Biamp PDX Jazz Festival Tastefully Pays Tribute to the Past

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With both Blue Note and ECM records celebrating anniversaries this year, booking the lineup for any major jazz festival would seem like an easy task, especially with the deep bench of talent both labels have fostered over the years. Give some credit then to Don Lucoff and the team that put together The Biamp PDX Jazz Festival, which ran Feb. 20–March 3 in Portland, Oregon, as they resisted the urge to pile on tributes to those venerable imprints. Instead, they stuck to their core principle of providing a showcase for Portland jazz fans to enjoy the work of new artists, as well as unassailable legends.

Festival organizers didn’t entirely turn away from such commemorations, but took a much different tack than they might have been expected to. Beyond an appearance from saxophonist Eli Degibri in support of his recently released album-length tribute to Hank Mobley and a set from one of the label’s current roster of artists, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, the Blue Note tributes were handled primarily by Portland players and held at Al’s Den, a snug basement venue that recalled jazz’s history as the music of speakeasies and rowdy theaters. That allowed for wild adventures, like saxophonist John C. Savage’s angular, squelching set paying homage to some of the daring work Eric Dolphy and Sam Rivers released, as well as a suitably swinging look at the work of Mobley and Lee Morgan by trumpeter Paul Mazzio and saxophonist Pete Peterson.

What tributes the festival did partake in were much larger in scale. During a fantastic opening weekend that included a set from National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Pharoah Sanders and the first Portland performance by the new lineup of The Bad Plus, Lionel Cole stopped by to celebrate the 100th birthday of his uncle Nat “King” Cole with a smart, understated set of smoky standards. Later that evening, the switch was flipped courtesy of drummer Ralph Peterson, who gave another baby born in 1919, in this case Art Blakey, the proper sweat-soaked, bop-heavy blowout.

The closing days of the festival connected together a handful of shows with thread that hung a bit more loosely. In this case, it was nodding to the jazz legacy of Philadelphia. It was a nice framework, but an unnecessary one. The crowd that packed Revolution Hall to hear Stanley Clarke, one of Philly’s most beloved native sons, was the most boisterous and animated of the festival, reacting to every splashy solo by the bassist and his sometimes-too-sleek ensemble with a rising intensity throughout the evening. They would have been there no matter what festival or schema the show was connected to.

The same applies to the lovely evening of appreciation for the work of Michael Brecker, the Philly-born saxophonist who passed away in 2007. His birthplace wasn’t the attraction. Brecker’s name and legacy was enough to send the crowd into peals of rapture. The night homed in on the bandleader’s 2003 large-ensemble album, Wide Angles, with a set of music culled from that recording and filigreed by a revolving door of soloists who added their own angle to the night. Marcus Strickland came closest to reviving Brecker’s blend of ’50s cool and ’70s funk, but it was María Grand who put the boldest stamp on the music, with a restraint and tone that felt like a spiritual balm.

Alongside the Blue Note tributes, there was plenty of local fare to partake in across the festival’s 12-day schedule. But if there was one player who exemplified the best of what this annual event tries to do—to highlight homegrown talent—it was Darrell Grant. Anointed this year as a Portland Jazz Master, the pianist was given a hero’s welcome by the crowd, responding with humility and some awe. He poured those same qualities into a set that revisited his still-thrilling 1994 album Black Art, finding new shades of melody and taking a bolder swing at the solos, speaking to years of experience and wisdom gained during the quarter century since he recorded the tunes. DB




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October 2019
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