New Players at the Heart of Portland Jazz

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Portland Jazz Festival slipped by like a stealth bomber, like an underground speakeasy, like a super-hip fad, like so many things we can’t all see. The annual flower of PDX Jazz draws audiences into theaters and clubs by the hundreds with dozens of shows. After twelve years, it has earned the expectation of carrying legendary names and some of the youngest critically-acclaimed players on the scene. The venues stretch into all quadrants but remains focused downtown.

In commemoration of their 12th Anniversary, the program spanned twelve days, ending with Ron Carter at The Newmark Theater in the afternoon, with Lucky Peterson at The Aladdin Theater by night—quite a way to cap it off on Sunday. Typically, festivals peter out by this time, but in fact, even the Festival’s Managing Director, Don Lucoff enjoyed one last drink ‘round midnight in the underground speakeasy of Pepe le Moko, where I too enjoyed a drink over Noah Bernstein with Andre St. James.

Having jumped in late, and having been in San Francisco from the festival’s opening until mid-week (travel article forthcoming) I was not able to obtain Ron Carter seats or any of the headliner concerts. Another Ambit writer was set to attend some things, but in the world of volunteer driven media, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. This all said, I enjoyed what I got: Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE) at The Old Church and the above mentioned free show.

The Old Church is a great place for a concert; there were four events in there. I will admit that there is a mid-range acoustic trap in arched ceilings, so everything kind of rings in that range—it is perfect for choral music so indeed the architect did their gig. But this is not bad for jazz, and of course, church is just a good place to be.

Opening the whole program was Metropolitan Youth Symphony Jazz. What a great opportunity for the kids. They’re big kids, especially the bassist, whose name I failed to pin down but definitely was not a youth. He was the most experienced player—in his forties or so—and very lively, fleshing out the fledgling sound of pre-college jazzists. It is fun watching teenagers play virtuosic music. As they roll through head arrangements with ease and taste, you think that these players are remarkable—and they are!—but then you see them bounce through solos and struggle to expand from the primary melody. The voice of jazz is truly represented in the soloist and these kids’ crack when they speak—but this is not a problem. They execute the form and it is fun to watch someone earnestly pushing themselves a little harder. All of them have the potential for a musical career and deserve it.

Perhaps MYSJ serves a reference to the more experimental modes of Portland Jazz Composers. To the first time player, a standard is something that stretches your limits, but once you’ve been around and done that, you can only get that from new, complex jazz compositions. Man, even like drugs—because music is a drug—you can’t get enough until you’ve tried the newest, most potent stuff.

PJCE has a record label and their All-Star band presented a strong program of original music published by the collective. The selections were not announced in print, but I can recall some unique work; it is the sound of contemporary jazz from the creative network of Portland’s strongest players and composers. It contrasted all those standards that perhaps MYSJ grudgingly learns to pass through the jazz gauntlet, to absorb the lexicon. In the scope of things, however, PJCE are also the young players of the whole festival. This is almost like a master class for them.

PJCE At the Old Church, 2009

PJCE At the Old Church, 2009

The rhythm section is strong with Ken Ollis, drums, and Jon Shaw, bass. Both of these players frequent the improvised music scene. This is the composer’s ensemble,  but a well known cross-over exists in the improviser’s circle. Jazz is improvisation over structure—chaos over order—and the shape of that structure changes with each decade. The simple head arrangement formula is left at the door with PJCE, inviting all kinds of interesting methods that I don’t see on this side of the sheet. When players like Ken and Jon are working together, that complex foundation is solid yet wide open. Their musical support is like a freeway. At the peak of every song the sonic capacity is jammed, but when traffic thins out, these fellows carry the song.

I like the way Ken keeps on his snare as the counterpoint to his time-keeping ride cymbal—and it is a beautifully tuned kit—reminding me of the most compelling players of the late sixties. Jon can walk the bass, but sometimes he stops in the park, takes off his shoes and digs his feet in the dirt. The saxophone is free to wander all around, pull ahead or take a seat. Somehow they end up back on the walk, at the same destination at the same time, without arguing along the way.

I focus on these guys because they survived in to the next group, playing two full sets (so did guitarist, Ryan Meagher). Thomas Barber led the All-Star band on trumpet, and he was good. But, Kerry Pollitzer was the most compelling player up there for that particular set. A recent Portland transplant, I think she has infiltrated effectively. I remember the harmonics sounding rich behind a solid rhythmic approach—every note having a certain lift about it. She is a thinking player, not simply laying down the easiest inversions to keep with harmonic centers. The compliment is closely in step with her rhythm. The piano is awesome because it always walks between rhythm and melody, leaving a harmonic trail. After several new and interesting songs, and a few more minutes of intermission, the main event followed.

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The full ensemble is more like an orchestra: a complete four-piece saxophone section, featuring John Gross on tenor, and a complete three-piece brass section, this time Douglas Derrick is on trumpet leading the band. Guitar and piano round out the sound with Jon and Ken still holding rhythm. They presented five pieces from five composers.

“Swang” by Jessica Smith opened everything with a blues-tuned work that she says was “written especially for a saxophonist by a saxophonist.” Gross had time to shine throughout the program and started there. The song makes use of the full band and it offers a little humor to it, pushing the vibe from mostly harmless to kind of dangerous, with a brash post-modern dixieland kind of approach.

Next up was “Jive Cactus” by Dan Duval. It was even more humorous. This one is on PJCE’s SoundCloud. Its minimalist opening gives way to something swinging, then to something rocking, and again back to the delicate feel. Brass section interjections bring real depth to the saxophone solo section, and it goes in a tumble until ending as it began.

“Broken/Unbroken” was very satisfying. In fact, I remember feeling that I was good, that I had all I needed to review, and because I had been there for two hours, I went home. One audience member gave a loud yelp ahead of applause; the applause was strong. What I remember most about it was its dynamic narrative. It starts with trouble and ends with peace. The piano-drums-bass got to stretch out further amidst the fury. Gross is the narrator, and what I think got him that yelp from the audience was his smooth transition from a lively bit to something meditative; mastery over his breath gave a long, relaxed drone to end the work.

Interestingly, when I walked out, I called back someone close to me who left a voicemail while inside. As if to mirror the theme of this last piece, there was conflict in their life; a restless anxiety that I listened to for my entire walk home, until it smoothed out. Life imitates….

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Noah Bernstein

A few days later, I’m at Pepe le Moko, the downtown lounge where the Noah Bernstein trio is playing on the final night of the festival. The lounge is full and there’s a waiting list. Tim Duroche is on drums with Andre St. James, bass. Their style and the room we’re in reminds me of everything I love about jazz. This is the perfect environment and trio to cap off the festival, honestly. The headliners of this festival are great, but the way these guys play in this underground, gritty but swank cocktail lounge, reminds me of the places Ron Carter played through the night in his early years. I get to imagine that jazz hasn’t really changed since the Impulse Records years.

Duroche brought his cocktail kit; snare, floor tom, hi-hat, ride cymbal. There is hardly room for more than that. It is impressive nonetheless because it’s not easy going so minimal while keeping it swinging. Bernstein is a composer, but mostly they worked jazz standards, in that post-modern Dolphy-esque way of running through fluid head arrangements briefly, then ditching the driving shuffle and time signature with it. DuRoche is the rug-puller. He’s consistent, on time, but outside.

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Andre St. James

Andre St. James is great for working with anything; he’s good at stretching what’s inside outside and what’s outside inside. He is very comfortable in the world of jazz because he’s been in it for thirty years. Noah works with pitch perfect tone. He expresses the alto saxophone in its purity, through the notes—so many outside players focus on timbre, but that comes secondary for him. I respect that. He’s got the chops to do it.

PDX Jazz will continue presenting concerts in theaters and lounges in the city for the indefinite future. Ambit will continue forging our relationship with them to bring you reviews and event announcements, also for the indefinite future.




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