One of the signs that a town is turning into a city is that it can’t squeeze everything into a box. So, for instance, while the newest Portland Jazz Festival kicks into high swing (and bop), some terrific jazz is popping up in spots that aren’t connected to the festival at all.
While the likes of jazz festival headliners Regina Carter, Joshua Redman, Poncho Sanchez, Maceo Parker, Dave Frishberg and the newly Grammy-fied Esperanza Spalding are picking up a whole lot of highly deserved attention in Puddletown, they aren’t the only games in town. You might also have spent Saturday night at an under-the-radar gig with about 75 other people at TaborSpace, in the company of Andy Stein and Conal Fowkes.
Who’s that, you ask?
Stein is a violinist, a fiddler, an old-time jazz guy with his feet also planted in classical music and rock ‘n’ roll. He’s recorded with Perlman, Domingo, Marilyn Horne and Von Stade; toured with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen; played with Dylan, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Tony Bennett, B.B. King and a whole lot more. And he has a special affection for the music of Joe Venuti, the granddaddy of jazz violin.
Fowkes — born in Zambia, raised partly in Mexico, an Englishman now living in New York — is a pianist with equal affections for early New Orleans jazz (he’s a stalwart of Woody Allen and His New Orleans Jazz Band, which is led by banjoist Eddy Davis and features Allen on clarinet) and the traditions of Tin Pan Alley, the great American songwriting system that runs parallel to jazz, routinely jumping the tracks to interlace with it along the way.
We wanted a Sugar Daddy and we got one! The Portland Jazz Festival has been rescued from oblivion — heroes include Nick Fish, Sho Dozono and Alaska Airlines, among others — which we learned from Luciana Lopez’s story in The Oregonian this morning (we’ll link you up when the story is posted on OregonLive, UPDATE: and is now.), and I’m not sure why exactly I’m feeling so pleased about it. After all, festivals wax, festivals wane, festivals disappear altogether. Even jazz festivals in Portland. These days, the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival continues to roll along under the St. John’s Bridge, fueled mostly by our local players. And the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival, which itself went into eclipse for a while, is back and seems to be growing again, returning this past summer to Mt. Hood Community College, where it once dominated the summer festival scene. Of course, either you know this or jazz festivals don’t interest you, so I’m not sure why I feel called to speak of it. Maybe just as a sort of accounting.
But the Portland Jazz Festival has had major aspirations (some would call them pretensions, I suppose), specifically to bring top-of-the-line international musicians to the city. And I appreciate the impulse. Plus, it comes in February. In February, we’re needing all the inspiration we can get, any good reason to get out of the house, fellow fans of the improvisatory art to consort with. In February we’ll pay almost any price for a lively brain, and the jazz festival has encouraged our synapses to snap their fingers and bop along. The city should fund the whole thing just for the overall improvement in the mental health of the citizenry. Call it jazz therapy.
So, I’m excited about the 2009 festival, which will celebrate Blue Note Records, more excited than I should be, I suppose. After all, there are lots of clubs in town now that feature jazz, and we have lots of terrific musicians, legends even. You could assemble a little mini-festival every week of the year. And really, there’s nothing quite like following the development of a fine jazz mind over time, something that’s possible only with a local jazz mind. Still. I like the concentration of talent. I like watching recordings come to life. I like the idea that for a little while, all jazz ears are cocked toward Portland. I like to feel as though I’m playing with the Big Boys and the Big Boys (and Girls) are playing for me. So yeah, I’m happy about it, and if I could order tickets right now, I suppose I would.
Thanks to Mighty Toy Cannon, one of the forces behind Culture Shock, for a heads up on this, too. MTC may well have had Portland blog priority on the “scoop,” though I first learned about it from Luciana.
We’ve added a couple of updates below, as jazz bloggers around the country start to weigh in on the collapse of the Portland Jazz Festival.
Today’s paradox: Portland has a small and by some measures thriving jazz scene; and Portland can’t keep a national-class jazz festival going to save its buttons. Today’s announcement — that the Portland Jazz Festival will “cease operations” next week unless a sponsoring sugar daddy is found who will take a $100,000 plunge — was one of those depressing pieces of news that reminds us just how fragile our arts bubble is. It’s hard for me to imagine this year without Ornette Coleman in it, and Ornette was here only because of the PJF. He came at just the right time for me, just as I was thinking seriously about the problem of creativity, and I loved his utter pragmatic dedication to sustaining his creative flow.
Jazz is one of the most frequently employed metaphors for creativity: the way it adapts and re-adapts, uses and reuses, improvises on the spot; the paradoxes it supports in the ordinary course of business, like its insistence on being in the moment and above the moment at the same time; its recognizable collision of technique, inspiration, individual play and teamwork; and well, we could go on. And maybe on that ground alone, as a metaphor, never mind the music and its place in our cultural history, I would argue for the PJF. We are beginning to understand how critical imagination and its practical application are to everything we do, especially in a city like Portland, which must live by its wits, not by its oil fields; jazz allows us to think about that in an especially delightful way. Somebody in Portland designed a better boot after hearing Ornette, I’m sure of it! Continue reading Wanted: Portland Jazz Festival sugar daddy→
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.
Let’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. Continue reading Putting the PDX in the Portland Jazz Festival→
Maybe if your weekend started out, as mine did, listening to “Howl” and then winding its way toward the Portland Jazz Festival, you’d be figuring out a way to combine the two, too. Not that it’s THAT difficult. Ginsberg, we know from his early journals (“The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice,” edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan), listened to jazz — it was unavoidable at Columbia College in the ’40s and Manhattan in the ’50s. His tastes were pretty broad. He lists Lionel Hampton and Glenn Miller. Billie Holiday and Pearl Bailey. Dizzy Gillespie and Artie Shaw. Coleman Hawkins and a bunch of classical stuff (Mahler, Bach, Beethoven).
“Howl” itself has some jazz references, though none more direct than in Ginsberg’s introduction. He says “Howl” was “built on a bop refrain” — “the ideal being, say, Lester Young in Kansas City in 1938, blowing 72 choruses of “The Man I Love” until everyone in the hall was out of his head.” Which leads us back to Billie Holiday. Who was NOT performing at the jazz festival, more’s the pity.
We did have Ornette Coleman on hand, of course (in the clip it’s Spain 1987 and he’s playing with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden), though it’s hard to imagine him blowing 72 choruses of “The Man I Love.” It would have violated his Prime Directive against repetition, for one thing. I imagine him exploding the first chord of the first chorus and then spending the rest of the evening picking over the debris field for sounds he hadn’t heard before. Which would have been hard to capture in a poem, at least one that made sense in a representational sort of way.
That’s what Ornette did on Friday night, and if it didn’t strictly “follow” (see below) in the way we’ve come to expect from our music, that’s our problem: He’s been blowing this way since 1960 or so. We’ve been warned. Sharp objects are involved and the sweetness of the sound means that projectiles coming your way may seem closer than they appear.
“Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse!” Ginsberg writes in the “Footnote to Howl.” And here he might have referred to the SFJazz Collective, which played after Ornette’s concert on Friday, but not really. They are smart, savvy, and they’ve dedicated their season to Wayne Shorter, who could groan, I suppose, but maybe not the apocalypse part. More quicksilver or thoughtful, even caring, which is how Joe Lovano played his 1964 “Infant Eyes,” a melting opening solo.
OK, the key jazz lines of “Howl,” at the end of Part I: “…the madman bum and angel…rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio/with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.”
Mercy! As carnivorous as The Bad Plus seemed Saturday afternoon, big and, well, hungry, hunting down big game with their covers of Ornette Coleman, Milton Babbitt (!), David Bowie and Nirvana songs, firing salvos of percussion (thank you David King) and a general lurching, staccato approach that re-loaded mid-song and emptied the clip — even as aggressive as they were (and in fairness, they could also be sweet as pie (thank you Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverson), and the audience loved them for it), Ginsberg’s naked desire for ecstasy and deliverance outstrips them.
Maybe not Ornette, though. You just can’t tell about Ornette.
I tried to keep up with Ornette Coleman’s onstage conversation Friday with jazz writer/historian Howard Mandel, one of the many Portland Jazz Festival activities this week.
It wasn’t easy. Was what he was saying at any given time actually making sense? Was there a thread to his interview, a philosophy embedded somehow? Was he answering the questions, or questioning the answers? Was he here with us, and if so, could I remember enough of what he said, once I’d figured out what it was, to record it in my notebook? Ornette, you are one tough cookie to convert to print. And the heroic Mandel was by turns bewildered and frustrated as he attempted to corral Ornette’s responses into something the rational mind might contemplate without throwing up its hands.
As I was squeezing the things that made sense out of my notes and reciting them to Marty Hughley, longtime arts writer for The Oregonian (after Ornette’s evening concert but before the SFJazz Collective played Friday night), a music fan behind us piped up: “I can’t believe you got all of that from the talk.” And another friend had earlier described what Ornette had said as “gibberish.” But come on! Ornette Coleman! Even random sonic expressions are going to have meaning! Aren’t they? Yes, they are…
Five life-changing things Ornette said on Friday.
1. “You don’t have to make a sound to hear, right?”
2. “We’re all breathing life, but what is life breathing?”
3. “I don’t think I’m making music. I’m translating something because of what I feel.”
4. “Everything we do is about being better and more precise… We would never exchange creativity for repetition.”
5. Mandel: “Is your music improving?” Ornette: “Every day (emphatically). The only thing I have to do is learn how to play it.”
6. “We cry and we pray because that’s all we know how to do. I cry because of the meaning I can’t express of the quality of the thing that’s making me feel that way.”
OK. I know. That was six. A bonus! It could have been 10. Maybe. Some sentences in my notes started out promisingly but dwindled into nothing as I struggled to make sense of Ornette’s thoughts. We can look at them one by one.