MusicWatch Weekly: Second summer chills out

Portland cools down with Montavilla Jazz Festival, two-score local bands, orchestral hip-hop, and a bunch of bleached assholes

Happy Indonesian Independence Day! Seventy-four years ago today, Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands after three centuries of Dutch colonialism (I’ll bet you thought they were always just about tulips and weed). To celebrate, here’s a little video (if you can’t read Indonesian, skip on down):

So in a minute I’m going to tell you where to hear a zillion local composers rock out this weekend, and Senior Editor Brett Campbell has some things to say about the Montavilla Jazz Festival starting tonight, but the gamelan band I’m in Bali with just played its freshly blessed instruments for the first time this morning, so as soon as I wipe these tears of joy out of my beard I think it’s about time to give you all a little music theory lesson.

Caution: All comparisons to Western phenomena are meant as a starting point, not an accurate description of genuine Balinese music. The present author is no expert, but only an egg. Caveat emptor.

Start at your piano, accordion, Casio, or other Western style keyboard. All those white keys make up the diatonic major scale, and if you shift around the starting pitch you get the seven so-called church modes. Music students learn about all that in first year theory and never use them again.

Start with the note E on your white-note keyboard. Play the next two white keys: F and G. Then skip one, to B, and then to C. Skip up to E and you’re done. In the West we might call that a Phrygian Pentatonic. In Indonesia they call it pelog, and it’s everywhere. Even the ubiquitous roosters crow in pelog.

Çuperstar gamelan group Çudamani.

Play around with that mode for awhile. E-F-G-B-C, C-B-G-F-E, and that brings us back to doe, doe, doe. Hear how it sounds kinda minory and kinda majory at the same time? That’s because you’re playing an inverted C major scale, and this is where things get funny. For acoustic reasons, putting emphasis on that E puts emphasis on the B, and that makes it sound like an E minor sort of thing, just like Florence Price’s first symphony.

But that C hanging out up there above the B makes it sound like a jazzy-ass inverted major seventh chord. Even on a regular old piano, the result is all shimmery and vaguely bitonal. A whole slew of Philip Glass and Steve Reich music uses this exact trick: inverted seventh chords that also sound like minor chords.

Practically the only Philip Glass you really need.

That shimmery, vaguely bitonal sound runs all through gamelan music. The big hanging gongs are tuned (in this extended metaphor) to E, F, and (usually) the C above them. So you hit the low gong, everything sounds like E minor. Hit the higher low gong and suddenly it shifts to an F Lydian something-or-other (hum the Jetsons theme for Lydian reference). And with that higher C gong ringing, you could get the impression of a sort of plagal cadence toggling between C major and F major–except when big gong comes around again and throws you back into E minor. Go back to your Casio and play those gong notes with your left hand while you noodle on pelog with the right.

All of this is super approximate, remember: the tuning system is considerably more subtle than what your accordion can do, and gamelan musicians absolutely do not think of this stuff in anything like the way I just described it. As near as I can tell, the Balinese sense of harmony is “throw everything on top of everything else in the most beautiful possible way.” But if your Western ear is looking for a way in, listen for the E minor meets F Lydian meets C major-seventh chord.

The magical barong invades a Çudamani performance.

We’ll talk more next week about superstar gamelan group Çudamani, the gorgeous temple ceremonies we’ve been to, and the dance music we’ve been learning. Our tireless Team Documentarian, KBOO stalwart Sean “The Bus Driver” Steward, has photos of everything. But for now, Mr. Campbell would like you know about the jazz festival happening right round the corner from Hong Phat Asian Market and the Academy Theater.

Montavilla Jazz Festival

What started out as a little neighborhood gathering has somehow — through the devoted efforts of dozens of volunteers — morphed into Portland’s finest single jazz showcase. This weekend’s edition of the annual Montavilla Jazz Festival offers an ideal mix of jazz veterans and rising stars, big bands and small combos, mainstream approaches and avant garde, classics and brand new music. (Read David Maclaine’s ArtsWatch review of last year’s festival.)

Saturday

The festival starts off light and breezy with pianist Kerry Politzer’s afternoon tribute to Brazilian bossa-nova-meets-bebop jazz composer Durval Ferreira, which produced the splendid new album Diagonal. Her band here features Eugene’s superb taxman Joe Manis, renowned Portland guitar master Dan Balmer and Politzer’s husband, George Colligan — on drums instead of his usual keyboard. (An excellent stickman, he plays mean trumpet too. See below for info on Colligan’s MJF Sunday gig.)

Secret drummer George Colligan.

Next, a mainstay of Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and other local bands, composer/saxophonist Bryan Smith, adds a welcome touch of ‘90s Northwest indie rock, including a fusion-style backbeat, to the West Coast cool jazz tradition. His 2018 multimedia project Let Me Take You There with poet/photographer Spohn interweaves evocative Northwest-themed, nature-inspired words and music among Smith’s tunes in updated Beat Gen style, which should get fingers snapping.

Sound artist Dana Reason’s multimedia Torque Songs might be the festival’s most fascinating show. Featuring a passel of progressive musicians, it includes animation and live visuals from Paris Myers, images and video from choreographer/dancer Paula Josa Jones, the vibrant voice of Like a Villain’s Holland Andrews, synth/computer sounds from Alissa DeRubeis, guitar and electronics from Mike Nord, flute and reed instruments by virtuoso John Savage, bass from renowned producer Todd Sickafoose, percussion from James West.

Wynton Marsalis protege and trumpeter Charlie Porter fronts his quintet sporting top PDX jazz vets, though not Mel Brown, who appears on Porter’s latest album including a showcase Porter wrote for him called “Mel Smiles.” Portland’s other busiest drum master, Alan Jones, occupies that seat, along with Manis, bassist Jon Lakey and and fluent pianist Greg Goebel.

Two drummers, better than one.

The indefatigable Mel Brown, who grew up in Northeast Portland’s legendary 1950s Jumptown before heading off to fame at Motown, makes the first of two appearances, this one his exuberant B3 Organ Group with Balmer, saxophonist Renato Caranto and organist extraordinaire Louis Pain, still pumping out blues, jazz and soul after 23 years. 

The indefatigable Mel Brown. Photo by Diane Russell.

The festival’s first day concludes with Portland keyboardist/bandleader Ezra Weiss playing original compositions from his trenchant new big band release, We Limit Not the Truth of God), which addresses today’s social upheaval in as personal and passionate way as I’ve heard from any Portland artist. Manis, Savage, Carranto, Porter, Douglas Detrick, Farnell Newton, Jones, Carlton Jackson and other Portland jazz all stars are on hand to help Weiss deliver his moving jazz message.

Sunday

Jazz meets Americana/R&B from Kathleen Hollingsworth’s trio opens the second day, followed by Ian Christensen’s Rolling House, a new ensemble (saxes, trombone, trumpet, bass, drums) showcasing one of the city’s most intriguing jazz composers. Colligan, one of Oregon’s most nationally renowned jazz masters, returns with his own new music with singer and fellow PSU faculty member Sherry Alves, who once coordinated Mel Brown’s Jazz Camp, followed by Portland’s own Woodstock (the one that happened half a century ago in upstate New York, that is) veteran Bobby Torres’s Latin jazz ensemble.

The vibe then heads in an outward direction with Creative Music Guild adventurer Michael Gamble’s improvised set with the great Seattle composer/keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, easily one of the planet’s most accessibly adventurous chamber jazz artists (Zony Mash, Sweeter Than the Day, Gravitas Quartet, various other innovative projects).

The festival closes with the headlining act: two of Portland’s most venerated jazz masters, drummer/bandleader Mel Brown and composer/pianist Gordon Lee reunite to perform Lee’s original music from his tasty 2004 album Flying Dream, arranged for this performance with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. 

The venerable Gordon Lee. Photo by Diane Russell.

Brown’s considerable legacy permeates this year’s MJF. Almost every performer can recount stories of seeing, hearing, and/or jamming with the ever-effervescent drum deity. Venerable Portland jazz writer, PJCE board member, and ArtsWatch contributor Lynn Darroch has called Brown a “golden thread,” running through, and holding together, Portland’s jazz scene.

Along with providing a scintillating snapshot of the state of Portland jazz, the festival benefits jazz education initiatives in Montavilla schools. Student performances are scattered throughout the weekend, and food and drink are available, plus a late Saturday night jam at nearby East Glisan Pizza Lounge. 

The tasty Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. Photo by Aaron Hayman.

Darroch calls the MJF organizers “jazz activists,” in that they’re “people who help to promote the art and various forms not in any one particular way and who do so because of their passion for the music and also their feeling that it works as a community resource.” That goes for the festival itself, too — it’s become an essential Oregon musical and community happening.

Montavilla Jazz Festival, 1:30-9:00 pm Saturday and Sunday. Portland Metro Arts, 9003 SE Stark. Tickets online.

Rock and/or roll

Thanks Brett!

Besides all that jazz, there’s plenty else a-happenin’ in Portland this week. While y’all are enduring a chill Second Summer and fighting fascism and disinformation on the streets, you could be freaking out with Nasalrod, Kulululu, and Wave Action at Mississippi Studios on Wednesday, spacing out with Dolphin Midwives, somesurprises, and Abronia at Holocene on Thursday, or even heading out to the Multnomah Arts Center on Southwest Capitol Highway to hear the MAC Women’s Chorus sing Purcell.

Or hell, why not pop into Dante’s on West Burnside Monday night for their long-running weekly Karaoke from Hell? I’ll bet the house band knows how to play “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” and I know you know all the words by now too.

Follow the bouncing ball!

The other big festival happening right now, though–and by right now I mean fucking today, Saturday, while you’re reading this and checking stats on the Proud Boys v. Antifa playoffs–is the fourth annual Portland Not Portlandia. Five measly US dollars gets you a wristband good for a whole day of local bands playing four different venues around Hawthorne.

Forty-two bands, people, and if you really hustle you could probably hear a little bit of each one while you get day stoned and play vintage arcade games. Find your new favorite! A Portland band could be your new religion!

But hey, if skronky bands and local composers aren’t your thing, I have two other shows to tell you about, and they could hardly be more different. Tonight it’s the Karaikudi Veena Quartet playing four veenas (with mridangam accompaniment) at First Christian Church on Southwest Park Avenue.

“Veena? Mridangam? First Christian? What are these strange words?” you might ask. The veena is a stringed instrument, ancestor to the sitar and used in certain types of Indian classical music. In most portraits of Saraswati–goddess of education, music, and science–you can spot a veena in one of Her hands. The mridangam is a double-headed drum, and the god you usually see with that one is Ganesha, remover and occasional imposer of obstacles.

Om Aing Mahasaraswatyai Namah

Just one of these veenas can fill a room with all manner of gorgeousity. I wish I were there to hear what four of them sound like together, but I’ll be busy worshipping Saraswati and Ganesha in person here in Bali. As for First Christian–well, go on down and see for yourself. Just be careful you don’t swept up in a reverse surveillance zone!

Here’s the other thing you gotta check out (if you’re not out in wine country with composer-violinist Jessie Montgomery, that is): An Orchestral Rendition of Dr. Dre 2001 at Crystal Ballroom, wherein a touring chamber orchestra joins up with live singers and DJs to perform the second of Dre’s mind-blowing solo records.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. For one thing, Portland audiences eat this kind of thing up when it’s Steve Hackman and the Oregon Symphony mashing up Drake and Tchaikovsky. And for another: it’s fuckin Dre, dude. Have you actually listened to that album? I’d put 2001 up against Kid A and Vespertine as one of the first great records of the aughts. I can’t blame you if you don’t care about the lyrics–I don’t care about the words either.

But the flow, man, the flow! And the layers upon layers of sick bass lines, trippy beats, and the tastiest, spookiest samples you’d ever expect to hear from a billionaire. If that’s your thing, you want to head down to West Burnside and check out it while I’m learning about interlocking parts at Balinese Band Camp.

Portland’s Gamelan Wahyu Dari Langit at band camp. Photo by Sean Steward.

That’s all for now, weirdos! Stay frosty, Little Beirut, and don’t forget your sunscreen!

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