Rob Blakeslee peals a shrill squeak from his horn. John Gross steps alongside him, his sax laying down an eerie harmony just below Blakeslee's somber bleat on the almost Arabic theme. Both lift into unity as Seattle bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Chris Lee swirl behind them with the burn of 15-year-old skate-rock hooligans.
Is this the Knitting Factory, Tonic, Chicago's Velvet Lounge or Seattle's OK Hotel? No.
Until a few weeks ago, lumping the Heathman, our resident highbrow hotel, with those edge-music grit factories would've been preposterous. But a recent string of Tuesday-night shows by Blakeslee, a 48-year-old veteran creative music trumpeter/composer, and a troupe of hard-driving innovators has drowned out the tinkling ivories and crooning previously heard in the hotel's blue-blood Tea Room.
Blakeslee's first April show brought out 20 hardcore Creative Music Guild types, wizened longhairs and musical adventure seekers. By week two, once word had spread, the regal room--with its fireplace, floral centerpiece and crystal chandelier--was packed to its cherry-paneled walls with old- and new-school fans.
It's doubtful many of the faithful were hotel guests. The few out-of-town curiosity seekers who braved the glass doorway grew puzzled once their ears adjusted. Most shambled on to their suites for a night of cable and room service. But a few stayed and seemed to genuinely enjoy the Happening. One visitor from Dallas admitted knowing little about jazz but nevertheless stuck around and enjoyed the ear stretching.
Yet if hotel manager Jeff Jobe is to be believed, this experiment isn't necessarily for the Heathman's wealthy patrons. After only three years on the job, the transplanted Southerner has become an astute interpreter of Portland arts--and what they lack. He sees these initial adventurous music gigs as a sincere stab at filling a niche in an increasingly conservative downtown arts scene.
"For too long, the Heathman has had a ritzy, blue-blood reputation," says Jobe. "I want this building to be a cultural mecca where the arts--music, literary, dance--thrive. The music program can push that."
To that end, he hired 25-year-old Jeff Carpenter to fulfill his vision. Carpenter has no booking experience per se, but he does have an ear for the fringes and a refreshing innocence in confronting alleged taboos.
"We're trying to put together a program here," says Carpenter, still excited about the prospect after four months on the job, "that gives local artists a chance to show their wares and provide a space where the arts that haven't traditionally been embraced downtown can be."
It's a message that's connected with some of the city's arts pioneers. After putting on a successful reading by Finding Forrester's Mike Rich in February, Carpenter started talking to local wordplay organizations for similar literary events. He's penned in Portland's oldest poetry journal, Fireweed, for a series of readings. Upcoming PICA performances are also a possibility.
But music is square one. Carpenter has already won a vote of confidence from the city's premier experimental music organization, the Creative Music Guild. "I totally support what Jeff and the Heathman are trying to do," offered CMG director Brad Winter.
Winter's relationship with Carpenter and the Heathman resulted in the Blakeslee shows. The Heathman puts up CMG's musical adventurers when they come to town--international experimental sorts like London's AMM Trio and Amsterdam's ICP Orchestra. Carpenter originally approached Winter about holding some CMG shows in the space, but audience size put the kibosh on the idea. Winter recommended Blakeslee instead. The novice booker sat down and listened to discs of the trumpeter's music and came to an enthusiastic conclusion.
"For me," Carpenter said of his choice, "it's painful that a great musician has to play in Tualatin when we have this beautiful venue here."
As Blakeslee's trumpet sent piquant half-notes toward the rafters at a recent Tuesday gig, a roomful of downtown music lovers couldn't have agreed more. At one point during the hourlong set as Michael Bisio's somber arco bass bowing settled in behind him, Blakeslee stopped mid-solo, pulled the trumpet from his lips and listened to the brass tones bounce off the mellow wood walls. He broke out in an ear-to-ear grin in appreciation of the razor-sharp vibe of his new digs.
1001 SW Broadway, 241-4100. 7 pm Tuesdays. No cover.
Event coordinator Jeff Carpenter has corralled trumpeter Rob Blakeslee for another month of Tuesdays.
With schtick crooner Johnny Martin booked every Wednesday, Carpenter's busy constructing his Sunday and Monday lineups. Next up are PICA possibilities, poetry slams and lecture series.