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PDX Jazz Festival reviews: Brothers and sisters

The annual festival's first-weekend concerts brightest moments emerged from performers -- blood relatives or not -- whose music had a family feel

by DOUG RAMSEY
Photos by Mark Sheldon

The Branford Marsalis Quartet and singer Kurt Elling combined in the first major concert of the 2017 Portland, Oregon PDX Jazz Festival. A packed audience in the capacious Newmark Theater heard a Thursday might performance that drew upon their recent album Upward Spiral. The principals listened intently to one another and appeared to be enjoying their work as much as they did in this earlier encounter.

With his rich harmonic palette and hard swing, longtime Marsalis pianist Joey Calderazzo generated audience enthusiasm equal to that shown the co-leaders. The strong support of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner intensified as they buoyed the proceeding when Marsalis, Elling and Calderazzo were soloing. Calderazzo’s—no other word for it—fierce playing on the opening number set a joyous mood that suffused the concert and moderated only when tempos slowed on ballads.

One of those ballads was the 1950s Nat Cole hit “Blue Gardenia,” which Elling sang with affecting simplicity. He finished the piece on a high note held longer than a human oxygen supply might be expected to last. Marsalis’s ballad triumph, on soprano saxophone, came in an Antonio Carlos Jobim piece, “Só Tinha de Ser Com Você,” that is little-known compared to much of Jobim’s extensive output.

Following the PDX festival audience’s customary standing ovation and cheers, the concert ended with “St. James Infirmary.” Marsalis performed the piece with the New Orleans flavor that characterizes his best work. Elling’s obbligato, using a water glass and his voice to suggest trombone sounds, was an unexpected touch that fell just short of being vaudevillian.

Orchestral Poetry

The Maria Schneider Orchestra filled the Newmark to capacity. She is a composer and arranger who conducts with a fluid style that parallels the poetic content of her music. Her program last Friday night in Portland consisted of pieces from her orchestra’s albums over two decades or more, and some of her recent work. It began with “A Powder Song,” a new composition combining power and grace that provided the setting for a stunning extended accordion solo by Gary Versace. Yes, accordion. In the right hands it can be a musical instrument. Versace’s are the right hands. Trombone soloist Marshall Gilkes and trumpeter Greg Gisbert followed Versace, keeping the level of fluency high.

“Gumba Blues” from Schneider’s first album (1994) is stylistic evidence of her study with the protean composer and arranger Gil Evans. It featured extended work from alto saxophonist Steve Wilson and another round of Versace’s accordion wizardry. This orchestra of gifted soloists has empathy that puts it in a category with the camaraderie of Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, Claude Thornhill and—going back even more decades— Fletcher Henderson in the late 1920s and Duke Ellington’s 1940-41 band.

Other highlights:

• A complex new piece by Schneider in observance of the increasing power and threat of digital technology as it spreads into every aspect of our lives. She introduced it by quoting the scientist Stephen Hawking’s prediction that by 2035 the robots we have created will take over the world—and mankind. Called “Data Lords,” it featured an impressive young trumpeter, Mike Rodriguez.

• A magnificent baritone saxophone essay by Scott Robinson on “Winter Morning Walks.” Introducing it, Ms. Schneider read the Ted Kooser poem that inspired the piece and the title of her album featuring classical soprano Dawn Upshaw.

• “Coming About,” from the 1996 album of that title. It had a long, satisfying piano solo by Frank Kimbrough and a Donny McCaslin tenor saxophone solo that gathered momentum as it developed and carried the orchestra with it.

• “Sky Blue,” with another Steve Wilson alto saxophone solo saturated with feeling; the feeling of the blues.

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