Safe distance sounds
April is really the cruelest month this year. We haven’t gotten to appreciate jazz during this plague-plagued Jazz Appreciation Month in the way we should: by personally observing the spontaneous creation of the “sound of surprise” in a club or theater. So we indulged in the next best thing: listening to recent releases by Oregon jazz — and jazz-ish — musicians. You can do the same with any of the recommended recordings below by following the links.
Much of the music listed here involves at least some improvisation, making it ideal for this moment where we’re all making it up as we go. If you like what you hear, be sure to tip your servers — by paying for a download, supporting your neighbors who created that beauty, and thereby equipping your digital device with a musical survival kit for the next pandemic.
Vol. 2: Into the Flow
Saxophonist, flutist and composer Hailey Niswanger’s wanderings have taken her from her native Portland to New England’s prestigious Berklee School to Brooklyn and, now, Los Angeles. Her artistry has also found new territories, most recently in her electric band MAE.SUN, whose sunny, spacy new album, Vol. 2: Into the Flow, advances its predecessor, Inter-Be’s creative jazz/pop fusion/electronica and 2015’s groovy PDX Soul and joins the other pop-tinged LA-based bands bringing jazz into the 21st century. Still under 30, Niswanger always sounded fine in more straightahead jazz, winning praise from venerable jazz writer Nat Hentoff in the Wall Street Journal among others, but she’s really found an original voice in MAE.SUN.
Make that voices, because some of these tracks feature vocals, Niswanger’s own as well as guest singers Amber Navran (of Los Angeles-based soul trio Moonchild) and Australian-born, Brooklyn-based Kate K-S. The album also showcases vibraphonist Nikara Warren, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, keyboardist Axel Laugart, bassist Aaron Liao, drummer David Frazier Jr, synthist Jake Sherman and producer Drew Ofthe Drew. Fans of synthy fusion like Herbie Hancock and Charles Lloyd’s 1960s-‘70s forays, jazztronica explorations and even Esperanza Spalding’s more recent efforts will find plenty to enjoy in both volumes’ neo-hippie spirit.
Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble with Jasnam Daya Singh
Ekta: The Unity Project
Premiered at the Montavilla Jazz Festival in 2017, Singh’s ambitious composition embraces influences from Brazilian choro and samba (which he played growing up in Brazil), European and American jazz, even some classical gestures. Yet for all its diversity, the multi-movement suite lives up to its subtitle, achieving a seamless, organic glow. Warm, breezy and inviting, it features lovely interplay between Singh’s piano and low-range instruments like baritone sax, bass clarinet, and trombones, as well as cool clarinet, flute and sax passages set off against warm flugelhorn.
Born in Rio de Janeiro, where he performed before immigrating to the US in 1987, Singh may still be better known under his former name of Weber Iago. He’s written for string orchestra and worked with jazz and world music fusion musicians like Carla Bley, Oregon’s Paul McCandless, Ali Ryerson, and Jovino Santos Neto, but his present partnership with PJCE may be his most fruitful yet.
Electric guitarist Mike Nord is probably best known for his glitchy adventures in Portland’s small but mighty free improv/avant jazz scene. Keyboardist/composer James Miley has created original music as strictly notated as any contemporary classical composition. And percussionist Ryan Biesack rocks drum-driven grooves. Somehow, the seemingly unlikely combo sounds surprisingly seamless on their atmospheric new debut album as Trio Untold, whose electric and electronic textures provide a foundation for incisive improvisational excursions that never default to mere noodling, despite being entirely improvised in the studio.
In Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s visionary Oregon Stories project, pianist Darrell Grant, former Tin Hat guitarist/film composer Mark Orton and trumpeter Douglas Detrick composed jazz orchestra music to combine with audio interviews (produced by KMHD’s Jessica Rand) featuring as subjects Oregonians who faced and surmounted racial and gender discrimination. Portland physician DeNorval Unthank became a well known community civil rights leader, Deborah Dempsey was the first woman to guide the big ships through the treacherous Columbia River Bar, and Japanese Oregonian George Akiyama faced down threats of violence when he returned from serving his country in World War II.
We’ve written about this audio documentary program so won’t traverse that ground again. The only question I had, after so enjoying the live performances, was whether they hold up on a recording without the live performers — especially Debra Dempsey — there in person. It does.
Same goes for PJCE’s recent recordings of Oregonophony, which Christina Rusnak reviewed for ArtsWatch at its live premiere — remember those? — and From Maxville to Vanport, which I covered here last year.
Ezra Weiss Big Band
We Limit Not the Truth of God
A PJCE mainstay, jazz pianist Ezra Weiss worries about the turn the world has taken recently and, like so many parents today, what it means for his two young sons’ future. One of Portland’s most esteemed jazz composers and arrangers, Weiss channeled those concerns — and his anger at their perpetrators — when he created one of his most ambitious compositions, We Limit Not the Truth of God, featuring many of the city’s top players (John Nastos, John Savage, Renato Caranto, Stan Bock, Alan Jones, Carlton Jackson, Thomas Barber and more, plus the Camas High School Choir.
Recorded live in Portland’s Alberta Abbey theater after its premiere at last summer’s Montavilla Jazz Festival, Weiss’s incendiary new jazz suite follows a string of successes: a half dozen CDs; his evocative score for From Maxville To Vanport; three original musicals for Northwest Children’s Theater; three ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award, and a host of arrangements and compositions for various Portland jazz veterans, his sextet and big band. But fair warning: although inspired by concern for children, some of the themes in Weiss’s new composition (which includes a song inspired by the story of a 5-year old boy from Honduras separated from his father after crossing the border in El Paso, Texas and other topical references) may not be appropriate for all of them. Such is the state of our world.
Portland sax master Rich Halley’s 22nd release is a rare encounter with a pianist, here renowned New York avant jazz pianist Matthew Shipp, recorded not in Halley’s home territory but instead in Brooklyn. In keeping with its title, Terra Incognita displays an entirely different side of one of one of Portland’s most nationally acclaimed jazz masters than his fruitful, five-album, decade-long collaboration with his core Oregon quartet (trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, bassist Clyde Reed, drummer Carson Halley). Abetted by bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, the frontline pair play off each other’s virtuosic, frequently surprising moves with veteran aplomb, alternating muscular ferocity with unexpected delicacy, like a dance duet in sound.
Into the Day
Portland sax maniac and occasional ArtsWatch contributor Patrick McCulley don’t need no stinkin’ band to make his 2019 release Into the Day utterly compelling. His alto and tenor instruments, awe-inspiring chops, and restless musical imagination are plenty. Though fully improvised and using instruments associated with jazz, McCulley’s original, consistently surprising music explores interstellar reaches way beyond the orbit that term usually encompasses. While the album (recorded in a Portland church) packs enough lacerating extended techniques, whirls, squawks, and honks to satisfy avant-leaning listeners, it also offers moments of gentleness, rumination, even ethereality and, to use one of the track titles, “enduring beauty.”
There was always more to bossa nova than Getz, Jobim, and Gilberto, as Portland pianist Kerry Politzer reminds us on Diagonal, her breezy tribute to Brazilian bossa-nova-meets-bebop jazz composer Durval Ferreira (1935-2007). Her tight band of Portland and Seattle jazz vets joyfully embrace the swinging spirit of that enormously popular ‘60s samba sound. John Nastos’s elegant flute, clarinet and sax, Portland State prof (and Politzer’s partner) George Colligan’s sensitively driving drums (instead of his usual keyboards), Ben Graves’s tasty guitar, Tim Carey’s bubbling bass and occasional added percussion by Simon Lucas add enough modern flair to make the album much more than a museum piece recreation. Politzer even contributes a trio of persuasively idiomatic original compositions and croons, in English and Portuguese on a couple cuts, including the oh-so-appropriate for Portland “The Day it Rained.”
The ace New York-based, Seattle-born, University of Oregon-educated trumpeter Josh Deutsch has played with the Duke Ellington ghost band, collaborated with jazz, rock, and folk musicians around the world. His own original music ranges from composed, contemporary classical works to hard-swinging postbop with his band Pannonia and in his 14-year duo with Italian guitarist Nico Soffiato. Though this summer’s planned CD release tour for their third album fell victim to virus prevention, Redshift still pulses with live energy, propelled by two well-known New York jazz drummers: Allison Miller and Dan Weiss. Though both leaders are masterful soloists, what stands out is the upbeat melodicism of their jazz/rock originals and arrangements, which include a tango- and balkan-flavored arrangement of Schumann’s famed Piano Quintet and covers of songs by Sufjan Stevens and Big Thief. Despite the varied sources, it all sounds completely natural.
I’ve written a lot about Portland bass eminence David Friesen, whose music I greatly admire, over the years, but why listen to me when one of America’s most esteemed observers of jazz for the past half century can say it so much more authoritatively? “Nearly from the moment he started playing bass when he was nineteen, Friesen has attracted attention with his drive, harmonic acuity and ability to create new melodies when he solos,” Northwest based jazz journalist Doug Ramsey writes on his invaluable ArtsJournal blog, Rifftides. “If anything, in his late seventies he has added to his resourcefulness and power.”
Friesen’s 2019 double CD of original compositions with his long-running Circle 3 Trio, featuring the vehement Eugene-based saxophonist Joe Manis and drummers Reuben Bradley (on the live disk recorded at a Vienna jazz club) or Charlie Doggett (on the studio disk recorded in Portland), earns this praise from Ramsey: “a rewarding extended visit with a trio that in person must be a stimulating audience pleaser.”
Believe me: it is. Recognized for decades around the world as one of the greatest living jazz bassists, Friesen’s uncanny contrapuntal adaptability enables him to lead his ensembles into unexplored musical territories without dominating the proceedings so much as to overshadow the other players’ individual voices. The artistry is in the interweaving, or, as the CD title calls it, Interaction.
So what happens when such an interactive genius goes it alone? The answer appears on Friesen’s previous double disk release, 2018’s My Faith, My Life. The first disk features Friesen playing his own invention, the Homage bass, with some overdubbed shakuhachi (Japanese flute), reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s similar experiments in the 1970s. The second seats him alone at a Ravenscroft grand piano that, as Ramsey writes, “gives his harmonic imagination full reign” even unabetted by his usual sterling colleagues. The prolific Friesen’s late-career flowering, no doubt enhanced by the different contexts each project places him in, is one of the great Oregon music stories, from one of the greatest-ever Oregon musicians.
Sing, sing, sing
The sublime Portland singer Rebecca Kilgore (named a PDX Jazz Master at this year’s PDX Jazz Festival) appears on a pair of admirable new albums. I can’t add anything more authoritative than returning to Doug Ramsey. “It’s a treat to hear Rebecca Kilgore and [Chicago guitarist] Andy Brown intertwine her singing and his guitar” Ramsey wrote about their “captivating collection” Together Live. “The album is remarkable for their musicianship, empathy and insights as they illuminate a dozen classic songs. It includes what is likely to be long considered the definitive version of Dave Frishberg’s and Johnny Mandel’s ‘You Are There’ [and] pieces by Frank Loesser, Victor Young, Ray Noble, Luis Bonfá and, from 1940, Artie Shaw’s ‘Any Old Time,’ a hit for Shaw and Billie Holiday.” Ramsey also praised her “relaxed and adventurous” live quartet recording Winter Days At Schloss Elmau, which finds Kilgore caressing lyrics from, among others, Dave Frishberg, Emily Brontë and William Shakespeare.
More appealing Northwest jazz vocals grace Two for the Road, featuring pianist/composer Matt Cooper and singer Sharon Porter. A native Eugenean and University of Oregon alum, Cooper has taught for decades at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, was a prizewinner in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition, a member of the Woody Herman Orchestra and Oregon ensembles, and is author of a respected book about Duke Ellington’s piano music. He also plays classical repertoire (including one of Rachmaninoff’s knuckle busting concertos), accordion, organ, and more.
Backed by Spokane bassist Scott Steed and drummer Michael Waldrop, the couple displays considerable charm in jazz standards by Ellington, Tom Jobim and Harold Arlen, pop and country tunes by James Taylor, Hank Williams, and more, including “Ode to Billy Joe” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Porter, who’s sung in both jazz and bluegrass ensembles, here deploys her lovely alto in relatively straight covers without scatting or other jazz devices.
Of course, you can’t talk about Oregon jazz, or vocal jazz of any kind, without mentioning Portland’s own legend Nancy King. Her work on longtime pianist Randy Porter’s Cole Porter tribute has already garnered much praise here and worldwide, not to mention a 2018 Grammy nomination, so if you somehow missed it when it came out, you could give your quarantine no sweeter self indulgence than to grab it now.
And for some simultaneously soothing and stimulating sounds, check out her former University of Oregon bandmate (and co-founder of the venerated jazz/world music ensemble Oregon) Ralph Towner’s most recent release, My Foolish Heart, a solo recording named after the classic Bill Evans recording that Towner first heard in his UO student days that set the nonpareil guitarist off on his unceasingly creative path to musical beauty.