PDX Jazz Festival Stars Pay Tribute to Alice & John Coltrane

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Ravi Coltrane (center) appears with an eight-piece wind ensemble and a jazz quartet at the PDX Jazz Festival’s celebration of John Coltrane in Portland, Oregon.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

The 2016 PDX Jazz Festival, which took place in various venues in Portland, Oregon, from Feb. 18–28, has excelled over the years at historical retrospectives, including focuses on Blue Note, ECM Records and Frank Sinatra, among others.

This year, PDX turned its gaze on John Coltrane, acknowledging what would have been the jazz legend’s 90th birthday. The final weekend offered three Coltrane programs: a recreation of the classic 1961 Africa/Brass sessions, a concert titled “Universal Consciousness: A Tribute to Alice Coltrane” and a tenor sax jam on Coltrane’s tunes. John Coltrane’s son Ravi headed up the first two shows.

The Africa/Brass sessions on opened on Feb. 26 with a spirited quartet set featuring an intense rendition of “Resolution,” from A Love Supreme, with Ravi on tenor and soprano saxophones, Orrin Evans on piano, Luques Curtis on bass and Mark Whitfield Jr. on drums.

Whitfield, son of the guitarist of the same name, served notice from the gitgo that he would be heard, crackling out Tony Williams-like riffs with delicious precision. The quartet was then joined by an eight-piece, locally drafted wind ensemble under the direction of Portland bandleader Charles Gray, who had earlier been designated a “jazz master” by the festival.

The two ensembles performed all five “Africa/Brass” pieces, three from the original album (“Africa,” “Blues Minor” and “Greensleeves”), plus the two that surfaced later, “Song Of The Underground Railroad” and “The Damned Don’t Cry.” As the album title suggests, one of the attractions of this work is its brass instrumentation—two French horns, euphonium and tuba—not to mention the wild, colorful parts written by Coltrane’s sidemen at the time, Eric Dolphy and McCoy Tyner.

Sadly, the excitement of the writing did not translate well at this performance, and there seemed to be little connection between the quartet and the octet, with the exception of the roaring French horns and fluttering flute on “Africa.”

You somehow got the feeling these musicians might have been happier playing their own music with their own bands, though Evans offered some McCoy-like percussive thunder on “Railroad,” slamming his elbow into the keyboard at one point, and Ravi’s soprano glistened on “Damned.”

Saturday’s tribute to Ravi’s mother, Alice Coltrane, had more heart. It featured not only the young Coltrane, but historical Coltrane collaborators Pharoah Sanders (saxophone) and Reggie Workman (bass), plus tamboura player Michael Stirling and harpist Brandee Younger, who supplied the hypnotic swarms of Alice Coltrane’s meditative music, as well as some elegantly precise melodic improvisation. Drummer Andrew Cyrille and pianist Geri Allen rounded out the group.

Sanders was transcendent on the ballad “Say It (Over And Over Again),” and when Ravi explained that Charlie Haden’s “For Turiya” was written “for my mother,” it felt as if we had been invited to a private family gathering.

The transfixed full house brought the ensemble back for a well-deserved encore. Kudos to PDX for focusing on a female musician in an often male-centric genre.

The festival also deserves praise for its education component—student competition winners opened several concerts at the Newmark Theatre—and for educating its burgeoning jazz audience with thematic historical programs.

But truth be told, as edifying and carefully curated as they were, the grand Coltrane concerts were not the most captivating of the weekend. That feather must surely be placed in the cap of Workman, for his ecstatically beautiful Saturday concert in the humble environs of Alberta Abbey, a decommissioned Baptist church in the city’s Northeast quadrant.

Workman appeared with his band RW WORKz: Carlos Homs (piano), Tapan Modak (drums), Ferenc Nemeth (tabla) and guest reedist James Carter. Still dapper and spry at 78, the bald, bespectacled bassist regaled the crowd with amiable patter and the deep, resonant throb of his instrument, which reached back to Africa (“Shades Of Angola”) and through the heart of the blues and romance (“Soul Eyes”).

With an rhythmic feel that might best be described as ecstatic suspension, and a mood that was often haunting, the quintet never quite fell into a straight groove but also never lost momentum. Carter, whose dazzling, elbows-out solos on flute and saxophones can be overbearing, was the consummate team player.

This set was a keen reminder of what draws some people to jazz in the first place, which is not history or compositions or “classics,” but rather a soulful, spontaneous sound and mood, one drenched with the pain and joy of a special aesthetic and historical space.

That feeling flooded the Abbey—and it circled back at the saxophone jam Sunday afternoon at the Hotel Eastlund, albeit in a more light-hearted way, with Evans’ trio and jousting tenor players JD Allen, Jimmy Greene, Portlander Devin Phillips and, briefly, Joe Lovano.

“What makes the music happen is the spirits,” said Lovano, before launching into a barnburning take on “Locomotion.” Indeed, the spirits were speaking as Greene cried out the melody of “Naima” and Allen wove Lester-like through “26-2.”

Happily, not one of these players sounded like John Coltrane, which surely would have pleased the searching spirit of their honoree, had he lived long to hear them. Happy birthday, John.