Classy line-up populates Portland Jazz Festival’s Twelfth Year


One of the themes of this year’s Portland Jazz Festival, presented by Alaska Airlines under the omniscient direction of Don Lucoff, was the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth. Two panels were devoted to the subject, the first featuring Kurt Elling and Bill Charlap chaired by Sinatra scholar Will Friedwald (Sinatra! The Song is You: A Singer’s Art, Da Capo 1995); the second included yours truly, Doug Ramsey, Dave Barduhn, Sinatra impersonator Tony Starlight and John Gilmore, son of Voyle Gilmore, who produced Sinatra’s storied Capitol albums in the 50s.

Charlap was particularly passionate and insightful in his dissection of Sinatra’s celebrated timing, singer/pianist Gilmore however was cautioned not to perform Sinatra material when working a club in LA patronized by Old Blue Eyes, not easy given Sinatra’s repertoire of 1,500 plus songs. Elling later emphatically demonstrated what he owes The Chairman in a concert with local bandleader Art Abrams’ Swing Machine at the Newmark Theater.

It was a reined-in homage with Elling referring to the metaphorical bespoke suits arrangers and composers Cahn/Van Heusen, Cy Coleman and Nelson Riddle ‘the founding fathers of sound’ provided and how the likes of Jack Jones, Vic Damone and Steve Lawrence paled in comparison to The Sultan of Swoon.

Elling’s own interpretations deepened over less trammeled material, such as ‘Don’t Worry Bout Me’ and, during a stunning duet with surprise guest Charlap on ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ and ‘Lucky To Be Me,’ the latter nugget more readily associated with Bill Evans/Tony Bennett. As the lone Brit on the second panel I played devil’s advocate, suggesting all Peruvians should have lobbied against ‘Come Fly With Me’ and its cavalier references to ‘llama-land’ and - in defence of their national instrument, the panpipes - the “tooting of flutes,” going further to project this lyric presaged Palinesque Isolationism!

Despite my best efforts to chafe and undermine Sinatra’s unassailable rep, the laid back Portland audience seemed un-vexed. One had to aver that Elling’s instrument offered a broader palette than Sinatra’s, most evident in the Chicagoan’s effective 6/4 recasting of ‘Come Fly With Me’ and resoundingly in the rich resonance of his low notes in synch with Charlap - a range in which Sinatra trod with less panache (and according to Gilmore, he envied the ability of Dick Haymes).

Charlap’s late night trio set on Saturday 21 February at the Winningstrad Theatre with Peter and Kenny Washington mined the Sinatra canon for new crannies of finesse. Conflating some tunes (he merged ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ with ‘Only A Paper Moon’) Charlap remarked how Sinatra only recorded the verse of ‘Stardust’ and recalled how Michel LeGrand perfectly concocted the melody to ‘What Are You Doing For The Rest of Your Life?’ in one sitting after the Bergmans provided the initial line. Charlap offered low volume taste, restraint and particularly poised timing during final cadences but on ‘The Lady is A Tramp’ he let virtuosic technique off the leash with scampering runs.

The Winningstrad’s piano was warmed the previous night by Vijay Iyer (pictured top) in the company of his longterm trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, parlaying cuts from Historicity (ACT, 2009) and their recent ECM, Break Stuff (2015). Iyer’s works have architectural stability assembled from an array of basic elements; in the case of a protracted improv that included skipping and hammering riffs and Morse-like repetition set against Gilmore’s contrapuntal polyrhythms. Paradoxically, intellectual organisation and organic creation seemed to coexist. The trio emitted a dense vibe of energised concentration, notably from Crump, who thrummed his Gage Czech Ease bass like a guitar and deployed liberal bow-work. Iyer’s dissection of Monk’s ‘Work’ was an earlier thrill but the long improv built slow and required a measure of patience from the listener. Iyer was grateful for such forbearance and flirted with the audience: “we’ve been listening to you the whole time and you sound good.”

The placatory encore of Michael Jackson’s repurposed ‘Human Nature’ trailed in the ears of this Michael Jackson as he jumpcut to Jimmy Mack’s jazzclub to catch the last set from Chicago transplant Michael Raynor backing Chi-town tenor titan Frank Catalano. Throaty and fullbore apu Catalano commemorated a youthful throwdown with Stan Getz at Chicago’s tiny Goldstar Sardine Bar with ‘Night and Day;’ dedicated ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’ to days jamming with Von Freeman; telegraphed Stanley Turrentine on ‘Sugar’ and ended with ‘Instant Death’ in a manner far more explosive than its composer Eddie Harris was known for. The band, which included local hero Dan Balmer on guitar, also had the incredible George Colligan on hand (faculty at Portand State). Like Django Bates with his tenor horn, multi instrumentalist Colligan was keen to get a blow in on his secondary instrument, but Catalano’s tenor was too busy stripping paint from the club walls to notice Colligan poised stageside brandishing pocket trumpet.

Catalano similarly ignited the late jam session at the Art Rotunda Bar with a ferocious ‘Impressions’ which provoked bristling counter attacks from tenorist Devin Phillips and fine altoist John Nastos (the sessions in this picturesque location were a well organized diversion to main events throughout my stay in Portland).

Festival poster boy Christian McBride, with his sexy radio voice, love of funk and soul and engaging interest in extra musical prerogatives in jazzlore egged Lou Donaldson (rasping like the crocodile in a Rudyard Kipling Just So story) to dish the dirt on otherwise esteemed jazz confreres during a pre show interview. With reptilian glee the altoist recalled what was necessary to get Pee Wee Marquette to mention your name at Birdland; recounted Thelonious Monk indulging handlers on a European tour who begged him to say something to the press by offering just that, the solitary word ‘something.’ Donaldson also gave David Murray’s playing a comedic put down and dismissed the intellectualising of jazz with “When it’s in your mind, it messes with your behind,” recalling how Coltrane and Elvin Jones were once kicked out of a club in St Louis for playing a one tune set. He insisted that if you didn’t play ‘Flyin’ Home’ in the 1940s, you could forget keeping a clubdate.

On his gig Donaldson practiced what he preached, pandering to the crowd with the inevitable lightfare of ‘Blues Walk,’ ‘Alligator Boogaloo’ and his raspy vocal rendition of ‘Whisky Drinking Woman.’ He teased the audience before a toothless instrumental reading of ‘What a Wonderful World’ with ‘this was written by the greatest musician who ever lived.’

I guess he expected us to think Charlie Parker. Donaldson parsed his old facile, quote-stuffed chops and gave ample elbow room to bandmates who included grandstanding drummer Fukushi Tainaka (‘from Alabama’ the leader quipped) and guitarist Eric Johnson (who walked the crowd during his solo feature). Clichés notwithstanding, at age 88, I guess Donaldson is allowed to coast, and it’s surprising to note he has recorded nearly 50 albums as a leader since his bebop heyday.

The double bill with McBride’s virile young trio featuring ambidextrous pianist Christian Sands and hi-energy drummer Ulysses Owens (above) made sense since McBride has few qualms about crowd pleasing either; neither did his mentor Ray Brown, who forged a role for the bass as driving force and entertainment center of the band - Slam Stewart too - whereas today bassists play, as Donaldson would have it, like “they are pickin’ a chicken.”

Fellow Philadelphian Freda Payne joined McBride for a spirited ‘I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water,’ then after a surprising ballad (‘I Have Dreamed’ from The King and I) with Sands threading intricate articulations like a master tailor, McBride put flame under the grease to finish with some “bacon fatback funk.”

Only a year Donaldson’s junior, Lee Konitz also elected to have a swell time and disregard critic’s corner during his matinee quartet set with dashing pianist Dan Tepfer - 54 years his junior - and seasoned local rhythm pros Alan Jones and Tom Wakeling. Some at the Winningstad Theatre were put off by Konitz’ persistent audience participatory vibe – an eagerness to scat sing rather feebly with Tepfer and them.

Those who’d enjoyed drummer Chris Brown’s Young Lions Revisited opening set with tenors Devin Phillips, Kamasi Washington and fleet-fingered local ringer Ralph Bowen tearing up Kenny Garrett’s ‘Jahid’, had, in fairness, to make quite an adjustment. Even Tepfer seemed a little taciturn as Konitz exhorted him to vocalise but clearly the pianist is quite ready to hover in anticipation yet is tightly au fait with Konitz’ canon and his unhurried timing. Case in point was their perfect pacing on ‘Kary’s Trance’ which followed a ‘Subconscious Lee’ where Konitz’ solo repeatedly picked over verbatim fragments of the head. Though such well ploughed structures as ‘Body and Soul,’ ‘I’ll Remember April,’ ‘Cherokee’ and ‘Round Midnight’ were discernable, Konitz and Tepfer sought new wrinkles, the latter adopting phrases from the altoist, transposing them, inverting and re-sequencing. Konitz blew quite a bit, made some wrily disparaging remark about Vladimir Putin and returned to scat, pulling Tepfer up from the piano bench to sing with him again.

After recent health crises it was heartening to see Konitz in solid fettle, his arch bashfulness (he knows his worth), contrasted sharply with fellow octagenarian Donaldson’s less daring bravado and Tepfer (as has been noted) is a name to watch.


Another double bill was my final generous portion at Portland. Sunday night began inauspiciously with a disappointing presentation from Nicholas Payton’s trio. Payton is perhaps a mite too talented for his own good - he noodled at the Fender Rhodes, or over at the piano, with trumpet dangling from a micstand hook most of the set - but he isn’t the next Luther Vandross, whatever he might think. A coupla croons mighta been cool, but by the time ‘When I Fall In Love’ came around we already sensed Payton had fallen in love with himself. Bassist Vicente Archer (above) and redoubtable drummer Bill Stewart (Stewart seems to be playing harder and feistier with age), made sure the grooves were über propulsive and Payton has always relished eclecticism but ‘Stablemates’ was awkwardly revamped. Payton played a cyclebreathed trill over ‘Straight No Chaser’ with a little less bombast than Crescent City confrere Trombone Shorty and his one handed trumpet offered reliably deft and superior punctuation whenever he felt inclined to hoist it from its perch.


The long awaited final set of the evening however, was a revelation. Billy Childs (above) and his Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro group had suffered a ghastly day zigzagging across the country because of weather beaten flights. The concert was pushed late by Childs’ old high school buddy Lucoff but proved well worth the postponement. I knew nothing of Nyro, a highly original writer/musician and infrequent live performer who had greatest impact when the likes of Barbra Streisand, Blood Sweat and Tears and The Fifth Dimension adopted her songs in the late 1960s early 70s. Less known than Joni Mitchell, Nyro actually achieved more vicarious commercial success during the era and was an influence on Mitchell.


The ambitions here clip the heels of Herbie Hancock’s star studded settings of Mitchell’s music, since Child’s Map to the Treasure (Sony 2014) bagged a Grammy too this year and also boasts an extraordinary cross-genre cast, including Renée Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding. None of those luminaries were present at the Newmark Theatre, but Björk-meets-Joni singer/songwriter Becca Stevens, who had performed solo at the intimate Classic Pianos store that afternoon and in stunning duo with Taylor Eigsti, reprised her rendition of ‘The Confession’ from the CD.


Notwithstanding the charms of the hardworking Stevens the mesmerising mezzo-soprano Alicia Olatuja (above) stole the show, delivering Child’s lauded arrangement of ‘New York Tendaberry,’ the gorgeously buoyant, gear-shifting ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ and the sorry tale of addiction ‘Been on a Train’ with incredible dramatic conviction. Called out for an encore, despite a day spent at a fistful of airports, Childs and guitarist Peter Sprague obliged with a subtle instrumental inspired by Carlos Williams’ poem ‘The Red Wheelbarrow.’ A truly inspiring finale to my first slice of this varied, classily curated festival, which has a steadily growing reputation.

– Michael Jackson (story and photos)