Exuberant Vibe at Portland Jazz Festival
Unlike in years past, the 2012 edition of the Portland Jazz Festival was presented without a theme. That’s a small detail but one that is emblematic of the changes that have rippled through this annual event over the past 12 months, including the departure of founder and creative director Bill Royston.
During his tenure, Royston booked the festival under an umbrella of an idea. Last year it was the connections between Jewish and African-American musicians and music, and in 2009, it was a 70th anniversary tribute to Blue Note Records.
The booking philosophy for the 2012 festival (which ran Feb. 17–26) was a looser one, so it was left to attendees to find the connecting thread that tied the disparate shows together. For all the variations on jazz displayed throughout, a sense of playfulness pervaded almost every set, with even the most serious of musicians looking positively exuberant.
This even filtered down among the more serious moments of certain sets. Prior to leaning into a delicately rendered version of “Eternal” during his duo set with pianist Joey Calderazzo at Portland’s Newmark Theater, Branford Marsalis spent some time relaying a warm and funny anecdote of the ballad’s creation: a promise to his wife for a song just for her.
Onstage at the Crystal Ballroom, the guitarist Prasanna spoke with a smile about the meaning behind one of the songs he has written for Tirtha, the traditional Indian music-inspired trio he is in with pianist Vijay Iyer and tabla player Nitin Mitta: “This is about the struggle between standard physics and quantum physics. It’s a real problem. Google it.” The song in question, “Entropy And Time,” had no tension within it, however. Musically, it centered on Prasanna’s nimble, sitar-like guitar runs and Mitta’s fleet rhythms.
For some groups, a puckish spirit was simply unavoidable. Such was the case with New York’s Jazz Passengers. Performing in Portland for the first time since 1997 and back together after a decade of working on other projects, the sextet played a strong and loose set of originals and covers, including a particularly giddy take on the 1979 Peaches & Herb hit “Reunited,” punctuated by saxophonist Roy Nathanson’s cornball banter and group vocal parts that veered away from harmony.
Drummer Roy Haynes displayed a wry tone from the moment he took the stage at the Newmark. Before even sitting down behind the kit, he held court for 20 minutes introducing the members of his Fountain of Youth Band and cracking wise with the capacity crowd. Haynes showcased his signature punchy sound only during a pair of solos, but the music was held aloft throughout by the powerful alto sax player Jaleel Shaw, who spiraled out meaty, Sonny Rollins-inspired lines throughout the hour-long set.
For all the delights of the 2012 festival, if there was one powerful image that stood out, it came on Feb. 17 when Thara Memory was wheeled out onto the stage at the Winningstad Theatre. The 64-year-old educator and trumpeter has been wheelchair-bound after losing some fingers and part of his right leg to diabetes.
But he looked mighty as he directed his opening night program—a tribute to Miles Davis. He moved slowly around the stage, pointing for players (a mixture of veterans and young artists chosen from his American Music Program) to stand up and take a solo. Memory also grabbed his trusty horn to blast out a few Miles-like notes during renditions of songs from Sketches Of Spain and Porgy & Bess. Even when the music momentarily wobbled, Memory consistently held steady.