There is a general misperception in the national mainstream jazz press that Portland is "insular," "largely quiet" or maybe just a whistlestop between towns of greater jazz-powered magnitude. Tossing aside the fuhgettabouttit, NYC-centric jazz arrogance, what Portland does have is a healthy sense of the jazz continuum, where the inside and outside commingle, producing not a tension but a wonderful sense of fulcrum and breath to the form. Rather than stagnating under heavy-handed notions of what is and isn't jazz, at its best the Portland scene is a constant "corps of discovery" that embraces both nook and cranny. WW dips into a modest sampling of recently released projects from local jazz/improv artists.
Mel Brown Quartet
Girl Talk (Saphu Records)
This first release from the Mel Brown Quartet (founded in 2002) is an excellent showcase for this exemplary group of players. The cream of Portland's bebop crop-featuring fleet, Phineas Newborn-esque pianist Tony Pacini, guitarist Dan Balmer (in a more Grant Greenish shade than with his Go By Train), and the ever-buoyant solid basswork of Ed Bennett. Led by jazz's arbiter of elegance, Mel Brown-a no-nonsense, tasteful drummer in the tradition of Ed Thigpen, Mel Lewis and Tootie Heath-the group lays down a steady mix of original tunes and choice standards (including Ellington's rarely played "Just Squeeze Me"). Impeccably recorded and expertly delivered-from razor-sharp bop tempos (especially the land-speed-record clip of Miles Davis' "Milestones"), jazz waltzes and ballads to perhaps the most milky midtempo version of Neil Hefti's "Girl Talk" you're likely to hear (sounding, to misparaphrase Eddie Condon, like she's saying "yes").
John Gross / Billy Mintz
Beautiful You (Origin Records)
Recorded live at the Tugboat Brewing Co., Beautiful You is a stunning document. Tenor saxophonist John Gross and New York-based drummer Billy Mintz-both veterans of the L.A. studios and big bands-are singular forces on their respective instruments. Truly a musician's musician, Gross is a coolly compelling player with an elevated sense of beauty and tension. From his opening notes on "Shmear"-reminiscent of Sonny Rollins' thematic stabs on "East Broadway Rundown"-Gross shows his more classical avant-garde, elastic tone (à la Sam Rivers or Coltrane) with a lyrical, moody streak. Mintz is a masterful drummer who's distilled the innovations of Elvin Jones and Paul Motian, his most immediate stylistic peers, down to a deeply profound and suspenseful currency. Much of the album shines as a result of Mintz's compositions filled raw, heart-on-the-sleeve emotion wrapped around simple melodic themes. From the sensual, broken shuffle that opens "Haunted"-an aching, "Ave Maria"-like melody-to the title track, where Gross traverses space and melody with lucidity and a gentle (at times brazen) command, this gorgeous release reminds us that music's great secret lies in its silences.
I Didn't Know About You (Heavywood Music)
Evans-aided by vets Mike Wofford, Bob Magnusson and Joe La Barbera-cultivates one of the most satisfying tenor-sax sounds this side of the late Al Cohn. Evans (a New Orleans transplant) has a robust dry tone and an especially striking instinct for nurturing a tune's essences. With his cello-like reading of Luciana Souza's tender "Argument," the lilt of "On a Slow Boat to China," Duke Pearson's lovely "You Know I Care" or the closer, Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" from On the Town, Evans betrays his Crescent City roots, prolonging the tunes' climax, taking his time, before letting les bons temps rouler.
Interface (Toast & Jam Recordings)
Guitarist Doug Theriault departs from jazz's usual form-based parameters and engages a "non-idiomatic" improv sensibility that's informed by sonic experimenters like Michael Waisvisz, Hugh Davies and Derek Bailey. Working with a sensor guitar, Theriault smelts gestural controls, internal feedback, MIDI programming and otherwordly sampling, creating a poetically urgent soundscape that is mesmerizing. Fans of Jim O'Rourke or the late Japanese free jazz-noise pioneer Masayuki Takayanagi will appreciate the density, restless innovation and painterly approach of Theriault.
John JB Butler/Essiet Essiet
Bahama Cowboy (self-released)
Guitarist John Butler's self-released album of originals is intimate, swinging and ebullient. Bassist Essiet Essiet's dextrous, forward-and-back-leaning beat gives it the freewheeling quality of the great Oscar Pettiford trio with Lucky Thompson, and of Skeeter Best. Standouts: "Luciana," a gliding, Latin-tinged caress written for Butler's wife, the Konitz/Tristano-esque "Rhythm Rhyme," and a choreographic blues dedicated to late bassist Wilbur Little.
Gordon Lee and GLeeful Big Band
Flying Dream (OriginArts2 Records)
Big bands (and good ones at that) are rare these days. This release, Lee's first foray into large band work, is a delectable entry equally indebted to the modern big bands of Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, Bob Brookmeyer or Maria Schneider and modern classical music (that's where Lee's "friendly dissonance" gets its genes). Like Schneider, Lee dabbles in a rich Gil Evanescent color palette-particularly in the low brass writing. Lush, patient use of space gives soloists like Renato Caranto (on "Sentimental Fool"), Tim Jensen ("Bitter Wind") and Farnell Newton (Rodgers and Hart's "Where or When") plenty of room to have their say. Lee's "Tobacco Monkey" is simply one of the most infectious grindhouse-meets-crime jazz themes outside of Mancini's "Peter Gunn" or Quincy Jones' Pawnbroker soundtrack.
A Guide to Desolation Wilderness (self-released)
With influences ranging from downtown New York City (John Zorn, Tim Berne, Tiny Bell's Balkan-alia) to mid-'60s progressive jazz (à la Mingus, Ornette and Carla Bley) mixed with a hodgepodge of shards from Zappa, Residents and Olivier Messiaen, Paxselin has a retro devotion to classic postmodern transgression. While some pieces lean toward a self-consciously cleverness, gems emerge, including bass clarinetist Chad Hensel's use of displacement and very unjazz forms that keep the music honest and suspenseful; bassist Bill Athens' "Song," with its Godardian noir feel, and "Gambangan," an I Wayan Lotring-influenced gamelan that tumbles nicely.
The Mel Brown Quartet plays every Wednesday at Jimmy Mak's, 300 NW 10th Ave., 295-6542. 7:30 pm. $5. 21+.