Portland Center Stage Rent Portland Oregon

Weekly (p)reviews: A beautiful noise

The Cookers at PDX Jazz Fest; Old Time Relijun at Holocene; Dinosaur Jr. at Wonder Ballroom

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There are many reasons to celebrate the return of the PDX Jazz Festival, not the least of which is the return of live, in-person concerts after organizers were forced to hold only virtual events in 2021. Of those shows happening over the week, there’s a nice balance between local performers like pianist Darrell Grant, post-bop ensemble Blue Cranes, and beatmaker Omari Jazz and visiting artists. As well, the festival lineup is packed with younger musicians who are pushing this American-born artform in fascinating new directions, such as drummer and beat scientist Makaya McCraven, spiritual jazz dynamo Angel Bat Dawid, and pianist Robert Glasper who fuses jazz, R&B, and hip-hop with his Black Radio project.

The truly praiseworthy aspect of the festival is that PDX Jazz still has a mind toward honoring the men and women who have been foundational to the genre — the older artists who have been playing jazz for upwards of 60 years. It’s a class that is getting smaller by the day, but thankfully many of them are still out there treading the boards and making a beautiful noise. 

While many of these legacy artists aren’t doing much traveling these days to rightfully protect themselves from a potential COVID exposure, some of them are making their way to Portland this week for a performance. Gary Bartz, the 81-year-old saxophonist who played with Art Blakey and Miles Davis, will be performing two shows on Saturday, February 19 with a trio of local players (pianist George Colligan, drummer Charles Brown, and bassist Christian Ramirez), and the sensational vocalist Diane Schurr will be here on Friday February 18. 

But perhaps the most exciting nod to jazz history at the festival comes by way of The Cookers, an all-star ensemble that brings together seven unquestionable legends: saxophonists Billy Harper and Donald Harrison, trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart.

The Cookers at Van Gelder Studio in 2021. Photo by John Abbott.
The Cookers at Van Gelder Studio in 2021. Photo by John Abbott.

Each individual player has a discography that runs on for pages, with instantly recognizable names like Sonny Rollins, Martha Reeves, Herbie Hancock, and Alice Coltrane jumping out throughout. It’s a legacy they’re proud of but don’t want to get comfortable resting on. Even as some of them are well into their eighth decade of life, the Cookers still feel that they have more to learn. 

“Why would I not?” asks McBee, 86, when I suggested that to him recently. “I’m a continuum of what began when I was 18 years of age. I have no choice. I’m constantly realizing other things I can develop with the instrument. It’s not something that I could resist.”

Cookers bassist Cecil McBee. Photo by John Abbott.
Cookers bassist Cecil McBee. Photo by John Abbott.

What is helping McBee and his fellow Cookers continue to advance as players is the support they offer each other onstage and off, and the ease with which they found their collective chemistry. The group initially got together in 2009 as part of a tribute concert for the late trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. The performance sparked something within all the men, especially Cookers arranger David Weiss, encouraging them to keep exploring this group dynamic.

“Some of these guys I’ve known for half a century,” says Henderson, 81, citing his time playing with Hart in Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band and his appearances on several of Harper’s albums. “I think that’s important when we know each other musically and personally, we can trust each other during our solos. If we go out and then step out of our normal character, we can be assured that we’re going to be supported by the people in the group because we all love each other.” 

The comfort that The Cookers have playing together while also reaching out for new heights is evident throughout the six albums the group has released to date. Tracks like “Tight Squeeze,” from the 2012 album Believe, or “Dance of the Invisible Nymph” from 2014’s Time and Time Again (both McBee compositions) find the players approaching melodies with the hard angles of a cubist painting. The group’s most recent album Look Out!, meanwhile, is marked by warm harmonies that make great use of their four horn lineup.

Crucial to the group is the instinctual shorthand that the group has established when they get together in the studio and on stage. With as much experience as they have under their collective belt, each man knows when to step up and when to back off. 

Or as Henderson puts it, “if the branch of the tree doesn’t bend when the wind blows it breaks. We have all learned to bend in terms of the beat or the harmony, the tonality. It’s a constant evolutionary moving thing. Nothing is static. That’s the ideal.” 

The Cookers perform on Tuesday February 22 at Alberta Rose Theatre (3000 NE Alberta, Portland) at 8 pm. Tickets: $39.50 advance / $45 day of show. Masks and proof of COVID vaccination (or negative PCR test taken within two days of event / Antigen test taken within one day of event) required for entry.

Cookers trumpeter Eddie Henderson. Photo by John Abbott.
Cookers trumpeter Eddie Henderson. Photo by John Abbott.

Kind of grueling

Pandemic restrictions forced so many of us to use new technologies and forced us to try out new ways of working to survive. For musicians that often meant negotiating the world of live streaming and recording entirely separate from the rest of one’s collaborators. For some, it offered up fresh inspiration and exciting challenges. Others, like the members of Olympia skronk-blues trio Old Time Relijun, had a different take.

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“It was kind of grueling,” says OTR leader Arrington de Dionyso. 

“I was going to say brutal,” bassist Aaron Hartman interjects. 

“Yeah, it was a pretty violent process in some ways,” de Dionyso continues. “Aaron and I were both desiring to make a really amazing album, but our levels of desire for working on it at a given time weren’t necessarily happening at the same time. Sometimes Aaron would be texting me in the middle of the night or early in the morning like, ‘Hey, I sent you these bass lines a couple of weeks ago, have you written words yet? Have you put guitar on it?’ There was a lot of push and pull.” 

Whatever pains the two men–and their newest addition, drummer A. Walker Spring–took to create their latest full-length Musicking, the album doesn’t sound strained or awkwardly constructed. The trio continues their unbroken run of brilliance, with a collection of tunes that are performed as if each member is pulling something equal parts painful and pleasurable from their cores. De Dionyso still performs with the passion and sweat of a tent revival minister, fanned occasionally by the reedy tones of throat singing. And everyone tangles with their respective instruments with joyous abandon.

Those qualities have been the mark of Old Time Relijun’s music since the group’s inception in the late ’90s. Inspired by the jerking rhythms and unbound spirit of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, the group was a perfect fit for the teenage caveman rock that Olympia and the city’s flagship record label K Records are known for. 

The foundational qualities of OTR’s sound have remained the same since, but new textures have been brought into the mix via de Dionyso’s continued exploration of music from non-Western cultures. When the band went on a long hiatus following 2007’s Catharsis In Crisis, he traveled widely, studying and jamming with local musicians in Morocco, Tuva, and throughout Asia. The influence of those experiences are clear in de Dionyso’s solo efforts–or his other projects, like Malaikat Dan Singa–but when it comes to OTR, the connections are far more subtle. 

“Even back in the original OTR lineup, we would bring whatever we were listening to at the time to rehearsal,” de Dionyso says. “The result was never trying to sound like any of the things that we would bring in. It would be capturing the spirit or sensibility. And you could take that idea and apply it to this totally messy, skronky kind of punk-ish thing that we’re doing. It’s not going to sound anything at all like what we’re culling from. And it becomes so disguised that it’s not really even an influence.” 

Old Time Relijun performs on Thursday February 17 at Holocene (1001 SE Morrison, Portland). Tickets: $15. Masks and proof of full COVID vaccination, including boosters, or negative rapid test required for entry.

Olympian skronk-blues trio Old Time Relijun. Photo by Alicia J. Rose.
Olympian skronk-blues trio Old Time Relijun. Photo by Alicia J. Rose.

Dinosaur Jr., Friday February 11 @ Wonder Ballroom

Fifteen years after their reunion, it still doesn’t feel as though the world really appreciates how perfect Dinosaur Jr. has been since J Mascis brought the band’s original rhythm section of Lou Barlow and Murph back into the fold. And I’m not solely talking about the untouchable run of albums the trio has recorded since 2007. 

Watching the band onstage at the Wonder Ballroom for the first of the group’s quick two-night run in Portland, I was struck at how Barlow and Murph are the perfect foils for Mascis. They are a strong yet flexible force for the guitarist to bounce his ripping solos and thick clouds of melody off of. Murph is one of the steadiest drummers alive, approaching every song with the focus of a mathematician piecing together a formula. Barlow plays his bass with both power and economy. He utilizes big downstrokes of his right hand while his left makes sweeping slides up and down the neck. It’s a melody / countermelody push-and-pull that helped maintain the band’s connection to both ’70s hard rock and ’80s indie. 

The combination of raw elements that the three men continue to bring together remains explosive even if their live sets are now devolving into pure fan service. The night opened up with a run of songs from last year’s Sweep It Into Space, which included a nicely aggressive take on Lou Barlow’s “Garden.” 

But once those were done, Mascis, with a touch of relief in his voice, let the crowd know that those were the new songs. From that point on, Dinosaur Jr. returned to the tried and true, with selections from the group’s ’80s and ’90s work. All the favorites came out, from “In A Jar” to “Feel The Pain.” Perhaps a necessity to keep the ticketholders satisfied, but slightly disappointing when there’s so much recent brilliance to tap into. 

There were plenty of little thrilling details within the greatest hits section. Barlow helped lift the band’s ’90s material — a period of time where he was not a part of the group — with the perfect vocal harmonies and blunter bass work. To more closely replicate the version of “The Wagon” the band recorded for a Sub Pop single, they brought in a second drummer and an extra guitarist. And as the band thundered through “Raisans,” a track from the 1987 masterpiece You’re Living All Over Me, Mascis took the opportunity to take off with an extended solo that didn’t let up for the better part of 10 minutes. It was bewitching to see Mascis realize just how far out he could go as a guitarist with the strong foundation of his bandmates to hold him up.

Dinosaur Jr. at Wonder Ballroom, Feb. 11 2022. Photo by Robert Ham.
Dinosaur Jr. at Wonder Ballroom, Feb. 11 2022. Photo by Robert Ham.

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Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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