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PDX Jazz 2013: A Recap

This year, the Portland Jazz Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary with one of its most diverse and ambitious line-ups to date. From Kurt Rosenwinkel to Kenny Garrett, Patricia Barber to Esperanza Spalding, Portland’s Blue Cranes to New York’s Matt Wilson – the 10-day event represented a cross section of what’s happening “now” in Jazz. And, with an array of Jazz legends including bop pianist Barry Harris, 94-year old conductor Gerald Wilson, and drummer Jack Dejohnette, (all NEA Jazz Masters) the festival certainly had its share of big names as well.

The Festival opened up with a sold out show from The Afro Cuban All-stars. Shortly after the band’s pulsating latin rhythms flooded the interior the packed house at Portland’s Aladdin Theater, the audience was up out of their seats and dancing in the isles. The show continued in this manner for two raucous hours, until the (sweaty, grinning ear to ear) audience flooded the streets of southeast Portland.

On night two, it was Portland’s own Blue Cranes with a special guest – Seattle-based composer Wayne Horvitz. With Horvitz on keys, the band worked through a set of music from their upcoming release on Cuneiform Records (due in April), and original Horvitz compositions. This was one of a handful of shows put together specifically “for Portland only” one of the festival’s new themes.

On the second Friday of the festival, another “for Portland only” show took place when 6 members of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers reunited for a performance under the musical direction of saxophonist Javon Jackson. The band worked through a range of messengers tunes, including a special rendition of Curtis Fuller’s “Alamode” which allowed the 78 year old trombonist to show off his chops a bit. Other members of the cast included Eddie Henderson, George Cables, Bobby Watson, Buster Williams, and taking the place of Art Blakey, drummer Lewis Nash.

Javon Jackson at the KMHD studios

Javon Jackson at the KMHD studios

Of course, the Portland Jazz Festival doesn’t happen in one place, it’s a city-wide happening and this year, the festival moved into a new venue for a special show. The Kurt Rosenwinkel quartet took the stage at Lewis and Clark College in front of a sold-out audience and played songs from Kurt’s new record “Star of Jupiter.” As always, Kurt’s playing was transcendent, but for me, the real magic took place between two new members of the quartet, drummer Justin Faulkner and bassist Eric Revis (both known for their playing time with Branford Marsalis).

NEA Jazz Master Jack Dejohnette delivered a set that left the sold out audience of Portland’s Newmark theater in awe of the drummer’s skill for playing, and for highlighting the players in his quartet. That quartet usually includes saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, but due to a shoulder injury, Coltrane couldn’t make the gig. Don Byron replaced Coltrane in the band (making this his third appearance at the festival) and melded seamlessly into the quartet switching between saxophone and clarinet. Pianist George Colligan delivered an exciting performance that demonstrated his fantastic abilities on electric and acoustic piano. Matthew Garrison (the son of the late Jimmy Garrison) played a 5 string electric bass augmented with effects pedals. The band moved between free improvisation and written music, but the biggest surprise of the evening was the final tune – Dejohnette’s rendition of the late Jim Pepper’s “Wichi tai to.” Pepper was a fixture in the Portland music scene and it felt as if his spirit was in the building that night.

Legendary conductor/arranger/composer Gerald Wilson led two groups at Portland’s premiere Jazz Club, Jimmy Mak’s, in the middle of the festival schedule. What was most impressive was to watch the 94 year old’s vigor as he brought out the best of an orchestra comprised of students from Portland State University and then a cadre of local professional musicians. Wilson is as sharp as a tack, and one of the best musical intellects that I’ve had the pleasure of talking to on the air.

Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts stood out as one of the most fun performances of the festival. They played two different to receptive, goading audiences at Jimmy Mak’s, and, an afternoon set at KMHD’s studios sponsored by PDX Jazz. Wilson’s ability to “interpret” what the band is doing to the audience is a rare gift in Jazz, as is his tasteful and exciting playing style. The fun these four musicians have together on stage is palpable.

Gary Versace plays the Accordion at KMHD's studio session

Gary Versace plays the Accordion at KMHD’s studio session

The West coast premier of ACS (Geri Allen, Esperanza Spalding, Terri-Lyne Carrington) was the “curtains” for the 10-day event…and these three skilled musicians ensured that the it closed on a high note. Allen’s nuanced piano technique, coupled with the tasteful drumming style of Carrington meshed excellently. Portland residents are used to watching Esperanza Spalding’s skill on stage, but her virtuousic talents were especially on display in this setting. The trio moved between standards and a few original Allen compositions. At the end of their set, they were rewarded with not one, but two – standing ovations.

As a fan, and someone on the ground floor – the 10th anniversary of the Portland Jazz Festival lived up to the hype. Almost every show was sold out, and the audiences and musicians interacted with each other in a way that demonstrated the true power and the special nature of live Jazz. This festival also demonstrated that, in a time when festivals are supposed to be in decline, how the diverse sounds of this music can be presented, and celebrated by equally diverse audiences. While the 10 days of the festival are rigorous for those of us involved, I’m always a bit sad to see them go….but there’s always next year, and for that, I cannot wait!

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