RIVERSIDE, REVISITED: Portland, 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 records.
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 Keith Jarrett 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 Corea, 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 Marsalis’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, for 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 Trygve Seim. 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 ways.
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 Balke’s 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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