“Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.”
— Frank Zappa
Jazz is alleged to be a dying art form, but last weekend in Portland, traces of jazz kept turning up in the oddest places: a theater, a symphony concert, even an Indian music performance. As performances by Portland State University Orchestra and Oregon Symphony, David Ornette Cherry and some of Portland’s finest jazzers, and Yashila demonstrated, this supposedly endangered music exerted a powerful and often positive influence far beyond its home base in small clubs, and its creative, rebel spirit still prevails in other 21st century music.
Notes from the Underground
New York’s subway system has long inspired composers, most famously in Billy Strayhorn’s 1941 classic “Take the A Train,” for Duke Ellington’s band. The latest jazzer to derive some notes from the underground: Portland State University professor George Colligan, a recent NYC transplant whose new Existence drew some inspiration from the image of a crowded New York subway station. Colligan wrote out all the melodies and harmonies, but at its premiere at the PSU Orchestra’s Halloween concert, playing trumpet instead of his usual keyboards or drums, he led the student musicians to the Improv Avenue stop part way through the piece, producing a sweet tension over the steady beat, maybe reflecting the rich, occasionally chaotic urban cross currents that await when you disembark.
Along with music by both famous Gabrielis, Ravel’s gorgeous Mother Goose ballet music, which the orchestra will perform with the Portland Ballet later this month, the concert also sported yet another new composition by a PSU faculty member inspired by New York bustle: a “preliminary sketch” of conductor Ken Selden’s Scandal in the Deep, composed to a ballet scenario by the French poet Celine, in which the Roman god of the sea, Neptune, is involved in a scandalous love affair with a mermaid. The students played only a skeletal version of a small portion of this work in progress, so I’m reluctant draw any conclusions about it now, but the unexpected, tantalizing taste of what I did hear makes me eager for the rest.