Portland Opera Puccini

Spontaneity and improvisation: 45 Parallel’s Holiday Pub Crawl featured a pair of singer-songwriters, a jazz trio, klezmer violin and clarinets, a cello sextet, and a warning from the fire marshall

45||’s four-venue evening sprawled across Mississippi Avenue in North Portland, featuring: singer-songwriters Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk; clarinetists James Shields, Mark Dubac, and new executive director Lisa Lipton, plus violinist and outgoing ED Ron Blessinger; the all-star jazz trio of John Nastos, Clay Giberson, and Christopher Brown; the North Pole Cello Sextet; and some fancy footwork.

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The North Pole Cello Sextet with drummer Sergio Carreno at Mississippi Studios for 45th Parallel Universe's 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by James Shields.
The North Pole Cello Sextet with drummer Sergio Carreno at Mississippi Studios for 45th Parallel Universe’s 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by James Shields.

On December 19, 45th Parallel Universe put on a four-venue Pub Crawl along Mississippi Avenue in North Portland. Clarinetist, Mendelssohn’s owner, and one-who-does-a-bit-of-everything-music-related Lisa Lipton organized the event, and mere hours later a press release went out announcing her as the new Executive Director for 45th Parallel. The crawl took place on a relatively short stretch of the hip avenue, between Mendelssohn’s and Mississippi Studios to the north, Siren Theater in the middle, and Mississippi Pizza to the south. I was also told by one of those involved that the 1905 was going to be included in the crawl, before current events conspired against such a thing. 

The four–plus hour crawl began at the Siren Theater, via an inconspicuous entrance through which one could hear jazz music. On stage were a trio of Portland jazz scene mainstays: John Nastos on alto sax, Clay Giberson on keys, and Christopher Brown on drums. They ostensibly played Christmas songs, though they did stretch what could be considered a “Christmas song.” Does Jimmy Heath’s angular, up-tempo twelve-bar blues in B-flat “Gingerbread Boy” qualify as a Christmas song? Not really, but they wanted to play it– and they did so at the start of their set, making it clear that the Christmas theme was only a loose one. (Makes me wonder what other standards could be construed as christmas songs: “Misty”? “Hot Toddy”? “Stormy Weather”?)

L to R: Clay Giberson, John Nastos, and Christopher Brown at Siren Theater for 45th Parallel Universe's 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by Ron Blessinger.
L to R: Clay Giberson, John Nastos, and Christopher Brown at Siren Theater for 45th Parallel Universe’s 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by Ron Blessinger.

They continued later with “My Favorite Things,” which is a bit closer to a non-traditional Christmas number with lyrics describing “bright copper kettle and warm woolen mittens,” “snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes,” “silver white winters that melt into springs,” and all the rest (incidentally, The Sound of Music is technically not a Christmas movie, but it fits the season well). The song has remained a standard since Coltrane released his famous recording in 1961, before sending the tune to outer space and beyond with some truly wild live renditions. Nastos and company leaned much closer to the more restrained ‘61 version, with frequent beat shifts and impressive cymbal work from Brown.

I’ve known these three for years, ever since I was a teenager at the now-defunct Mel Brown Jazz Camp. All three are phenomenal musicians. Brown has some of the most perfect technique I’ve ever seen a drummer use, as every stroke uses exactly as much muscle contraction as necessary. He also shows immense creativity behind the kit, switching seamlessly between bossa, rock, swing and afro-cuban grooves and avoiding the “ding ding da-ding” jazz beat as much as possible. Watching Brown play is like watching the precise choreography of industrial machinery–even more impressive since he is improvising.

Nastos served as band leader, calling out tunes and snapping for tempo. His approach to the classic melodies twisted them in clever ways through his tone of liquid legatos and a tasteful touch of that signature alto snarl. Giberson, meanwhile, served as both accompaniment and bass in the band, walking bass lines with his left hand on an organ patch. One standout performance of the set came during Giberson’s solo on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” where he reached as far out as he could, layering octatonic and whole tone scales over a pretty straightforward C major song. 

The skinniest bar in Portland

At the top of the hour I walked up the street to Lisa Lipton’s bar Mendelssohn’s. One patron that night called it “the skinniest bar in Portland,” referring to its fifteen-foot width and not to the size of the menu. The menu features many cocktails with punn-y names music fans will get like “the Picardy Third” (their take on a whiskey sour), the “Midsummer Night’s Dare” (a boulevardier), and “a Drink Without Words” (a cosmo). They also have a small menu of charcuterie and sandwiches. I had a glass of Fernet, which tastes somewhere between menthol cigarettes and cough syrup–and I mean this as a compliment. If you’re curious, try mixing it with Coca-Cola like they do in Argentina

But the real draw of Mendelsson’s is the live music and atmosphere: a quiet bar where patrons are there to listen to the musicians perched up in the back. On any other night you can hear Opera-oke, accordion, cello and others at Mendy’s. For this pub crawl we heard Klezmer clarinets, with three clarinettists taking turns: Lipton herself, James Shields and Mark Dubac. Joining them was Ron Blessinger on violin to add some of those characteristic Klezmer harmonizations. Unfortunately since I got there late the bar was already packed, so I stood in the back trying to hear over the crowd–though you would be surprised how well a violin and clarinet, two fairly quiet instruments, carry in such a space.

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante

Inside Mendelssohn's for 45th Parallel Universe's 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by James Shields.
Inside Mendelssohn’s for 45th Parallel Universe’s 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by James Shields.

I showed up too late to the Mississippi Pizza open mic and was turned away from the venue (which was already at capacity) so as to not upset the Fire Marshall. On a side note, the adjoining bar, the Atlantis Lounge, does live music nearly every night, from open mics to experimental music. But that was no matter, since I could head back to the Siren and catch the end of Nastos and company’s set, which was a tune of Nastos’ called “Up in the Air.” Once again, this song had supposedly nothing to do with Christmas, though something about the melody did remind me of “Frosty the Snowman.” The space was relatively small with a modest seating of folding chairs and high tables, creating that intimate atmosphere best suited for live jazz.

I was told this was the first of its kind (an organized pub crawl on Mississippi), though I know people have marched up and down the street slinking between venues on a whim. Trekking on a pub crawl, much like playing jazz, requires playing it by ear. It rewards those who remain loose and flexible, able to adapt to changing circumstances. On a previous night on Mississippi years ago, my friends and I turned what was supposed to be a one-bar experience into a night that stretched across blocks, with live music phasing into cornhole and conversations in the blistering cold of a Portland winter. Going into a pub crawl with a rigid course of action, to me, takes away a bit of the fun and spontaneity.

Inside Mendelssohn's for 45th Parallel Universe's 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by James Shields.
Inside Mendelssohn’s for 45th Parallel Universe’s 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by James Shields.

Spontaneity and improvisation

In the interim before the final show started I sat in Bar Bar–Mississippi Studios’ sister pub–having a bite and watching the end of the Trail Blazers game (where they snapped their seven-game losing streak against an on-paper superior team, the Phoenix Suns). I hadn’t planned to watch the game–I was at work, after all–but again, spontaneity and improvisation allowed me the time and space for it. It also offered a much-needed reprieve from the last few hours of music and walking up and down the street. 

Inside Mississippi Studios proper, patrons began to filter in for the final show: the North Pole Cello Sextet performing an arrangement of Duke Ellington’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite (this concert was a reprise of the previous night’s show at the Old Madeleine Theater). OSO percussionist Sergio Carreno joined them on a small drum set, with the bass drum hidden behind the curtain, low-volume cymbals and tiny tom-toms.

The North Pole Cello Sextet with drummer Sergio Carreno at Mississippi Studios for 45th Parallel Universe's 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by Ron Blessinger.
The North Pole Cello Sextet with drummer Sergio Carreno at Mississippi Studios for 45th Parallel Universe’s 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by Ron Blessinger.

Before the sextet went on stage we got a smattering of tunes by singer-songwriter and founder and co-owner of Mississippi Studios, Jim Brunberg. Brunberg interspersed between each number a verse or two from his song “I don’t want anything for Christmas,” with a sing-along chorus that took a minute for the audience to get into–but when it hits, it hits. His playing was loose and fun, cracking a smile as he missed a chord, starting and stopping to remember the words he wrote, and displaying excellent showmanship.

For me there were two highlights of his set. The first was a fun rendition of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” with collaborator Ben Landsverk. There were some missed chords here but excusable considering it’s perhaps one of the most harmonically dense pop songs ever written, along with “God Only Knows” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The second was a folksy arrangement of a some Mozart piece in G major (there’s so many it’s hard to tell which one), with Blessinger, Lipton, and Brunberg’s daughter covering the violin, clarinet and flute parts respectively and Brunberg singing in-between the wind sections.

The North Pole Cello Sextet with drummer Sergio Carreno and singer-songwriter Jim Brunberg at Mississippi Studios for 45th Parallel Universe's 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by Ron Blessinger.
The North Pole Cello Sextet with drummer Sergio Carreno and singer-songwriter Jim Brunberg at Mississippi Studios for 45th Parallel Universe’s 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by Ron Blessinger.

You may have been wondering, “wait, Ellington’s Nutcracker isn’t for six cellos?!” And you’d be correct. This rendition was an arrangement by Nastos, who made his way to the show after just playing down the street. There are some more dramatic changes from the Tchaikovsky-to-Ellington conversion, with the “March of the Toy Soldiers” becoming a booming shout-chorused bop and the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” going from a light dance to a heavy, slow and weepy one. Nastos’ arrangement of an arrangement was quite good. It stays much closer to Ellington’s re-imagining of the original, and the subtleties of the jazz suite remain, from the pitch bends to the changes in texture and tone color and the swinging rhythm. He even gave solos to various members of the sextet throughout.

Sponsor

PPH Passing Strange

As the culmination of a busy night, it left us on a high note before the busy holiday weekend set in. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In 2023 he received a masters degree in music from Portland State University. During his tenure there he served as the school's theory and musicology graduate teaching assistant and the lead editor of the student-run journal Subito. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He also releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

 

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