Kenny Barron

Portland Jazz Festival reviews: Ramsey’s wrap up

Renowned jazz journalist's reviews of the 2016 jazz extravaganza

By DOUG RAMSEY

Photos by MARK SHELDON

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch is honored to feature the first appearance on our pages of one of America’s most esteemed jazz journalists, former Portland resident Doug Ramsey, who was back in town for the 2016 Portland Jazz Festival. He conducted one of the festival’s Jazz Conversations with piano legend Kenny Barron and issued reviews on his excellent blog, Rifftides. We rounded them up and, with Ramsey’s permission, are re-publishing them here.

Sullivan Fortner

In his solo piano concert opening the Portland Jazz Festival last night, Sullivan Fortner surveyed a wide territory of styles and wrapped them into his own. At the Bösendorfer grand in the recital hall of Classic Pianos, Fortner’s program ranged from a spiky treatment of Bronislaw Kaper’s “Invitation” through an encore saluting Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

Sullivan Fortner ©2016-Mark Sheldon.

Sullivan Fortner ©2016-Mark Sheldon.

Fresh from winning the American Pianists Association’s Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz, Fortner incorporated influences both subtle and obvious. He used the blues to work his way into “Making Whoopee and invested the performance with a rollicking quote from “Surrey With The Fringe on Top” and a sly borrowing from Willie The Lion Smith’s “Echoes of Spring.” Fortner seems anything but calculated in his improvisations. In “Someone to Watch Over Me,” he led himself briefly into what might have been a blind harmonic alley and with a daring octave leap found a way out. He made a transition from Bill Evans’s “Very Early” to his own composition “Ballade,” which included a lovely cycle-of-5ths section.

Although he can be dazzling in his use of technique, nothing Fortner plays seems intended purely for effect. He made clever paraphrases of the melody in “Just One of Those Things,” worked in a few seconds of waltz time, hinted at James P. Johnson’s swing feeling, then went into the full stride piano style of which Johnson was the master. Introducing his melding of Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose” and Strayhorn’s “Star Crossed Lovers,” he described their storied partnership as a “love story” inspired by the Divinity, then reflected on his own love of the piano and of music.

Fortner dedicated “My Favorite Things” to John Coltrane. He created an introduction that may have had its inspiration in Coltrane’s free period, slid into a liberal interpretation of the famous melody, made a tag ending that flirted with ¾ time, then used a series of key changes to bring the piece home. The festival—dedicated to Coltrane—was off to a good start.

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Portland Jazz Festival review: Pianists prevail

Though the spotlight shone on saxophones, keyboard masters tickled heartstrings and ivories at the 2016 festival

Story by ANGELA ALLEN

Photos by MARK SHELDON

Virtuoso saxophonists were the Coltrane-centric Portland Jazz Festival’s backbone Feb. 18-28: Joe Lovano, Gary Bartz, Nicole Glover, Charles Lloyd, Sonny Fortune, Renato Caranto, Pharoah Sanders, Ravi Coltrane — not in that order.

The keyboardists, though, stole my heart — not only the soloists but the sidemen who played in trios and quartets, duos and big bands, alongside the headliners.

Gerald Clayton © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Gerald Clayton © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Throughout the 11-night extravaganza, musicians brought so much technical talent. They delivered high-spirited performances with originality, even if I heard second-week high-profilers Ravi Coltrane and Orrin Evans complain that audiences demand the oldies, limiting experimentation that fuels new music.

Some special recognition over the jazz festival week, mostly keyboard-related.

Most whimsical piece: “Shed,” named for saxophonist Joshua Redman’s mother, Renee Shedroff. Aaron Goldberg composed and played it, stretching his neck like an Egyptian muse or a cobra, during his first-week solo concert at Classic Pianos. Heavy on staccato notes with some fun rhythmic structure in the left hand, it spoofs Redman’s sax practicing — and he practices a lot, according to Goldberg. Redman is one of Goldberg’s mentors, collaborators and role models: They both went to Harvard and Goldberg picked his brain for how to survive Harvard and remain a driven jazz musician (don’t play with Harvard guys, they both say).

Goldberg is a smooth, cerebral pianist, technically savvy, a lover of Brazilian song, a master of control. His newest CD, The Now, with several Brazilian-inspired cuts, shows his respect for that country’s vibrant song-writing tradition, which Goldberg claims equals, sometimes surpasses, America’s songbook these days. He is such a skilled improviser and fluid player that songs move seamlessly and stealthily into one another. “Autumn Leaves” emerged as one of the few instantly recognized pieces.

Most moving trio keyboard playing: Gerald Clayton, son of band leader and bassist John Clayton and a 31-year-old piano phenom, helped the very tall and slightly stooped Charles Lloyd on and off the Newmark Theatre stage during the first weekend. Clayton climbed high to the peaks and fell deep to the valleys of the “Wild Man Dance Suite” with the lyrical Lloyd, who will be a remarkable 78 years old this month. Clayton and drummer Eric Harland amped up the quartet with their solos. In Portland in previous years with the SF Jazz Collective and other gigs, Harland plays on Goldberg’s The Now. During Lloyd’s concert, he knocked out the sweetest, softest, most dynamic — OK, most orgasmic —drum solo of the fest. He doesn’t answer his email from writers he doesn’t know, but hey, if he can drum like that …

Brandee Younger © 2016 Mark Sheldon-PDX JAZZ -3015

Brandee Younger © 2016 Mark Sheldon

Best educator: Although I didn’t catch every concert, I’d lay bets on harpist Brandee Younger. During her sold-out solo concert at Classic Pianos on Feb. 28, she took the eager audience through Dorothy Ashby interpretations, including Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” a Welsh folk song, classic harp compositions from composer Alphonse Hasselmans, Charlie Haden’s “For Turiya,” standards “Embraceable You” and “My Funny Valentine,” and best of all, Alice Coltrane’s Hindu-inspired “Rama Rama.”

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