Singing Seim’s Praises

RIVERSIDE, REVISITED: manfred_eicher.jpgPortland, Oregon is many
things—including one of America’s best kept sort-of secrets—among
our great and soulful little cities. National pride aside, it is
also oddly European-feeling, especially in February, when it’s a
warmly gray, wet place, and a blissfully walking-friendly city full
of old architecture (old, by west coast standards) and a sense of
cultural rootedness. Last weekend, Euro-philia flowed freely when
the suddenly important Portland Jazz Festival—in its
fourth year—offered an unprecedented celebration of the
German-based ECM

It’s about time. Thirty-nine years old and boasting 1,000 (count
‘em) titles, ECM is much more than just the home of the mighty
and the label that launched Pat Metheny and put
Scandinavian jazz (i.e. Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Bobo Stenson)
on the international map. Founded and still run by the—dare we say
it?—visionary domo-producer Manfred Eicher,
ECM is a unique phenom in the history of recorded music, let alone
jazz. Pristine recording values, integration of music and cover
art, and a fierce aversion to mainstream music industry marketing
strategies prevail.

Seeds of the Portland festival’s ECM focus began with the
booking of the long-standing duo of Gary Burton and Chick
, whose landmark album Crystal Silence was recorded 35
years ago. Intrepid festival director Bill Royston saw this as a
foundation for a larger ECM tribute, booking Santa Barbara’s own
Charles Lloyd and the
wonderful veteran Polish trumpeter
Tomasz Stanko
, both solid, seasoned artists connected to the
label that Manfred built. Into the mix last weekend (the festival
continues through this weekend), Royston stirred in reliable jazz
stalwarts: Branford
’s ever-robust quartet, Don Byron’s “Junior Watson” tribute
band—basically, a hip wedding band—and the Geri Allen Trio, a natural, given
Allen’s role in Lloyd’s quartet (she was sounding especially
stellar, at both shows).

But never mind all of that, Trygve%20Seim.jpgfor the moment: by far the star of this
festival, and probably one of the west coast’s highest musical
events this year, was the North American debut of a “next
generation” ECM artist, the stunning Norwegian saxophonist/composer
. Here was the real coup of the festival, which also
featured panel discussions (including yours truly) and artist
interviews around the subject of ECM. In Seim’s interview, with the
Oregonian’s Marty Hughley, the soft-spoken Norwegian discussed his
sideways trajectory into jazz, from the Sex Pistols and Bob Marley
through a life-changing exposure to Garbarek, to finding his own
voice. Along the way, Seim also explored–and adapted to the
saxophone– influences of the shakuhachi and the Armenian duduk
(especially the work of Djavan Gasparian).

Seim’s group is a thing of wonder, at once visceral and ambient,
rootsy and out-of-this-world. To hear the ten-piece group in the
embracing, appropriate space of Portland’s First Congregational
Church (built in 1892), made for what this scribe can only call a
religious experience. Seim’s unusual instrumentation–a bassless,
chordless group including accordion, tuba, the rare bass saxophone,
bassoon, as well as the old fashioned jazz tools of sax, trumpet,
trombone–is put into service, in mind-bending, time-bending

Just as genres morph between jazz, classical, folk (of various
worldly colors), and open improvisation, the players swerve between
written and free playing, cued by Seim. Seim’s compositions are
anything but stock or predictable, alternately evoking a twisted
version of a street brass band, a psychedelic Salvation Army Band,
or other variations on large ensemble concepts, including fellow
Norwegian Jon
large ensembles or Henry
Threadgill’s Very, Very Circus
—but in slow mo, and through a
ruminative Nordic filter.

For listening pleasure, check out Seim’s incredible recent
album, Sangam (not to be confused with Lloyd’s latest album,
strangely also called Sangam: the terms means “convergence of
rivers” in Sanskrit). In Portland, the crowd went justifiably wild
and weak at the knees and heart. Why was it that we don’t get to
hear this ilk of music more often out here in the wild west?

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