Weekend Concert Wrap-up: Jazz Infiltrations

Jazz turned up in unlikely places last weekend in Portland.

“Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.”

— Frank Zappa

Jazz is alleged to be a dying art form, but last weekend in Portland, traces of jazz kept turning up in the oddest places: a theater, a symphony concert, even an Indian music performance. As performances by Portland State University Orchestra and Oregon Symphony, David Ornette Cherry and some of Portland’s finest jazzers, and Yashila demonstrated, this supposedly endangered music exerted a powerful and often positive influence far beyond its home base in small clubs, and its creative, rebel spirit still prevails in other 21st century music.

Notes from the Underground

New York’s subway system has long inspired composers, most famously in Billy Strayhorn’s 1941 classic “Take the A Train,” for Duke Ellington’s band. The latest jazzer to derive some notes from the underground: Portland State University professor George Colligan, a recent NYC transplant whose new Existence drew some inspiration from the image of a crowded New York subway station. Colligan wrote out all the melodies and harmonies, but at its premiere at the PSU Orchestra’s Halloween concert, playing trumpet instead of his usual keyboards or drums, he led the student musicians to the Improv Avenue stop part way through the piece, producing a sweet tension over the steady beat, maybe reflecting the rich, occasionally chaotic urban cross currents that await when you disembark.

Norman Sylvester played bluesy guitar in David Ornette Cherry's Organic Nation Listening Party.

Norman Sylvester played bluesy guitar in David Ornette Cherry’s Organic Nation Listening Party.

Along with music by both famous Gabrielis, Ravel’s gorgeous Mother Goose ballet music, which the orchestra will perform with the Portland Ballet later this month, the concert also sported yet another new composition by a PSU faculty member inspired by New York bustle: a “preliminary sketch” of conductor Ken Selden’s Scandal in the Deep, composed to a ballet scenario by the French poet Celine, in which the Roman god of the sea, Neptune, is involved in a scandalous love affair with a mermaid. The students played only a skeletal version of a small portion of this work in progress, so I’m reluctant draw any conclusions about it now, but the unexpected, tantalizing taste of what I did hear makes me eager for the rest.

From Hindustan to Harlem

Jazzy improvisation appeared at the next evening’s concert sponsored by Portland’s venerable Kalakendra presenting organization, which has generally brought the world’s finest performers of traditional Hindustani classical music. Lately, like other classical music organizations, they’ve been experimenting with more contemporary sounds, and this ensemble adds jazz to the mix, embodied in Egyptian born, Berklee-school trained keyboard player Ossam Ezzeldin, who also appeared with another Indian ensemble recently. Led by virtuosa violinist Kala Ramnath and featuring a pair of percussion titans (tablawallah Abhijit Banerjee and ghatam clay pot player Somnath Roy), Yashila continues the sporadically fruitful miscegenation of jazz and Indian music that stretches back as far Miles Davis’s late-1960s experiments with sitar and other Indian instruments, and later collaborations like former Davis guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu and Shakti, L. Shankar’s various projects, and more.

Kalakendra brought Yashila to Portland.

Kalakendra brought Yashila to Portland.

What was different here was that most of the musicians were trained in the extremely virtuosic tradition of Indian music (which also admits improvisation, though in very different ways from jazz), rather than most of them crossing over from jazz. That meant that several pieces used or at least started with traditional Indian musical structures and (Ramnath said from the stage) scales. There, Ezzeldin’s amplified (but thankfully not too much) electric keyboard rang with the sound Joe Zawinul used in Davis’s and Weather Report’s fusions, but felt like a dreamy, mellow garnish at best, a polite visitor who got the wrong address at worst. When he’d use his left hand to play a repeating (obstinate) bass line, the rhythmic structure simplified to something recognizable as a jazz piece, with the percussionists and Ramnath contributing some spectacular solos and duets (with a couple of especially thrilling one between the two percussionists) in that manner.

Other non Hindustani influences occasionally peeked in, like flamenco in “Drive East to Andalusia,” in which Roy exchanged his ghatam for a wooden board commonly used in that form), another work where Banerjee used a South Indian jaw harp,  and elsewhere. But the most successful pieces hewed closest to traditional Indian forms, and the audience loved the traditional end-of-song exchanges where the soloists fire phrases at each other and swat them back with additional spin, like tennis pros. Ramnath (who played her violin in traditional Indian fashion, seated and “upside down” by Western standards) and Banerjee occasionally added vocalise and vocals with words, and Ezzeldin finally got a chance to cut loose with some shapely solos in the second half. They concluded with a haunting slow piece featuring a sultry violin melody that started in the cello register and floated up to a mid-tempo steamy, dreamy swirl. I’d love to see this group come back to Portland on a PDXJazz bill, a very different audience from the predominantly Indian-American demographic here but one equally appreciative of such improvisatory ingenuity.

Organic Nation Listening Club

David Ornette Cherry is not only a certified jazz keyboard player, he also springs from jazz royalty (the great trumpeter Don Cherry) and jazz is almost literally his middle name, which comes from the harmolodic Texas-born innovator Coleman. So what was he doing in a theater known for serious plays rather than music?

Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre hosted Cherry’s Organic Nation Listening Club because it was more (and alas sometimes less) than a jazz concert. Cherry mixed narrative, dance, theater and installation art with a few jazz numbers (played by a superb band of some of Oregon’s finest jazzers) into a series of memoirs of how the players were seduced by the vixen jazz.

Artist Repertory Theatre's Organic Nation Listening Club mixed jazz and theater.

Artist Repertory Theatre’s Organic Nation Listening Club mixed jazz and theater.

The show ambled along with an appropriately improvisatory feel, with Cherry strolling out to the stage area (minimally propped like a ramshackle rehearsal space), toting a ngoni African banjo that he played occasionally throughout the show, to chat with the audience with no applause or other ado whatsoever. Cued by nothing more than a subtle light change that launched us back half a century to what he called the garage rehearsal space he used while growing up there, Cherry seamlessly segued into reminiscing about growing up in Los Angeles, including recounting the story of how, shortly before he was born, his dad met Ornette Coleman in a music shop on the city’s famous Central Avenue (the home of one of the country’s hottest postwar jazz scenes, although he never really explained its significance), Then, as the other musicians drifted in, he sat down at a little electric keyboard and launched into a delightfully Monkish original tune.

The area later notorious as South Central harbored more than progressive jazz: 1965’s catastrophic Watts riots (or “rebellion” as Cherry called it) erupted there, triggered by the LA police arrest of a black man (which the seven year old Cherry apparently witnessed) — the spark that turned a long smoldering tinderbox of racial oppression into a conflagration. Cherry and band played a funky original that sounded like something from that era while a couple of kids came out and tossed a basketball back and forth around the periphery. More theatrical elements ensued, including a striking courtroom scene involving dancers (Renee Ward and Culturally Adrift Community Players Gregg Bielemeier, Dorinda Holler, Stephanie Schaaf, and Celine Bouly) and actor Bill Boesse as the judge, with a chorus of “Order in the court! Order in the court!” hitting the high point of the show. But if I hadn’t already known something about that history, its significance wouldn’t have been apparent from what happened onstage.

The rest of the show brought similar reminiscences, with music and minimal silent dance and theatrical elements interpolated or happening simultaneously. Moore recalled growing up in Milwaukie, studying piano, playing jazz at the University of Oregon, briefly decamping to Europe, where American jazz was more respected than at home, but never got as far as the story of co-founding the great world jazz band Oregon with fellow Oregonian Ralph Towner. Cherry picked up on Moore’s mention of Jim Pepper, the Native American Portland jazz legend, with his own Pepper tales and later played a Native American flute duet with Renato Caranto, a nice segue into the Portland sax master’s remembrance of growing up in a Philippine village, being introduced to jazz by his father (a common element that could conceivably work as a unifying theme if the show continues to be developed) and inspired by Coltrane albums the way Moore was by Miles Davis. Cherry noodled on the keyboard quietly during drummer Carlton Jackson’s recollection of growing up in what was then a predominately African American section of Portland in the 1960s and ‘70s, including a firebombing of a furniture store on what was then called Union Avenue (we never learned more about that, one of many threads left untied), and hearing music by Cannonball Adderley and Les McCann that set him on the jazz path.

Unfortunately, the musicians’ improvised music proved tighter than their improvised reminiscing, and momentum sagged until an unannounced guest sporting a red hat and a blues guitar showed up and brought the house down. Norman Sylvester recounted his Louisiana childhood, his move to Portland at age 10, buying an $11 guitar he saw in pawnshop window, and how the blues let him say suggestive things to women in song that he could never politely manage otherwise. The musical excerpts gave way to a full blues jam dance party that closed the show on a festive note.

cherry party

So engaging was the ending, so enjoyable the music (seven varied Cherry originals and one co-composition with Sylvester), and so affable the host, Cherry, that it almost made me overlook the fact that the show, in this incarnation at least, doesn’t really work as either theater or as a concert. There’s too little of either of those elements to really satisfy, they’re not clearly connected to each other, and the combination lacks the dramatic arc and structure that would add weight and meaning to the memoirs, which, lacking a clear unifying theme or much context, would probably limit the interest of anyone not already deeply fascinated by jazz history. Fortunately, I am, and apparently so were a good number of the audience members. But if Cherry wants to win a wider audience for this promising but at best intermittently involving performance piece, I’d love to see more of the spirited dance theater touches that really brought it to life, and a sturdier dramatic structure and theme to tie it all together. Either that, or perform it as a real jazz concert, with enough music to make it worth the ticket, punctuated by short, tightly scripted reminiscences. With further shaping, refinement and tightening, I hope Organic Nation Listening Club will welcome more members.

Jazz Age Concerto

The Oregon Symphony’s concerts last weekend brought a couple of personal favorites, pianist Jeffrey Kahane and one of the original jazz intruders into the hallowed orchestra halls, George Gershwin’s ebullient Concerto in F, a piece that, like the Indian jazz concert, veers back and forth between jazz and classical poles — and it doesn’t matter a bit, because it remains one of the most brilliant salads of American and European music ever tossed. Chameleon Kahane both sounded and even looked like a barroom ivory tickler when leaning over to play the jazzy passages, and like a stereotypical, stiff-backed, jowl-shaking classical virtuoso in the faux Rachmaninoff moments. His flashy, flamboyant performance (abetted by the orchestra, which sounded as tight as ever yet never uptight, or mannered as can happen at times when music director Carlos Kalmar tries a little too hard to make a point) drew rabid applause even after the first movement, no doubt pleasing Kahane, who had inveighed against the ridiculous “rule” against between-movement applause in an interview that week.

Jazz’s rhythmic flexibility emerged in his extreme, playful rubato, especially in the beautifully bluesy second movement, further distinguished by some gorgeous work from the orchestra’s exceptional brass section. So spontaneous did Kahane sound that at times in Sunday’s dramatic performance, not everything lined up quite right, but the feeling of loose-limbed unpredictability achieved as a result was totally worth it, giving the concerto an edgy energy much truer to its spirit than a tamer performance would have permitted. The audiences responded with heartfelt enthusiasm and a deserved standing ovation.

Jeffrey Kahane earned a standing O with the OSO.

Jeffrey Kahane earned a standing O with the OSO.

Which, alas, made the second half anticlimactic. I’m a fan of Sergei Prokofiev’s music in general and his ballet scores in particular, and therefore appreciate music director Carlos Kalmar’s desire to liberate his 1944 Cinderella from the dance floor via his newly arranged concert suite. But despite some lovely moments (particularly some well-known tunes toward the end), much of his score amounts to scene setting for a dance — unsurprisingly, since that’s exactly what he was called upon to write. Some ballets (Stravinsky’s and Copland’s jeté to mind) can work beautifully as concert pieces, but despite splendidly sensitive playing from the orchestra throughout and Kalmar’s committed conducting, at a full 45 minutes that felt like an hour, this one dragged.

What did work was the use of supertitles, a new to me feature of OSO concerts this year when it helps the audience understand the music’s connection to a larger program; the music rushed, dreamed and danced according to what was happening in the story. But overall, this show would have benefited from jettisoning the unimaginative overture-concerto-symphony or other big piece formula, and tightening the program. If instead it had followed the opening, revelatory, sparkling performance of Paul Dukas’ tone poem The Sorceror’s Apprentice (best known as the star vehicle for Mickey Mouse in Fantasia) that was much more than a cartoon, with at most a half hour of the best of Cinderella (including the visible back-and-forth dispute between violins vs. violas and cellos in the “Quarrel” movement), then, after intermission, brought in Kahane and Gershwin for a second-half finale, a joyful audience would have departed with grins on their faces rather than yawns. Such is the lasting power of Gershwin’s jazzy classical music.

An article whose author I can’t recall once explained the decline of computer magazines by reminding readers that a century or so ago, the press teemed with articles about the new phenomenon of…motors. But soon, motors and electricity so pervaded daily life that there was no reason to read about them, any more than we needed popular articles about asphalt. It’s happening now with computers, which now inhabit our phones, thermostats, watches and even hearing aids. And maybe it’s the same with America’s greatest contribution to music. Even if jazz declines in its traditional habitats, its animating ideas seem likely to survive and even flourish elsewhere in the ever-evolving musical universe.

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