Portland Jazz Festival review: Pianists prevail

Though the spotlight shone on saxophones, keyboard masters tickled heartstrings and ivories at the 2016 festival

Story by ANGELA ALLEN

Photos by MARK SHELDON

Virtuoso saxophonists were the Coltrane-centric Portland Jazz Festival’s backbone Feb. 18-28: Joe Lovano, Gary Bartz, Nicole Glover, Charles Lloyd, Sonny Fortune, Renato Caranto, Pharoah Sanders, Ravi Coltrane — not in that order.

The keyboardists, though, stole my heart — not only the soloists but the sidemen who played in trios and quartets, duos and big bands, alongside the headliners.

Gerald Clayton © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Gerald Clayton © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Throughout the 11-night extravaganza, musicians brought so much technical talent. They delivered high-spirited performances with originality, even if I heard second-week high-profilers Ravi Coltrane and Orrin Evans complain that audiences demand the oldies, limiting experimentation that fuels new music.

Some special recognition over the jazz festival week, mostly keyboard-related.

Most whimsical piece: “Shed,” named for saxophonist Joshua Redman’s mother, Renee Shedroff. Aaron Goldberg composed and played it, stretching his neck like an Egyptian muse or a cobra, during his first-week solo concert at Classic Pianos. Heavy on staccato notes with some fun rhythmic structure in the left hand, it spoofs Redman’s sax practicing — and he practices a lot, according to Goldberg. Redman is one of Goldberg’s mentors, collaborators and role models: They both went to Harvard and Goldberg picked his brain for how to survive Harvard and remain a driven jazz musician (don’t play with Harvard guys, they both say).

Goldberg is a smooth, cerebral pianist, technically savvy, a lover of Brazilian song, a master of control. His newest CD, The Now, with several Brazilian-inspired cuts, shows his respect for that country’s vibrant song-writing tradition, which Goldberg claims equals, sometimes surpasses, America’s songbook these days. He is such a skilled improviser and fluid player that songs move seamlessly and stealthily into one another. “Autumn Leaves” emerged as one of the few instantly recognized pieces.

Most moving trio keyboard playing: Gerald Clayton, son of band leader and bassist John Clayton and a 31-year-old piano phenom, helped the very tall and slightly stooped Charles Lloyd on and off the Newmark Theatre stage during the first weekend. Clayton climbed high to the peaks and fell deep to the valleys of the “Wild Man Dance Suite” with the lyrical Lloyd, who will be a remarkable 78 years old this month. Clayton and drummer Eric Harland amped up the quartet with their solos. In Portland in previous years with the SF Jazz Collective and other gigs, Harland plays on Goldberg’s The Now. During Lloyd’s concert, he knocked out the sweetest, softest, most dynamic — OK, most orgasmic —drum solo of the fest. He doesn’t answer his email from writers he doesn’t know, but hey, if he can drum like that …

Brandee Younger © 2016 Mark Sheldon-PDX JAZZ -3015

Brandee Younger © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Best educator: Although I didn’t catch every concert, I’d lay bets on harpist Brandee Younger. During her sold-out solo concert at Classic Pianos on Feb. 28, she took the eager audience through Dorothy Ashby interpretations, including Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” a Welsh folk song, classic harp compositions from composer Alphonse Hasselmans, Charlie Haden’s “For Turiya,” standards “Embraceable You” and “My Funny Valentine,” and best of all, Alice Coltrane’s Hindu-inspired “Rama Rama.”

Younger’s first instrument was piano, but when she took up harp as an older girl, she longed to meet Alice Coltrane. She was especially stirred by Alice Coltrane’s playing on “Blue Nile” and later, by her Divine Songs LP. Younger wrote a letter every day for years to Alice Coltrane, who played harp, organ and piano. She never sent those letters, she said in an interview before her solo concert at Classic Pianos, because “they weren’t good enough.” Younger did play at Alice Coltrane’s memorial in 2007, even though the two harpists never met in person.

Younger’s technique, honed classically, is unimpeachable. She knows her instrument and her art. She stunned and mesmerized the audience. How often do hear jazz harpists, and ones like Younger who want us to know about the instrument’s traditions?

Kenny Barron © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Kenny Barron © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Most elegant elder: Kenny Barron, 74, performed a double-bill with guitarist Pat Martino the first week of the festival at Portland’s Newmark Theatre. He played Charlie Haden’s “Nightfall,” a four-piece suite of Ellington/Strayhorn compositions, including “Star-crossed Lovers” and “Melancholia,” and best, his gorgeously lyrical and luminous “Cook’s Bay.” His bassist Hiyoshi Kitagawa proved a worthy sideman, even for listeners like me who (guiltily) drift off into Never Never Land when bassists solo for more than 20 seconds. Barron has old-school elegance and a soft touch, playing without a shred of sheet music, as did many musicians during the festival.

Best encore: Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” played fast, fastidiously and furiously by the long, lean and almost completely mute (at least on this night) Pat Martino with organist Pat Bianchi and drummer Carmen Intorre. The organ is such a fitting complement to the guitar – a rare pleasure to hear these days.

Chano © 2016 Mark SheldoN

Chano Dominguez © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Most idiosyncratic (and grateful) pianist: Chano Dominguez comes from Spain and claims no formal training, yet “he has virtuoso piano technique,” says Portland pianist Clay Giberson. Dominguez’s fingers ran up and down the keyboard in avalanches of key and theme changes with compositions from Isaac Albeniz and Manuel de Falla; he even had the audience singing on one piece. He also played “Evidence,” a Thelonious Monk classic laden with rhythmic structure. The ebullient Cadiz native said he learned harmony from the Beatles, but most of his repertoire channeled Spanish greats and themes, especially flamenco rhythms (flamenco guitar was his first instrument). After each piece, he stood up, put his hand on his heart, and told the Classic Pianos’ equally grateful sell-out crowd how grateful he was to be here.

Biggest bitch: This is an old saw: Audiences are greying at the jazz fest events. Jazz is for every age. Many young people in our community, fresh out of prestigious music schools — including rising-star saxophonists Nicole Glover, Hailey Niswanger and Patrick Sargent, bassist/singer/songwriter Kate Davis, pianist Grant Richards — are playing up a storm here and in New York. And around the world. Where are their friends, their peers? Jazz-performance tickets are not priced like sky-high rock concerts’; many shows are free. So get going. Start coming!

 Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She pursues poetry and photography and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.

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