Portland Jazz Composers’ Ensemble

ArtsWatch Year in Music 2017

ArtsWatch chronicles a year that showcased women's music, natural inspirations, and institutional evolution

Oregon music is surging, and this year, Oregon ArtsWatch has been your personal surfboard to keep you on top of the tide instead of inundated by it. And to bring you views of the powerful creative forces beneath the waves. This roundup is in no way a comprehensive or even representative sample of the dozens and dozens of music-related previews, reviews, features, interviews, profiles, and more we presented in 2017. Instead, we’ve chosen mostly stories whose value transcends a particular concert, leaned toward Oregon rather than national artists (who can get plenty of press elsewhere), favored music by today’s American composers instead of long-dead Europeans, and tried to represent a variety of voices and approaches. We hope this roundup gives a valuable snapshot of an eventful, fruitful moment in Oregon’s musical culture.

Homegrown Sounds

Although we also write about jazz and other improvised music and other hard-to-classify sounds, ArtsWatch’s primary musical focus has always been contemporary “classical” (a term we’d love to replace with something more accurate) composition by Oregon composers, and this year presented a richer tapestry than ever. As always, Cascadia Composers led the way in presenting new Oregon music in the classical tradition, but others including FearNoMusic, Third Angle New Music, the University of Oregon and even new entities like Burn After Listening also shared homegrown sounds. ArtsWatch readers learned about those shows and composers from accomplished veterans like Kenji Bunch to emerging voices such as Justin Ralls.

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and ?? play with toys at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum
Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that ‘classical’ ? — Music. JANUARY 20 MATTHEW ANDREWS.

Kenji Bunch: Seeing the Elephant
After returning to home ground, the Portland composer’s career blossoms with commissions from the Oregon Symphony and Eugene Ballet. MARCH 7 BRETT CAMPBELL.

45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration
ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers. MARCH 29  BRETT CAMPBELL. Also read Maria Choban’s review: 45th Parallel review: Horror show .

Burn After Listening: Stacy Phillips, Lisa Ann Marsh, Jennifer Wright.

‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure
New Portland composers’ collective’s debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences. APRIL 27 BRETT CAMPBELL


MusicWatch Weekly: community spirit

Musical highlights around Oregon this week

This week’s Oregon music highlights feature several concerts devoted to bringing communities together and celebrating various heritages that help make up the larger community that we all belong to. Please add your suggested music events in the comments section below.

Leyla McCalla performs at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall Saturday.

“In a Landscape”
Portland pianist Hunter Noack has embarked on a second September series of outdoor performances around Oregon. (Read my ArtsWatch story about the first one.) This time, he’s put a nine-foot Steinway on a trailer, and is toting it to eastern Oregon. He’s also bringing wireless headphones to distribute to listeners so they can experience the music without alfresco acoustical limitations, and various guest artists, from singer and former Miss America Katie Harman Ebner, Pink Martini founder/pianist Thomas Lauderdale and members of various Oregon orchestras. Check the website for who’s playing what and where and other details on individual performances through September 30.
Wednesday, Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, 22267 OR Highway 86, Baker City; Thursday, Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, 47106 Wildhorse Blvd. Pendleton.

Eugene Symphony
The orchestra performs a recent work by contemporary Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas, and Joyce Yang solos in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 before the orchestra unless that pinnacle of Russian Romanticism, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.
Thursday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Music for Everyone Day
A wide variety of musicians, including the Woolen Men, Skull Diver, Ashi, JoJoScott and more, supply the tunes in this free, family-friendly four hour celebration.
Friday, Portland City Hall.

The Gondoliers
Light Opera of Portland’s latest Gilbert & Sullivan show.
Friday-Sunday, Alpenrose Dairy Opera House, 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland.

The Dover Quartet performs in Ashland. Photo:Tom Emerson.

Dover Quartet
The Chamber Music Northwest favorites return to Oregon to play quartets by contemporary American composer Richard Danielpour, Tchaikovsky, and Bartók.
Friday, Southern Oregon University Recital Hall, Ashland.

The Broken Consort
One of the most potentially exciting additions to Oregon’s music scene, this early music ensemble recently relocated from Boston and New York to Portland. Their repertoire ranges far beyond the too-limited scope of the state’s other historically informed performers, including new music (they just recorded an album of originals by leader and singer Emily Lau), and this concert focuses on American baroque music. Yes, there was such a thing. People were making music in the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries. The eight musicians, who hail from Portland, Los Angeles, New York, and beyond, sing and play music written in the New England colonies (by composers like the great William Billings and Francis Hopkinson), in Spanish colonial America, shape note hymns, and even 19th century songs by Stephen Foster. But they’ll also perform music for ngoni, the instrument brought by African slaves, Native American chants and more, including the west coast premiere of Douglas Buchanan’s 2016 Green Field of Amerikay. It’s the fall’s most fascinating concert.
Saturday, Nordia House, and Sunday, The Hallowed Halls, Portland.

Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival
The fifth annual celebration of a true Oregon original and legendary Native American jazz saxophonist includes Tracy Lee Nelson, Winona LaDuke, Gary Ogan, and more. And if you’re interested in Pepper’s life and work, check out Organic Listening Club’s latest edition at Artists Repertory Theater on October 17.
Saturday, Parkrose High School, Portland.

Taiko Together
If you live outside Japan and enjoy the stirring sounds of Japanese percussion music, or just like whacking on big drums,  Portland is the place to be. This concert brings together all four of the city’s taiko ensembles — Portland Taiko, Takohachi, En Taiko, and Unit Souzou — in a celebration of some of the world’s most, ah, striking sounds. It’s a fine opportunity to sample the different varieties available too, from youth-oriented classes to traditional tunes to folk dance to new music and more.
Saturday, P.C.C. Sylvania, Performing Arts Center.

Portland Taiko at its fall 2016 concert. Photo: Brian Sweeney.

The Vanport Mosaic and Maxville Heritage
Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s fascinating new project kicks off with a free performance featuring music performed by singer Marilyn Keller and pianist Ezra Weiss, featuring Weiss’s song with lyrics by Renee Mitchell, inspired by the story of Maxville. This afternoon discussion event includes presentations about Maxville and Vanport, followed by a talk with the artistic creators, who are hoping to receive input from the community itself for this important multimedia community history project.
Saturday, Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Ave, Portland.

Leyla McCalla
Former Carolina Chocolate Drop cellist/singer/guitarist/banjoist Leyla McCalla’s music draws on her Haitian heritage as well as the Creole, Cajun, jazz and French influences that still simmer in and around her New Orleans home. McCalla’s covers of traditional song and sometimes poignant, sometimes danceable, expertly crafted original music reflect the vitality of the many rich folk traditions she’s assimilated.
Saturday, Old Church Concert Hall, Portland.

Organized by NYC’s Bang on a Can new music collective and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the four-year-old OneBeat program brings young (age 19-35) musicians from around the world to collaboratively create original music, play it on tour, lead workshops with local young audiences, and “develop strategies for arts-based social engagement” when they return to their home countries. This year’s fellows include South African vocalist Nonku Phiri; Aisaana Omorova, a komuz (traditional three-stringed strummed instrument) player from Kyrgyzstan; Chicago-based producer Elijah Jamal; and Belorussian producer and singer Natalia Kuznetskaya. The program has come to Sisters, Portland and elsewhere around the nation in years past; see it now before our current rulers find out about this effort to increase intercultural understanding.
Saturday, The Belfry, Sisters.


Music Notes

Wrapping up recent news in Oregon music

Every so often, when the live music schedule slacks off a bit, we wrap up news in various provinces of Oregon’s vibrant music scene. Many of the items originally appeared on ArtsWatch’s Facebook page, which you should follow to keep up with the happenings in Oregon arts and ArtsWatch.


The Portland State University Chamber Choir, which has been featured often in these news wraps and elsewhere on ArtsWatch, continues to bring the state international acclaim. Last month, it became the first American choir ever to compete in Asia’s largest choral festival, the Bali International Choral Festival, which featured over 100 choirs. And it won the Grand Prix. The Chamber Choir won two categories: Music of Religions and Gospels & Spirituals, earning the highest score in the entire festival for the latter.

According to PSU’s press release, during the ten day trip, the Chamber Choir toured cultural sites, visited a program to alleviate poverty and sang at a charity concert to raise money for homeless youth. The choir also joined two Indonesian choirs to sing opera chorus at a gala for Catharina Leimena, Indonesia’s first opera star. The group also apparently spontaneously rehearsed one of its pieces in the Shanghai Airport, drawing international attention.

This is the second international competition that the Chamber Choir has won in recent years. In 2013 they were the first American choir to win the Grand Prix at the Seghizzi International Competition for Choral Singing, held in Italy.

Ethan Sperry and PSU Chamber Choir won the big prize at the Bali International Choral Festival.

Last week, the choir released its new CD, The Doors of Heaven, which immediately landed  at #1 on Amazon Classical, #1 on iTunes Classical, and debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical chart — the first university choir to chart. It’s the first recording made by an American choir exclusively devoted to the music of one of the world’s hottest choral composers, Latvia’s Eriks Esenvalds. We’ll be telling you more about it before the choir’s November CD release concerts in Portland.

Sperry was just named recipient of the first Portland Professorship, a new program that allows donors to name and fund termed PSU faculty positions.The first Portland Professorship position was recently created with a gift from longtime major PSU donor Robert Stoll of the Stoll Berne law firm.


Montavilla Jazz Festival: turning crisis into community

This weekend's festival shows how arts can help build community in an unaffordable city


With rents and property values continuing to rise astronomically in Portland, the affordability of physical space and the role that space plays in the arts ecosystem is coming into sharp focus. The space is sorely needed, yet many arts organizations with limited budgets can’t afford it.

The affordability crisis is a reflection of Portland’s growing pains, but instead of just complaining about the problem, perhaps our arts community can see this crisis as an opportunity. With some creative problem solving, we can help to make Portland a better place to live and also make it a better place to perform and experience the arts.

Portland drum legend Alan Jones performed at last year’s Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser.

This is indeed a crisis, though it’s not unique. Even a quick study of the city’s history will reveal other crises in the past, especially the challenges that people of color have faced when seeking housing in the days of redlining, after the Vanport flood of 1948, and up to the present. But even as poorer Portlanders struggle in an increasingly expensive housing market, there are encouraging signs that the arts community is waking up to its power as a force for positive change in our neighborhoods. This weekend’s Montavilla Jazz Festival is one of them.


‘Oregonophony’ review: turning place into sound

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble concerts feature original music incorporating recorded sounds of Oregon -- but not necessarily the sounds you’d expect


What does Oregon sound like? For its spring 2017 concert, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE) sought proposals from Oregon composers for music that would incorporate recorded sounds from Oregon. The music selected for Oregonophony evolved from the diverse auditory inspirations of two experienced professionals and three emerging jazz composers.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performed ‘Oregonophony’ in Salem and Portland. Photo: Lynn Darroch.

Assimilating sounds of Oregon into the five musical pieces underscored the presence and importance of external sounds as part of our contemporary musical palette and of our lives. For me, this concert also reflected in music the way Oregon is changing.


The Radically Mused: Improvisation Summit of Portland

Creative Music Guild's annual convocation presents a broad spectrum of spontaneous creativity


No one comes to a Creative Music Guild show to hear a familiar tune or a classic work. CMG concerts are places where joyful noises erupt and drone on, where genres are fused and exploded, where everyday objects become artistic tools, where risks are taken—a space is made in which anything and everything is welcome. And if you step into this space and join the performers, attending to the free flow of their intuitions, then you might just find some revelations—artistic, personal or otherwise. The first night’s performance of this year’s edition of the organizations’s annual Improvisation Summit of Portland exemplified CMG’s mission and what it continues to offer the Portland community.

Pure Surface Collective at Improvisation Summit of Portland

Pure Surface Collective at Improvisation Summit of Portland

For over 20 years CMG has championed spontaneous creativity and experimentalism through concerts bringing together local and international artists. A non-profit, volunteer organization currently directed by Alyssa Reed-Stuewe, Brandon Conway, Ben Kates, and John Savage, CMG is one of the greatest and longer-standing landmarks in Portland’s artscape, though it seldom gets the attention it deserves. CMG’S annual Improvisation Summit is not only a good introduction to the organization, but also to Portland’s more radically mused artists. The 2016 ISP took place on June 2, 3, and 4 at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in the Kenton neighborhood of NE Portland.


Guest post: Andrew Oliver on the birth of a new jazz label and album

The Portland Jazz Composers' Ensemble starts recording music, including a new Andrew Oliver trio


Editor’s Note: When we heard  from Andrew Oliver, the tireless jazz pianist and band organizer, about the new record label he had in the works for the Portland Jazz Composers’ Ensemble AND his own contribution to its list, we thought we’d ask him to write about it all for us. And he did.

Next week I’ll be releasing a new trio album called “The Northwest Continuum” on my new label PJCE Records. Strangely enough, even though I’ve released at least 10 records so far in my life, I have never put out a jazz piano trio record, rather unusually for a jazz pianist as the piano-bass-drums setup is a very classic sound in the jazz piano tradition. This one came about through an interesting series of circumstances unfolding over many years, but I’m pretty pleased with the result and hope that it reflects at least a certain degree of my musical aesthetic at the moment.

PJCE Records began after my good friend and frequent collaborator Dan Duval and I had the possibly unwise idea to start a new independent jazz record label as an offshot of our nonprofit, the Portland Jazz Composers’ Ensemble (PJCE). The PJCE has been around for about 5 years and features a 12-piece ensemble commissioning and performing new jazz by Portland area composers. We wanted to find a way, in addition to the large ensemble, to feature and disseminate more of the great jazz that’s happening in our community. We decided to release a new CD each month by a different local ensemble playing original music, ranging from contemporary straight-ahead to avant-garde jazz and featuring existing groups alongside new collaborations.

Andrew Oliver Trio 2To do this, we knew we had to approach jazz recording in a somewhat minimalist and historical way. Many of the classic albums of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s on labels such as Blue Note, Prestige, and Contemporary were recorded live to two-track with the band all together in one room. In this scenario the engineer is mixing the different microphones together as the band is playing, and it’s going directly to a stereo audio file (or in the old days, stereo tape).

This is dangerous in that it eliminates the opportunity to tweak the relative levels of the various instruments later on, but it’s also really efficient and reflects a certain live aesthetic which reinforces the improvisatory nature of jazz. We’re aiming to keep the costs under $750 for each album, significantly cheaper than the $2,000-3,000 it would take to record, mix, master, and reproduce an album using more traditional methods. We’re still working on the best way to distribute these costs between the PJCE and the artists but the kinks are slowly being worked out to create an economical and efficient way to get the music out there. We’ve attracted a lot of interest from local musicians of varying ages and styles, and in the coming months we’ll be putting out albums from the Kin Trio (minimalist bebop), the Blake Lyman Quintet (contemporary original jazz), Ken Ollis (avant-garde flute/piano/drums trio), and Art Resnick (pianist/composer working both in jazz and classical styles as well as the intersection between them). We’re also featuring podcasts a couple weeks before each release on our website with interviews and previews of the music.


PJCE Records gave Dan and me the chance to record several heretofore undocumented projects and compositions of our own to kick things off. Having never released a trio album before, I wanted to collaborate on record with one of my oldest friends, Tyson Stubelek, a great drummer who lives in New York. We grew up playing jazz in the Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra together while we were in high school and still perform together whenever possible, notably in the Canadian-American collective Tunnel Six. Because Tyson and I learned to play jazz together, we have a musical connection that I don’t often feel with other drummers, and I really wanted to let that be on display when conceptualizing this album. I was also excited to work with one of my favorite bassists, Bill Athens, whose solid time and great bass energy are a valuable asset to many musical projects in Portland.

I wanted to use the trio partially to pull out some of my older tunes from back when my writing was a bit ahead of my ability to perform the pieces. The album opens with the “Tea Suite,” three songs I wrote dedicated to some of my favorite teas from around the world. “The Tower of Cosmic Reflection” was actually the name of the Northwest location of the Tao of Tea where Tyson and I used to spend many hours drinking tea. “High Mountain Dark” was a great Taiwanese black tea roasted with ginseng for an amazing flavor, and “Strong Fire” was a related oolong that they started serving there once they ran out of the High Mountain Dark. It was fun to revisit those tunes and hearken back to the days of youthful existential crises and nerding out on old Keith Jarrett albums.

02 High Mountain Dark

Speaking of Keith Jarrett, I was also happy that our bassist Bill Athens brought in three excellent tunes which lend themselves very nicely to the interactive and open environment of a piano trio. His tune “Plan of Action” reminds me a lot of some of Keith Jarrett’s tunes of the 1970’s, and the harmony of the tune was at least as intimidating as some of those classics if not more. Somehow we bashed through it and the album version is a lot of fun.

The other selections on the album are a mix of new and old tunes by me and Bill and one collaborative tune that Tyson and I wrote together a few years ago while working on another project, a secret indie-rock album we are making together featuring Tyson’s singing. This one has been in the works for many years and will eventually be released, but for the moment it was nice to put at least one of the songs out in this acoustic trio format, albeit without vocals.


We recorded “The Northwest Continuum” in one lengthy day at the Map Room Studio, one of my favorite studios in town in SE Portland. They have a great piano and the owner/engineer, Josh Powell, shares my interest in a very natural recording sound as well as building his own vintage style microphones. We decided to do it in a studio because I have been the one doing the live to 2-track mixing for the label, which is obviously impossible while playing!  However, I tried to maintain a subtle hand while mixing it, keeping the sounds natural and not overly processed. You’ll hear the sound of the room in the drums, for example, but to my ears this makes it feel more like you’re there listening to a band playing together in a live environment.

All things considered, I am looking forward to the release of this little album. It’s refreshing to record and release an album in a short period of time with minimal “production” in the traditional sense (i.e. lots of mixing and mastering time and costs, various promotional considerations, etc). Although I really love making well crafted studio albums with a lot of time and money, I’m happy to also be spearheading this label project where the point is more to get a bunch of great music out there to showcase and build interest in what’s happening in Portland’s great jazz scene. I hope this album can contribute to that cause and stay tuned for more!

The album will be out Friday, Feb 15, available for download and mail order here, and also for sale at Music Millenium!


February 16, 8-10 PM
Blake Lyman Quintet (original compositions by Blake feat. Blake Lyman, Sunjae Lee saxophones; Andrew Oliver, piano; Arcellus Sykes, bass; Sam Foulger, drums)
Shaker and Vine (formerly Vino Vixens)
2929 SE Powell

February 20, 9-11 PM
The Ocular Concern (new minimalist jazz with occasional covers of world folk music feat. Andrew Oliver, keyboard; Dan Duval, guitar; Stephen Pancerev, drums; Nathan Beck, vibes and mbira; Lee Elderton, clarinet)
Portland Jazz Festival show @ Rogue Ale House
1339 NW Flanders
No Cover

March 7, 8-10 PM
PJCE Sextet (6 person core group of the PJCE playing original music by its members and other composers in Portland, feat. Tom Barber, trumpet; Lee Elderton, saxes; Dan Duval, guitar; Andrew Oliver, piano; Bill Athens, bass; Ken Ollis, drums)
Shaker and Vine (formerly Vino Vixens)
2929 SE Powell

March 22, 7:30-9 PM
Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (12 person ensemble premiering new compositions by Reed Wallsmith, Kyle Williams, Andrew Oliver, and Eric Allen, also featuring music by Dan Duval, Joe Cunningham, and Justin Morell)
March Music Moderne Festival @ Community Music Center
3350 SE Francis St.
$15, $12 students, all ages, tickets available here


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