Weekly (p)reviews: What if?

Mia Pixley brings her cello to Newmark Theatre; James Powers jams his birthday at The 1905; HANiF dishes disses at Georgie’s

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Outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s best not to deal in “What if”s. But the story of how Mia Pixley came to choose the cello as her main musical instrument brings up all kinds of tantalizing alternate timeline possibilities. 

When she was around four years old, Pixley’s older sister came home with a violin, loaned to her by the String Project at the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music. “And I was like, ‘Where’s my violin?’” Pixley remembers. “My mom said, ‘Oh, you want to play an instrument?’ Yeah, I do!” But upon returning to the school, all the violins had been rented out.

Cellist Mia Pixley. Photo by Victor Xie.
Cellist Mia Pixley. Photo by Victor Xie.

While she grumbled a bit about lugging home a cello that day, once Pixley began playing it, she was an immediate convert. “It really suited me,” she says. “I love the cello so much. It’s so satisfying.” 

The only reason to indulge in any multiverse fantasies about Pixley as a violinist comes hearing how deftly she uses the cello in her own work and in collaboration with composers and artists of all disciplines. On her latest album Margaret In The Wild, the instrument cuts to the front of her soul-pop compositions—plucked like a bass to anchor the hip swiveling “Mama’s Got Snacks” or bursting through the gently rippling ballad “Watering” like the sun reflecting off a lake with a vibrantly bowed solo.

When working with others, Pixley often pulls focus. Her slowly bowed lines on modern blues artist Fantastic Negrito’s “Dark Windows” are necessary to keep that song rooted to the ground. And throughout her membership in groups like the indie folk outfit Laetoli Steps and the quirky Brooklyn trio The Debutante Hour, Pixley’s cello and voice are often the difference between a good song and a great one. 

Truth be told, there’s really no need to imagine Pixley traveling a different road in her life, as she already spends much of her days zig-zagging among a network of paths. In addition to her roles as a wife and mother, she earns her living as a psychotherapist, a practice that she says is very much connected to her work as a musician.

“It’s always collaborative,” she says. “Everything just expands. If I come at it with a curious mind and I’m thoughtful with how I am in a space with somebody else, things just expand and it gets really exciting. You get to build with people. I really like that. It’s the best for me.”

Her innate curiosity has also allowed her to write and perform music in a variety of styles and venues. Pixley developed the material for Margaret during her sessions busking at MUNI and BART stations around the Bay Area, and she has recently been performing as part of an outdoor circus/performance art troupe. And when she returns to Portland on Tuesday November 30 to perform as part of Windham Hill’s Winter Solstice Concerts with pianist Barbara Higbie and guitarist Todd Boston, she’ll get a chance to show off her skills as both a songwriter and collaborator. 

“This is gonna be a cool tour because we’re all trading off on leading and playing on each other’s stuff,” Pixley says. “I think it’s going to be pretty dynamic.” 

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“Dynamic” is the watchword for Pixley as she continues to explore every last artistic avenue available to her. Up next is a new album of songs that she’s developed based around a poem written by a colleague and featuring a combination of string players and jazz musicians. Much of it is written, but there’s plenty of space for herself and her collaborators to improvise. 

“I feel like it’s so important for me to feel flexible and curious and inquisitive,” she says. “The same exists in the therapy room as well. Let things take form as they will.”

Mia Pixley performs at the Windham Hill Winter Solstice Concert with Barbara Higbie and Todd Boston at Newmark Theatre (1111 SW Broadway Ave., Portland, OR) on Tuesday November 30 at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $32.50-42.50. Proof of full COVID vaccination or a negative test result (within 72 hours) from a healthcare provider for entry into the theatre. Face masks also required for entry. 

JP3 @ The 1905, November 19, 2021

Trombonist James Powers made it impossible to ignore his presence when he took the stage at The 1905 last Friday for a late night performance to celebrate the release of his new album Damnation of Memory. Draped on his skinny frame was a dashiki shirt with tasteful orange and yellow patterns, over which he wore a loud cardigan covered with bright blue and red shapes. Below the waist, a pair of multi-patterned harem pants with blue and magenta sneakers. 

Powers’ music was equally colorful and clashing. Primarily sticking to the material found on his new full-length—credited to his ensemble JP3—Powers played with the knock-kneed looseness of New Orleans second line jazz, the tight constructions of ’70s funk, the sinewy weight of hip-hop, or the watery exoticism of Fourth World music—sometimes within the path of a single song. 

It was up to JP3’s rhythm section, bassist Matthew Holmes and drummer Machado Mijiga, to hold Powers steady. Not an easy task considering how far outside the lines the trombonist wanted to color. They struck a fascinating sonic bargain with Powers, in the manner that Paul Jackson and Harvey Mason did with the rest of the Head Hunters. Holmes and Mijiga’s snappy grooves were flexible enough to let Powers’ solos bounce and glide, but strong enough to keep the trombonist locked into the song. With all three players in that mindset, the rhythm section’s solos took on a similar hue with bursts of off-beat weirdness kept in check by the need to stay on the one.

JP3 @ The 1905, November 19, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
JP3 @ The 1905, November 19, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

The set would only have been improved by further drawing out shades of dissonance and flying a little freer. Powers had a bank of effects pedals at his feet but used them sparingly, only letting a bit of reverb or chorus sneak into the mix. As on the album, the trio opened “Ride The Onion Garden with Us and Fly” by chanting out the curious title of the song–but it only lasted a few seconds before they were locked into a stuttering Dilla-like beat. Even vocalist David Barber, who appeared at the beginning and end of the set to add some rapping into the mix, fizzled as he dropped in empty platitudes and got tangled up in his own freestyle. 

None of those minor issues truly soured what was an otherwise celebratory evening. (To bury the lede a little, the night also happened to be Powers’ birthday.) The mood onstage was convivial and fraternal and, most of all, supportive. It was best exemplified by Holmes who bounced and bobbed and kept shooting looks to both Mijiga and Powers that expressed the glee and surprise that a great jazz ensemble can impart among themselves and their audience.

HANiF @ Georgie’s Garage and Grill, Vancouver WA, November 21, 2021

What is HANiF’s endgame? The rapper—born Hanif Collins—has been looking to stir up trouble recently, dropping diss tracks aimed at Mic Capes, Wynne, and Vinnie DeWayne—artists with slightly higher profiles within Portland’s hip-hop community than his own. These are attention grabbing moves, ostensibly meant to help generate some buzz for Collins’ recently released mixtape King Of The NorthWest III: Handsome Faced HANiF. But where does it go from here? And what purpose is there for trying to draw battle lines within a scene that is starting to get some well-deserved national attention?

Collins didn’t answer those questions last Saturday when he took over Georgie’s Garage and Grill, a bar in the heart of downtown Vancouver. (On the other side of the block from Collins’ barbershop Tonsure, no less.) The hour-long set was more about fanning the flames of this war of words and, to be fair, re-asserting Collins’ formidable skills as a lyricist and performer. 

On both fronts, Collins is agile and active. From the moment he stepped on stage, he stayed in motion, stalking from one side to the other with casual authority. With the mic, Collins maintained the same understated control. The material on King required that smooth, assertive tone, cycling as it does through themes about Collins’ prowess as a rapper, a barber, and a manager of money. 

The tone shifted only when he started making noise about the rappers he chose to vilify. Collins awkwardly connected his diss tracks to the recent death of Memphis artist Young Dolph, commenting that there were “four rappers murdered last week” before launching into “Identity Fraud,” his screed against Wynne.

HANiF @ Georgie’s Garage and Grill, Vancouver WA, November 21, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
HANiF @ Georgie’s Garage and Grill, Vancouver WA, November 21, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

That track is particularly tough to swallow. Buried in his barbs are some debate worthy topics, in particular why it took a white artist from the suburbs to finally get Portland’s rap community on the cultural map. But Collins weakens his argument with ugly comments about Wynne’s body. There a similarly nasty homophobic undercurrent to his tracks about DeWayne and Mic Capes. 

None of it does anything for Collins. The appearance of both tracks on King spoils what is another fantastic showing from a rapper that more Portlanders and hip-hop fans around the world should know about. And it added a streak of unpleasantness to what should have been a night of pure celebration.

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About the author

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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