Some reflections on the 2015 Portland Jazz Festival 

by ANGELA ALLEN

Festival curators did a first-class job of mixing up big names and smaller ones, international hotshots with local stars.

Take superstar Kurt Elling, who crooned an hour-plus of ‘60s-era Sinatra hits in the first week of the annual Portland Jazz Festival, which ran from  Feb. 18-March 1. He swung hard with the Art Abrams Swing Machine Big Band filled with such top Portland musicians as trumpeter Paul Mazzeo and saxophonist John Nastos. Two days earlier, Portland trumpeter Farnell Newton and pianist Darrell Grant (both Portland State University jazz profs) played with up-and-comer East African singer Somi, all barefoot and glittering. (That was opening night before Bebel Gilberto, unfortunately, took the stage.) The three made a blissful, nuanced trio. If you missed Somi, listen to  Lagos Music Salon, inspired by her 18-month visit to Nigeria. “Ginger Me Slowly,”  “Two Dollar Day” and “My Last Song” are just terrific and all quite different from one another.

Cyrille Aimee performed with her band at Lewis & Clark College in the 2015 Portland Jazz Festival.

Cyrille Aimee performed with her band at Lewis & Clark College in the 2015 Portland Jazz Festival.

Singer Bebel Gilberto of bossa nova bloodlines was the sold-out headlining opener for the festival, but give me Cyrille Aimee any day.

Gilberto, or “Bebel” as she is known in the biz, was utterly forgettable other than her headset falling out of her ears (and receiver from her pants), and her Mick-Jagger-like strutting on the Newmark stage, where she sidled up to members of her bemused band and bragged about her five stateside albums. I did like her “Tout Est Bleu” and Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” renditions from Tudo, released in 2014, but she was out of control opening night. Rumors flew that firewater fueled her flameout, but it wasn’t that exactly, according to Don Lucoff, festival’s director. “Something else, though” was pushing her along, he hinted.

On the other hand, the charming French-American vocalist Aimee played to a two-thirds-filled (if that) Evans Auditorium at Lewis and Clark College on the penultimate night of the festival. Where was everybody? Lewis & Clark might be a few miles southwest of downtown Portland, but hey, jazz fans have cars (and now GPS gizmos).

Bookended by her hotdog guitarists Michael Valeanu on electric and acoustic master Koran Agan, Aimee blew the audience away, singing for an hour and a half, mostly from her newest album, It’s A Good Day. Sometimes she plays with three guitarists. She is a guitar maniac, and stays clearly in charge while giving her musicians wide berth and ample solos. There are strains of the great 20th-century French gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt in her arrangements; she grew up listening to gypsies near her in Samois-sur-Seine house in France. Recently she took Django’s son Babik Reinhardt’s gorgeous melody and put words to it in “All Love,” a tune to cry for, to die for, and we cried when she sang it toward the end of her set.

Bassist Or Bareket, with a prodigious bun of hair that bopped over his bass, performed a duet, “He’s Not For Me,” with Aimee. It was full of verve and humor. As the remarkable 86-year-old singer Sheila Jordan confirmed during her Old Church gig with bassist Cameron Brown, bass and vocals go together – tenderly, rhythmically, tonally.

Aimee swept the jazz-vocal contests – Sarah Vaughan, Montreux, Thelonious Monk — in the past five years, and her breathy, slightly nasal voice, her curly hair and her calypso rhythms (she is part Dominican) were as captivating as her onstage energy, warmth and versatility. She can sing anything: ballads, hysterically fast tunes (“Love Me or Leave Me”), wonderfully syncopated pieces like “One-Way Ticket.” She did pop tunes: a version of Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” and the Doors’ “People Are Strange.” She can scat like crazy.  Fresh, free-spirited –  a gypsy at heart.

Most jazz fans, at least in Portland, have grey hair.  

Pockets of young people showed up here and there, most notably to hear 27-year-old Julian Lage do his virtuoso guitar work at Lewis and Clark. Lage performed at the 2000 Grammy Awards and fame has stuck with him ever since. With bassist Scott Colley and drummer Eric Harland, he played some tunes off his newest CD World’s Fair as well as such standards as “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Audience members of all ages were agog.

Portland guitar eminence Dan Balmer, who teaches guitar and runs the jazz combos at Lewis and Clark, has brought guitar-centric gems to the festival before, including Kurt Rosenwinkel a couple of years ago. In his forever French beret, Balmer remembers Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans playing on campus, so why not? A regular at Jimmy Mak’s, Balmer is a gonzo musician in his own right. He played with the cerebral “vertical” guitarist John Stowell (he holds his guitar upright and gave Lage a lesson or two when Lage was seven  years old) and bassist Dave Captein in a brilliantly thought-out Jim Hall retro before Lage hopped on stage in his V-neck sweater. The following night, Balmer sat in with the hard-to-box funk-jazz Trio Subtonic before Aimee’s concert.

There are many fabulous pianists in our midst – and oddly, some whose profile is lower than sea level.

How many of you have heard of Laurence Hobgood, who arranges for Kurt Elling, among others? He tamed the beautiful black Bosendorfer grand at Classic Pianos for an hour show. He ended on Ellington, and played Stevie’s Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” and Jimmy Webb’s angst-ridden “Wichita Lineman” as elegantly. Wunderkind Taylor Eigsti, Portland’s Clay Giberson playing with his talented Cuban-American vocalist partner Jessie Marquez, and Bill Charlap, who just has THE TOUCH and accompanied Elling on a couple of songs during Elling’s Sinatra retrospective, brought so much class to the festival.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts, especially music. She pursues poetry and photography, and teaches creative writing in the Oregon schools.

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