YOUNG AND BRAVE: If the measure of a good jazz festival is that it allows you to visit multiple worthwhile musical worlds while also steeping in the host city’s splendors, the Portland Jazz Festival may be the youngest positive role model. Only five years old, the festival-run by director Bill Royston-is gutsy, smart, educational, and symbiotically connected to the great city of Portland. A dense recent weekend there was book-ended with keynote shows by Ornette Coleman (with his cool three-bass wonder band) and Cecil Taylor (solo, at the piano, and with poetry). Sporting both of these “free jazz” pioneers in a single weekend made for an enlightening cultural coup.
Virtually all 10 shows on the front-loaded opening weekend were rich, and affirmed jazz in its aesthetic might. The super good The Bad Plus played in the vibe-filled Crystal Ballroom, a stone’s throw from the Willamette River. From the late-night/left field turf came Myra Melford‘s semi-plugged in band Be Bread and Tim Berne‘s feisty trio with Craig Taborn (one of the greatest keyboardists you might not have heard of) and drummer Gerald Cleaver in a chair often occupied by Santa Barbara-bred Tom Rainey. From the “straight jazz” zone, we heard the Modern Jazz Quartet-ish Classical Jazz Quartet, with Ron Carter, Kenny Baron, Lewis Nash and ambi-style vibes master Stefon Harris-and pianist Bill Charlap‘s trio. Charlap may well be the finest “traditional” jazz pianist presently working, a supremely tasteful virtuoso and lover of songs who makes everything work. (Open note to the “Jazz at the Lobero” peeps: Charlap would fit in beautifully at the Lobero.)
Speaking of the Lobero, one of the PDX festival’s most satisfying shows was the S.F. Jazz Collective, who were kicking off a tour that will bring them down to the Lobero on March 20 for a not-to-be-missed appearance. We’ve caught this band before, at Campbell Hall, but the current lineup-with Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas, Stefon Harris, and Robin Eubanks on the front line, and the commanding Eric Harland on drums-finds the band in its finest form yet.
Meanwhile, Portland was having a break from soggy weather for the weekend, and the city’s many pleasures and cultural allurements, were all reachable on foot. And just try to stay away from the cosmic book world that is Powell’s bookstore. Just try.
GRAMMY AFTERGLOW DEPT.: A warm glow of semi-local pride washed over Santa Barbarans when Joan Tower‘s symphonic jewel Made in America nabbed three (count ’em) Grammy Awards. Yes, we heard it here: Tower herself conducted the Santa Barbara Symphony in one of the work’s several American road show stops. Tower’s wondrously engaging yet also challenging piece made for one of the most exciting orchestral moments in the Arlington Theatre in this century. On occasion, there is justice in classical culture, still suffering from its obsession with music by Dead White Males.
TO-DOINGS: Mandolin wizard Chris Thile has been in these parts before, with progressive bluegrass group Nickel Creek and in cahoots with Glen Phillips, but the new project he’s bringing to SOhO on Saturday, the Punch Brothers, is from an entirely different musical strata. As heard on Punch, a remarkable new Nonesuch album, the unplugged band takes the post-bluegrass genre to new places, built around the venturesome 40-minute suite The Blind Leaving the Blind (premiered in Carnegie Hall as part of John Adams‘s “In Your Ear Redux” festival). If Abigail Washburn‘s SOhO gig last year was the Americana show of the year, this one may well vie for this year’s title.
What’s this, a multimedia rock opera about Peter Lorre, in the cool ambience of Casa de la Raza? KCSB (91.9 FM), that local beacon of alternative goodness, is teaming up with the Casa for a rousing evening next Wednesday night, March 5. Headlining the show is the Brooklyn-based World/Inferno Friendship Society, who last year released the album Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre’s Twentieth Century. From another geo-cultural corner, East L.A.-based Ollin opens, with its strange brew of things Mexican, German, punky, and rootsy.