nancy king

Safe distance sounds

A roundup of recent recommended Oregon jazz for your stay-at-home enjoyment

April is really the cruelest month this year. We haven’t gotten to appreciate jazz during this plague-plagued Jazz Appreciation Month in the way we should: by personally observing the spontaneous creation of the “sound of surprise” in a club or theater. So we indulged in the next best thing: listening to recent releases by Oregon jazz — and jazz-ish — musicians. You can do the same with any of the recommended recordings below by following the links.

Much of the music listed here involves at least some improvisation, making it ideal for this moment where we’re all making it up as we go. If you like what you hear, be sure to tip your servers — by paying for a download, supporting your neighbors who created that beauty, and thereby equipping your digital device with a musical survival kit for the next pandemic.

Vol. 2: Into the Flow

Saxophonist, flutist and composer Hailey Niswanger’s wanderings have taken her from her native Portland to New England’s prestigious Berklee School to Brooklyn and, now, Los Angeles. Her artistry has also found new territories, most recently in her electric band MAE.SUN, whose sunny, spacy new album, Vol. 2: Into the Flow, advances its predecessor, Inter-Be’s creative jazz/pop fusion/electronica and 2015’s groovy PDX Soul and joins the other pop-tinged LA-based bands bringing jazz into the 21st century. Still under 30, Niswanger always sounded fine in more straightahead jazz, winning praise from venerable jazz writer Nat Hentoff in the Wall Street Journal among others, but she’s really found an original voice in MAE.SUN.

Make that voices, because some of these tracks feature vocals, Niswanger’s own as well as guest singers Amber Navran (of Los Angeles-based soul trio Moonchild) and Australian-born, Brooklyn-based Kate K-S. The album also showcases vibraphonist Nikara Warren, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, keyboardist Axel Laugart, bassist Aaron Liao, drummer David Frazier Jr, synthist Jake Sherman and producer Drew Ofthe Drew. Fans of synthy fusion like Herbie Hancock and Charles Lloyd’s 1960s-‘70s forays, jazztronica explorations and even Esperanza Spalding’s more recent efforts will find plenty to enjoy in both volumes’ neo-hippie spirit. 


Montavilla Jazz Festival:  Journeys in space and time

Annual jazz celebration culminates in a dazzling musical voyage that transcended today's terrestrial troubles


In 1959 a student at the University of Oregon started singing jazz gigs with other music students, including future master Ralph Towner and Glenn Moore. A year later she moved to San Francisco, married a bandleader named Sonny King and took his last name. Soon she was touring, and for a couple of years you could hear her inventive jazz stylings in the Playboy clubs. (Where you could also take in Nat King Cole and Count Basie). But by 1970 the writing was on the wall: the musical world was not exactly crying out for the next great scat singer. So Nancy King settled down in Eugene to raise her three sons, gigging on weekends in Portland’s Benson Hotel. In 1976 she was featured on First Date, an album by jazz saxophonist Steve Wolfe. But that was it until the 1990s. By then the children were grown, and the fifty-year old singer was ready to embark on the second stage of her career.

Nancy King performed at the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser

It wasn’t exactly a belated rocketship ride to the top, but within the niche where the jazz survivors and the new generation carrying on the traditions kept alive their art she began to build a reputation. By 1999 King had reached the point where a reviewer of her album Moon Ray could lead off his rave account with the suggestion that “With the passing of Betty Carter, a case can be made that the mantle as preeminent bop and post-bop vocalist should be draped across the shoulders of Portland, Oregon denizen Nancy King.” In 2007 Ben Ratliff noted in the New York Times that “Musicians eventually spread the word eastward, but it took a long time before anything happened beyond high-quality admiration.” But that had changed at last, he averred: “This is Ms. King’s time; jazz singers in general have become very interested in her.”

Jazz fans are interested too, so much so that I almost missed my chance to hear King, who was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame in 2007, sing on the final night of the the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. I’m glad I didn’t. Her performance was one of those mind-altering excursions into another dimension that temporarily squelched my ability to translate an experience into words, a perfect embodiment of why some of us simply cannot live without the arts. Her set, which for the moment we will file under the cliche “out of this world,” was the culmination of a series of performances I saw during the festival at Portland Metro Arts: George Colligan and his keyboard, guitar and drum combo Other Barry; James Miley’s Watershed Suite; and the return to Portland of native daughter Nicole Glover, with the tenor saxophonist joined by Colligan on piano, John Lakey’s bass, and the drumming of Alan Jones. At each stop on my journeys during the festival, my thoughts kept darting back to the 1950s, and after the first evening’s headline event, the musical high induced by Glover’s brilliance carried with it the shadow of an alternative reality. My ears were in the here and now, but I couldn’t help imagining her blazing performance set in the very different musical world of the mid-1950s.


Music Notes

New music series, awards and honors, death and resurrection and other transitions in Oregon music news

As a new year begins, here’s one of our periodic roundups of recent news in Oregon music. This is only a smattering, of course. Got more news about Oregon music? Let us know, or leave it in the comments section below.

High Notes

On Sunday at its 40th Anniversary National Conference, Chamber Music America (CMA), the national network for ensemble music professionals, awarded longtime Chamber Music Northwest artistic director clarinetist David Shifrin its 2018 Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award, which annually  recognizes an individual or entity that has provided historic service to the small ensemble music field.

Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin.

Congrats to Oregon music stalwarts Randy Porter and Nancy King. The superb pianist and Lewis & Clark College faculty member and legendary singer received a Grammy Award nomination for their new album Randy Porter Plays Cole Porter, special guest Nancy King (Heavywood).  “If Randy Porter played more widely outside the US Pacific Northwest, he would likely be lauded as one of the leading contemporary jazz pianists,” wrote eminent jazz journalist Doug Ramsey. “This new album of songs composed by his namesake Cole Porter could go a long way toward bringing about wide recognition of an artist with a record of achievement going back more than three decades. Porter has toured extensively in Europe and Asia [and] is known on the west coast well beyond his home base in the Portland, Oregon, area. Six of the nine tracks find Nancy King, at 77, as musicianly as ever—individualistic and expressive, one of the few vocalists capable of improvising with harmonic wisdom equal to that of experienced instrumentalists.”

Eugene-based production company AO Films and Eugene Concert Choir won “Best Documentary” from the Oregon Independent Film Festival for their collaborative film, ”The Story of Shadow and Light: Giving Voice to an Alzheimer’s Journey”’

As we reported before the original performance, Eugene Concert Choir was awarded a $125,000 Creative Heights Initiative grant from the Fred W. Fields Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation to help fund the commission of a new composition for chamber choir and orchestra by Portland composer Joan Szymko of Oregon, as well as the world premiere performance in the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall, professional concert video and audio recordings, and the film documentary of the artistic journey.


Nancy King enhances the tunes at the PDX Jazz Festival

The great jazz singer at 73 is brilliant as ever at the Camellia Lounge


There can’t be any longtime jazz lovers in Portland who haven’t heard the wonder that is Nancy King. But newcomers should keep their eyes peeled for this diva’s next gig; after all, the divine Miz King will turn 74 this year.

Not that Nancy King shows any signs of slowing down. Although she walks with a couple of canes, her voice is as fresh and agile as ever, and judging from her Portland Jazz Festival date at the Camellia Lounge on February 22, her formidable musical chops are in fine fettle. And that’s very fine fettle indeed.

Nancy King and Steve Christofferson at Touché

Nancy King and Steve Christofferson at Touché

The jazz singer who is the legitimate heiress of jazz goddesses Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald charmed a cozy crowd with her trademark blend of songbook classics, bebop saxophone riffs, and reworked pop tunes: her version of Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” as a soulful blues, with a passage from Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” at the beginning and end, gives new life to that rock ‘n’ roll oldie.

In fact Nancy King expands and enhances every tune she touches. Her version of Rodgers & Hart’s 1926 oldie “Mountain Greenery,” which she recorded years ago with bassist Glen Moore (and no other accompaniment) on her album Impending Bloom, improves the original’s cornball lyrics — “Beans could get no keener reception in a beanery” — with magnificent scatting.

King similarly transformed the Sammy Cahn/McCoy Tyner ballad “You Taught My Heart to Sing,” improving on Dianne Reeves’s hit single of yesteryear, and she made Rod McKuen’s treacly “I Think of You” into a moving love song. With pianist Steve Christofferson’s sturdy backing, Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas Way” was a rocking Caribbean dance.

Another Sammy Cahn tune, “Day by Day,” led to her reminiscing about hearing Nancy Wilson with Cannonball Adderley in New York back in the day. Then it was on to a song made famous by her idol, Ella Fitzgerald, called “He’s a Carioca,” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. But King had saved the best for last.

In Cole Porter’s 1943 song “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” she leapt fearlessly into an extended a cappella cadenza based on a Sonny Rollins tenor sax riff, and then she closed her set with a version of Billie Holiday and Mal Waldron’s “All Alone,” in which her perfect tuning — she started the song a cappella — would have been revelation in most other singers, but seemed perfectly natural — normal, really — from her. The capacity audience, which included singer-pianist Bob Dorough, gave her a standing ovation, not something you see everyday in jazz clubs, even in Portland.

So, you young jazz Turks and Portland newcomers, get yourself to that next Nancy King date. The woman is one of America’s home-grown treasures, and there won’t be another like her.


Nancy King will play a “Supper Jazz” show 7-10 pm Friday, March 7, at the Bijou Cafe, 132 SW Third Ave., Portland. Reservations are recommended: (503) 222-3187.

Watch for more Terry Ross reviews from the just-concluded Portland Jazz Festival.

Choral Arts Ensemble sings songs from the stage.

Choral Arts Ensemble sings songs from stage musicals and operas.

One often overlooked value of Oregon classical music is its frequent appearance in benefits for noble causes, especially for students. The weekend offers several opportunities to hear good music and help good causes.

On Friday and Saturday, Portland Chamber Orchestra plays music from classic films — including arrangements by venerable Portland classical music legend Norman Leyden, who’ll be there Saturday to receive a lifetime achievement award. The Saturday concert is also preceded by a fundraiser for this important Oregon music institution.

The other big symphonic show this weekend is the Oregon Symphony‘s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony #2, Paul Hindemith’s colorful “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber,” and Franz Liszt’s Romantic Piano Concerto #2, with the solo part graced by the much-lauded virtuoso Stephen Hough.

Another good cause benefits from Moussai Remix‘s Sunday performance of string quartets by Prokofiev and Mendelssohn at Portland’s Ivories Jazz Lounge: proceeds will help pay for a young string quartet to go to summer music camp. And still another worthy beneficiary, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, gains when Greg Lief plays piano music by Debussy, Beethoven and Chopin Saturday at Milwaukie’s Classic Pianos.

While PCO looks to the screen, the Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland draws inspiration from the stage. On Saturday and Sunday at Portland’s St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, the choir sings music from operas and stage musicals by Bernstein, Copland, Berlin, Verdi and more.

Portland’s fabulous Resonance Ensemble will be singing and three different organists playing music by some of Oregon’s finest living composers Sunday afternoon at Marylhurst University’s St. Anne’s Chapel when Cascadia Composers convene for performances of music by the excellent Oregon composers Tomas Svoboda, Bonnie Miksch (from Portland State), Michael Johanson (from Lewis & Clark College) and more.


Cantores in Ecclesia performs
at the William Byrd Festival.

This weekend’s relatively sparse classical music action mostly happens in Portland churches. The annual William Byrd Festival continues Saturday and Sunday at Holy Rosary Church with liturgical services and two masses by its great English Renaissance namesake performed by the fine Portland choir Cantores in Ecclesia.

Friday offers a rare summer glimpse of instrumental Baroque music at north Portland’s St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church, where the early music ensemble Musica Maestrale (comprising some of the Northwest’s historically informed specialists including Portland lutenist Hideki Yamaya and Seattle viola da gamba player Polly Gibson) performs Polish music by Renaissance and Baroque composers you’ve probably never heard or even heard of — Milwid, Dlugoraj, Cato — except possibly Silvius Leopold Weiss.

On Saturday at southeast Portland’s All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Baroque oboe specialist Robert Morgan (who also plays with Chicago modern instrument orchestras and commissions new works for the instrument) headlines the annual Northwest oboe seminar and closing concert, which also features other masters of the instrument, such as Oregon Bach Festival and Chamber Music Northwest veteran Alan Vogel.

Also on Friday, the Salem Chamber Orchestra introduces its new principal conductor, Nikolas Caoile, who’ll play piano in a chamber music concert at Villa Bacca Collina featuring two 20th century masterpieces: Aaron Copland’s Duo for Flute and Piano (with Sarah Tiedemann) and Debussy’s Violin Sonata (with Daniel Rouslin).