The Portland Jazz Festival's safety net has been cast aside, but the traditionalists carry on.
The second annual Portland Jazz Festival teasingly revved its flat-6 engines last week with a number of lower-profile gigs, but this, the festival's second week, is when the event opens up full throttle. And whereas last year's first-go-round never had the power to allow writers to employ racing metaphors, the sophomore assay begs for them, packing a lineup that favors latitude above platitudes.
If last year's festival veered too much toward the safety net of jazz as we know it (with a transparent emphasis on filling hotels and showcasing the middle ground)—this year's is a bold, artistic about-face. Reaching deeper into the local pocket, younger, less mainstream artists are prominently featured this year (including the wonderfully talented bassist Esperanza Spaulding, the Upper Left Trio, the Kol Nidre-to-Coltrane Klezmocracy and muscular tenorist Rob Davis). There's also a strong focus on innovative artists like vibes player Joe Locke, Andy Narell's steel-pan-driven Calypsociation, returning artists Danilo Perez and John Patitucci, the renegade bluster of the Bad Plus, and bass greats Dave Holland and Charlie Haden. These artists are stretching the parameters of jazz—embracing both a global dimension and a risk-taking, outer-harmonic horizon. It's wonderful to see that festival organizers haven't forgotten that jazz needs heroic impulse.
Of course, along with the necessary impulses, there is also a need for the traditional—even if that tradition is tinkered with. One of the most attractive elements of this year's Portland Jazz Festival is the primacy of song and the jazz singer: a delectable sampling of some of the most distinct and disparate voices in jazz, performing everything from sardonic torch songs to fleet saudade-drenched Brazilian melodies to soaring bop and beyond.
It's easy to point at a reliance on the American Popular Songbook and decry it as mere nostalgia, but it also comes from a longing for good storytelling and a tune-I–can-hum-walking-down-the-street quality. And it's not just Jazz Fest organizers who realize this. The result: the most tune-conscious, fertile era of jazz vocalists since the 1950s. Avoiding the diamonds-are-a-girl's-best-friend yearnings of what writer Will Friedwald calls the "cult of the White Goddess"—think Doris Day and June Christy, or the manufactured vintage pop of Jane Monheit—this festival showcases an exceptional array of singers, all of whom owe a deep debt to jazz and are unparalleled in their respective spheres.
Jazz critic Gary Giddins once said the expanse of jazz singing was "like an ocean...all you do is swim around in it looking for those who touch you." Whether your fidelity is to the singer or the song, there's plenty of buoyant melody and raw emotion across the board this year to keep you afloat 'til you come ashore.
The Portland Jazz Festival takes place at venues throughout the Portland area until Sunday, Feb. 20. See Headout, page 40, for all Jazz Fest shows, or go to www.pdxjazz.com