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Pharoah Sanders photo by Diane Russell
Pharoah Sanders photo by Diane Russell

2019 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival first week. Jazz: Past, Present, and Future in Real Time.

By MICHAEL "SHOEHORN" CONLEY // Impressions of the first weekend of the 2019 Portland Jazz Festival...Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and Pharaoh Sanders written by a working musician.

There is something magical about the way time exists in improvisational music- in linear form as well as in cycles that allow us to return to partake of various aspects and places of the music all in one moment. This was evident in the 3 concerts I took in over the first 3 nights of this year’s Portland Jazz Festival.

Things kicked off hard and strong Wednesday at the Star Theater with a concert by the phenomenal Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, the trumpeter from New Orleans, a scion of the Harrison family of Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs. Scott has forged his own voice on the trumpet without sacrificing the heritage of Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong and other virtuoso horn men from his native city. What he has added however, is a very engaging relationship with modern electronics which allow him to amp up his sound and bring a forceful dynamic edge to the music similar to what a rock guitarist or a prog-rock synth player is able to do.

While Scott is grounded in the New Orleans tradition of open-horn, bravura riffs and runs, with a pedalboard at his feet, his already diamond-hard core sound can go right over the top with show-stopping chops, bending clusters of notes and entire phrases with his lip and electronic effects. His fusion approach to the trumpet might have found a home in guitarist John McLaughlin’s 1970s group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

He's also socially very much a person of the present, and shared with the audience his take on philosophical and political matters, promoting self-reflection, tolerance, equity, and understanding as a way for humanity to move forward. He wanted us to know he believes we have a chance to turn things around and forge a better society in this world we inhabit.

Introducing the band members, he was effusive in praise of his fellows, also joking around about the band history. Especially humorous was the anecdote about drummer Corey Fonville’s teenage moxie, and his pestering of the band leader from age 14 until finally earning his chair.

Hailing from Kansas City, Logan Richardson held forth on the alto sax, also employing electronic processing on his sound, which to this listener enhanced the overall blend of his instrument with the others on stage. As he played his first feature I was hesitant to describe his playing as sincere and committed, lest it come off as condescending. But when Scott introduced him, he used the word sincerity to in his own description Richardson, among other accolades. I think we will hear more from this saxophonist in the future.

There was never any doubt that Scott himself was the standout soloist in the band, with a magnetic personality and impressive physical presence, and a unique personal style including a huge top-knot wrapped in gold bands, a long gold necklace, and a tunic hanging over comfortable trousers and stylish sneakers.

The other showstopper was drummer Fonville, who combined excellent technique with a command of modern beat theory, wherein even slow tempos may have a very busy drum part with a lot of notes. Each number they played actually contained episodes of soft dynamics and sparser accompaniment contrasting with full-bore onslaughts of energetic shredding.

There was no part of this concert that had much to do with any kind of straight-ahead Swing feel. The opening set by young local trumpeter Noah Simpson deserves mention; he and his band played well in a set that did not hide it’s admiration and emulation of the ascetic of the headliner, down to the top knot.  I particularly liked the sound his drummer got from his kit.

The following night I attended a concert at the Newmark Theater by the the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra from New York City, a band that has played on Monday nights in New York for over 50 years, founded by trumpeter/arranger Thad Jones, drummer Mel Lewis, and club owner Max Gordon, who was raised in Portland, according to Douglas Purviance, the manager of the band.

Of course many of the original members are no longer with us, but the legacy of the band continues under the musical direction of extraordinary alto saxophone player Dick Oatts, who was featured to great effect on a Bob Brookmeyer arrangement of “Skylark”. With a very deep book of arrangements to choose from, the audience was treated to a dozen or so numbers which presented the various talents of the five saxes, four trombones, four trumpets and piano, bass, & drums rhythm section of this big band.

Standout soloists besides Oatts included trumpeter Terrell Stafford, trombonist Dion Tucker, tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama, and pianist Adam Birnbaum. On this concert every piece was a showcase of big band precision, each player a master of his instrument, and more importantly, a masterful team player.

The drummer John Riley did not “kick” the sections like Buddy Rich was famously known to do, or perhaps founder Lewis himself might have done, but played more like a drummer in a small combo, with a light touch and a very steady hand for the pulse and accents.

 Attired in dark suits, most of the members of this band were older gentlemen, with a lot of white hair and bald heads, but with some young blood in the group including Josh Lee on the baritone sax, who acquitted himself nicely on his solo turn.

Lead trumpeter Nick Marchione was one of the Vanguard musicians who conducted a clinic for some local students the afternoon of the concert. This kind of outreach is very important to continue the legacy of big band music, which mostly exists in academic settings due to the exorbitant cost of touring with such a large ensemble. The form almost died along with Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Formed as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1966, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra embodied a clever response to this problem by meeting on Monday nights- typically an off-night for professional musicians. This allowed them to continue composing, arranging, and performing, with a gig every Monday in Manhattan, featuring a roster of elite players. The fact that they were performing weekly made it more than a so-called “rehearsal band”, and lent the music a certain vitality which might be lacking otherwise.

Most of these players got to “do their thing” individually, each soloing over a blues or a 32-bar song form at some point during the show. The grooves were fairly traditional, without directly mimicking the aforementioned practitioners of the form. The Vanguard Orchestra has its own sound, featuring superbly nuanced ensemble playing, creative use of the horns in background figures behind soloists, and some beautiful soli sections which were breathtakingly executed.

The Vanguard band didn't go anywhere near the more up-to-date beats played by Christian Scott's group, where the influence of drum machines, World music, and funky, unorthodox rhythmic displacement ruled the day.

Finally, on Friday night, I attended the concert by legendary tenor saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, who got his start in the 1960s playing alongside his idol and mentor, none other than John Coltrane. Coltrane died in 1967 at age 40, and Sanders long-ago emerged from the shadow of that great saint of the saxophone.

Well-known jazz pianist Orrin Evans introduced the group with an amusing anecdote about his own time with Sanders. After the rhythm section took the stage, all three men wearing long white tunics, Sanders slowly shuffled onto the stage, taking short steps, dressed unpretentiously in sneakers, work pants, a plaid shirt, and a backwards baseball hat, his saxophone hanging low on a body  bent by age but still able to carry his large instrument.

Without mentioning Coltrane, Sanders started his concert with an invocation on his tenor, a reading of Coltrane’s fabulous meditative piece, “Welcome”. From the first phrase many of us were reminded that Pharaoh Sanders is the senior living embodiment of spiritual practice on the saxophone. After making his statement of the melody Sanders sat down behind the drummer to drink water from a plastic bottle. I started to wonder if he was even going to do any solos at all after this first number because he appeared frail, and in letting the band play without him it was evident they could carry the show by themselves.

Sanders didn't even take a solo on that first piece, he simply restated the melody before going into another Coltrane number, “Lazy Bird”, an up-tempo tune with a lot of chord changes, typical of Coltrane’s late 50s ouvre, years before Sanders joined the master in his more avant-garde explorations. On this one Sanders did take a tenor solo, fingers flying over the horn, but with nothing to prove, he sat down after a couple of choruses, far less than was typical in his youth, when he was known for powerful and lengthy outbursts, replete with extended techniques.

When the band played a blues at medium-tempo with a nice pocket, suddenly the short steps Sanders took sported a little dip in the knees with more of a spry feeling, as he crouched down in time to the music in a sort of old man dance that brought a good reaction from the audience.

I wasn't expecting Pharaoh Sanders to sing a blues tune about cornbread and collard greens, but we did get a little bit of that before he got the audience to sing along to some scatted blues riffs, ala Cab Calloway, ending with some crazy articulations that (as a saxophonist) I recognized the provenance of, but which was a comically hopeless challenge for most audience members.

That blues number wasn't the only singalong of the night, as the familiar strains of Sander’s jazz hit “The Creator Has a Master Plan” began, and the leader once again called the audience to sing, intoning short phrases and holding the mic for the audience to respond.

As the show went on Sanders seem to get a little more energy and loosen up, not appearing as stiff as he did at the beginning. We got a taste of his trademark multi-phonics, which were radical-sounding in the 60s but have since entered mainstream practice in both jazz and classical saxophone repertoire, here cleanly executed with a pleasing tone and consonance. 

The band, consisting of Bill Henderson on piano, Marcus Gilmore on drums, and Nat Reeves on bass, were all considerably younger than the leader and exhibited no signs of flagging or needing a rest even as they burned up the setlist with their virtuosic playing.  

Gilmore is a modern drummer and was marvelously energetic, keeping things percolating intensely even at very soft dynamic levels when accompanying a bass or piano solo.

All three of these shows played to packed houses and it was heartening to see the people of Portland coming out for such a variety of jazz music as this. The jazz audience is truly diverse- there were plenty of young people and plenty of old people and a lot of middle-aged folks at all three concerts.

Even with such distinct stylistic differences, all three of these acts straddled past and future- Sanders- once a firebrand, still able to offer a timeless vamp on a mystic connection to the spirits; the very modern Scott, though eschewing the trappings of bebop and trad, nonetheless calling an echo of Armstrong in pure-toned exclamations; and the Vanguard Orchestra keeping the fires of big band jazz burning brightly for future generations to enjoy and explore.

Jazz musicians have fans from all genres of music because in many cases these are the cats that are advancing the parameters and capabilities of their instruments for all musicians to emulate. Emblematic of this contention of mine is the fact that none other than pop/rock icon David Bowie used a jazz band to realize his final statement before he died. Jazz is the present, jazz is the past, and jazz is the future, look no further than the Biamp PDX Jazz Festival for the proof.

Please check the the festival website for the listings and ticket information for more concerts and events.

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Zacharias J Angelos

Do read Michael "Shoehorn"Conley's review of the 2019 PDX Biamp Jazz Festival. We met 40 years ago when my 'street band' traveled from San Francisco to play the MARDI GRAS in New Orleans. We became acquainted in Amsterdam on the Torture Tour '82 after which some years after-stints abroad in Japan, Europe and Russia, Shoehorn settled in Portland, started his family and graced our fair City of Roses with his musical talents busking, playing in a wide diversity of musical ensembles and of course his own riveting musical creations in his solo performances as well- playing a wide of jazz, blues and world music in his own right with his compositions and recordings. His review of the 2019 PDX Biamp Festival is very engaging as his world wide experiences and knowledge of jazz and its origins and journeys give the reader who has not attended- incisive and poignant glimpse of what transpired at the 'sessions' , the musicians, their music from both a historical take as well as where the music is headed. Mr. Shoehorn knows the music, plays the music and therefore can capture the essence of the music and writes about it with authority. He draws one to the performances and gives you just enough to feel glad you read the review but still feeling like you were there to witness the session and has an excellent facility of 'setting the stage'! Be sure to catch his reviews as you won't feel so bad that you missed the show!

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