A life of its own

Posted on by LukeB

Just because the roots of jazz go deep in history doesn't mean it can't reach creatively into the future. This year's Portland Jazz Festival was a presentation of the shape of jazz to come highlighted by influential legends of the past and musical geniuses of the present. The artists of the Jazz Festival broke out of every conventional border and into an ecstatic Portland to make a truly memorable Jazz Festival.

One of the weirdest experiences I had at the Portland Jazz Festival was hearing and seeing Future Man. As a jazz drummer, I experienced Bela Fleck's drummer (actually, his drumitarer who looks like a pirate) as a prime example of someone thinking out of the box. His bio says that some of his music “employs the power of Mother Nature to attain the natural ratios of the Golden Means.” Yet, this music, which comes through not blues roots but bluegrass roots, is awesome jazz. And throw this, Victor Wooten, and a symphony full of fiddlers into a jazz festival and you will be blown away.

One of the most surprising shows I saw also came from roots that are far from blues. Nik Bartsch's Ronin from Sweeden took jazz to a level of grooving rhythmic intricacy that I had never experienced before live. A band directed by the pianist/B3 player Nik Bartsch (one of the nicest guys you've ever met), led by the dark, driving, odd-meter bass and drum beats that have been refined after years of playing together was phenomenal to experience. And not to mention, CD sales were huge after this show.

Another band that had incredible continuity on stage was the Bad Plus, whose energy held the crowd at the edge of our seat. It's hard to match the creativity of this forward-thinking power trio. I can assure you that they will be a big part of the shape of (rock) jazz to come.

For me, the shape of jazz to come is best analyzed through the signs life it has now. All the groups previously mentioned are working ambitiously into the future of jazz, like the great Ornette Coleman, who on opening night showed us that jazz is still alive and he is still inventing. He currently plays with a band of three bass players and one drummer and himself on alto, with the occasional trumpet or violin appearance. Even after fifty years of Ornette music, it still takes time for me to comprehend what he is doing.

On the other side of the historic spectrum is the Classical Quartet, swinging classical compositions harder than ever. Made up of band of legendary musicians, they are reinventing classical music in a traditional style.

Saturday night's late show also followed traditional strains, but was nothing like the tradition of the Classical Quartet. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, a Grammy winning Latin band shook the Crystal Ballroom with lively salsa music. Bringing a much younger and active crowd to the Jazz Festival, the Orchestra played yet another form of jazz that is alive and growing in America today.

A rare treat for all of us was to hear the collective creativity of the SF Collection (beginning their world tour) playing the tunes of Wayne Shorter and their own, with the force of a big band. It would appear that these musicians aren't challenging themselves enough, so the SFC becomes a tremendously exciting collection of eight talented musicians out-composing each other in a set that was incredibly inspiring.

A group with five less musicians but no less intensity was Joshua Redman's trio with Reuben Rogers and Brian Blade. This performance needed nothing more that these three musicians (with no chordal instruments) working intricately together, reinventing the boundaries of trio jazz.

The 2008 Portland Jazz Festival for me was an inspiring glance into the movement of the living organism of jazz. But not only is jazz moving in places like Sweden, New York or Nashville, but all week (every week) there is a lively piece of Portland that is swinging (or rocking) hard into the future of jazz. Be a part of it.


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