No doubt the unanticipated blizzard that shed 10.5 inches of snow on Portland Jazz Festival’s mid-winter party Feb.16-25 had some impact on concert-goers. But not much.
Four sold-out concerts scheduled for Feb. 22 — Storm Large, Charlie Musselwhite and Curtis Salgado, Mark Guiliana and Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group — were postponed, but otherwise the show went on, if audiences were smaller on the final icy nights.
With 18,000 tickets sold and an estimated 5,000 people attending the free events at the festival’s 20th anniversary, the 10-day event proved an all-around all-age success, considering there were 75 events at 30 or so venues to manage, 12 of them sell-outs. Aside from the four mentioned above, sell-outs included Bill Frisell, Budos Band, Ambrose Akinmusire, Dumpstaphunk, Thee Sacred Souls, Butcher Brown, Shabazz Palaces and Kiefer.
All this proved, certainly in Portland, that jazz is alive and experiencing a comeback, with audiences skewing younger (see Brett Campbell’s OAW story “More Hip Hop than Bebop”). This year’s smartly curated festival showed that a multi-pronged approach aimed at various ages, demographics and musical interests is the key to keeping fans’ interest. Aside from the straight-ahead brand of jazz that many older fans love, plenty of musicians–including a good percentage of local ones–performed hybrid hip-hop jazz, world tunes, funk and soul, and anything else that fits into the ever-evolving in-the-moment genre. Led by in-touch guys PDX Jazz Executive Director Chris Doss and Artistic Director Nicholas Salas-Harris, this festival will be a tough act to follow.
Following are some of the highlights I heard among the concerts. Regrettably, I missed Benin-born powerhouse Angelique Kidjo, rumored to be a knock-out on her reclamation/rendition of the Talking Heads’ famous 1980s Remain in the Light. We chickened out on the Taylor McFerrin-Marcus Gilmore show on The First Night of the Big Snow Feb. 22 at The Old Church, and Portland trumpeter Noah Simpson’s gig at Lovely Rita’s at The Hoxton was canceled. But certainly, there was something for everybody, including me, an aging diehard jazz fan.
There’s something about those ECM artists and their dreamy music
Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen has nine albums with the 54-year-old European ECM label. The label’s motto is “the most beautiful sound next to silence,” so no wonder Gustavsen is one of the ECM tribe.
On Feb. 21 at The Old Church, in an intermission-free 90-minute concert, he looked as if he were praying when he played the Steinway, his right elbow out as if to keep the noisy world at bay. Another reviewer, an admirer from the New York Times, said Gustavsen produced “the consistent and involuntary song of a melancholy soul.” Sometimes Norwegians, not known for talking effusively, are called melancholy–but, when applied to Gustavsen, it’s the soulful gentle sort of melancholy.
His lyrical, ethereal, mesmerizing music, with such titles as “Stream” and “Ground” and “Opening,” inspires images of the Norwegian landscape. The soft-spoken artist began playing in church—and still does. He teaches and studied psychology as well as music, and, focusing on both, has written about how improvisation is a paradox.
Popular in Portland—he’s performed at Classic Pianos and The Mission in previous engagements—and playing to an almost sold-out audience, Gustavsen meshed with very tall bassist Steinar Raknes and drummer Jarle Vespestad, both of whom contributed to the rich resonant sound that sometimes took a while to build. But Gustavsen, who is 52 and shed his stylish black wool scarf as he and his music heated up, had all kinds of complicated synthesizers and software, though you had to move up close to see the hidden sound-makers. So you can bet the music built, even sometimes into a full-on ‘70s-style jam–though the hymn-like vibe was the more common one. For Gustavsen there were no charts, no lead sheets, no scores and only a few wry smiles and dry deliveries. He did play Leonard Cohen’s “Dance me to the End of Love” and ended with a piece called “Ground” from a 2005 album. After the concert, he signed copies of his newest CD, Opening, from which he played some cuts that evening. The show was designed for The Old Church, a perfect fit.
Growing their own garden
The all-grown-up duo of Gerald Clayton and Ambrose Akinmusire (Feb. 18 at The Old Church) was one of those non-stop, no-talk concerts that stretched out on standards and original tunes from self-described avant-garde trumpeter Akinmusire’s upcoming album Owl Song.
Pianist Clayton, who has a light touch and impressionistic style, has played Portland several times—among others, with Kenny Barron at an earlier jazz festival, and with his dad, bassist John Clayton, in the Old Church. It is a joy to see the younger Clayton’s improvisations work magic, and matched up with a prolific composer and intellectual young trumpeter unlike any other, it doubled the fun. There were no music scores onstage for this one either.
Their lovely rendition of “Autumn Leaves” went on and on, and “It Could Happen to You,” “Woody and You” and “Tenderly” were spaced among the originals.The improv was so dramatic and intense that you had to listen closely to catch the tunes. The “Grow Your Own Gardens” concert was sold out at the 250-seat church, and prompted two encores—“Blues” by Clayton and Akinmusire’s “Henya.”
Clayton also played with guitarist Bill Frisell at the opening Feb. 16 Reser concert. The Reser appears to have fixed its troubles with the acoustics, because the sound was reportedly pristine.
Where was Dave Holland?
The elegant 2017 NEA Jazz Master and self-taught British-born bassist who has knocked every record of bass players’ accomplishments over the fence, joined up with one-time Tonight Show band leader and virtuoso guitarist Kevin Eubanks and renowned drummer and Holland regular Eric Harland at the Newmark on Feb. 24.
But where was Holland?
Eubanks pretty much took over with his hour and one-half of shredding, channeling Jimi Hendrix at times, and it was tough to hear Holland and his bass–though we saw his enigmatic grin throughout, so he was having some kind of fun. Harland never soloed.
I was disappointed at this potentially Greatest of All Contemporary Jazz Greats concert. As Holland said in announcing his freestyle concert, “Once we start we like to keep going so we’ll see you at the end of journey.” And yes, this talented trio, who could have been called that night the Kevin Eubanks Trio, was locked into its own astral jam, and well, that’s the way jazz shows can be, even when you’re listening to the bass master who has played with Miles Davis and a trillion other fabulous musicians. Unfortunately, snow and ice shrunk the audience Feb. 24, though brave souls did make it out.
Hubert Laws’ ongoing genius
The festival saved the best for last with seemingly immortal flutist Hubert Laws, who brought along several flutes, a piccolo and a superbly polished band that he called “family.” At 83, the Houston-born Laws has no peers in ability to navigate several musical genres: he plays jazz, classical, pop, blues, soul and anything else. He remains quite the onstage entertainer, coffee in hand, introducing his songs (for once!). For starters, he told us about his wife whom he says left him and followed up with a sweet rendition of “Stay with Me.”
He mentioned his work with fellow musicians (Sonny Rollins on “Airegin”—that’s Nigeria spelled backwards—which he played on piccolo), and the late Chick Corea, with whom he attended Juilliard in the ’60s and collaborated with on a recent classical album called Ultimate Classical and Improvisation Collaboration. He played Corea’s “Windows” (“I always want to memorialize Chick”), John Beasley’s arrangement of “Lida Rose,” Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere,” and late trombonist J.J. Johnson’s “Lament” (recorded by Miles Davis, among others). The quintet played for an hour and 45 minutes, no breaks, Laws occasionally whispering to his musicians and leading them in new directions.
His pianist, David Budway (a classically-trained tireless improviser who uses scores), merged with John Leftwich’s driving bass (at times he looked like he was riding a thoroughbred), Houston-based drummer Land Richards and synthesizer genius Rob Mullins. They were pitch perfect. They played at an almost full Newmark, to fans skewing over 50 years old. Younger folks could find a lot to appreciate about this straight-ahead 2011 NEA Jazz Master and tightly stitched quintet. When I was a 25-year-old youngster, I heard Laws at a tiny Chicago-area jazz club, Amazing Grace, and never forgot him, and probably never will.
Brian Jackson: Longtime cross-genre artist
Brian Jackson sings, plays keys, dances, and talks up an optimistic storm onstage, and he did all of those Feb. 25 at the Newmark Theatre. Plus he composes and plays the flute, among many other things.
An ex-New Yorker and a Portlander since 2019, he was writing partners with the late singer-songwriter Gil Scott-Heron, who eventually dissolved their partnership. (Jackson never sued though he was cut out of royalties. He didn’t mention this during the concert; it was reported in a May 25, 2022 Willamette Week story.) The two “bluesologists” recorded nine albums between 1971 and 1980, and on Feb. 25, Jackson and his quartet performed some of those classic compositions, including “The Bottle” and “Pieces of a Man.”
A martial-arts practitioner, Jackson is one of those spry artists, who at 70, has done just about everything musically from blues to soul to jazz to composing to working with artists like Stevie Wonder to incorporating strong storytelling into his songs. So many of his tunes with Scott-Heron, such as “Winter in America” and “Pieces of a Man,” are unfolding poetic tales, and many turned out to be prescient. “How did you guys know that 50 years ago?“ he is often asked about “Winter in America” that laments the destruction of the environment.
Jackson is a good guy to have around our parts. “I discovered the best musicians are also the best people,” PDX Jazz Artistic Director Salas-Harris said when introducing Jackson and his quartet.
Derrick Hodge: Big bass sound all his own
Grammy Award-winning Derrick Hodge’s muscled music and sometimes funky sound are as big as they get. He plays bass — his was turquoise on Feb. 24 at the Newmark Theatre— and keys, but his trio with agile keyboardist Michael Aaberg and dynamite drummer CJ Thompson amped everything up several notches. Thompson was one of the highest energy drummers I’ve heard since the spectacular Jonathan Blake, who played with Kenny Barron at New York City’s Village Vanguard in December.
The hour-long set compared to Hodge’s third album, Color of Noize, described as having “jazz flow, hip-hop groove, soulful depth, spiritual heft, and creative fire.” At the vanguard of contemporary jazz, he has a lot of credits and a towering reputation, if his name is not yet a household one. He has composed for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Nas, and the National Symphony Orchestra so he gets around in the music world.