Portland Center Stage Rent Portland Oregon

A fun-loving give-and-take connection: PDX Jazz Fest 2022

Ten days and nights of live music with Diane Schuur, Domo Branch, Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group, Brandee Younger, and more.

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The PDX Jazz Festival, in its 19th year, brought the Rose City 10 days and nights of live music from Feb. 17 through Feb. 26. This time, real performances and real audiences replaced the last two years’ virtual ones. Portland jazz fans were ready to break out of Covid anxiety, mask up and attend. They proved it by helping to sell out 10 shows as diverse as Makaya McCraven, Mndsgn, Robert Glasper, Julana Torres, Brandee Younger and Dezron Douglas and the Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group.

“We were just really grateful to have had a festival at all given the extremely difficult conditions we had to produce it in,” PDX Jazz Festival Artistic Director Nicholas Harris said. “Portland really responded and it was clear the city needed a positive collective experience and the live music salve did the trick,” noting that the highlights included the Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah show featuring Weedie Braimah at the Aladdin, Brandee Younger and Dezron Douglas at The Old Church, and Gary Bartz, who did two shows in one night.

Shortly before the festival, things didn’t look so promising when headliner jazz giant bassist Ron Carter and his Golden Striker Trio postponed until June, and pianist Brad Mehldau caught Covid in the Netherlands and canceled his opening-night show.

Ultimately, concerts were juggled and overall “attendance was strong,” PDX Jazz Executive Director Chris Doss said. “There was a celebratory atmosphere and appreciation to have the festival back as live events.”

Free community shows featuring local musicians at such places as the Portland Art Museum, Art Bar & Bistro, Artichoke Music, The Nines, and the Alberta Abbey (which Portland’s Blue Cranes filled to the brim), plus free lectures and interviews, all made it possible for anyone to tune into live jazz and jazz artists, even if he or she didn’t want to buy a ticket.

Then again, many festival seats went empty, especially at the higher-priced ticket venues like the Winningstad and Star theaters. Some shows appealing to younger fans attracted larger audiences, Doss said. Count among them guitarist Marc Ribot, progressive-jazz drummer Nate Smith +KINFOLK and Black Radio multi-Grammy winner Robert Glasper.

What a good sign that is. Jazz is forever changing and evolving — and far from dying a slow death. Here are a few of my own festival highlights.

Diane Schuur, Northwest’s own

Hard to believe that Diane Schuur, a top-of-the-pantheon jazz singer who grew up in Tacoma, made her PDX Jazz debut on Feb. 18 at the Winningstad Theatre. She should have come sooner!

The 300-seat venue with some of Portland’s finest acoustics was not sold out but Schuur’s magnetic spirit and quirky humor filled the theater. She communicates not only with her three-octave vocals and innovative piano-playing, but by her stream of joke-y and endearing interaction with the audience. She can’t see—she has been blind from birth—but she can hear everything. Gifted with perfect pitch and sharp ears, she heard footsteps on an upper tier one moment, perked up, and wondered if the theater were haunted. She has little trouble drawing laughs as well as applause.

Pianist-singer Diane Schurr. Photo courtesy of PDX Jazz.
Pianist-singer Diane Schuur. Photo courtesy of PDX Jazz.

Schuur is 68 and has four Grammy Award-winning discs and another 20 or so albums. She has forged a long career—performing publicly since she was 10— learning from such jazz greats as Stan Getz and Frank Sinatra. She sings gospel, blues, bop, Latin rhythms, pop–just about anything–and harbors a love of jazz classics as much as the Beatles’ and Paul Simon’s music. And can she sing and scat. When the power blew out momentarily in the Winningstad, she kept at it, and we could hear her clear voice just fine. Schuur joked that Ray Charles would have walked off the stage, but she kept going.

Her side musicians were bassist Bruce Lett, drummer Kendall Kay, and virtuoso Portland saxophonist John Nastos, who has played and toured with Schuur for 11 years, off and on, here and abroad. Their rapport, which opened with a nameless blues improvisation, was a fun-loving give-and-take connection— a clue to the program’s upbeat creativity. We heard a lot from her 2020 Running on Faith album, including Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” Percy Mayfield’s “Walkin on a Tightrope” and “This Bitter Earth,” a tribute to rhythm and blues singer Dinah Washington, whose voice Schuur admires.

It was clear that Schuur was hungry to perform and the audience eager to listen, so we continued to get earfuls with “Everybody Looks Good at the Starting Line,” “Seven Steps to Heaven” (“We almost got to the eighth,” she joked after a breathlessly revved-up rendition), and “Louisiana Sunday Afternoon.” 

The break-less concert went on for almost two hours, and Schuur’s fireside chatter about her cat Puss-Puss, the two years of Covid isolation, her favorite TV shows, her pride in what she calls her “big boobs and bubble butt,” her twin brother who was in the audience, and her 32-year sobriety was as pleasurable to listen to as the music that skipped through some of the American Songbook and beyond.

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Toward the end, we received a fast-paced dose of Wes Montgomery’s “Road Trip” and earlier, we heard “Wonderful” and “I Remember You,” tunes memorializing two of her career-charging (and -changing) mentors, Getz and Sinatra.

Domo Branch, a new leader

If the baton is passing to the younger jazz generation, let drummer/composer Domo Branch be in the vanguard.

Drummer Domo Branch. Photo courtesy of PDX Jazz.
Drummer Domo Branch. Photo courtesy of PDX Jazz.

The exuberant North Portland-reared musician and Manhattan School of Music graduate—well almost, in May he will have his diploma—led a trio with longtime buddy Seattle bass player Ben Feldman (a fellow MSM almost-grad) and pianist Gerald Clayton. Yes, THE Gerald Clayton, son of bassist John Clayton and star keyboard player who loves to play in Portland. I’ve heard him several times: once with Charles Lloyd, who was 78 at the time a few years ago; another year with his father at The Old Church; and this time flowing through Branch’s new compositions, which debuted Feb. 26 at the Star Theater.

As gifted a pianist and experienced performer as Clayton is, he didn’t overshadow the young Branch, who plays percussion like a fiend but can back off to let others shine. This was Branch’s gig and his music featuring “The Journey—A Suite,” part of his We Are Made album to be released in May. His first album, A Painful Truth, defies genre, his website says, noting that “he shares his experience as a young Black man in America. This music isn’t hip-hop. This music isn’t jazz. This music is a reflection of the African-American experience in 2021. Domo hopes this music can heal, motivate and inspire others to create positive change in our society.”

(Part of Branch’s own healing has been recovering from his father’s death, and from an accident in which his foot was damaged when a train ran over his toes–an incident that turned him from sports to music.)

Toward the end of the 90-minute set, with a quick intermission, Branch invited onstage stunning singer/actor Lo Steele, daughter of Portland R&B vocalist LaRhonda Steele. Dressed in 4-inch-heel white boots and a formidably original couture-chic blush outfit, she appears to be carrying on a jazz-nuanced version of her mother’s vocal gift with her breathy flexible voice and mesmerizing stage presence. Watch out for her!

Mel Brown B-3 Organ group, still kickin’ it 

Yes, the group has long been the province of eminent drummer Mel Brown, but on Feb. 23 at the sold-out Jack London Revue it featured Mel’s son, Chris Brown, who doubled on alto sax and drums (when his dad let him). The young Brown, known as an accomplished Portland-grown yet East Coast-honed musician with a lot of hustle, leads his own quartet that plays the 1905 jazz club on Wednesdays.

Chris Brown at The 1905. Photo by Karney Hatch.
Chris Brown at The 1905. Photo by Karney Hatch.

Master Portland guitarist Dan Balmer was there, bopping on his stool in his beret, pulling off his agile fret magic as he has done for 25 years of Mel Brown’s gigs, most memorably when the B-3 Organ and other Mel Brown groups held down Jimmy Mak’s until it closed in 2016 in Portland’s Pearl District. Peerless tenor sax player Renato Caranto–and, of course, “King Louis” Pain composer and B-3 organ boss–wearing a black-and-white-piano-keys shirt (his organ is not just under his hands), made everyone sound better as the group segued seamlessly from one song into another. Not a word was uttered between tunes, so it was up to the listener to figure them out in the ongoing burnished improv.

The group played for 90 minutes, half of the time it usually did in the old days, but tucked in “Milestones,” “Jeannine” (a Duke Pearson tune made famous by Cannonball Adderly), Eddie Harris’ “Cold Duck Time,” Tadd Dameron’s “On a Misty Night,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and more Motown with “My Girl” (Mel Brown toured with The Temptations for seven years). The tunes were oldies but classic goodies, polished by the skill and tightness of this iconic Portland group.

Brandee Younger, pushing the harp to new places

I first heard classically trained harpist Brandee Younger when she sold out a Classic Pianos’ concert during the 2016 PDX Jazz Festival. She educated the audience on the harp’s range, stretching it beyond classical interpretation and taking listeners through Dorothy Ashby tunes, Stevie Wonder’s “If it’s Magic” and Alice Coltrane’s Hindu-inspired “Rama Rama.”

A harpist who transmits a shimmering river of tones as she plucks through the strings, Younger is a different musician now than she was six years ago—more self-confident, more relaxed, and assured that she is adding to the harp’s jazz vocabulary. She has stepped into the forefront instead of tucking into the sidelines of gigs and concerts.

She played to a standing-room-only audience Feb. 23 at The Old Church with her husband/producer/bassist Dezron Douglas. They spent a solid part of the concert reproducing the informal online concerts that they performed from their Harlem apartment during Covid lockdown. Those tunes have since been turned into the CD, Force Majeure, a compilation of easy-listening tunes and back-and-forth chatter about Black music, the evils of racism, the importance of social justice and staying out of bars during Covid—talk that you might hear in a New York musical couple’s living room.

An absolutely beautiful rendition of The Stylistics’ ultra-harmonic “You Make Me Feel Brand New” joined “The Creator Has a Master Plan” and “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Dorothy Ashby, John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane tunes bloomed in a bouquet of music that the duo played onstage and on the CD–not to forget the Sesame Street theme, to which the audience was invited to sing along, and enthusiastically did.

Harpist Brandee Younger and bassist Dezron Douglas. Photo courtesy of PDX Jazz.
Harpist Brandee Younger and bassist Dezron Douglas. Photo courtesy of PDX Jazz.

The harp and bass, which Douglas plays with as much self-possession and vigor as Younger does the harp, are as compatible as these two musicians. Guardian reviewer John Lewis remarked about the harmonious sonic power of the two instruments: “They reinforce each other through shared resonance, and Douglas’s serpentine, busy bass lines often sound like extensions of Younger’s harp.”

Younger’s newest CD Somewhere Different features songs almost entirely composed by her, with a couple written by Douglas. We often don’t have the privilege to hear the harp in jazz repertoire (and experts say it is hard to compose for unless you’re a harpist). Younger is building a foundation for her instrument’s music to penetrate far more than classical concerts, and Douglas seems to be pushing Younger and her harp into new territory.

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Angela Allen

Angela Allen

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.
Angela Allen

Angela Allen

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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