PDX Jazz Festival reviews: music and more

Regina Carter, Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan, Luciana Souza, Tigran Hamasyan and young Portland visual artists were among the highlights of the annual celebration of jazz


From elite jazzers to startling up-and-comers, the 2018 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival spread the music around Portland Feb.15-25 with a 100-plus gigs, twice as many musicians, and a wide spread of venues and event prices, many free.

Following are some highlights, and trust me, I missed dozens of others worth talking up.


Brazilian singer Luciana Souza has always been a poetic musician (listen to her version of “Waters of March”), but these days she champions poets with a dedicated CD, convinced that we need more of them in our presently dark world. Her newest undertaking, Word Strings, is a drummer-less project with skilled stand-up bassist Scott Colley and gonzo Brazilian guitarist Chico Pinheiro from Souza’s Sao Paulo hometown. The trio tested out some Word String pieces Feb. 17 at Revolution Hall in a not-quite-sold-out concert.

Luciana Souza performing at PDX Jazz. Photo: ©2018 Mark Sheldon.

Souza studied in the United States at Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, but she grew up in a lively music-and-word-crazy Brazilian household. Her mother, Tereza Souza, is a poet/lyricist, and father Walter Santos, a singer. Her 81-year-old godfather, Hermeto Pascoal, is a Brazilian composer whose “Forro Brasil” she played toward the end of the hour. The DNA and cultural influences help her to carry on Brazilian music traditions, yet she is boundless and genre-less in her approach to her past and to her art.

Souza’s group put to music poetry by Leonard Cohen, Charles Simic, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop (who lived in Brazil), much of it with samba and bossa nova shades, some with original arrangements. Souza loves to play a little drums and timpani, but not too much. Her sidemen were masterful at making the most of her inviting, haunting, fluid lyrical singing; they could have been soloing much of the time — Colley and Pinheiro are so good in their own rights.

The concert should have been sold out. Souza is a Grammy winner and has been nominated for six of these awards. She’s been in Portland before and deserves more fans.

Revved up

Dave King and his trio followed, and the double bill with Souza was an odd pairing, but scheduling conveniences often trump programming sensibilities.

King, best known as the drummer of the Bad Plus, was more about rhythm and rock-star-like presentation (and oddball jokes— he’s a pretty good standup comedian sitting at the drums) while Souza shines at the lyrical end of the jazz spectrum. Still, King has his fans, though I wasn’t one of them that night. Were these guys on something? They played the raucous, revved-up cousin to the more cerebral Bad Plus. And yes, King is a well reputed stunner-drummer on the jazz scene, but the music was all too loud and note-y for me. Matt Mitchell on piano and bassist Billy Peterson, onetime sideman to Steve Miller and Bob Dylan, were the straight guys for King’s jokes. Good musicians, but I never caught the performance’s drift.

Thomas Morgan & Bill Frisell at PDX Jazz 2018. Photo: Angela Allen.

More than Mr. Nice Guy

Longtime guitarist Bill Frisell, 66, said exactly one thing on stage the entire evening: “This Mr. Nice Guy stuff has got to stop,” when introduced by Portland radioman Steve Cantor at his Feb. 18 concert at Revolution Hall. And yet Frisell’s unpretentious stage manner, his cloud of thinning hair, the flow and drift of his music occasionally intensified with his pedal synthesizer, the half smiles he exchanged with Morgan, do prompt you to buy into the Mr. Nice Guy brand bestowed upon the Seattle-based star. Nice, yes, but much more. Frisell is a terrific instrumentalist fearless about changing up his style, his repertoire and his musical partners throughout his long career.

Bill Frisell performing at PDX Jazz Festival. Photo: ©2018 Mark Sheldon.

He and his partner this time, ultra-shy uber-accomplished bassist Thomas Morgan, 37, unspooled an onstage conversation of three extended “songs.” I could have listened to the duo forever as Frisell’s signature lyricism, tunefulness, and underlying calmness unfolded. You could hear a plastic cup drop in the 850-seat hall. As undramatically as they presented themselves, the two grabbed and held your attention. It was more than father and son playing, but the gig had that vibe, too.

The duo’s final extended piece, about 20 minutes long as were the previous two, was instantly recognizable — the theme from the James Bond film Goldfinger  — and the audience let out a big laugh. Frisell has a playful way of sounding very American, tossing into his improvisational mix bits and snippets of movie tunes, jazz standards, family-western sound tracks like Bonanza, and pop. His new CD with Morgan — and whatdoyouknow, an LP as well — is called Small Town. Recorded at the Village Vanguard, it closes with “Goldfinger.”

Regina, Swing Queen

Not a lot of jazz violinists are making the rounds these days, though Stephane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty were among those who set the stage for Regina Carter’s virtuosity.

Classically trained and jazz-hungry (she transferred from the New England Conservatory of Music to Oakland University in Rockland, Mich. because NEC’s curriculum had a limited jazz violin curriculum), Carter has earned the queen of swing fiddle title. She and her quintet were the closing act on Feb. 18 at Revolution Hall.

Regina Carter at PDX Jazz Festival. Photo: ©2018 Mark Sheldon.

Carter, too, is on a mission to save the world from darkness. “We could use some good vibes,” she said in her charming onstage banter, using recordings on her cell phone to illustrate previous arrangements of tunes. Her recent project and CD, “Accentuate the Positive,” is a tribute to her longtime heroine Ella Fitzgerald. It’s packed with diverse interpretive styles of some of Ella’s B-side hits.

Ella sang “Judy” and won first prize at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night in 1934, opting to sing rather than to dance after watching the Edwards Sisters perform. We heard Carter’s version along with arrangements of “Crying in the Chapel,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “Undecided,” among others. She gave each quintet member (Xavier Davis on keyboards, Marvin Sewell on guitar, bassist Ed Howard, and Carter’s husband, drummer Alvester Garnett) room to solo and duet with her as much as she was front and center. Garnett, from her hometown of Detroit, pulled off an orgasmic solo at the end of the hourlong set. From certain angles, you could glimpse his red-shoed feet frenetically pumping the drum pedals. He made magic with his sticks and brushes, bells and whistles, too.

A recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant in 2006, Carter swings and innovates like the best of them, including Ella. Her music was in the pocket. Everyone felt the pulse at the same time. This was the best show of the week that I saw, and I saw some good ones.

Regina Carter and Marvin Sewell at PDX Jazz 2018. Photo: Angela Allen.

Out of this World

Tigran Hamasyan’s show excited progressive rockers and dedicated jazz aficionados with ears wide open. His trio filled the Mission Theater on Feb. 19, and few could keep from bobbling off their heads.

The Armenian pianist/composer’s otherworldly music spins all over the universe, with folk-song influences, deep grooves, sacred-music passages, electronic innovation, unbridled enthusiasm and energy. He’s 31, and as a teen, won the 2006 Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition. And in Portland, he lived up to his reputation as a gifted musician. His playing was intensely alive and demanded complete attention. Sometimes he disappeared into the keyboard, facedown; other times he jumped like a jack out of the box, off the piano bench. And this guy, you cannot put in a box. His music is without boundaries and neat corners.

Hamasyan’s trio, with Sam Minae on bass guitar and (in his debut with the band) Israeli drummer Yogav Gabay, was dynamite-packed with a full-on dynamic range. The first half leaned minimalist; the second half appealed more to fusion-rock fans. Hamasyan’s music can induce the shivers with shifts from minimalism to ethereal sacred-music heights to electronic hardcore rock. The set lasted two hours, with a break, a nice change at the festival; headliners and double-bill gigs at Rev Hall were limited to an hour and no encores.

Hamasyan’s 2017 Ancient Observer CD is a good way to tune in, though his album, Mockroot, won the Echo Award (German Grammy) for the best international piano recording in 2015. His “observational” work, he says, “carries the weight of our history that we carry on our shoulders.”

So jazz is never just about the music.

Visual Jazz

Sometimes, in fact, it’s about what you see as well as what you hear. Portland’s Ockley Green Middle School 7th-grader Edith Crever’s vibrant artwork this month became the poster for the 2018 PDX Jazz Festival. As grand prize winner of the Jazz in the Schools project, hers is the first student art to serve as the festival commemorative poster. She was among the 240 semifinalists.

2018 Jazz in the Schools Grand Prize Winner.

Jazz in the Schools, in its fourth year in the Portland area, has grown to include 14 schools in six districts, reaching 2,000 students through art and music classrooms. Each school handles the program differently, but students create their art while listening to jazz with the help of a lending library of art supplies, said PDX Jazz Education Director Kim Harrison. About 150 people, including artists, musicians and community members, judged the pieces at the Portland Art Museum on Feb.13 before the festival began.

Edith’s poster has company. Eight high school and middle school honorable mention winners’ artwork were transformed into posters and shown at Revolution Hall, and six honorable mention elementary-school winners were printed on one poster and displayed at Revolution Hall and downtown Portland’s City Target during the jazz festival.

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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