PDX Jazz Festival reviews: Brothers and sisters

The annual festival's first-weekend concerts brightest moments emerged from performers -- blood relatives or not -- whose music had a family feel

Photos by Mark Sheldon

The Branford Marsalis Quartet and singer Kurt Elling combined in the first major concert of the 2017 Portland, Oregon PDX Jazz Festival. A packed audience in the capacious Newmark Theater heard a Thursday might performance that drew upon their recent album Upward Spiral. The principals listened intently to one another and appeared to be enjoying their work as much as they did in this earlier encounter.

With his rich harmonic palette and hard swing, longtime Marsalis pianist Joey Calderazzo generated audience enthusiasm equal to that shown the co-leaders. The strong support of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner intensified as they buoyed the proceeding when Marsalis, Elling and Calderazzo were soloing. Calderazzo’s—no other word for it—fierce playing on the opening number set a joyous mood that suffused the concert and moderated only when tempos slowed on ballads.

One of those ballads was the 1950s Nat Cole hit “Blue Gardenia,” which Elling sang with affecting simplicity. He finished the piece on a high note held longer than a human oxygen supply might be expected to last. Marsalis’s ballad triumph, on soprano saxophone, came in an Antonio Carlos Jobim piece, “Só Tinha de Ser Com Você,” that is little-known compared to much of Jobim’s extensive output.

Following the PDX festival audience’s customary standing ovation and cheers, the concert ended with “St. James Infirmary.” Marsalis performed the piece with the New Orleans flavor that characterizes his best work. Elling’s obbligato, using a water glass and his voice to suggest trombone sounds, was an unexpected touch that fell just short of being vaudevillian.

Orchestral Poetry

The Maria Schneider Orchestra filled the Newmark to capacity. She is a composer and arranger who conducts with a fluid style that parallels the poetic content of her music. Her program last Friday night in Portland consisted of pieces from her orchestra’s albums over two decades or more, and some of her recent work. It began with “A Powder Song,” a new composition combining power and grace that provided the setting for a stunning extended accordion solo by Gary Versace. Yes, accordion. In the right hands it can be a musical instrument. Versace’s are the right hands. Trombone soloist Marshall Gilkes and trumpeter Greg Gisbert followed Versace, keeping the level of fluency high.

“Gumba Blues” from Schneider’s first album (1994) is stylistic evidence of her study with the protean composer and arranger Gil Evans. It featured extended work from alto saxophonist Steve Wilson and another round of Versace’s accordion wizardry. This orchestra of gifted soloists has empathy that puts it in a category with the camaraderie of Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, Claude Thornhill and—going back even more decades— Fletcher Henderson in the late 1920s and Duke Ellington’s 1940-41 band.

Other highlights:

• A complex new piece by Schneider in observance of the increasing power and threat of digital technology as it spreads into every aspect of our lives. She introduced it by quoting the scientist Stephen Hawking’s prediction that by 2035 the robots we have created will take over the world—and mankind. Called “Data Lords,” it featured an impressive young trumpeter, Mike Rodriguez.

• A magnificent baritone saxophone essay by Scott Robinson on “Winter Morning Walks.” Introducing it, Ms. Schneider read the Ted Kooser poem that inspired the piece and the title of her album featuring classical soprano Dawn Upshaw.

• “Coming About,” from the 1996 album of that title. It had a long, satisfying piano solo by Frank Kimbrough and a Donny McCaslin tenor saxophone solo that gathered momentum as it developed and carried the orchestra with it.

• “Sky Blue,” with another Steve Wilson alto saxophone solo saturated with feeling; the feeling of the blues.

The powerhouse drummer Ralph Peterson took his trio, Triangular, into the Winningstad Theater later Friday night. To their credit, his sidemen were not submerged by Peterson’s waves of energy—and to his credit, he adjusted his volume and enthusiasm to accommodate brothers Zaccai Curtis, a pianist, and his bassist brother Luques. The Curtises have lyrical tendencies and although they have become adept at playing Peterson’s games of strength and rhythmic complexity, their best moments of the pieces I heard were quieter ones.

Scheduling circumstances meant that I had to leave before the concert was over. As I tiptoed out, they were massaging a Latin groove and building excitement into it. I was sorry that I had to leave it behind.

Brother to Brother

Jimmy Heath is 90 years old. His kid brother Albert (Tootie) is 80. They don’t act or sound their ages. For their Saturday night concert at the Portland Jazz Festival, the Heath Brothers were billed as paying tribute to Dizzy Gillespie in the 100th anniversary year of his birth. Indeed, they played in the bebop tradition that Gillespie and Charlie Parker pioneered, but most of the pieces were Jimmy Heath compositions. He told the audience that his tune “Winter Sleeves” is based on the harmonies of the standard song “Autumn Leaves.” “That way,” he said, “I’m the one who gets the royalties.”

Jimmy handled the introductions and the verbal and physical comedy, although from behind his drum set Tootie contributed a couple of jibes. With the looseness of a teenager, Jimmy broke into boogaloo moves or hand jive demonstrations to accompany his banter.

When the comedy subsided, the fooling around ended. In his tenor and soprano saxophone solos, Jimmy demonstrated that he has lost none of his warmth, smooth phrasing and composer’s sense of continuity.Tootie continues as an incisive soloist and one of the most effective drum accompanists in jazz. He melded with bassist Michael Karn and pianist Jeb Patton to form a rhythm section that supported the elder Heath impressively and responded to Jimmy’s every solo turn. The power and storytelling aspects of Patton’s own improvisations stimulated bursts of applause, notably when he soloed in Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” and Jimmy Heath’s jazz standard “Gingerbread Boy.”

Replacing the ailing George Cables, Patton came back for the second half of Saturday’s double-bill concert led by tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson. In this case the bassist was Corcoran Holt from Washington, DC, the drummer Willie Jones III from Chicago. Jackson’s guest was alto saxophonist Donald Harrison. Alumni of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the saxophonists opened with “One By One,” a staple of the Blakey repertoire. In that piece and in Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation,” the group achieved enormous momentum.

Long solos were the order of the evening with Harrison indulging himself in an unaccompanied coda to “Misty” that went on several bars longer than its content justified. Jackson dedicated his “Mr. Sanders” to the saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. In his lengthy solo he incorporated passages that may have been inspired by Sanders’s free-jazz rambles.

Following an incisive Corcoran bass introduction, Jackson brought out his lyrical side for “When I Fall in Love,” a mid-1950s ballad hit for Nat Cole. Toward the end of the concert’s second hour, Jimmy Heath joined Jackson and Harrison for a guest turn on Heath’s “(There’s) A Time And a Place,” a tune frequently covered by other jazz players. It was a strong ending to a concert that was stimulating and—thanks to the voluble leaders Heath and Jackson—entertaining.

Tainted Blood

After guitarist John Abercrombie found it necessary to pull out of the Portland festival, the management signed blues singer and guitarist James Blood Ulmer to fill the Sunday afternoon slot. It may have occurred to devotees of Abercrombie’s playing, which grew out of bebop, that Ulmer was an unlikely replacement. Still, he attracted a fair-sized crowd for a concert that resounded with the elements that havegiven him an audience. Tall, dressed dramatically in a white suit, seated on a piano bench facing a semicircle of speakers and amplifying equipment, Ulmer gave his listeners ninety minutes of blues, semi-blues and quasi-blues.

He introduced elements of R&B, reggae, rock, country and what a fellow listener told me was free funk. Worse luck, either Ulmer or the sound engineer added so much distortion to his voice that many of his lyrics were unintelligible. His devilish laughter in a piece called “Poor Devil” was quite clear. He occasionally executed guitar runs that had distinct bebop or post-bop flavors, but their intriguing musical content never lasted more than a few seconds. It would be interesting to hear him work out some of those ideas on a moderately amplified guitar without distortion.

Ulmer’s last-minute festival billing was “Harmolodic Blues Solo Guitar.” That suggests a relationship with Ornette Coleman, who introduced the idea of harmolodics as a system of composition and playing unbounded by traditional notions of tonality, time and tempo. Fair enough, but a preponderance of what Ulmer delivered this time was muddled by acoustic distortion. And there was precious little solo guitar.

The 2017 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival continues through February 26 at various Portland venues. Tickets available online. Read ArtsWatch’s preview

One of America’s most esteemed jazz journalists, former Portland resident Doug Ramsey is a recipient of the lifetime achievement award of the Jazz Journalists Association and two ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. Ramsey is the author of Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul DesmondJazz Matters:Reflections on the Music and Some of its Makers, and the novel Poodie James, and co-editor (With Dale Shaps) of Journalism Ethics: Why Change? His articles, reviews and op-ed pieces on music and on free press and First Amendment issues have appeared in Downbeat, Jazz Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Seattle Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Oregonian, and Congressional Quarterly, among other publications. His excellent blog, Rifftides, where these reviews (reprinted with his permission) originally appeared , is essential reading for anyone interested in jazz.

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