Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009

The writer and saxophonist.
The writer and saxophonist.

One Wednesday night at the Jam session...from the inside

By MICHAEL (SHOEHORN) CONLEY // On Wednesday May 15th I attended the Downtown Session at Fortune PDX, a bar at the Sentinel Hotel at 614 SW 11th in Portland. This is a regular Wednesday night jazz jam with a rotating cast of band leaders and sidemen.

On Wednesday May 15th I attended the Downtown Session at Fortune PDX, a bar at the Sentinel Hotel at 614 SW 11th in Portland. This is a regular Wednesday night jazz jam with a rotating cast of band leaders and sidemen. Check their instagram for particulars.

Hosted this time by bass powerhouse Xylyn Hathaway, I walked in as popular local trombonist James Powers was in the middle of a heartfelt solo turn on the Sam Rivers tune “Beatrice”. Powers had a mute in his bell which altered the color of his sound to pleasing effect for this number. The melody was restated after the solos by tenor saxist Peter QB, who showed a lot of taste and dexterity throughout the evening, calling tunes that aren't played as often as much of the usual jam session repertoire.

This guy has nice chops, including extended techniques, and plays with good feeling and sound.

Also in attendance was Sam Epstein, not to be confused with former Portland resident and band leader Sammy Epstein, also a saxophonist and clarinetist. This Sam Epstein is from the younger generation of Portland jazz musicians. I've been hearing him for a couple years now at sessions, and he played the tenor last night with a big sound and good ideas. Evidently he and the other tenor player are pals, since they had a couple of things they wanted to try together, including a shout chorus on the Frank Foster tune Shiny Stockings.

Shiny Stockings is a song that has a particular resonance with me because I watched the great tap dancer Charles “Honi” Coles choreograph a 16 member tap routine using that number at the first tap dance festival I ever was part of, in Boston Massachusetts. I wasn't part of that residency, but as a festival performer I had carte blanche for all events and I watched in fascination every day as the legendary hoofer put the dancers through their paces. Some of those dancers have been my friends ever since. I've never forgotten this tune, and I’ve never heard it played at a jam session in Portland!

Another young cat with a horn, Christian San Nicolas, got up to play, and called All of Me, which in contrast to the previously mentioned tune is something we have all played, and indeed love playing. Even though it has been done a lot, it's one of those classic standards that everyone plays at some point, since it's toward the beginning of the Real Book due to the first letter of its title. San Nicolas has a good alto sound and technique and holds a lot of promise.

It’s great to see young players come out and play with so much enthusiasm and sincerity, and with this level of mutual support. From my point of view and experience, I often bear witness to their growth as artists over the course of a year or two. I myself got off a pretty good solo (on alto sax) on All of Me. The energy coming from the bass and drums buoyed my sound and supported my ideas and energy, and gave me a thrill. Hathaway impelled us into an accelerando vamp on the tag, and we went about 15 seconds longer than we probably should have played on that one!

Later on, Epstein called Out of Nowhere, another tune I love to play. But in this case the approach was very different than any other time that I have played it. Epstein blew a cadenza up front, obliquely hinting at the melody to come before actually playing it. I liked the abstractions the tenor man elicited from his horn on this one, and it spurred me on to try some new things which I enjoyed. Drummer Dae Bryant and Hathaway really put some fire under us for this one and the crowd loved it as much as the musicians.

There were a couple of these numbers where we just had bass and drums with no piano or guitarist, and that was fun. On other tunes we had Riley Turner, a former DJ on KMHD radio, playing piano, and towards the end we had Adam Rae on guitar. These are cats I've seen around for the last few years at sessions led by Ron Steen, the godfather of Portland jazz jams for over 30 years.

Another drummer who had a great simpatico with bassist Hathaway was Marcus Rudolph, who plays with a steady intensity and reacts to whoever else is playing with skill and feeling. He and Bryant both contributed considerably to the energy of this session.

Before I arrived some other players performed, including drummer Max Tucker and trumpet player Quinn Walker. This session was all young players, this writer definitely belonging to an older generation than anyone else there. There were some fashionably attired people in the audience, perhaps guests of the hotel. In any case, languages other than English could be heard in the room.

A couple of young cats showed up for the last tune, a tenor player named Evan, and his buddy who had a guitar. They both played well on the final number, a blues in B Flat, Bag’s Groove.

I recommend this session to casual jazz fans and serious listeners alike. There is no cover charge and the vibe is very friendly and casual.

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