Portland Jazz Festival reviews: Ramsey’s wrap up

Renowned jazz journalist's reviews of the 2016 jazz extravaganza



Editor’s note: ArtsWatch is honored to feature the first appearance on our pages of one of America’s most esteemed jazz journalists, former Portland resident Doug Ramsey, who was back in town for the 2016 Portland Jazz Festival. He conducted one of the festival’s Jazz Conversations with piano legend Kenny Barron and issued reviews on his excellent blog, Rifftides. We rounded them up and, with Ramsey’s permission, are re-publishing them here.

Sullivan Fortner

In his solo piano concert opening the Portland Jazz Festival last night, Sullivan Fortner surveyed a wide territory of styles and wrapped them into his own. At the Bösendorfer grand in the recital hall of Classic Pianos, Fortner’s program ranged from a spiky treatment of Bronislaw Kaper’s “Invitation” through an encore saluting Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

Sullivan Fortner ©2016-Mark Sheldon.

Sullivan Fortner ©2016-Mark Sheldon.

Fresh from winning the American Pianists Association’s Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz, Fortner incorporated influences both subtle and obvious. He used the blues to work his way into “Making Whoopee and invested the performance with a rollicking quote from “Surrey With The Fringe on Top” and a sly borrowing from Willie The Lion Smith’s “Echoes of Spring.” Fortner seems anything but calculated in his improvisations. In “Someone to Watch Over Me,” he led himself briefly into what might have been a blind harmonic alley and with a daring octave leap found a way out. He made a transition from Bill Evans’s “Very Early” to his own composition “Ballade,” which included a lovely cycle-of-5ths section.

Although he can be dazzling in his use of technique, nothing Fortner plays seems intended purely for effect. He made clever paraphrases of the melody in “Just One of Those Things,” worked in a few seconds of waltz time, hinted at James P. Johnson’s swing feeling, then went into the full stride piano style of which Johnson was the master. Introducing his melding of Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose” and Strayhorn’s “Star Crossed Lovers,” he described their storied partnership as a “love story” inspired by the Divinity, then reflected on his own love of the piano and of music.

Fortner dedicated “My Favorite Things” to John Coltrane. He created an introduction that may have had its inspiration in Coltrane’s free period, slid into a liberal interpretation of the famous melody, made a tag ending that flirted with ¾ time, then used a series of key changes to bring the piece home. The festival—dedicated to Coltrane—was off to a good start.

Sonny Fortune

At the Portland Jazz Festival, scheduling is tight and overlapping. Sullivan Fortner at Classic Pianos opened the festival simultaneously with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra at the Newmark Theatre and alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune at Jimmy Mak’s club.

Fortune, 75, has lost none of the force that he took from Philadelphia to New York when he joined drummer Elvin Jones in 1967. Opening his late set at Mak’s he launched into Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” with volume and intensity that surprised a man at a ringside table into yelling, “Whoa.” Whoaing was the last thing on Fortune’s mind. For the rest of the evening, he poured energy into every note, abetted by a rhythm section locked onto his wavelength. Following Fortune’s “Footprints” explosion, pianist Theo Saunders eased off before invigorating his solo in a series of keyboard flurries and parallel chords.

Sonny Fortune © 2016 Mark Sheldon-PDX JAZZ -0146

Sonny Fortune © 2016 Mark Sheldon

In Fortune’s “Waynish,” dedicated to Shorter, he played a series of repetitions that amounted to a rhythmic composition within a composition. Tenor saxophonist Azar Lawrence, who had introduced the band, sat in on the tune for a busy solo. Following John Coltrane’s death, Lawrence worked with Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner. He was to be featured later in the festival in a concert dedicated to Coltrane.

Fortune filled the room with his cavernous flute sound in his “Awakening,” opening it unaccompanied and exploring harmonic relationships. After the rhythm section joined him, he played a long solo that worked into another affair with rhythmic displacement. Saunders’ solo developed a pattern that seemed to draw on “A Love Supreme.” Bassist Henry Franklin made attractive use of sliding notes in his solo. The ballad highlight of the set was “A Tribute to Billie Holiday,” a Fortune composition with intriguing harmonies of which Saunders and Franklin took advantage.

Throughout the set, Franklin, a contemporary of Fortune, frequently smiled at Saunders in reaction to a felicitous phrase or chord change. The rhythm section listened keenly to one another. Drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith—at 55 the youngster in the quartet—has been valuable over the years to Art Farmer, Dave Holland, Steve Coleman and Archie Shepp, among dozens of others.

A sympathetic accompanist and an imaginative improviser, he was fast and resourceful in a solo on “Caravan” that to great effect incorporated brushes, then mallets. In Fortune’s solo on the Juan Tizol piece, he vamped at length with the rhythm section before arriving at a paraphrase of parts of the melody, vamped again and busied himself with riffing whose resemblance to “Flight of the Bumblebee” may have been a coincidence. Amused, Franklin bestowed beatific smiles on the saxophonist, who didn’t notice. Fortune’s solo went on for chorus after chorus. When he finally wrapped it up and ended the tune, the audience applauded, cheered and rose to its feet for an ovation. Fortune bowed and smiled vaguely, as if he knew something they didn’t.

Charles Lloyd Quartet

Rather than the electrified two-guitar quintet he calls the Marvels, the saxophonist Charles Lloyd brought his traditional quartet to the Portland Jazz Festival. They played a memorable concert. Supported by players decades younger, the 77-year-old Lloyd opened with a section of his “Ruminations” suite. His tone, which is both light and powerful, gave wing to inventions suggesting that he might have been ruminating about John Coltrane, Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy. As usual, Lloyd did not announce the names of the pieces he played and, as is his custom, said not one word to the audience. Words were unnecessary except, perhaps, to satisfy curiosity about the repertoire. Post-concert inquiries disclosed that the next piece was “Flying Over The Odra Valley” and the one after that was “Gardner,” which had a minor key, almost eastern European cast about it. Then came “Nu Blues,” in which Lloyd’s Memphis musical upbringing and roots were movingly on display.

Charles Lloyd © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Charles Lloyd © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Lloyd’s interest in the work of his sidemen led him to move into the curve of the piano when Gerald Clayton was soloing and listen intently, as if he was memorizing the notes. Sometimes bobbing or swaying in place, Lloyd gave bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Eric Harland (pictured left) the same close attention. The quartet’s unity was remarkable through the traditional Mexican song “La Llorona” and three parts of The Wild Man Suite, which they recently recorded. All three of the sidemen soloed extensively, inspiring extended applause. For the encore, Lloyd made a medley of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are So Beautiful” and Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” and gave them a spiritual connection. He and his young colleagues got a standing ovation that was even longer than the Portland audience’s customary standing ovations.

Gary Peacock Trio

With decades in the jazz mainstream and the avant-garde behind him, the 80-year-old bassist Gary Peacock is at the helm of a trio that blends elements of both genres. He may be best known as a member of Keith Jarrett’s trio, but Peacock’s resume includes work with artists as diverse as Bud Shank, Bill Evans, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Ralph Towner and Paul Bley.

Gary Peacock © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Gary Peacock © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Peacock, pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron began their Portland concert with “Estate” (Italian for “Summer) which, with recordings by Shirley Horn, Peggy Lee and Joao Gilberto, has become a standard. Peacock tightly integrated his opening solo with the contrasting pop and snap of Baron’s drumming and the smoothness of Copland’s accompaniment. Endlessly energetic and inventive, Barron spread a blanket of cymbal, mallet and brush strokes for a riff-like Peacock bass pattern that set up “Footprints,” the Wayne Shorter piece played by several bands at this festival. Peacock maintained his bass pattern for Copland’s solo. Baron continued to sculpt patterns of his own that continued during the virtuoso Peacock solo that followed Copland’s. Baron switched from brushes to sticks for a melodic solo that included a deftly placed “Salt Peanuts” quote that brought smiles from his colleagues and chuckles in the audience.

In Copland’s original composition “Time Was,” Baron’s liquid brushwork was a highlight. The trio’s interaction and the rapt attention they paid to one another during Copland’s “Moor” inspired a one-word declaration from a woman seated near me. “Dialogue,” she said. It was an apt summation of their approach. Later in the set, the communication in a piece that was either “Solar” or was based on it reached a level of communication that amounted to a sensitively attuned musical conversation.

Pat Martino and Kenny Barron

Pat Martino and Kenny Barron, two of the many Philadelphians appearing at the 2016 Portland Jazz Festival, led their groups in a concert at the Winningstad Theatre. First up, guitarist Martino’s trio with organist Pat Bianchi and drummer Carmen Intorre played a set infused with the soul feeling that Martino absorbed and refined with the saxophonists Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt and with organists Richard Groove Holmes, Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith and Don Patterson. Martino is admired equally for his technical agility and a mathematical approach to improvisation that he is able to combine with his blues sensibility. In Portland, that resulted in an exhilarating series of solos. Bianchi at least matched his leader’s verve and inventiveness and in a couple of cases outstripped Martino in swing and interesting ideas. Intorre’s drumming propels without intruding. His ability to place a rhythm accent at precisely the right millisecond was a major factor in the band’s swing.

Pat Martino © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Pat Martino © 2016 Mark Sheldon

“Footprints” showed up on so many festival set lists that it could qualify as the unofficial PDX festival theme song. Martino and Bianchi reached what might have been the set’s apogee with their soloing on the piece. But the trio followed it with an opulent “’Round Midnight,” then topped that with a double encore of Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” and Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny.” Martino’s recovery from the effects of a brain aneurism more than thirty years ago is one of the great bad news/good news stories in the jazz world. The good news is that he fought back through serious memory loss to learn the guitar all over again and reestablish himself as one of the instrument’s finest players. This concert made that clear.

Another established firm took over when pianist Kenny Barron brought bassist Kyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Jonathan Blake to the stage. As if he had inherited a portion of Bud Powell’s manic energy, Barron tore into “Bud Like,” his composition named with Powell in mind. He unquestionably makes use of Powell’s way with harmony, although Barron’s softer keyboard touch is a major part of the individuality he brings to whatever he plays. “Lullaby,” another original, was a waltz in which Blake’s brushes provided a backdrop for Barron’s application of that touch and for the pianist’s ingenuity in deepening a tune’s harmonic interest. “Nightfall” was Barron’s tribute to the ballad’s composer, the late bassist Charlie Haden, with whom he recorded a memorable live duet album. Barron featured Kitagawa as a soloist in “New York Attitude,” an original Barron composition. It seems to reflect the city’s nervous energy and the lilt that New Yorkers often feel in the atmosphere and pace that energy creates. Kitagawa’s solo was attuned to the energy. The tempo was fast.

Kenny Barron © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Kenny Barron © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Kitagawa and Blake went to the wings for Barron’s unaccompanied medley of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn pieces. He played one chorus each of the melodies of “Lotus Blossom,” “A Flower Is A Lovely Thing,” “Melancholia” and “Star Crossed Lovers,” flowing from one to the next and investing them with rich harmonic underpinnings. With Kitagawa and Blake back, Barron played “Cook’s Bay,” a piece he wrote for the album Spirit Song, released in 2000. Kitagawa had another powerful solo. Called back for an encore, Barron kicked off a tempo and the trio went to work on a lightning-fast series of choruses on the changes of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” It was a breathtaking closer.

If you’d like to hear my Saturday conversation with Barron, go to Oregon Music News. The publication is archiving all of the festival’s Art Bar conversations.

Gary Bartz

Alto saxophonist Gary Bartz opened his Portland Jazz Festival concert singing a slow blues. He wasn’t lamenting his or anyone else’s troubles. The main message of his lyric was, “Sadness gotta leave this room.” It was his only vocal of the evening. If there was sadness, he banished it quickly in a series of four-bar exchanges with guitarist Paul Bollenback. The quartet picked up the tempo and Bartz soloed with phrasing and humor reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, one of his early inspirations. Indeed, Bartz’s sound has more in common with Rollins’s commodious tenor saxophone tone than with that of most other alto players. In the course of his set he constructed a saxophone triptych of sorts, briefly quoting “Like Sonny,” John Coltrane’s piece in tribute to Rollins.

Gary Bartz© 2016 Mark Sheldon-PDX JAZZ -8107

Gary Bartz© 2016 Mark Sheldon

In his slim-cut suit, Balbo beard and long white hair flowing from under a broad-brimmed hat, Bartz looked the part of a sanctified country preacher. But his music gave him away; he is a thoroughgoing bebop alto player with a personal vision of the music. In the blues and in standard songs including “Wonderful, Wonderful” and Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You,” Bartz alternated keening long tones with complex passages. Particularly in the Porter piece, his improvisation often seemed free of the chords, but not to the extent that the sense of the song was lost—a neat trick.

Bartz is a listener. When he wasn’t soloing, he locked in with concentration and evident enjoyment on every solo by Bollenback, bassist James King and drummer Greg Bandy. Bollenback is strangely disregarded in discussions of jazz guitarists despite his history of stimulating work with Bartz, Joey DeFrancesco and Steve Gadd, among others. He soloed well and accompanied Bartz’ solos with blues-inflected chords. Bollenback and Bartz indulged in a couple of free-range games of tag that merged into funky endings.

Like Lloyd and bassist Gary Peacock the night before, Bartz did not announce tunes, sliding from one into the next. As he neared the end of the set, he substituted his curved soprano sax for the alto, quoted “I’ll Never Be The Same” and leaned into the blues, riding on Bandy’s drum backbeat and managing to smile as he played.

Sadness had left the room.

Javon Jackson

With the 2016 Portland Jazz Festival built around the legacy of John Coltrane (1926-1967), Javon Jackson’s appearances were reminders of his tenor saxophone hero’s lasting impact on the music. In a Winningstad Theatre concert, Jackson headed a quartet called We Four. The band included a Coltrane colleague, the veteran drummer Jimmy Cobb; pianist George Cables; and the young bassist Corcoran Holt. Jackson kicked off “So What” at a turbo-charged tempo. In his solo he disclosed his ‘Trane credentials and chops in variations on a phrase adapted from Coltrane’s celebrated solo on the piece in the 1959 Miles Davis Kind of Blue album.

The 87-year-old Cobb uncharacteristically missed a few strokes as he began his solo on the piece but once warmed up, he played the rest of the set with his customary drive, crisp attack and rhythmic ingenuity. Following Jackson’s unadorned reading of the melody of “My One and Only Love,” Cables integrated melodic asides into his solo; right-hand fillips commenting on his own improvisation. It was a surprising and beautiful manifestation of the mind’s ability to create simultaneously on two levels. With impressive arco tone, Holt bowed a solo on the song’s bridge section. Jackson ended the tune with an unaccompanied tag that featured harmonics — the playing of two notes at once. Coltrane mastered the technique, and so has Jackson.

We Four paid tribute through several pieces associated with Coltrane. Highlights:

  •  Jackson’s huge sound in his lightning foray through the harmonic changes of “If I Were a Bell.”
  • Cables, unaccompanied in a gorgeous “Body and Soul,” reining himself in when he realized he was quoting “Prisoner of Love” for the second time.
  •  Cobb, back in form, exchanging four- and eight-bar phrases with Jackson.
  • Jackson at his most Coltraneish on “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Cables’ solo on the piece recalling why Art Pepper nicknamed him “Mr. Beautiful.”
  • Jackson on fire in the encore, “My Shining Hour.”

The next night, Jackson was the guest artist with a quartet of musicians who help make Portland one of most interesting jazz towns in the country. Guitarist Dan Balmer was the leader, with Tony Pacini piano; Ed Bennett, bass; and Mel Brown,  drums. Playing to a packed house at Jimmy Mak’s club, their repertoire was heavy on pieces by pianist Tommy Flanagan, one of Coltrane’s favorite colleagues in the 1950s. The tunes included “Minor Mishap,” the blues “Freight Trane,” and “Eclypso.” Without the leadership duties of the previous evening, Jackson seemed relaxed in the comfortable surroundings of the club. He again played a superb solo on “My Shining Hour.” Pacini was impressive in a vigorously two-handed solo that had a stirring passage of parallel octaves. Everything Balmer played was alive with the energy that has helped make him an Oregon institution.

Dianne Reeves © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Dianne Reeves © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Dianne Reeves

As I reported last summer, Dianne Reeves sang at the Ystad Jazz Festival in Sweden with the Norbotten big band in a balanced concert with many noteworthy moments. However, there is nothing like hearing the formidable Ms. Reeves in her preferred context—her own quartet. Before I left the Portland Jazz Festival, I caught her at the Newmark Theatre with pianist Peter Martin, bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Terreon Gully and the remarkable Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo. Effusive and dramatic in a garment of geometric design, she appeared after the quartet warmed up with “Summertime,” a nice touch in wet and wintry Portland.

In a concert characterized by her easy interaction with the band and the audience, she opened with a version Fleetwood Mac’s “You Will Know” incorporating a background vocal by Gully. She followed with Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather” and her composition “Nine,” during which she rapped about the joys of childhood and of aging (“I’m about to turn 59,” she told the audience). Then came “All Blues,” “I’m In Love Again,” “Waiting in Vain,” “Beautiful” and an encore in which she and Martin performed a duet on Sammy Cahn’s “You Taught My Heart to Sing,” scatting her way out over Martin’s rich layering of chords. But the acme of her Portland performance came in a duet with Lubambo on Gershwin’s “Our Love is Here to Stay.” To my knowledge, there is no video of the Portland version, but it was recorded last year at Spain’s Festival de Jazz de San Javier. Toward its end, Martin, Veal and Gully join Lubambo and Ms.Reeves.

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