[JPL] Avant-garde pays off at Portland Jazz Festival

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Wed Feb 20 11:55:51 EST 2008


Avant-garde pays off at Portland Jazz Festival

By Paul de Barros
Seattle Times jazz critic
A half century ago, saxophonist Ornette Coleman turned the jazz world upside
down with his album "The Shape of Jazz to Come."

Reprising that title as its theme, the fifth Portland Jazz Festival
presented both Coleman and another avant-garde giant from that era, pianist
Cecil Taylor, as headliners.

The risk paid off.

Friday, opening night, nearly 2,000 people swarmed into Arlene Schnitzer
Concert Hall for a dazzling Coleman show, giving the saxophonist a standing
ovation before and after he played. Sunday, in the Oregon Ballroom of the
Portland Marriott Waterfront Hotel, Taylor drew 750 fans to his sublime

"We sold more tickets for Ornette than we did for Chick Corea and Gary
Burton last year," said the obviously pleased festival artistic director,
Bill Royston.

Coleman, 77, wearing an electric blue suit and porkpie hat, performed with
three bass players, each of whom played a different role in his gorgeously
integrated ensemble.

Electric bassist Charnett Moffett anchored the time, laying down deep,
sinewy lines and soloing with a wah-wah pedal. Upright acoustic bassist Tony
Falanga provided thick textures with urgently bowed tremolos. And electric
piccolo bassist Al McDowell offered guitarlike, ornamental obbligatos.

Coleman's son Denardo played drums with a roiling pulse, as his father
slashed through the ensemble's web of simultaneous lines with a familiar

Ornette occasionally added short bursts of color on trumpet or violin. The
audience may have been surprised to hear the band improvising on the prelude
to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1.

Was it the passage of all these years that somehow made Taylor's solo
recital feel so approachable, his style so self-evident? Taylor is a
percussive, atonal free improviser who palms and punches clusters of notes,
machine-gunning but also caressing the keyboard, hand over hand.

The spritelike, 78-year-old pianist walked on stage shoeless, dressed all in
white, from socks to a shirt with spider-webbish lines, a few braids
flopping over his forehead from a thinning head of gray hair. He tendered
clear, sometimes autumnal themes, developing them as if he were having an
earnest conversation with himself. No matter how abstract it became,
Taylor's music always breathed with a pulse special to his music.

Taylor also recited a poem, a line of which served as a good description of
his process: "a dynamism of interconnected membranes."

There were a few walkouts, but the crowd gave him a standing ovation, which
he answered with a curtain call, but no encore.

Portland saxophonist Rob Scheps and bassist Glen Moore (from the group
Oregon) opened the show with some delicious blends. But the other big
highlight of the weekend surely was California pianist Myra Melford's band,
Be Bread, featuring trumpeter Cuong Vu, who recently moved back to Seattle
to teach at the University of Washington. Be Bread conjured layers of
improvisation that glistened with devotional zeal, as Melford improvised on
piano and harmonium, a pump organ that usually accompanies Indian vocalists.

The Bad Plus ‹ Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums ‹
sometimes trades in rock-hall clichés. But their packed Saturday afternoon
show in the vintage Crystal Ballroom was genuinely engaging, a hybrid of
interactive improvisation, bashing rock beats and the razzle-dazzle
romanticism of 19th-century piano music.

Not all the shows were avant-garde. The stately and masterful Classical Jazz
Quartet ‹ Kenny Barron, piano; Stefon Harris, vibes; Ron Carter, bass; and
Lewis Nash, drums ‹ sold out the Newmark Theatre Sunday, and pianist Bill
Charlap's elegant, swinging trio plumbed the depths of standards, often at
startling speeds, at the Hilton Portland Hotel.

A dance party at the Crystal by the salsa revival band the Spanish Harlem
Orchestra was irresistibly tight and infectious.

Nor were all the shows successful. The SF Jazz Collective felt scattered as
it honored saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter and played a host of complex
new originals ‹ not surprising, since this was the band's opening gig of the

Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen and Vancouver singer-songwriter-pianist
Jillian Lebeck were both balefully dull.

The Portland festival invites artists to introduce its shows, a nice touch,
in keeping with its community-building spirit. Panel discussions, artist
"conversations," dozens of free shows, outdoor music and student
performances added to this feeling.

With so much talk today about jazz dying out, moving to Europe, becoming
stale or unfashionable, Portland's resurrection of the avant-garde was a
smart move, galvanizing a large, often young audience. To judge from random
shout-outs at concerts, a significant number came from Seattle. The festival
further brought Seattle into the fold with a two-night showcase by the
city's Origin Records.

One of the festival's goals is to draw winter tourists to downtown Portland.
In its first week, artistic director Royston said, it had already filled
2,500 hotel rooms.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros at seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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