Oregon ArtsWatch


Obsidian Animals preview: Jazz journey

Art and nature inspire young Eugene keyboardist Torrey Newhart's musical philosophy and his band's diverse new album


When seven year old Torrey Newhart purchased a small hand carved obsidian kitty while visiting Mexico’s Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, it was just a simple toy. Like many items of childhood, it was eventually put away and forgotten.

Almost two decades later, that rediscovered souvenir has taken on new meaning. Newhart, now a jazz composer, musician, and educator, has snapped Facebook selfies of it wherever he has performed: France, Switzerland, Italy, South Korea, and beyond. The obsidian kitty has come to represent a journey of change.

Because Newhart’s recent creation of a band and its first album release, Sound In-Sight, represents a major transition in his career, it seemed appropriate to him to name the group Obsidian Animals — with the iconic kitty prominently displayed on its album cover. On Sunday, December 11, the band makes its Portland debut at Turn! Turn!Turn!

1 - Header Photo 681px width. Caption: The Obsidian Animals at Roaring Rapids Pizza, Springfield. Photo: Adam Carlson.

The Obsidian Animals at Roaring Rapids Pizza, Springfield. Photo: Adam Carlson.

Obsidian Animals made their live debut at the Jazz Station in Eugene and at the Old Stone Church in Bend, Newhart’s home town, this past June. Its members include some of Eugene’s finest young musicians: Eddie Bond (guitar/effects), Adam Carlson (drums), Tony Glausi (trumpet), Joshua Hettwer (tenor sax/clarinet), Sean Peterson (bass), and Jessika Smith (alto sax/flute), with Newhart on piano. The ensemble performs original material to which it adds rare pieces from various jazz periods and traditions.

Sound In-Sight includes 18 musical “scenes” with performances by the seven member Obsidian Animals with guest artists Ken Mastrogiovanni (drums), Jim Olsen (flute/alto-flute), Halie Loren (voice), Matt Hettwer (trombone), Stephen Young (tuba) and Andy Armer (piano). Newhart, in an ArtsWatch interview, describes the group’s debut album as a “playlist of sorts” reflecting his multifarious musical interests over the past several years. In addition to Newhart’s own pieces, it includes music he enjoys by bebop trumpeter Booker Little, the late legendary pianist/vocalist Nina Simone, and Tony Glausi. The Bend Bulletin’s Go Magazine praised the album’s “adventurous spirit, blending avant-jazz melodies, R&B grooves and shifting-on-a-dime dynamics.”

Newhart says his goal is to present a broad “diverse palette of music (listeners) might not always hear together,” he says. “I’ve always loved jobs where I get to do lots of different things and I think my musical preferences are the same. There are so many wonderful sounds being combined to create new sounds, why not share them all?”


Maciej Grzybowski review: Interpretive insights

Exceptionally talented Polish pianist brings unexpected perspectives to classic and contemporary music


Only 24 folding chairs had been provided in rows; three round tables at the back held eight or nine of us. I counted a total of 22 people in the hall, including the concert organizer and the man doing the audio recording. That’s how many people had come to hear a pianist of exceptional talent and genuine interpretational genius. A shame.

Polish Hall, in north Portland on Interstate Ave. in St. Stanislaus parish, is a modest structure; adjoining it are a one-room library of Polish books and a small bar/dining room. Across the street is the modest church of St. Stanislaus itself, a Catholic center for locals of Polish and Croatian descent. These buildings are unassuming, to put it mildly. Polish pianist Maciej Grzybowski (mah-CHAY zh-BAWV-skee), born in 1968 and a resident of Warsaw, deserved a grand concert hall and at least a small cathedral next door.

Mr. Grzybowski was in town as part of a small performance series, in which the main events are a Polish Festival in September and occasional musical events; the hall also offers swing dance classes. The concert space in Polish Hall has a tiny stage with a shiny baby grand, at which Mr. Grzybowski sat for his adventurous program of old and new music.

Maciej Grzybowski performed in the Polish Music series at Portland's Polish Hall/

Maciej Grzybowski performed in the Polish Music series at Portland’s Polish Hall/

He began with a selection of six Inventions and Sinfonias by Johann Sebastian Bach, to which he devoted rapt attention. His phrasing and tempos were roughly the opposite of the infamously fast versions by Glenn Gould, although his intensity was the same. For the listener, at these slow tempos it was almost as if hearing these familiar pieces for the first time, so strange did they seem.

This proved to be the pianist’s method with music written by composers who were not alive during his lifetime. A set of three intermezzi, designated Opus 117, by Johannes Brahms were similarly treated: slow, with free tempos. Brahms wrote these pieces, along with the intermezzi of Opuses 118 and 119, near the end of his life, and he referred to at least some of them as portraits of his anguish at growing old alone and ill. So Grzybowski’s interpretation made some sense. Most noticeable at this level of microscopic investigation, Brahms’s harmonies seemed at the very edge of tonality, as if the aging composer were leaning toward the new musical language just then (in the 1890s) being explored by such younger composers as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. But this was a momentary illusion brought on by the pianist’s unique interpretation; in fact, the intermezzi, although soulful and introspective, lie well within the boundaries of late Romantic harmony.


Kamasi Washington preview: Epic jazz

Expansive album vaults Los Angeles jazz saxophonist and bandleader to wider fame, but he's more concerned with spirituality than celebrity


Kamasi Washington has so charmed and befuddled music writers that some rely on the word “celebrity” to describe him. And a celebrity is rare thing in the tiny jazz world.

Named for the capital of Ashanti, the West African pre-colonial kingdom that is now Ghana, Washington hasn’t won a Grammy yet, but he’s taken the scene by storm in the last 18 months. He won DownBeat’s Jazz Artist of the Year for 2016. Rolling Stone called him “the most audacious player in a movement transforming the electric flurry of Seventies fusion jazz into something bold, lush and new” and the New York Times said his music was “uncategorizable” – in a good way.

Washington performs in Portland on Thursday at the Roseland Theater, which holds 1,400 people, most in standing-room ‘‘seats” (the balcony is sold out). As of this writing, there was some standing room left.

Kamasi Washington performs in Portland Thursday.

Kamasi Washington performs in Portland Thursday.

The celebrity stuff, he said from his home in Los Angeles earlier this week, hasn’t quite sunk in. Sure, he’s a well-known figure on the LA scene; he’s been playing music since high school, and his core band, The Next Step, is easily recognized in southern California. He’s toured with Snoop Dogg, worked with the late bandleader Gerald Wilson, the great pianist McCoy Tyner (who played in the classic quartet led by the musician who most inspired Washington’s spiritual approach to jazz, John Coltrane) and the late trumpet titan Freddie Hubbard, and arranged songs for Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning album To Pimp a Butterfly.

Even so, the saxophonist’s circle has widened considerably since his almost-three-hour, three-CD album The Epic came out in mid-2015. Featuring 17 songs culled from 45, almost all arranged and composed by Washington, The Epic is a long narrative music poem about Washington’s life, with tributes to his grandmother, to Malcolm X, to friends. It’s “about who I am,” he explains. “My father’s generation lived their life in music but never made a true representation of who they are.”

The Epic has strains of Debussy, ragtime, straight-ahead jazz, fusion, soul, hip-hop, Bach, bebop, gamelan, gospel, rap, Star Wars, otherworldliness – you name it. It is genre-less and all genres.

“It doesn’t fit into one place (or genre), but it brings people together,” said Washington, 35, who studied Ethnomusicology at UCLA.

The Epic landed on a number of 2015’s best-of albums lists, including those of National Public Radio, Pitchfork and the Guardian. It debuted as No. 1 on iTunes Jazz charts in the United States, Canada, Russia, Australia and the United Kingdom. This year it won the 2016 American Music Prize for best debut album.


With violins, cellos and a 15-voice choir, along with the usual jazz instruments and two drum kits, the music is fit for a new-wave big band. The concert won’t be all about Washington; his bass player Miles Mosley has a CD in the pipeline, so expect to hear work other than The Epic. And instead of bringing strings and a full chorus – the collective band that performed on the CD – he’ll keep the Portland show “small” with two drummers, three horns, a pianist, a bassist and one singer. His father, Rickey Washington, also a saxophonist, will be among them.

Spiritual Source

Rickey, or “Pops” as Kamasi calls him, taught and played music throughout Los Angeles when Kamasi was a kid. At 12, Kamasi was playing the clarinet and itching to switch to sax. To make his son prove his musical commitment, Rickey challenged him to sing a Charlie Parker tune, and he did. When a little later, Kamasi picked up his father’s saxophone (“he left it out by mistake”) and out poured a Wayne Shorter tune, note for perfect note. He knew he’d found his horn, his musical partner.

“My dad didn’t want me to play the saxophone unless I was really serious about music,” Kamasi says. “You can play music as a hobby or pursue it fiercely. He wanted to make sure I was serious.”

His doggedness, determination and self-discipline won his father’s support. Kamasi then joined a band in his uncle’s church. It was then, and a few years later when he became immersed in John Coltrane’s work, that he understood that music came from “a spiritual place,” he says. “Music speaks to us on that level, and Coltrane realized that. I’m reaching for that spiritual connection. I’m trying to get to the other side of our consciousness. I’m trying to tap into that.”

PDX Jazz brings Kamasi Washington to Roseland Theater, 8 N.W. Sixth Ave., Portland. Tickets available online

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

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‘The Clearing’ review: European present, American absence

Portland Piano International's three-day festival examines the state of the European Union’s contemporary classical music and its 20th century roots


“Clearing” is such a paradoxical word. It refers to the absence of something – storm, forest, piles of stuff – but at the same time invites contemplation of what comes to life in the cleared space. What first struck me about Portland Piano International’s three day, four evening festival of nominally contemporary piano music, “The Clearing,” the long weekend after the election was what was absent: American composers, aside from Elliott Carter, a composer with a long lifetime of ties to Europe.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Rich Brase.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Rich Brase.

Also, much of the repertory was not at all new: pre-World War II works by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, and music written immediately after the war by Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen and György Ligeti, who with Boulez’s passing just this year at the age of 90 are all gone now. These works were included primarily for historical perspective, and the narrow Eurocentrism of the repertory turned out to be only natural: PPI had appointed Serbian pianist Tamara Stefanovich to curate the festival, and she along with Pierre-Laurent Aimard make up what may be Europe’s reigning power couple of contemporary piano. And so the festival, held at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, turned out to be a lively and fascinating window into the world of European art music from the mid 20th century on, in all its uncertain glory.


Makrokosmos Project review: Tag-teaming a piano classic

Some of Oregon's finest classical pianists join forces to perform Rzewski's revolutionary piano masterpiece


If you think you have to leave Oregon to hear really first-rate piano playing, you should have been at Portland Piano Company on the evening of November 13, when a team of six Oregon residents collaborated with New York City duo Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia to play the living daylights out of some extremely challenging contemporary music.

Stephanie & Saar

Stephanie & Saar

Stephanie & Saar (their official performing name) got things underway on nested 10-foot concert grands (a Fazioli and a Steinway) with two pieces by Timo Andres, a young composer from Brooklyn, from his larger work Shy and Mighty, written in 2007. Mr. Andres, only 31 years old, is an extremely prolific composer with enviable commissions to his name, well worth keeping an eye on. The first selection, “Antennae,” seven minutes long, starts off as motoric minimalism, switches to angular gestures played fortissimo (really loud) and returns to minimalism at the end.

In the nine-minute second piece, “How can I live in your world of ideas?,” Mr. Ahuvia played drone-like figures while Ms. Ho (musically) commented freely. The musical language throughout is mainly tonal but wildly eclectic, full of energy and showy effects. “How can I live” ends with a series of quiet arpeggios preceding chords played simultaneously on both pianos. Stephanie & Saar were lively, engaging performers, and their ensemble playing impeccable.

The stage was now well set for the main offering of the evening: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, an hour-long essay for solo piano by Frederic Rzewski (pronounced ZHEFF-skee). This rarely performed piece had been originally scheduled last June as the first concert in a series called the Makrokosmos Project, but illness forced a cancellation. Now, with the original six players all recovered, Rzewski’s music could finally take center stage.

And center stage, at Portland Piano, consisted of a small room holding the two giant pianos and about 40 audience members in folding chairs. This setup, along with some acoustical tile in the ceiling and a carpeted floor, proved ideal for listening to piano music. In a bare room without the tiles and carpet, the sound would have been too much, but as it was, one could appreciate the muscularity of the instruments (and the players) without being blown out of the room.

This is important, because in The People Unitedthe composer has made every effort to explore the resources of the piano. One critic, commenting on Rzewski’s playing, remarked that “he is furthermore a granitically overpowering piano technician, capable of depositing huge boulders of sonoristic material across the keyboard without actually wrecking the instrument.”

“Huge boulders” there were aplenty at Portland Piano, but also the most delicate (and quiet) traceries of arpeggios and myriad other effects. After an initial statement of the affecting melody, the six players present 36 variations on the tune, in groups of six. According to Rzewski, these groups represent “simple events, rhythms, melodies, counterpoints, harmonies, and combinations of all of these.” In fact, all of the groups contain variations of “all of these,” with a great deal made of contrasts in tempo and volume.

Alexander Schwarzkopf played Rzewski.

Alexander Schwarzkopf played Rzewski.


It’s tempting to think that enjoying the piece depends on hearing it performed live under such ideal conditions, but although the live performance underlines the piece’s power and intelligence, The People United can stand on its own as a masterpiece. Based on a melody written by Chilean songwriter Sergio Ortega in 1969 during the brief and ill-fated days of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government soon deposed by a CIA-backed military coup, it takes its place in the political ferment of its time. But it maintains its power through musical means, irrespective of politics.

To this listener, The People United achieves its climax in the fourth set of variations, “counterpoints.” The score abounds in encouragement: “with energy,” “relentless, uncompromising,” “as fast as possible.” The set emerges as by far the most virtuosic of the six. Eugene pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf threw himself into the cauldron and gave a stunning, magnetic performance.

Also outstanding were University of Portland and Portland State University instructor Julie Hwakyu Lee in the first section, Korean native and local teacher Lydia Chungwong Chung in the second, and Lewis & Clark College professor (and Third Angle New Music pianist) Susan DeWitt Smith in the third (“melodies”), which offers a sort of mid-point summation. PSU emeritus prof Harold Gray (who formerly led the Florestan Trio and Portland Piano International) played the fifth and longest set (“harmonies”) with feeling, and Reed College instructor Deborah Cleaver gave us the final set, including an optional cadenza of her own devising, during which she once yelled out and, later, sang a wordless note.

These exclamations proved a fittingly ebullient ending to a superbly played concert.

The pianists take their bows at Portland Piano Company.

The pianists take their bows at Portland Piano Company.

The next concert in the Makrokosmos series will be on June 29, 2017. REICHMOKOSMOS! will be a celebration of Steve Reich’s 80th birthday, featuring music of Reich and others.

Recommended recordings

• Andres, Shy and Mighty, David Kaplan, piano, 2010 (Nonesuch 522413).
• Rzewski, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, Marc-André Hamelin, piano, 1998 (Hyperion CVDA67077).

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Bill Frisell quartet review: Risking freedom

Jazz ensemble's creative, sometimes chaotic concert demonstrates the necessary risks and resulting rewards of musical liberation


Freedom is a thing to be shared. Something to be held together, watched over, nurtured, maintained, oiled, tweaked, and crafted. Disciplined, committed, passionate performers of jazz (and all its offshoots) know that the freedom inherent to the art form is something larger than their participation, has its own life, is a force to be reckoned with, an entity that permeates the circumambient social atmosphere and charges everything it touches with a sense of oneness, of being in a current, of having a momentum, of belonging and mutual respect. Some of these musicians bring a humble leadership to the care and feeding of the genre’s freedom. They understand the importance of power-with, have a gifted sense of how to bring out the best in others, know that the most effective leadership is by example. Yet  they can shine on their own and hold the weight of decision and move and act for the goodwill of others.

However, freedom often spawns imbalance, or chaos. A truly gifted leader neither represses nor concedes in the face of chaos but trusts freedom’s way to forever seek equilibrium and cohesion. Pull your foot off the brake while skidding in snow, let the vehicle go where it needs to go; it will right itself.

Chamberlain, Haden, Frisell (L-R) at The Shedd.

Morgan, Chamberlain, Haden, Frisell (L-R) at The Shedd.

Bill Frisell is such a leader: a gifted instrumentalist who moves through and between disparate, contrasting communities of musical style, fostering artistry in every project he undertakes and who creates environments where collaborators can shine. The Seattle guitarist’s collaborators for last week’s performance at Eugene’s Shedd Institute (a stop on his tour of his latest release, When You Wish upon a Star, a tribute to the lasting appeal of TV and movie music) seemed an oddly matched lot: self-conscious, nervous, uncomfortable, stoic. Yet each one gave themselves up to their unique gifts: drummer Matt Chamberlain disappeared into his doggedly supportive, spontaneous, and shimmering participation (he had never played the set list until that night); bass player Thomas Morgan’s stunning right and left hand techniques pulled colors and textures, with endless sensitivity, from his beast of an instrument; and vocalist Petra Haden’s antisocial, alt-rocker vibe was shattered by the warmth, sensuality, and astounding range of her instrument.

As they crafted the freedom that exists between master musicians, and as they let it swell into the hall, and as the audience sat, energized, Frisell pushed, pulled, responded, directed, pulled back, all the while smiling and glowing with appreciation—a leader entirely dedicated to his cohorts and the audience who completed the evening’s performance.


“From Piraeus to Portland”: Scenes, sounds and stories from a lost cosmopolis

Event commemorates the destruction of Smyrna, and celebrates the birth of the Greek Blues


America: The land many of us, our parents, grandparents, ancestors fled to or sought out, to start a new life. At my family’s restaurant, Greeks worked side-by-side with Japanese, Turks, Norwegians, Romanians, all of us striving for the American dream of owning a house, a car and shopping at Costco.

November 8, 2016: fear replaced hope for Mexicans, Syrians and others seeking a better life or fleeing death in their own fractured countries.

Smyrna: The cosmopolitan Turkish coastal city where a quarter million Turks, Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Americans, Brits and others lived, worked and played side-by-side.

Smyrna's busy wharf during its multicultural heyday.

Smyrna’s busy wharf during its multicultural heyday.

September 9, 1922: The Nationalist Turkish army enters Smyrna, beginning an ethnic purge of half its population — the Christian half. Arson fires set on September 13 level the city and suburbs killing from 10,000 to 100,000 people. This in addition to thousands of Christians and other non-Muslims tortured, raped and killed by Turkish soldiers.

It took only two weeks to accomplish two things: 1. Eradicate the fairy tale cosmopolitan city that was Smyrna. 2. Eradicate “infidel Izmir” (how the Muslim Turks referred to Smyrna).

As part of a two-day event featuring music, film, and food from Asia Minor, this Friday, November 18 at Portland’s’ Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, the Hellenic-American Cultural Center and Museum (HACCM) will show the movie Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City, which chronicles the years 1900 through the fire and evacuation in 1922. Released in 2012, the film tells the story of a 20th century horror that few Oregonians or Americans have even heard of, a story that has special timeliness at a moment when incoming American political leadership and some of its more rabid supporters advocate the kind of anti immigrant ethnic monoculture that helped lead to the flames of Smyrna a century ago. With refugees’ lives being sacrificed to geopolitics again, many in the same region, the tragedy of Smyrna offers both context and warning to us today.

The next day, November 19, the event showcases a happier cultural consequence of this catastrophe: a performance of a powerful music that emerged in its wake.


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