happened to be the night Coltrane ascended to Jazz Heaven), Jones asked Fortune if he wanted to replace Frank Foster, who was about to leave the band. Fortune said, " I quit my day job on the spot." The boundless love these two musicians still feel for their former employer beamed from the stage in their words and smiles. Lawrence and Fortune would get together later that night at Jimmy Mak's for a musical tribute to their former boss.

That night the bandstand burned hot at Jimmy Mak's, as the saxophones of Sonny Fortune and Azar Lawrence were the featured soloists, along with local drummer Alan Jones and bassist Jonathan Lakey, in a musical tribute to hyperion drummer, Elvin Jones.

On the opening "EJ's Blues," a tune penned by Azar Lawrence, the Cats wailed from the first beat. Fortune, on alto, literally and figuratively "scaled" the heights. Fortune has not slowed down a bit; Hard to believe he will turn 77 this May. Lawrence followed on tenor in his familiar, relentless style, blowin' like a steam engine comin' down the track. The piano-less rhythm section of drummer Jones and bassist Lakey worked overtime driving these two sax masters.

On the Coltrane standard, "Impressions," the inspired blowin' of Fortune and Lawrence no doubt had Elvin smiling brightly as he looked down on his sax proteges. Fortune's circular breathing technique furnished his air supply, while Lawrence gasped for his oxygen refills. After the horn players soloed, they both alternated "tradin' 4s" with Jones and Lakey, and the demonstrably appreciative crowd roared its approval.

When the "dust settled," Fortune stepped up to the microphone and silenced the crowd with a surprisingly gentle (given his characteristically muscular alto style) interpretation of the standard, "What's New." Then, giving Fortune a chance to catch his breath, Lawrence stepped up and caressed the listeners with his enchanting take on the classic, "Body And Soul." On both tunes, Alan Jones displayed his skill with the brushes, effortlessly swingin' behind the sax soloists.

The band closed out the night with high octane, racing their way through another Coltrane composition, the up-tempo blues,"Mr PC." The two sax masters pushed each other higher and harder as they worked through this Coltrane tune penned in honor of the great bassist, Paul Chambers. The appreciative and respectful crowd gave the band a well deserved, extended standing ovation, concluding another hot jazz night in cold and rainy Portland.

Finally, Don Lucoff deserves thanks and praise for putting together the PDX Jazz Festival, one of the few authentic jazz extravaganzas in the US these days. Today, too many impresarios present only nominal jazz fests, preferring to include more commercial pop and funk bands in order to attract a wider audience. The New Orleans Jazz Fest and mega festivals in Montreal and Monterey may bring in contemporary jazz giants like Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter but they also book performers like Chris Botti, Kenny G and even Rod Stewart, of all people. Such an approach, no doubt, puts plenty of "asses in the seats" but at the cost of losing jazz credibility and integrity.

But Lucoff eschews the quite common commercial approach, preferring to have faith that, if marketed properly, enough serious jazz lovers will come out to support the music. To that end, he did everything (along with a devoted support staff) from booking the musicians, to arranging their transportation from the airport to the hotels and venues, and often, even getting behind the wheel himself. Truly, Lucoff was a "hands on" presence in Portland managing against great odds, to present the finest jazz and ensuring that during these 11 days, the artists would create an unforgettable experience.


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