Edna Vazquez with Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble review: homeward sound

Portland mariachi singer/songwriter's music shines in new, original arrangements for jazz band

by CHRISTINA RUSNAK

In an interview with Edna Vazquez on Beyond Category – the PJCE Podcast a few days before her February concert with Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE), executive director Douglas Detrick asked the Portland singer-songwriter about Portland as a home, and her sense of home. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out her answer, but Detrick followed up by confessing that whenever he attended her performance, it felt like home for him.

Edna Vazquez’s grandfather listened to the big band music of the 1940s and as a child, Vazquez loved its melodies and motion. Although her own music is rooted in mariachi, she finds that jazz is a parallel genre.

Edna Vazquez performed with Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble at Portland’s Old Church. Photo: Douglas Detrick.

Vazquez’s mariachi music felt right at home in new arrangements for jazz ensemble at her 2018 PDX Jazz festival performance at The Old Church with PJCE. The concert was repeated in Gresham and Hood River.

The first half of the program presented Vazquez, in front of PJCE’s 12-piece band, with and without her guitar, singing her songs La Chifladita, Trasciendes, La Golodrina, Sana, Corriente and Asi. Prior to each piece, Vazquez told the audience what each song was about. Her lyrical music is heartfelt, influenced not only by mariachi, but by rock and a myriad of Latin musical styles as well. She invited the audience in, embracing us all with her rich resonate voice, a captivating us with both high energy and soft intimacy, expressing deep emotion of shared human experiences.

The five jazz arrangers who worked with Vazquez to develop the ten collaborative pieces for this concert —Kathleen Hollingsworth, William Seiji Marsh, Alex Koehler, Lars Campbell and Douglas Detrick — tailored their arrangements to synergistically mesh with both Vazquez’s style and the character of the individual songs. Yet each brought their own twist to the collaboration, bringing out or enhancing parts that may not be as obvious when she performs herself or with a smaller group of musicians. A few pieces highlighted the rhythmic elements of her work; some arrangements brought out the brassiness of the jazz ensemble; others were more subdued, providing support, with solos that highlighted PJCE’s talent as a band without upstaging their star singer.

For listeners, the differences between arrangers was less apparent than Vazquez’s unifying compositional voice. Yes, melodic contours, the level of rhythmic gesture, improvisation, and emphasis shifted, but as they would in any ten different pieces.

Vazquez collaboration with PJCE also included a performance at Woodburn High School. Photo: Douglas Detrick.

The second half opened with Vazquez performing solo with her guitar, soulfully singing “Sola Soy (I am alone)” from her latest album, and a traditional song from Argentina. If its melody was familiar, her performance brought tradition to the present. The audience sat transfixed as she poured out these pieces. Her clear lyrical whistling astonished listeners, a pure tone with slides and volume completely under her control.

The ensemble then returned to the stage for four more songs. On “Amor Y Albur,” “I Love You,” “We Are Home,” and “Adios,” Vasquez’ performance meshed with the band as seamlessly as if they’d always performed together. The PJCE performers and Vazquez were relaxed, at points jocular, with each other, making it clear that the musicians really liked working with her and she equally enjoyed working with them.

Vazquez sincerely reaches out to the audience. Since many of her songs are in Spanish, she prefaced each piece by telling us what it’s about and/or described the impetus. She related each one to the hardships and emotions we all experience. Her sense of home touched the audience. By the end of the concert, she felt familiar to me, too. We wanted the dialog — which is how the concert felt — to continue. Everyone stood – not in the obligatory way Portland audiences often do – with some shouting for an encore. Enthusiastically, Vazquez rewarded us with a solo performance – a traditional Mexican song complete with audience participation. She’d brought the audience back to her musical roots, back to her home.

PJCE actively seeks to work with other artists whose work stands on its own, but is flexible enough for a true collaboration. With the 2017-18 season, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble continues to find innovative ways to connect music with people, and to re-examine ways to bring culture and relevance to its audiences.

Christina Rusnak is a multifaceted Portland composer and explorer whose work reflects a diversity of styles and points of view. Passionate about composing about place and the human experience, she actively seeks to integrate facets of landscape, cultural history and art into her work.

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