Putting the PDX in the Portland Jazz Festival

A quick note to the Portland Jazz Festival: Thanks for making the “Portland” in this year’s festival more prominent. The cluster of “outlying” shows at the hotels and clubs seemed better organized and feature more of the best local players. And featuring both the new-ish Portland Jazz Orchestra and legend Nancy King — that was sweet. In all possible ways.

images4.jpgLet’s start with Nancy King,who played Friday night. The Oregonian’s Marty Hughley turned me on to Nancy King: Live at the Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch a couple of years ago, and things started to fall into place for my relationship with jazz, specifically with jazz vocalists, whom I used to find irritating — at best. King brought me in from the cold. I listened to that CD — a lot. I’m listening to it right now (she’s scatting a chorus of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” as I type), and it’s still a delight.

King’s singing style is so unadorned — easy on the vibrato, light on the pyrotechnical displays — that it’s tempting to call it “unpolished,” as Nate Chinen did in a variable review in the New York Times in 2006. But Chinen got the basics right. Her voice is expressive from the “raspy” bottom to the “reedy” top. And she scats with the best of them (including Kurt Elling who sang with King on Friday night at the Newmark Theater), thanks to superior pacing and musical logic.

I don’t think of her as “unpolished,” though. I think she’s singing exactly how she wants to — she’s got musical ideas she wants to express and emotional depths to plumb and this is the way she gets there. She doesn’t sound like other singers. She doesn’t “read” jazz singer: She’s got her own personal style — the effervescent head of hair, the way she moves her body and hands, a friendly though almost self-effacing stage presence. And then she starts singing, and she doesn’t kill you with her tone, maybe, and she doesn’t send out flares when she’s doing something difficult. But you listen, and she’s pulling you right along, satisfying a different part of your brain, the part that recognizes creativity and intelligence and feeling in others. Maybe I had to grow up a little to appreciate her. My fault, Nancy.

king.jpgFriday night, King and Elling had massive amounts of fun on City Council-proclaimed Nancy King Day. Singing together and separately, accompanied by the deft Steve Christofferson on piano (Fred Hersch was seriously ill, King said, and unable to make it), they spoke a subtle jazz language, full of lyrics and improvisations of thousands of songs. “I’m Glad There Is You” was in there, so was The Beatle’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “The Breeze and I.” But really, the references and allusions flew by — way faster than I could keep up. I just marveled at the precision, the intensity, the sheer singularity of each moment. And maybe I wished that I understood that language a lot better.

The Portland Jazz Orchestra played big band arrangements of Charles Mingus and Dave Holland. Mingus was an excellent choice — a composer who works in a modern idiom that players today recognize. And if he sounded somehow “vintage” as a friend pointed out, it wasn’t vintage like Glenn Miller or something (not that I have ANYTHING against Glenn Miller, for goodness’ sake). Mingus compositions demand hard playing, tempo changes, dissonance, tricky solos and complete attention if they are going to work at all. And the orchestra dealt with them successfully. Ditto the Dave Holland pieces, which aren’t vintage at all. Lots of the city’s better horn players were on the stage, including Scott Hall (tenor sax) and Farnell Newton (trumpet), but to pick anyone out is a little unfair: This was an orchestra, as Luciana Lopez pointed out on Oregon Live, not a vehicle for selfish-expression.

So the Portland guys did OK for themselves. Better than OK. My wish? A Nancy King album recorded in Portland, and an evening-long showcase of the best Portland jazz at the Schnitz (it would include King, of course), maybe part of next year’s festival.