Gifts of the Season - a stocking full of Portland CDs
Where the Light Falls, David Friesen’s Circle Three Trio.
Ever since the late 1960s, Portland bassist and composer David Friesen has been an important part of jazz in the Pacific Northwest. He cut his teeth in Seattle’s avant-garde coffee house scene, a period he documented recently in another two disc set titled “….” In the 1970s, often in company with guitarist John Stowell, Friesen pioneered an approach that came to be called New Age music, as did another Friesen associate in those years, flautist Paul Horn. That association resulted in a 1984 tour of the Soviet Union (with Stowell and Horn’s son on drums) that made them the first jazz group to play concerts open to the public since the 1940s. He worked extensively with pianist Mal Waldron in the 1980s and ‘90s, and he has always and continues to tour ceaselessly, often to Western Europe, where a few tracks from this double CD were recorded.
Just as he did with a trio featuring pianist Randy Porter and drummer Alan Jones in the early 1990s, Friesen leads another intuitive and exceptionally talented group here, with Greg Goebel on piano and Charlie Doggett, drums. And he’s often said the same thing of this trio as he did of his band with Porter and Jones: “Every time it’s different. We never play a tune the same way twice. There are no arrangements; and really, no rehearsals. We just listen to each other and play.”
The tunes here, all by Friesen, take an emotional rather than a compositional shape, it seems to me, as the intensity rises and falls without frequent reference to melody. Built as they are on extensive improvisation, and often outside traditional 32-bar song form, that can lend a sameness that at times left me adrift. Not everyone will listen to the two discs all at once, however, and the passages of intricate counterpoint, rhythmic agility and soaring beauty are reward enough.
Nearly half the tracks also feature guitarist Larry Koonse, a frequent collaborator on Friesen’s recordings. At times, the guitar frees up Goebel to play more single-note lines and rely less on dense chords. But my favorite pieces are the trio tracks. Doggett and Goebel frame Friesen’s penetrating Hermage electric bass — an instrument he’s used for more than 20 years — providing a a supportive canvas for his fluid and expressive solos. The trio pieces range from the upbeat, busy and breezy (“Counterpart”) to the quietly menacing “Dark Resolve.” Goebel is showcased throughout, but his pianistic approach is in full flight on “Unfolding,” one of Friesen’s strongest melodies. The syncopated figure Goebel plays on “Day of Rest” is rhythmically the most fascinating passage in the set — recorded at several locations in both studio and live sessions.
The Bylines Live.
Gotta admire the ambition of this project, with music and lyrics by pianist/singer Reece Marshburn and his partner, the vocalist Marianna Thielen. They employ some of Portland’s top instrumentalists, too, including saxophonists Willie Matheis and John Nastos. I wouldn’t call all of it jazz, but that’s the eclectic direction much music is taking these days. Let’s call tunes like the bluesy “Goin’ to L.A.” and “Let Me” smart pop, since they’re suitable for Adult Contemporary radio, And “The Devil Will Take You Back” I’d call modern country. All of them are beautifully arranged, with liberal use of horns, orchestral synth effects and electric guitar for color. As a showcases for Marshburn’s arranging, this album would make a great portfolio.
Those songs more clearly in the jazz camp, though, feature strong melodies and interesting arrangements and, more strikingly, a better platform for Thielen’s vocals. In the dark rumba, “At the End of the World,” their strengths come together. “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” features John Moak’s trombone in a slow stride; “Remove the Net,” begins in the form of a classic torch song, with a striking single-note piano line in rough unison with Theielen’s lyric, before it breaks into a power tango over which the vocalist soars as in a Three Penny Opera aria. “Back Burner” is a straight big band blues. The lyrics are worth a listen, too — at once literate and catchy, they’re today’s version of the era The Bylines reference frequently, when Great American Songbook tunes were the country’s popular music.
Rock Me Sweet, Barbara Lusch.
Portland vocalist Barbara Lusch brings another example of today’s eclectic smart pop that is perhaps more suitable for the Adult Contemporary category than jazz. And yet, the arrangements, by Emmy-winning writer/composer Earl Rose, who has worked with Olivia Newton-John, are multi-layered and expressive. It’s also engineered (to contemporary pop perfection) by Al Schmitt, who has worked for Steely Dan, Natalie Cole and George Benson.
Benson maybe the key reference here, on a disc where Lusch has slowed down pop hits of the 1980s, such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” turning them from rockers into torch songs. The orchestra employs 8 violins, three violas, cello, trumpet and percussion, and there’s a jazz quartet with Harvey Mason on drums. Of course it’s a soundscape designed to support Lusch’s consistently well-articulated and controlled vocals, which are given a beautiful production on this Cadillac of an album that in the end falls on the pop side of the shifting and often blurry line that separates it from jazz.
Blush Records, 2014.
Working Out the Kinks, John Dover.
This ‘quintet plus one’ album by Portland trumpeter and composer Dover takes us farther into the jazz camp — but not entirely without a few of the touches that made George Benson’s most popular albums controversial among jazz fans at the time. Traditional song form rules here, whether it’s in a salsa rhythm, snapping fusion or breezing’ along in a light funk groove. There’s plenty of bluesy flourishes here, too, especially in solos by Pete Petersen on tenor sax and guitarist Mike Doolin. “Jazz in the Key of MI” is a straight ahead horn band tune.
Dover’s trumpet — muted and open — and flugelhorn take center stage, and his tone is full and impeccable. His bandmates also perform admirably, including Clay Giberson on piano and keyboards (check his solo on “The One”), Charles Neal on drums, and arranger and bassist (in this group, though he often plays trumpet elsewhere), Thomas Barber. He lends a cinematic quality to some of the tunes, especially the evocative “Puerto Morelos.” He lays down a heavy, contemporary electric bass groove that is out front on every track. Contemporary jazz, clean and sharp.
Outta My Soul, Robert Moore.
This new album tops Moore’s previous work — I’d like to think that’s because it was recorded in Portland with Portland musicians; the real reason lies with Moore, however, who plays trumpet, harmonica and sings on what is one of the few Reference Records products with a Portland jazz artist.
No wonder the company liked this project: Moore fronts what on some tracks grows to a 12-piece band that includes excellent musicians in every chair, including Alan Jones, drums, and the internationally known bassist Damien Erskine. Especially satisfying for those who’ve followed jazz in Portland for decades is the emergence of Warren Rand on alto sax on two of the songs — though it’s hardly a step down on those featuring David Valdez. And nearly every track includes multiple horns; the well-crafted arrangements take full advantage of the possibilities, too.
Moore is singing well, in a style that I might describe as a cross between Mose Allison and Ray Charles. His delivery draws on the likes of King Pleasure as well, and he includes the singer’s lyrics to the Gene Ammons tune, “Swan Blues.” Tom D’Antoni, in Oregon Music News, described Moore as “a vintage jazz hipster and possibly the coolest one in town.” His spoken word piece, “Another Round,” set to an improvised musical background, is right in the mold of those hipster progenitors, such as Ken Nordine — but more musical and improvisational. It’s a soulful voice, not conventionally full and rich but under great control, and his ear is superb. He’s been developing that voice since he started singing in the southern churches of his youth. He spent 25 years as a musician in Birmingham, Ala. before moving to Portland, and you hear the South in it as well as the harmonica he plays so expressively.
As Moore takes you from big band swing through, bossa nova, soul, slow ballad and jump blues, it’s the voice of Robert Moore you’re left with, and all the shades of emotion he’s shared with you.
Reference Records, 2014.
Inkling, Mark Simon Quintet.
In its most straight ahead release, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble — Portland’s longest-running musician-run presenting and jazz support group — chose to showcase the deceptively simple, sonorous and memorable music of pianist and composer Mark Simon. Originally from Chicago, Simon followed childhood friend and drummer Michael Bard to Portland in 1979, where he immediately started working. He hasn’t stopped since, though the volume of his performing has slowed in recent years due to the liver disease that has him in line for a transplant down the road.
Simon played in bassist Leroy Vinnegar’s trio with drummer Mel Brown, performed at the Mt. Hood Festival of Jazz and with Bud Shank; he’s released two previous CDs (“Portland Nights” and “Bass 10”); he’s a favorite of singers and worked frequently with vocalist Karla Harris while she lived in Portland. This quintet, however, may provide the best setting for his compositions.
Simon of course grew up with Bard, on drums, whose uncluttered approach works well here. He’s known trumpeter Paul Mazzio since their community college days, bassist Chris Higgins is able, expressive and solid, and tenor saxophonist Devin Phillips seems to understand the needs of Simon’s music as if it were his own. Phillips picks up a three-note phrase that Simon uses repeatedly in his solo, for instance, on “Simon Says,” and develops it himself in the solo that follows. And in a sense, every soloist “writes” the composition anew each time he or she improvises on the skeletal structure of a jazz tune. In fact, Simon says he wrote half the material on this album with these players in mind.
On these beautifully realized pieces, they’re up to the task.
Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble Records, 2014.
Mental Block Party, Randy Porter.
There will never be enough Randy Porter albums, but this one — recorded in the Portland pianist’s studio on his Steinway grand — goes a long away toward rectifying a drought that’s lasted since his 2008 release, “Thirsty Soul.” And if anything, this one’s more inventive and unusual than that earlier trio outing, though it too, included a number of Porter originals. But this one is all Porter, though he does invite drummer Jason Palmer to sit in, and he uses bassist John Wiitala on two as well as the bass clarinet and tenor sax of David Evans on four others; Tim Willcox plays tenor on another two of the pieces.
But this CD is all about Porter and his piano. Most of it was, he tells us, spontaneously composed and played with no written music (though he did write out a scratch set of changes for the sax and clarinet players in a couple cases). Four of the tunes are by others — “Killing Me Softly,” “Someone in Love,” “I Should Care” and “Mysterioso” (though Porter makes them his own) — but the rest are pure invention. The surprising thing — or maybe I shouldn’t be surprised — is they all sound as if they’d been written, practiced, and carefully arranged.
The melodies are strong, he refers back to them in ways that keep me engaged, and his rhythms and phrasing are catchy and a compelling. Several of true pieces sound as if they could be classical compositions, though Palmer’s dynamic and colorful percussion provides an interactive palette for the piano. Porter creates some beautiful passages here, complex yet accessible. He’s known around the country for it.
If this album is a product of a “mental block” that’s kept him from writing down his compositions, as he says, then I wish him many more.
Heavywood Music, 2014.
It’s Getting to Be That Time of Year, Rebecca Kilgore, Mike Horsfall, Randy Porter.
Part of a larger project with lyricist Ellen Vanderslice, this three-song EP contains original Christmas songs recorded with Rebecca Kilgore, Randy Porter, Mike Horsfall, Tom Wakeling, Todd Strait, Tim Jensen and Susannah Mars. These are three of 18 songs by Vanderslice that Horsfall and Kilgore have captured in the studio recently for future release. It’s part of a collaboration they call the Moonshadow Project. Kilgore and Vanderslice have worked together before on the album “Rebecca Kilgore Sings the Ellen Vanderslice Songbook.”
Most holiday albums feature seasonal favorites — if it’s Christmas tunes you’re after, here’s a fresh take by the city’s most accomplished pros — and anything with JSO Hall of Fame member Kilgore is bound to be gold. Find it here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/rebeccakilgore4
Meanwhile, the world turns ... Midnight Melodies, Cyrus Chestnut.
Hard to believe this is veteran pianist Chestnut’s first live recording date ever. But that’s the beauty of the new series by Smoke Sessions Records — it gives those far away from Manhattan a chance to hear what some of the top jazz artists of our day (especially pianists) sound like in a live nightclub setting. They’ve released nine so far in CD, high-quality download and vinyl formats; six albums this year alone. The CDs are consistently designed in a handsome eight-panel size, often with an interview or extensive liner notes, and the star’s photo on the cover.
So this is what New York jazz sounds like at Smoke Jazz and Supperclub in 2014, with some of the top pianists on their Steinway B that Chestnut claims is, for him, the best piano in the city. And it does sound like he’s comfortable on this album: jazz standards; a couple by his drummer here, Victor Lewis; several by Chestnut’s mentor, the late pianist John Hicks; and one Chestnut original, which turns out to be my favorite tune on this impeccable piano trio date.
Other titles in the series that I’ve listened to include the strong-armed Harold Maebern’s “Right on Time,” recorded over two nights for his 77th birthday party; legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb’s “Cobb’s Mob,” with Brad Mehldau at the piano; and pianist Orrin Evans’ “Liberation Blues.” Much of it has a hard, urban edge I associate with straight ahead jazz from New York these days, though that’s an over-generalization. But jazz does often sound like the place it’s coming from; we expect jazz, at its most authentic, to express the experience of those playing it. And so, here are nine live performances at Smoke’s … the sound of midnight in Manhattan.
Smoke Sessions Records, 2014.
Amalgamations, Ali Jackson.
In another example of the influence of the Marsalis family on jazz in America, consider drummer Ali Jackson, whose career has been nurtured by Wynton Marsalis, who became a kind of father-figure for Jackson when the younger man’s father died and who placed him in the drum chair he still holds in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
But Jackson’s music here — and on his previous album, “Wheelz Keep Rollin’” — isn’t a Marsalis clone, though Wynton’s trumpet appears on several tunes, including a very improvisational trio version of “Cherokee.” Like most listeners these days, though, I cherry-pick my favorite tunes, and play them exclusively; here, the down-home and the churchy catch my ear, like the Jackson original, “Praise,” for instance, and “Just a Closer Walk…”, which is set to a New Orleans beat). I also like the catchy rhythm of the swampy blues, “Done Tol’ You Fo’ Five Times.”
Another featured instrumentalist is is trombonist Vincent Gardner, from the LCJO, and Jackson’s bassist on many of these tunes is Carlos Henriques, also a member of that prestigious ensemble. Which means they’re all superb instrumentalists. And whichever kind of tune you prefer here, they’re all performed with grace and skill.