PDX Jazz Fest

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday March 2, 2016

Dianne Reeves
Dianne Reeves   

Ten days of superb jazz at the PDX Jazz Fest wrapped up Sunday night, with the performance by John Scofield and Joe Lovano at Revolution Hall. This year's festival focused on the music of John Coltrane, and included a performance by Coltrane's son, Ravi, and included more women performers than in previous years. Performances were packed with fans in this jazz-hungry city.

Sullivan Fortner kicked off my festival, with his solo piano performance combining standard tunes and his own compositions. Fortner is the Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz of the American Pianist Association, a pianist of incredible variety and skill.

With his use of cascading descending thirds, flourishing arpeggios resolving briefly and returning to dissonance, and a lighthearted syncopation, Fortner's style is intriguing and lush. He is simultaneously without concern for rhythmic structure and existing beautifully and wholly within it.

Fortner's execution is much like that of Brad Mehldau, thoughtful and specific, but ranging more widely on the keyboard. Clearly classically trained, his string-of-pearls runs on the high keys are like flowers blooming, and he is respectful but inventive in his performance of classics. He has the feel of a pianist who spent a lot of time examining the multiple possible inversions and playing with how they fit together, like puzzle pieces. Some of his runs feel impossible complex, but when he does them, are incredibly clean.

He is a pianist who understands subtlety, who listens to what the music has to tell him. His combination of the Ellington/Strayhorn's tunes "Single Petal of a Rose" and "Star Crossed Lovers" demonstrates his willingness to hear what the music has to say. Of his process, Fortner said "I submit myself humbly to the music and reveal myself, flaws and all."

Dianne Reeves was my next stop, a singer so sumptuous and elegant she is in a category of her own. With influences from R&B, reggae, and Latin music, Reeves brings her powerful vocal range and control to standards and jazz arrangements of popular tunes to moving effect. In her careful hands, even familiar music becomes something completely new, a cool, joyous rendition that is a reflection of Reeves herself. Even "sad" tunes like "Stormy Weather" are underpinned with Reeves' emanating glow.

The musicians she played with -- Paul Martin on piano, Reginald Veal on bass, Romaro Lumbabo on guitar, and Terreon Gully on percussion -- were as glorious as she, and Reeves stepped back several times so the individuals could shine on their own. As a quartet, they sang in a unified voice, playing off each other perfectly, tight and intertwined.

As individuals, each is a virtuoso. Reeves is one of the greats of vocal jazz, with Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, and not content to rest on her laurels. Her album "Beautiful Life" won the 2015 Grammy for best jazz vocal, and we were lucky to hear selections from that recording. Dianne Reeves is a beautiful revelation, a gift to music.

I was not as enthusiastic about Orrin Evans, whose trio played with saxophonist JD Allen at Jimmy Mak's. Evans' brash, boundary-pushing performance challenges the audience, but instead of inviting the audience to rethink preconceived notions about jazz, Evan's trio made bold statements. Where jazz often uses space and time to communicate thoughts, this group left no space unfilled, forcing sound into every nook and cranny of the measure.

Evan's keyboard style is hypnotic, with his dancing and limber playing. The trio deconstructs the idiom to discrete parts, and it is in the reconstitution that the listener uncomfortably sits. His bass player, Luques Curtis, brought a smoothness, but the percussionist, Mark Whitfield, Jr. matched Evans' challenging style beat for beat.

With a startling resemblance to Buddy Rich, Whitfield played every beat at its loudest possible volume, brushing back the listener from even the attempt at leaning in. As a group, the effect was aggressive, which I suspect is part of the point of the musical exploration. But in an intimate venue like Jimmy Mak's, the performance was off-putting.

That might have had something to do with Jimmy Mak's ineptitude in house management. About fifty seats are "reserved" and the rest of the house is "general admission," but they clearly oversold the GA "seats," as there were no "seats" for most of the audience. For $20 a person, Jimmy Mak's requires that you stand squeezed into the hallway leading to the bathroom, two rows deep, to listen to a two hour show that you can barely see, while ten seats sat empty in the middle of the floor an hour into the show.

Some GA seats were in another room, completely out of sight of the stage. The wait staff was constantly reminding people to not step into the "reserved" area, which was nearly impossible, since you had to move to allow people to pass behind where you were standing. It was an annoyance on top of the challenging music, and the combined effect was overwhelmingly negative.

Rounding off the week was John Scofield with Joe Lovano. This architect of jazz guitar thrilled the audience with his rock-infused playing, bringing to bear his nearly forty-year career blazing trails in the jazz-fusion medium. He also challenges audiences, leaping from jazz to rock to blues, playing with space and fury.

Scofield is a master, unparalleled in today's jazz-guitar field, and his work with Lovano is mesmerizing. His percussionist Bill Stewart was exquisite, playful and powerful, and Ben Street on bass formed a stable basis for the musical experimentation. In witnessing Scofield play, the listener is reminded of his virtuosity of rhythm guitar. Playing in support of his co-headliner, he displayed a subtlety and nuance rivaled by few. Getting to see such a performer is a rare joy.

PDX Jazz Fest is an annual event bringing thousands of people out in the dark February rain. Next year's performers are not yet lined up, but it is sure to be a spectacular week of music.

PDX Jazz Fest ran February 18-28 at venues across Portland. For more information, visit http://pdxjazz.com

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.