PDX Jazz Festival reviews: Hearing the home folks

Portland's own jazz stars shine at annual national jazz showcase


In addition to presenting big national names, an appealing aspect of the 2017 Biamp PDX Portland Jazz Festival is that it taps into the deep reservoir of talent in the Pacific Northwest. Two cases in point: the Mile 22 Octet led by pianist, composer and arranger Mike Van Liew and Ezra Weiss’s Monday Night Big Band.

In an afternoon concert, Van Liew’s eight-piece ensemble filled downtown Portland’s Art Bar with tightly constructed arrangements of original music that ranged from tone poems to a piece whose Klezmer orientation called for exacting musicianship. With zeal and meticulous execution the players met the demands of the 9/8 time signature and Van Liew’s intersecting lines.

Dick Titterington.

The Klezmer piece and others featured notable work from Dick Titterington, one of a cluster of first-rate trumpeters who grew up in Portland or moved here over the past few years. In the course of the afternoon, everyone on the band soloed impressively.

We see Mary-Sue Tobin holding an alto saxophone in the photograph to the right, but in the Art Bar concert her muscular soloing and voluminous sound were on tenor sax. The other members of the octet were Tim Jensen, alto saxophone; Tom Hill, trombone; John Butler, guitar; Mark Schneider, bass; and Jason Palmer, drums.

Mary-Sue Tobin.

Pianist Ezra Weiss has generated favorable notice in The New York Times, Down Beat, Jazz Times and other national publications. Down Beat’s Josef Woodard called him, “a bold, inspired figure in the contemporary jazz arranging scene.” At the Portland festival, Weiss led his Monday Night Big Band in the cozy confines of Lola’s Room, a listening space in the building that also houses Portland’s venerable Crystal Ballroom. Weiss, who teaches music at Portland State University, concentrated on conducting and left the piano playing to the talented young Dan Gaynor.

The trumpet section was made up of four players who, like Titterington, choose to remain in Portland despite gifts that would keep them busy in New York or Los Angeles. Tom Barber’s solo on the opening number, whose title I didn’t hear, established that, as did Derek Sims, Conte Bennett and Charlie Porter in later solos. Tenor saxophonist Renato Caranto followed with the first of several solo spots that he filled with passion and evident satisfaction in taking chances.

Ezra Weiss. Photo: Vanished Twin.

Tim Jensen, heard earlier in the Mile 22 Octet, was applauded by fellow members of the saxophone section for his solo on “It’s You Or No One,” Julie Styne’s 1948 hit for Doris Day. Weiss featured Gaynor on piano in “Jessie,” Weiss’s piece named for his wife. The veteran tenor saxophonist John Gross took over for one of his solos in which he manages to be almost outrageously unorthodox at the same time that he’s being lyrical.

John Gross.

To this point in the Weiss concert, I had been longing to hear the band settle into a 4/4 groove but broken time — not necessarily a bad thing — had seemed to be the rule. Then, with alto saxophonist John Nastos moving straight ahead in Weiss’s “The Promise,” the band was swinging in the foot-tapping sense, even though bassist Eric Gruber maintained an uneven line.

Weiss made a medley of his arrangement of the Hebrew hymn “We Limit Not The Wrath Of God” and his own “Fanfare For a Newborn.” Following another John Gross tenor sax adventure in the medley, Weiss brought the band to an abrupt and surprising halt that made a few listeners gasp. Using his dramatic conducting style, he immediately cranked the band up again, and people laughed.

Marilyn Keller.

The first of two guest singers, Marilyn Keller, joined the band for a dramatic version of the folk classic “Wayfaring Stranger.” Her section of vocalese improvisation included an astonishing sequence of high notes. Weiss’s arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” featured Nastos on soprano saxophone, then a trumpet solo in which Charlie Porter invented harmonies so unorthodox and sophisticated that the musicians around him were shaking their heads.

Weiss brought on recording artist Jeff Baker, a Portland resident, for “Amazing Grace,” sung in a clear and pleasant voice. The piece also included a Porter flugelhorn solo that, while rewarding, did not equal the ingenuity he showed on “Footprints.”

Mieke Bruggeman.

Weiss’s composition “Rise And Fall” included solos by Barber on both flugelhorn and trumpet and the only solo appearance of the evening by Mieke Bruggeman. Her huge baritone saxophone sound had anchored the band all evening. She soloed as if to relieve tension that built while she waited for her shot at self-expression. The audience reaction let her know that it was worth waiting for.

As I headed for the door in order to catch the last streetcar back to my hotel, Weiss announced a piece whose title sounded like “Koom Len Getit,” I was compelled to pause and listen to trombonist John Moak deliver the final solo word. It’s always a pleasure to hear Moak. It had been a satisfying concert.

The 2017 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival continues through February 26 at various Portland venues. Tickets available online. Read ArtsWatch’s preview and Ramsey’s first set of reviews.

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 today.

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